Edinburgh Film Festival: Not yet a 'festival of discovery', but they are on their way


Four years ago, the Edinburgh International Film Festival moved away from the city's main arts celebrations and into a stand-alone June slot, with declarations made that it would be a "festival of discovery" and "the Sundance of the North". That didn't quite happen – indeed, last year, the festival seemed to come to a near-standstill, with a one-off interim event not quite delivering on promises of an all-star, all-arts jamboree, a sort of cinematic Meltdown.

This year, however, Edinburgh is back in business. New artistic director Chris Fujiwara has come out fighting with a programme unapologetically committed to heavyweight international cinema. There were the retrospectives that are traditionally an Edinburgh forte – of vintage US director Gregory La Cava and Japanese cult name Shinji Somai. There were spotlights on Denmark, Latin America and the Filipino New Wave – including a screening of the six-hour Florentina Hubaldo, CTE by the Philippines' king of "slow cinema" Lav Diaz, which I'm kicking myself for missing, as it was reportedly a revelation.

And there were popular titles to bookend the fest. Pixar's Scottish-themed Brave closes proceedings tonight, while the opener was William Friedkin's Killer Joe – a murky white-trash revenge tale which for me was mainly notable for a dependably weird performance by Brit rising star Juno Temple. Another prominent mainstream selection was James Marsh's thriller Shadow Dancer, which showed Andrea Riseborough as one of Britain's finest; her performance as an IRA militant turned informer is positively minimalist, and all the more mesmerising for it.

There was cult stuff too. Horror fans could try it light – cheerful Irish creature-feature Grabbers – or very dark, in the form of V/H/S, a lo-tech portmanteau that sometimes took scratch-video fuzziness to the outer limits of coherence. The best vignettes were directed by Innkeepers man Ti West, and by Joe Swanberg, with possibly the first horror story told by Skype.

Cheaper still was Mark Cousins' What Is This Film Called Love?, shot on a Flip pocket camera for, he claims, £5.80. After his epic series The Story of Film comes an intimate epistle to Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein, in whose honour Cousins strips naked, sees the sights of Mexico City and dances to Tony Christie (not all at once). Cousins' ecstatic "saintly fool" persona – as Werner Herzog would call it – can come on a bit strong, but this tender first-person offering is undeniably touching.

There was a buzz around a British film, Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio, and it wasn't just chainsaws. This was a hugely original study in meta-horror about an English sound engineer (Toby Jones) who goes to Italy to work on a grisly Dario Argento-style chiller, and finds the screams and the sounds of hacked bodies (in fact, watermelons and courgettes) getting to him. With echoes of De Palma, Cronenberg and even Peter Greenaway, it's an intelligent, devious and witty film that dares to think with its eyes and its ears.

Plenty, then, to keep critics and cinephiles happy – although, in reality, Edinburgh will probably have to start throwing in more high-profile crowd-pleasers to really earn its keep. But a "festival of discovery"? At the very least, it's on its way there.