The festival opened with Sideways director Alexander Payne’s road movie Nebraska. The film stars Hollywood veteran Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, an alcoholic curmudgeon who sets off to walk from Montana to Nebraska to collect the million dollars he believes he has won in a draw. Fortunately, his son David, played by comedian Will Forte, agrees to drive him instead. En route, David learns more about his father’s experiences in the war. They are also joined by Woody’s wife — and David’s mother — Kate, played with earthy relish by June Squibb. If Nebraska — shot in black and white — is sometimes sentimental, it does also milk some deliciously dark humour from Woody’s quest.
Heli was one highlight of the Mexican strand in the programme. Amat Escalante’s film dealt with the drugs trade, focusing on the lives of a family whose modest lives are disturbed by the theft of a quantity of cocaine. It’s a sometimes terrifying film whose violence seems real and is essential to the plot.
The same could hardly be said of The Counsellor. More critical opprobrium has been heaped on this film than any other feature this year. It has the distinction of being the first original screenplay by the cult American author Cormac McCarthy. Directed by Ridley Scott, it stars such luminaries as Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, who stars as the titular counsellor, a lawyer who buys into a once-off drugs deal that goes horribly wrong.
The Counsellor is not as awful as many have made out. As one might expect from Scott, it is slickly presented, but McCarthy’s heightened, world-weary dialogue, which works so well in his novels, could have done with some serious editing.
French novelist Rachid Djaidani’s debut feature Rengaine was nine years in the making, but it proved to be an unlikely delight. When Dorcy, a struggling young actor, who happens to be both black and Christian, proposes to his Algerian girlfriend, she accepts at once. But the development upsets both his mother and several of the girl’s brothers — worse still, she has 40 of them. Their self-appointed leader wins the support of some and the derision of others when he canvasses their support in bullying her into calling off the engagement. It’s an unlikely plot, but one that Djaidani pulls off with aplomb.
The festival paid tribute to British director Nicolas Roeg by screening five of his films, the best of which is probably Walkabout, from 1971. The film features Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg as two white children lost in the Outback of Australia, who are befriended by a young Aborigine, played by David Gulpilil. Not all of Roeg’s films have aged well — Don’t Look Now seems particularly dated — but Walkabout’s sparse plot and minimal cast still work to its advantage.
Roeg’s were not the only classic films screened. Paris, Texas remains as beautiful and brilliant as ever, while Apocalypse Now still seems worth all the money and madness that went into its creation. Zak Knutson and Joey Figeroa’s documentary Milius explored the personality of Apocalypse Now’s screenwriter, John Milius, a contemporary of Stephen Spielberg and Francis Ford Copolla whose early promise did not live up to their achievements, thanks largely to his rightwing beliefs and overbearing manner.
The punk movement inspired several offerings this year. American performer Kathleen Hanna is the subject of Sini Anderson’s documentary The Punk Singer. Hanna was the frontwoman of the bands Bikini Kill, Julie Ruin and Le Tigre, and was a co-founder of the Riot Grrl feminist movement. The film was perhaps over-reverential — far too many of Hanna’s associates testified to her genius and influence, but seemed blissfully unaware of the limitations of both — but it did reveal Hanna to be a charismatic performer, one who has been keen to broaden her musical interests, rather than get stuck in the grunge-lite rut of some of her contemporaries.
There were shades of the punk DIY spirit in 99% — The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film. The film explored the very real frustrations that drove the Occupy movement, but also served to highlight the shortcomings of a social initiative that eschewed the idea of leadership.
Tony Palmer was a festival guest this year; his documentary Bird on a Wire followed Leonard Cohen on his European tour of 1972, which began in Dublin and finished in Jerusalem. The documentary revealed Cohen, already a published poet and novelist, to have been an intense, and sometimes troubled, young man, but one who was always gracious to his musicians and audience.
The festival was, as ever, a platform for the great democratic institution that is short film making. One of the shorts that made a great impression was Ian Fitzgibbon’s Breakfast Wine, adapted by Kevin Barry from his own short story. The film makes the point that it takes just three alcoholics to ensure the survival of a small-town pub, and then introduces to a pub owner and two of his miserable regulars, who are joined by a young woman who matches them drink for drink as she reveals that she has just walked out on her abusive marriage.
Another highlight was Paolo Sassanelli’s Love (Ammore), which follows a young girl as she leaves home in make-up and a mini-skirt that are far too old for her, meets with a friend similarly attired and then goes to have an abortion. Later she returns home, where a man we assume to be her father pleads with her to open her bedroom door, as her mother has gone out. Love proved to be one of the most affecting and effective films in the programme.