13 International Films to Look Out for at VIFF

Vancouver International Film Festival is back, and with it a chance to savour the best in contemporary world cinema. Fiona Morrow begins her top picks of the festival with a selection of international fiction films—with documentary and Canadian picks to follow. 

LUCKY, Screens Sep 28, Oct 1 and 5

(Dir: John Carroll Lynch. Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch)It’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to the late, great Harry Dean Stanton than this, his final role. He plays Lucky, an old timer as glued to his simple daily routine as he is to his smokes, each step, drag and gesture made with the purposeful intention known only to those who see their mortality beckoning. A script that understands that silence speaks volumes, a supporting cast that includes David Lynch and Ed Begley Jr., and a pitch perfect performance from the great loner himself make this one a true gift.

CLAIRE’S CAMERA, Screens Sep 29, Oct 1

(Dir: Hong Sangsoo. Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Kim Min-hee) After the more serious A Day on the Beach Alone, the wonderful Korean director Hong Sangsoo returns in lighter mood. Working once again with the estimable Isabelle Huppert, Hong mines her natural comedic side in a tale set around the Cannes Film Festival. Huppert plays a teacher who bonds with a sales agent (Kim Min-hee, star of The Handmaiden and also Hong’s partner), their connection providing the space for Hong to muse on art, life and the purpose of cinema itself. Hong makes movies for movie-lovers everywhere.

BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE), Screens Sep 30, Oct 2

(Dir: Robin Campillo. Cast: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois)Robin Campillo’s AIDS drama picked up a critics’ award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is the French pick for next year’s Oscars. Set in Paris in the early 1990s, it charts the rise of the French branch of ACT UP through their weekly meetings to discuss campaign strategy. Disruption was key: the goal was to explode the complacency of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Campillo’s credits are impressive: he wrote and directed the fine Eastern Boys, and also co-wrote The Class with its director, Laurent Cantet. This is billed as a sexy beast: a pulsating, no-holds-barred celebration of queer resistance.

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE, Screens Sep 30, Oct 9 and 13

(Dir: Aki Kaurismaki. Cast: Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen)Beneath the deadpan humour and the absurd plotlines, there’s a thread of humanism that underpins Kaurismaki’s work. In this, the second film in a loose trilogy that began with 2011’s Le Havre, the Finnish director follows the fortunes of a Syrian refugee who smuggles himself out of the horror of his homeland and into Finland. In a refutation of the sweeping anti-immigrant rhetoric so prevalent in some quarters, Kaurismaki chooses to depict a path of compassion. In Helsinki, Khaled (Sherwan Haji) finds himself befriended by a shirt salesman. Of course, in Kaurismaki’s hands, the story is both that simple, and totally unpredictable. There will be laughs.

THE PARTY, Screens Sep 30, Oct 9 and 13

(Dir: Sally Potter. Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall)The dinner party, rife with hidden signifiers and gently simmering resentments, is food and drink to satire, particularly when said repast is taking place at the home of a British politician and her solidly elitist chums. And so it is in Sally Potter’s sharp, swift sojourn at the table of Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas), a newly crowned Health Minister eager to celebrate her good fortune. With a cast more than able to get their tongue around a script stuffed with erudite zingers, The Party should provide enough acid to leave your palate tingling.


(Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos. Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman)Surely one of the most original filmmakers currently at work, Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster) continues to explore the meaning of life through his unique prism of absurdist humour dashed with darkness. After a death under his knife, surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) finds himself terrorized by Martin (Barry Keoghan), the late patient’s bereaved teenage son. Martin’s idea of balance is bleak indeed: Andrew must offer up a sacrifice of one of his own family, or see them all lost. Stylish, claustrophobic and not a little cruel, Lanthimos serves up a philosophical dilemma wrapped in a taught psychological thriller.

A BEAUTIFUL STAR, Screens Oct 4 and 6

(Dir: Yoshida Daihachi. Cast: Lily Franky, Kamenashi Kazuya)You might think your family act like aliens once in a while, but what if they actually started to believe they had been sent here from other planets? Well, that’s the set up of Yoshida Daihachi’s intriguing comedy with a science fiction twist. Weatherman dad (played by the wonderful Kore-eda regular, Lily Franky) senses his extra terrestrial powers first, accepting his mission to save Earth, and soon the rest of the family’s ESP kicks in, too. Loosely based on Yukio Mishima’s 1962 novel (considered his most avant-garde), it replaces the writer’s fear of nuclear war with the environmental anxiety of today.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, Screens Oct 5, 8 and 12

(Dir: Luca Guadagnino. Cast: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet)Luca Guadagnino is responsible for two of my favourite films of recent years—I Am Love and A Bigger Splash—and, as his latest arrives trailing ecstatic reviews from Sundance and TIFF, I’ll just go ahead and call this as a must-see. Northern Italy 1983: 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the summer at the fabulous family villa, hanging out with his smart, successful parents, soaking up the sun and idly eyeing a local girl. But his teenage ennui—and his safely bourgeois existence—is about to be rocked by the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), his father’s latest research assistant. Acclaimed from all quarters for its piercing emotional intensity and sensual honesty, Call Me By Your Name is set to be one of the films of the year.

GOD’S OWN COUNTRY, Screens Oct 6 and 11

(Dir: Francis Lee. Cast: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu)Johnny (Josh O’Conner) works the family farm by day, and cruises for anonymous sex at night, resenting his background and his sexuality in equal measure. The arrival of handsome, gentle Romanian farmhand Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) to his corner of northern England initially serves only to intensify his frustration. Francis Lee’s debut feature was a huge hit at Sundance, took the UK critics by storm — one paper hailed it a “Brokeback Mountain for the Yorkshire Dales,” no less—and recently received the Special Jury Award at TIFF.

A SEASON IN FRANCE, Screens Oct 6 and 10

(Dir: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. Cast: Eriq Ebouaney, Sandrine Bonnaire)After fleeing the ravages of civil war in the Central African Republic (his wife murdered as they left), Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney) is seeking asylum in France. Though a teacher at home, in Paris he works a menial job and struggles to feed his family. Gradually, he finds comfort in a new relationship with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire), but though she helps mute the ghosts of his past, the nightmare that is French immigration bureaucracy is harder to navigate. Originally from Chad, Haroun is a remarkable filmmaker whose ability to harness empathy onscreen is a rare gift, and one surely employed to its fullest in this most contemporary of tragedies.

BAD GENIUS, Screens Oct 6, 8, 13 (classified PG, under-19s can attend) 

(Dir: Nattawut Poonpiriya. Cast: Chutimon Cheungcharoensukying, Eisaya Hosuwan)This slickly entertaining feature from Thailand plays is a timely satire on education, class and capitalism that will send shivers of dread through students, parents and teachers alike. Lynn (Chutimon Cheungcharoensukying) is a scholarship student and math genius; her kind, pretty friend Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan) can’t follow her passion for acting unless she gets her grades up. What begins as an act of friendship is soon hijacked by Grace’s rich boyfriend, an elaborate scheme to cheat the US foreign student entrance exam is hatched, and a nail-biter as tense as any thriller ensues.


(Dir: Sean Baker. Cast: Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince)Single-mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) operates on the edge of poverty, and the edge of the American Dream — she lives with six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in the Magic Castle, a dilapidated, pastel-hued motel just down the road from Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Bobby (Willem Dafoe) owns the joint, and does his best for his struggling tenants and their exuberant, feral kids who run at life as fast as their marginalized guardians retreat. Director Baker’s last film was the cult hit Tangerine shot on his iPhone. Here, he upgrades to 35mm, giving his natural cinematic sensibilities room to soar. Don’t expect big guns and big statements; anticipate a quietly provocative drama with its politics rooted in the ordinariness of everyday life.

WONDERSTRUCK, Screens Oct 13

(Dir: Todd Haynes. Cast: Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams)After the sublime Carol, Todd Haynes returns to close VIFF on an altogether different track: a love letter to New York City wrapped up in the parallel stories of two 12-year-olds living 50 years apart. Based on a Young Adult novel by Brian Selznick (like Martin Scorsese’s wondrous Hugo before it) this appears to promise a shift in subject and tone from Haynes, whose previous work — Far From Heaven, Safe — has mined the emotional fractures and estrangements that keep us separated from our true selves. Or maybe not: Wonderstruck’s pre-teens are both deaf, navigating their way through the world without sound to help them figure out who they really are.

Check back for more of Fiona Morrow’s VIFF picks, or check out the full festival lineup at viff.org