The Edinburgh International Film Festival set itself a tall order a couple of years back when it moved to June, outside the sprawl of the autumn's main arts bonanza, and rebranded itself a "festival of discovery".
That claim proved especially hard to back up in a year when – as even major-leaguers such as Berlin and Cannes showed – there wasn't an abundance of great cinema around.
No wonder that Edinburgh's strengths this year lay in looking back – not least in a retrospective of a forgotten era of 1960s-70s UK cinema. There were wonders and mouldy oddities alike: among the highlights, films from Stephen Frears, Powell and Pressburger, and Mike Hodges's under-rated Pulp (1972) with Michael Caine as a sardonic hack tangling with the Mafia and Mickey Rooney. Then there was Robert Fuest's delirious Michael Moorcock adaptation, The Final Programme, which played like an amalgam of The Avengers, A Clockwork Orange and Lindsay Anderson, all put through a glam-rock sci-fi filter. It hasn't dated well, but oh for something this outré from British cinema today.
Fond retrospect was also the theme of the opening film, Sylvain Chomet's animation The Illusionist, a love letter to French comedy genius Jacques Tati and to Edinburgh itself. A French stage magician comes to Scotland, finds himself playing uncle to a waif from the Western Isles, and plies his trade in a crumbling Edinburgh music hall. With its plethora of gentle sight gags (it is adapted from an original Tati script), The Illusionist convinces you that Chomet knows Edinburgh inside out: if his characters walk into a chip shop, you feel sure that it really operated on that corner in the early 1960s. With its melancholic tenderness and intensely handcrafted quality, Chomet's film was a blow for old-school D animation, an art form supposedly going the way of the music hall, but that doesn't look remotely dead yet. Not with animators around like Chomet (whose previous work includes Belleville Rendez-Vous), or elusive stop-motion specialists the Quay Brothers, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing on stage here. Their new short, Maska, inspired by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, is nearly abstract in the classic Quays manner, a parable of automaton birth and identity. The Quays have an eerie knack of capturing the fluidity of dream, but also the concreteness of their materials – as in a wood-themed perfume ad, three minutes of intensely rich film-making.
Among some strong documentaries, the most entertaining was The People vs George Lucas, Alexandre O Philippe's film about Star Wars fans and their righteous feeling of betrayal at the indignities their idol has foisted on their beloved mythos in recent years. There are only so many aggrieved nerds you really want to watch in one go. But this is actually a provocative film that raises questions about film-makers' relationship to their work and to their viewers, however cranky and obsessive they might be.
Thankfully, amid a slew of variously adequate and iffy new British films, there was one serious find on offer. Monsters is an extremely inventive genre film by special-effects wiz Gareth Edwards, who also wrote and shot this drama set in a near-future in which a swathe of Central America has become infested by huge octopus-like aliens. A photojournalist is assigned to help his boss's daughter to safety, but on their journey they find themselves falling into deeper danger, and in love. Monsters is an adventure that thrives on its human factor – science fiction reimagined as a story of survival in a war zone. Leads Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy develop remarkable chemistry (so much so that they are now married), and Monsters mixes warmth and suspense in wholly distinctive proportions.
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