Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bad News Brings Good News

So far the festival hadn't had any buzz-creating movies like it did the previous two years, and I was starting to get worried that there wouldn't be one. Luckily, The Messenger stepped in on the last night of the festival and did the job.

First things first: The block of shorts at Four Day Weekend served up one highlight in Alex Dron's Fot: The Next Big Thing, an animated film from New Zealand that features a running monologue by the runty title character, who thinks he's destined to be a great soccer player when he isn't strong enough to lift a bag of soccer balls. The short went on a bit too long, and a little bit of that character goes a long way. Still, Fot is voiced by The Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby, and it was a kick to see this film on the same day that New Zealand qualified for the World Cup soccer tournament.

I cut out on the awards ceremony in favor of The Greatest, and was repaid with a rather shameless example of a standard-issue Hollywood-style tearjerker. Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon play parents whose son is killed just before he goes off to college, and then, in the midst of their grief, meet the girl their son made pregnant (Carey Mulligan). The reason I saw this movie was Carey Mulligan, who seems likely to land an Oscar nomination for her amazing performance in An Education, which is playing this weekend at the Modern and is slated to start playing at AMC Grapevine Mills this coming Friday. (I'll have a review later this week.) She reminds me quite a bit of Michelle Williams, but she couldn't rescue this film from its heavy-handedness, and her American accent kept slipping.

I was there for the beginning of the awards ceremony. In previous years the festival gave out its awards at a ritzy Sunday brunch at the Worthington. This year they had a much smaller nighttime affair at the Norris Conference Center, though I did like the mashed potato bar. The foreign film competition was won by China's Petition, while the documentary honors went to Egypt's Garbage Dreams. The narrative competition was won by an American film, Spooner. I regret to say I didn't see any of them, but I'll get the chance to catch up with Spooner tomorrow afternoon.

The Messenger stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as two soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army's casualty notification unit, which dispatches uniformed officers to do the emotionally draining work of informing American civilians that their loved ones have been killed in Iraq. In one respect, the movie compares with The Hurt Locker, which is also about a soldier with an unusual job. On the other hand, the better comparison might be Up in the Air (which comes out in early December and is also something to watch for), since both movies are about people whose job is to break bad news in the gentlest way possible. The film was co-written and directed by Oren Moverman, who served in the Israeli military and spent some time doing this same job. (This New York Times article has some fascinating details of the research he had to do.) The movie is a bit scattered, and I have some issues with the climactic scene, but it's powerful and unsentimental stuff, and it has some terrific acting by Harrelson, Foster, and Samantha Morton as a war widow who contemplates having an affair with Foster's character. Good to see Morton back on the screen.

It seems like a no-brainer to say that a festival should play at least one of the year's best movies, and yet that's difficult to pull off unless you're Sundance or Toronto or some other well-established fest. The Lone Star Festival needed a movie of this caliber as a point of prestige. If it hadn't been for The Messenger, the festival might well have lost some steam. Now we can point to that movie like we pointed to Let the Right One In and Sunshine Cleaning and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Those movies all prove that the festival is bringing us Oscar-worthy work and not just interesting curiosities from obscure corners of the world, as valuable as that is. The Messenger is proof that the festival is not slipping, but rather remains one of the city's great annual cultural events.

I'll be back tomorrow with some closing thoughts. -- Kristian Lin

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