As the Calgary International Film Festival kicks off Thursday, its lead programmer has shared her top picks — among them a documentary about truffle hunters, a movie about an iconic Albertan cowboy and the feature directorial debut by well-known actor Viggo Mortensen.
CIFF lead programmer Brenda Lieberman told CBC Calgary that organizers initially weren't sure how the COVID-19 pandemic would impact the festival. However, it's ultimately been able to offer more than 175 films from over 40 countries in cinema, online or both, over the festival that runs to Oct. 4.
"We actually at first thought that we might have a smaller program this year, but we really have about the same size as normal and just as high-calibre titles."
Some of the films getting the biggest buzz include I Am Greta, director Nathan Grossman's documentary charting a year as the young Swedish activist went from organizing local high school climate strike to inspiring a global movement, and Ammonite, a love story between a paleontologist and a grieving wife in 19th-century Dorset by British director Francis Lee that stars Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. Ammonite has now sold out in both Toronto and Calgary film festivals.
"I feel like it's one of our strongest lineups to have in a very long time and I programmed a lot of the world films and Canadian films and there are just so many outstanding ones and discovery titles and first-time filmmakers," said Lieberman.
CIFF's 2020 Behind the Screen series will feature live conversations with Stranger Things actor Finn Wolfhard and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan.
The festival has adapted several ways to maintain safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It normally screens about 200 films in theatres but this year, it'll have less than half that number showing at the Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire Market Cinemas and the Globe Cinema. Many more films will be available for online streaming so people can watch from their own homes. For the screenings that are in theatre, admissions will be limited to 30 per cent capacity so that a two-metre distance can be maintained between groups of filmgoers, with extra time between shows for thorough cleaning.
And this year, for the first time, the festival will be accessible by audiences outside of Calgary, with streaming available across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
Here are Lieberman's picks for the top films she thinks viewers need to check out:
The CIFF description: "John lives with his partner, Eric and their daughter, Monica, in California, far from the traditional rural life he left behind years ago. His father, Willis, a headstrong man from a bygone era, lives alone on the isolated farm where John grew up. Willis's mind is declining, so John brings him west, hoping he and his sister, Sarah, can help their father find a home closer to them. Their best intentions ultimately run up against Willis's angry refusal to change his way of life in any way."
Lieberman says Falling will be an audience pleaser.
Danish-American actor, Viggo Mortensen makes his directional debut and stars in the film alongside Lance Henriksen, Terry Chen and Sverrir Gudnason. It was shot in both Canada and the United Kingdom.
"That one's really neat. It's a great film in our special presentation series, and it's available online and in-cinemas," says Lieberman.
John Ware Reclaimed
The CIFF description: "John Ware Reclaimed follows filmmaker Cheryl Foggo on her quest to uncover the complex story of John Ware, a Black cowboy who settled in Alberta during the ranching industry's early years. As she endeavours to dig past the racist myths and mistellings surrounding Ware, she recalls her childhood in Calgary, her own experiences of racism, and her family's history as part of the 1910 migration to western Canada to escape violence in the southern United States. Foggo's archival, genealogical, and archaeological search, and her creative reimagining of John Ware's life, reveal who this iconic figure might have been, and what his legacy means. Ware is played by Fred Whitfield, one of the few professional Black cowboys on today's rodeo circuit. Music also plays an important role in the film, with contributions from Foggo's own daughter, Miranda Martini, and celebrated poet Kris Demeanor."
The director and screenwriter, Cheryl Foggo, is an award-winning Calgary-born filmmaker, author and playwright whose work over the last 30 years has focused on the lives of Western Canadians of African descent.
Lieberman says the film has already sold out in-cinema and has a big chance of selling out for online as well.
The Truffle Hunters
The CIFF description: "Deep in the forests of northern Italy resides the prized white Alba truffle. Desired by the wealthiest patrons in the world, it cannot be cultivated or found, even by the most resourceful of modern excavators. The only souls on earth who know how to dig it up are a tiny circle of canines and their silver-haired human companions who only scour for the truffle at night so as not to leave any clues for others."
Lieberman says the documentary The Truffle Hunters is one of her personal favourites and, in her eyes, a potential Oscar nomination.
"This film is shot verité style so it's really up close and personal and really just a wild insight into the world of truffle hunting and you know, where they are in their careers, how they've done this their whole lives and how much this is inbred into who they are," said Lieberman.
American directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw shot the documentary in Italy, Greece and the United States.
You can catch The Truffle Hunters in theatre.
The CIFF description: "Mary, a lonely, small-town grocery store worker, lives a boring and uneventful life. Struggling with menopause, she consults her doctor, who prescribes her a course of hormone replacement therapy. But on the eve of her 50th birthday, her senses and imagination suddenly come alive and her life begins to take a totally unexpected turn for the better – experiencing an incredible revelation that forces her to see the world differently."
Marygoround was shot in Poland and is the first feature from Polish director, Daria Woszek.
"This film is just a really beautiful story and it's almost like a coming of age film for somebody going through a lot of changes in their life," said Lieberman.
It is available both online and in cinema.
The CIFF description: "Hana, a British aid worker, has just finished a stint as a surgeon at a clinic on the Syrian border. She is exhausted after her post, the struggle between life and death that she saw on a daily basis has taken its toll. Instead of returning home, she travels to the ancient city of Luxor, where she runs into Sultan, a talented archeologist, and former lover. As she wanders quietly, often alone, she is haunted by the familiar place and struggles to reconcile the choices of the past with the uncertainty of the present. The ancient city of Luxor plays a starring role as the film explores dig sites, archeological ruins, and old-fashioned hotels."
The film was shot in Egypt, United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Lieberman says that Luxor by British director Zeina Durra not only features incredible scenery, but has a great story line.
The film is available both online and in cinema.
Lieberman says Nadia, Butterfly follows the story of an Olympic swimmer competing in her last race at the Japan Olympics.
The CIFF description: "While young and in her prime, Nadia decides to retire from pro swimming after the Olympic Games to escape a rigid life of sacrifice. After her very last race, Nadia drifts into nights of excess punctuated by episodes of self-doubt. But even this transitional numbness cannot conceal her true inner quest: defining her identity outside the world of elite sports."
Two-time Olympian Katerine Savard, who was originally brought in as a consultant for the film, portrays Nadia, and her real-life training partner, Ariane Mainville, is in the film as well.
The film was shot in Canada and directed by Canadian film director and screenwriter, Pascal Plante. It is available both online and in cinema.
Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack
The CIFF description: "At 88 years old, Audrey Flack holds a unique place in the history of the contemporary art world. Feminist, rebel, mother, painter, sculptor and teacher, Audrey's often controversial 40-year career evolved from abstract expressionism in the 1950s to photorealism in the 1970s. One of the first women ever included in the famed Janson's History of Art, Audrey continues to create, explore, and inspire with her unique style and indomitable spirit. Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack follows Flack as she takes her work in brand-new directions and discusses her long-term struggles as the mother of a child with autism."
American directors Deborah Shaffer and Rachel Reichman filmed Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack in the United States.
It's available both online and in cinema.
My Little Sister
The CIFF description: "Lisa, once a brilliant playwright, no longer writes. She lives with her family in Switzerland, but her heart remains in Berlin, beating in time with that of her twin brother Sven, the famous theatre actor, the relationship between them even close since Sven was diagnosed with aggressive leukemia. Lisa does not want to accept this blow of fate, so she does everything in her power to bring Sven back to the stage, neglecting everything else in her life, including her husband. Her marriage goes awry, but Lisa only has eyes for her brother, who reflects her deepest longings and awakens in her the desire to be creative, to feel alive again."
My Little Sister was filmed in Poland and directed by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, who are both from Switzerland.
The film is available both online and in cinema.
The CIFF description: "Undine is a young woman, historian and tour leader in Berlin who has a typical big-city life. She is also afflicted with a terrible curse. Even though her life seems normal, when her boyfriend leaves her, the ancient myth of her curse says that she must kill him and return to the water where she came from. But Undine fights her fate, she does not want to kill nor does she want to leave. Everything begins to change when meets and falls in love with diver Christoph, who may be the answer to all her problems, but will her secret curse stand in the way?"
Multi-award-winning German film director Christian Petzold (Barbara CIFF 2012, Phoenix, and Transit CIFF 2018) returns to the festival with this film starring Paula Beer and Franze Rogowski.
It was filmed in both France and Germany and is available both online and in cinema.
My Salinger Year
The CIFF description: "Set in 1990s New York, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, Joanna gets hired as an assistant to Margaret, the stoic and old-fashioned literary agent of J.D. Salinger. Fluctuating between poverty and glamour, Joanna spends her days in a plush, wood-panelled office and her nights in a sink-less Brooklyn apartment with her socialist boyfriend. Joanna's main task is processing Salinger's voluminous fan mail, but as she reads the heart-wrenching letters from around the world, she becomes reluctant to send the agency's impersonal standard letter and impulsively begins personalizing the responses.The results are both humorous and moving, as Joanna, while using the great writer's voice, begins to discover her own."
The film is from Oscar-nominated French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie, Monsieur Lazhar, My Internship in Canada) and is based upon the memoir of the same name by Joanna Rakoff.
It stars Sigourney Weaver, Margaret Qualley and Douglas Booth and was filmed in both Canada and Ireland.
My Salinger Year is available both online and in-cinema.
A full listing of films along with ticket information can be found on the organization's website.
- What films are you planning to watch and why? Tell us in the comments section below.