I'm going to concentrate on reviewing the films that you can still see (or should avoid) at the film festival, beginning with the ones I recommend.
LAURENCE ANYWAYS (9) is by far the pick of the bunch. Its writer-director, Xavier Dolan, is just 23 years old, and this is his third film, which is a bit mind-boggling for several reasons. Dolan stars in the second of his films, "Heartbeats," about two friends (a young man and a young woman) who fall for the same man, and in that incredibly stylized film (which I quite enjoyed), his youthful energy is more in evidence than in this one, which follows ten years in the life of a male-to-female transsexual. This film is very ambitious, in both subject matter and themes; with a running time of nearly three hours, it follows the trajectory of Laurence's journey from an apparently happy heterosexual relationship with Fred (that's Frederique), through the revelation that life as a male is killing him, through the highs and lows of her (Laurence's) transition. In some ways, it seems like a film that could only be made by a 23-year-old; in other ways, it appears to be the work of an old and very wise soul, who knows things I wouldn't expect a 23-year-old to know.
This French-Canadian film is set in Montreal, whose culture I don't know very much about--but film culture in general has not begun to mine the riches of transsexual experience. The story here is beautifully complex: a 35-year-old, happily-in-love college professor surprises his lover and (less so) his mother with the revelation that he has decided to transition to female. Laurence and Fred then struggle with what it means for them--and specifically, what it means for Fred to love Laurence. What is true about love in general, and about their love in particular? What is true about Laurence? The messiness of it all--how people react when life pushes them beyond their coping capacity and their good intentions--is fully on view. My mind was blown, not least because Dolan has taken a very particular experience and used it to ask questions that really apply to everyone. You can still catch this film on February 16 and February 20, and it's one of the best I've seen at the festival.
LA CAMIONETA: THE JOURNEY OF ONE AMERICAN SCHOOL BUS (6.5) mines a pretty interesting premise that actually occurred to me when I was traveling in Guatemala a few years back. As far as I know, there isn't much in the way of public transportation there; what you'll see instead are decommissioned school buses from the U.S. that have been refurnished and brightly painted by enterprising Guatemalans to serve as transport. (My Guatemalan guide called them "chicken buses" because it was not at all unusual to see people carrying chickens and other livestock on them.) This documentary follows one such bus from Pennsylvania, where it is sold at auction to a buyer from Guatemala, transported by a young man who makes the perilous journey through Mexico every two weeks to deliver these buses to their buyers, and then through the process of transformation. It's a good vantage point for viewing how our discards in the U.S. are often put to creative use by hardworking people south of the border, who put great thought and care and self-expression into such transformative enterprises. I only wished the film hadn't stopped where it did, since watching a chicken bus in operation would give rise to lots more interesting stories. It plays again on February 17.
0FF-WHITE LIES (5.5) has its pleasures, the chief being the performance of the young girl who portrays 13-year-old Libi, who has arrived in Israel to live with her estranged dad, Shaul. The film never answers why Libi's mother, who now lives in the U.S., finally gave in to Shaul's reportedly frequent entreaties to a custody change, since we are also told that she and her husband view Shaul as a loser and, as it turns out, he is. Unemployed and homeless, he is at first sort of a fun host for a 13-year-old, as he overcomes Libi's initial distrust with the discovery of a shared skill at telling what she terms "off-white lies," one of which involves a scheme to land a place to live in Jerusalem by posing as refugees from the second war with Lebanon. The relationship between the two and the windows into Israeli culture are interesting, and I am all for subtlety, but the film leaves a few too many questions unanswered to be truly satisfying. It's final festival showing is on Febuary 17.
POLLUTING PARADISE (4) is obviously a personal passion project for Fatih Akin, a well-known German director of Turkish descent. It involves a lovely village in Northeastern Turkey where people, including Akin's own family, have lived by the sea, fishing and cultivating tea. But about ten years ago, the Turkish government decided to build a garbage landfill directly above the village. In one of the more interesting parts of the film, the village mayor, in an act of bravery one rarely sees, makes a legal challenge to the decision based on pretty solid statutory bases--and is actually prosecuted for it. (One wonders what the charges were; there probably is no good answer to that question.) The charges end up being dropped, but the project goes forward, with predictably terrible pollution to the air and ground water. It's a story that happens over and over again, but unfortunately the film doesn't do a particularly effective job of telling it, since it feels like the same depressing conversations happening over and over again. That's probably quite faithful to how such things are experienced, but I expect that a more effective film could be conceived depicting these themes. It plays on February 17 and February 23.
MADRID, 1987 (2), unfortunately, depicts almost nothing of Madrid itself. Instead, most of the action takes place in a bathroom where a pompous journalist in his 60s and a young journalism student whom he is trying to bed become trapped. Naked, naturally. I gather it is supposed to be a very revealing conversation a la "My Dinner with Andre'," but for the most part I found it to be boring, contrived, and self-indulgent. If that sounds appealing to you, you can still catch it on February 22.