The last day of the festival started with the best acting performance I’ve seen, which is saying quite a bit. Timothy Spall is a fat, jowly English actor with a bulbous nose whom you’ve probably seen in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sweeney Todd, and The King’s Speech, but he tends to reserve his best performances for director Mike Leigh, as in Secrets and Lies and Topsy-Turvy. In Leigh’s Mr. Turner, he plays the 19th-century British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. He’s a marvel here, chewing on his words so much that you often can’t even understand what he’s saying. Turner was a barber’s son who hobnobbed with high society as a result of his work, and Spall turns him into a tragic figure, a grumpy guy who communicates largely with grunts (sometimes to very funny effect) and doesn’t have the words to express what he’s feeling — there’s a great scene shortly after the death of Turner’s father when the artist goes to a brothel to sketch one of the prostitutes and winds up bawling and wailing in front of her. A lot of filmmakers would have hinged this movie on Turner’s career, which started out painting conventional seascapes but ended up prefiguring Impressionism before Manet had even started painting in earnest. Leigh, as you’d expect, takes a different route and focuses on the banalities of the artist’s life that surround his creation of sublime works of art. This is probably Leigh’s most visually beautiful film, as he and cinematographer Dick Pope re-create real-life tableaux that inspired Turner canvases, including “The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up,” a painting that was also the subject of a discussion in Skyfall, of all movies. My gut tells me that Mr. Turner isn’t as good as Leigh’s other period movie, Topsy-Turvy, but if this impassioned biopic isn’t a great film, then it’s pretty darned close.
Of the three horror movies I saw at the festival, It Follows is the cleverest and The Babadook is the scariest, but Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is undoubtedly the most fascinating. With the rolling hills and palm trees in the background, this movie shows off its locations in Los Angeles, or at least Tehrangeles, but it’s set in a mythic town called Bad City. It must be bad — a highway overpass traverses a ravine where dozens of dead bodies have been dumped. A guy named Arash (Arash Marandi) finds himself drawn to a nameless vampire (Sheila Vand from TV’s State of Affairs) who stalks him, but doesn’t hurt him. Instead, she uses her fangs to tear the throat out of a pimp (Dominic Rains) who takes Arash’s sports car as payment for the tab run up by Arash’s heroin-junkie dad (Marshall Manesh). Earlier this year, Jim Jarmusch put out a vampire movie called Only Lovers Left Alive, but this is both a better vampire movie and a better Jarmusch movie, as the atmosphere of alienation and Lyle Vincent’s black-and-white cinematography recall early Jarmusch efforts like Stranger Than Paradise. (It also recalls Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City.) Vand is both sexy and scary as the vampire who dances at home by herself in front of pictures of Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson but wears a proper chador to go out and eat people. I wonder if the girl doesn’t represent a return of the id for repressive Islamic cultures. Regardless, there’s a truly frightening scene where she stalks a boy (Milad Eghbali) with a skateboard. Amirpour adapted this from a short film that she did three years ago, and the material doesn’t quite stretch. Still, you need to see this gothically moody piece, if only so you can tell your friends that you saw an Iranian vampire movie.
My festival concluded with the rescheduled screening of Winter Sleep, the Golden Palm winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Where Mr. Turner only ran a paltry two and a half hours, this Turkish film clocks in at three hours and 16 minutes. I didn’t check my watch once during all that time, though I’ll admit that there were places before the end where filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan might have profitably ended things. Haluk Bilginer plays Aydin, a successful though not famous Turkish actor who has left the stage to open a resort hotel in central Anatolia. As winter settles in and few guests are left there, Aydin keeps busy writing newspaper articles and researching for a book about Turkish theater. However, he ends up spending much of his time on passive-aggressive bitching with his sister Necla (Demet Akbağ) and his much-younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen). There’s also a petty dispute with a drunken deadbeat tenant (Nejat İşler) whose young son (Emirhan Doruktutan) throws a rock through the window of Aydin’s car that threatens to blow up into violence. This sounds small, but Ceylan uses this subplot and others as the counterpoint to Aydin’s philosophical arguments with the women in the house over how to find purpose in life and combat the evils of the world. There are times when the movie is too talky, but it’s gratifying when Nihal sits by a fire and calls out her husband for using his virtues as a stick to beat the rest of the world. In addition, cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki contributes some wondrous shots of the rocky natural beauty around the hotel, often shrouded in snow. There are also references to the unsettled state of Turkish politics that I probably didn’t appreciate fully. I wouldn’t recommend this to a newcomer (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is probably a better place to start with Ceylan), but if you’re prepared for Ceylan’s slow pacing and deep insights into human nature, Winter Sleep will pay you handsome rewards.
A few years ago, the Lone Star Festival held some screenings at the Modern and the Kimbell, and they didn’t feel like they were part of the event. However, this year, the screenings at the Modern did feel like an extension of the festival while still bearing the stamp of Christopher Kelly’s tastes. The expansion allowed for a festival that felt like it was operating on a bigger scale. Now, as I blog this, I feel fairly overstuffed with all the worthy films I’ve seen since Wednesday. It’s enough to make me hope that LSFF and Kelly continue their collaboration. The film fans here were certainly better off for this one.