SBIFF 2022 ended with Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, and it proved a perfect and consoling place to conclude a dense and impressive fest. Hearing and seeing Warwick deliver songs from the genius songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David was the high point of Sunday’s closing night at the Arlington. Warwick’s fabled career and powerful ability to blend pop, gospel, and R&B make her legendary, not to mention her work as an activist and AIDS ambassador whose song “That’s What Friends Are For” is an enduring anthem. Still, that 1960s Bacharach batch—”Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “What the World Needs Now,” and others—remains the immortal manna in the Warwick oeuvre, and the inevitable apex of the doc.
As directed by Dave Wooley, who also co-wrote Warwick’s autobiography, the film fell neatly in line with the other music documentaries in this year’s festival. All of them conveyed the fuller stories of deserving musicians such as José Feliciano, the wildly underrecognized all-female band Fanny, and Americana fave Peter Case (who showed up at the Metro with guitar and songs at the ready).
On Sunday, Executive Director Roger Durling gave introductory remarks with the entire SBIFF staff behind him, including new program director Claudia Puig and her team, whose handiwork showed a high level of quality control. Likewise, the festival team stood behind Durling and the effort to put on this 37th edition under lean and mean pandemic-driven conditions. “Mission accomplished,” Durling rightly proclaimed. “The festival did what it had to do.”
Saturday’s industry encounter came in the form of the now annual Women’s Panel, which had increased relevance during a festival more well-stocked with women directors and films with women-related issues than ever. Many of the women on the program were from the international contingent. However, Jane Campion had a recurring presence at the fest, via COVID-necessitated zoom and finally in person. She appeared in tributes to directors and writers and presented the Cinema Vanguard award to her star Benedict Cumberbatch.
On Saturday, Oscar nominees lined the stage with witty moderator Madelyn Hammond. The group consisted of Jessica Kingdon (director of Ascension), Lynn Harris (producer, King Richard), Diane Warren (composer of the song “Somehow You Do,” from the film Four Good Days), Amber Richards (production design, The Power of the Dog), Elizabeth Mirzaei (director of short Three Songs for Benazir).
Veteran Warren, who has been nominated 13 times (“that’s 12 losses so far,” she joked), spoke about her song, which she asked a country legend, Reba McIntyre, to sing. “Casting a song is like casting a movie,” she explained.
“This song is about hope, which relates to COVID. No matter what happens, we’ll get through it. This song is giving people strength,” she commented, adding for emphasis, with a laugh, “and that’s fucking awesome.”
DARKNESS DOWN UNDER
One of the best—and darkest—films of the festival, the Australian Nitram, had its US Premiere at the Metro. It’s a stealthy movie you wish wasn’t so compelling. You also want the true story of its kernel, a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania, not to have happened. Perhaps because the tragic event was relatively swept under the rug in Australia and outdone by the regular mass shootings in America since then, general public awareness of the horrific crime beyond Australia is minimal.
But rather than exploit the intensity of the cataclysmic event, this surprisingly poetic film—directed by Justin Kunzel and written by Shaun Grant—goes easy on the more extreme and violent aspects of the fateful day. Perhaps the most violent scene finds our disturbed protagonist repeatedly punching his sedentary, depressed father, mainly as a desperate gesture of love, in an attempt to rouse him from his couch potato stupor. Instead, the film explores the back story of a wild, volatile, seemingly sweet character gone monstrous. In that sense, it is comparable to You Resemble Me, which won the Best Middle East/Israeli Film award yesterday morning at the Maune Contemporary Gallery, except that the central character in that picture was not the terrorist/criminal in the making the media made her out to be.
Looking like a gruffly handsome grunge rocker, Martin is a “slow” young adult with a sturdy body he doesn’t quite know what to do with, and whose name was turned backward for the bullying nickname “Nitram” in school, to his chagrin. He falls in with a wealthy eccentric in love with Gilbert and Sullivan—some of the only music we heard in the eerily quiet soundtrack/sound design. Ending up alone in her rambling rural house, he entertains dark thoughts and starts to stockpile guns, but that’s only towards the story’s end.
Nitram is an undeniably powerful film, with attention to detail and atmosphere at every turn and a tour de force performance by Caleb Landry Jones. He understandably won Cannes’ Best Actor Award for the performance. We see his pain and rage, but also a free spirit bucking against society, and aspects of his complex character come in and out of focus, as they seem to do within his mind and body. Jones has a wild magnetism, sometimes reminiscent of Joaquin Phoenix, Marlon Brando, and even Kurt Cobain, had he acted. Judy Davis also rivets the screen as his long-suffering, crusty mother.
Takeaways from the film include implied pleas for gun control and for heeding and helping those with mental illness. But in strictly cinematic terms, the piece has its own merits, as a hypnotic study of a character who evolves in a downward spiral.
Another outstanding performance in this year’s festival came from beloved veteran actress Jacqueline Bisset as the wise-but-vibrant aging actress Rose in Loren & Rose. In writer-director Russell Brown’s indie film, the Loren character is Rose’s young director and admirer, and he comes beguiling to life via Bisset’s influence. The structure relies on a few long and intimate two-shot dinner scenes, My Dinner with Andre-style. Throughout, Bisset keeps us riveted through the agency of her committed performance and sagacious eyes luring us deeper into her world and life-and-art-affirming intensity.
In a post-screening Q&A on Sunday, Bisset asserted that “it’s a fantastic role for a woman. I’ve been very picky over the years, and I would look for a flawed character. Nobody wants to be stuck in the same role.” In this role, to report that she steals every scene here would be an understatement.
Looking back on 10+ days of 200+ films (including the opening night popcorn treat, Phantom of the Open), I see a distinctly higher level of filmmaking represented this year. The condition was partly thanks to a higher number of entries caused by the fact that many other film fests were canceled. Ultimately, that translated into a deeper dive into the festival pool for the more obsessive cinephiles among us. We might take in five or sometimes six films a day, wanting to catch as much as possible and not miss out on the best goods.
As has always been SBIFF’s wont, the festival program at its best flung us out into the wide world of international cinema. The program had a wealth of darker, more serious fare, including films about the oppression of women, political injustice, mental illness, and suicide/assisted suicide. But we also got comic relief in the form of The Good Boss, Hard Shell, Soft Shell, and Miss Viborg.
That in mind, this scribe’s Top Dozen list—at least as configured on the morning after—goes something like this: Miss Viborg (Marianne Blicher), The Righteous, Islands (Martin Edralin), Nitram (Justin Kerzel), You Resemble Me (Dina Emer), The Good Boss (Fernando Leon de Aranoa), 107 Women (Péter Kerekes), NO ̈(Dietrich Brüggemann), House of Darkness (Neil LaBute), La Hija (Manuel Martín Cuenca), One Road to Quartzsite (Ryan Maxey), Ricochet (Jeff Adachi, Chihiro Wimbush).