The Academy Awards may be four months away, but let's go ahead and give the award for best film title to A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (or, as it rolls off the tongue in Swedish, En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron). It's not quite Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes or even Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, but it's impressive nonetheless.
“The Swedish pigeon movie”, which screens tomorrow as part of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival [ADFF], is also entertaining; it won the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival in September and boasts a whopping 93 (out of 100) rating on the reviews-aggregating website Metacritic.
“After watching this picture, you will remember this title well,” says Teresa Cavina, ADFF’s director of programming. “You think about it after. It comes back to your mind again and again and again.”
Here are five films screening at ADFF this weekend, including A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, that we think will stick with you.
It's easy to forget why Andrew Garfield was cast as Marvel's web-spinning superhero and focus on just how sucky the last two Spider-Man movies were. But Garfield can act. Remember his turn as Mark Zuckerberg's wronged business partner and friend in The Social Network? Or as a doomed boarding school student in Never Let Me Go?
In 99 Homes, he shows off his chops as Dennis Nash, an Orange County, Florida, construction worker made redundant because of the mortgage crisis. When the bank forecloses on his home, Nash is forced to live with his mother (Laura Dern) and son in a seedy motel.
This is why he ends up doing dirty work for Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a real-estate broker with the morality of Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko; 99 Homes is a Wall Street for our times. The father-son dynamic between Carver and Nash is like that of Gekko and Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) in Wall Street, and the pacing is similarly juiced. Carver even has a "greed is good" moment when he describes houses as boxes. "Big box, small box, doesn't matter. What matters is how many you got."
The film screened at both the Toronto International Film Festival and Venice, where Cavina and the ADFF director Ali Al Jabri saw it. “What it shows is a great tragedy, but [the filmmaker] Ramin Bahrani does it with a light hand,” Cavina says. “It struck us both that a big tragedy does not require epic situations. The crisis is actually becoming everyday life. Europe is again in troubled waters.”
• 99 Homes screens today at 9.15pm at Emirates Palace
Next Goals Wins
You know a sports movie has crossover appeal when reviews compare it to the author of The Age of Innocence. Describing Next Goal Wins, Anita Gates of The New York Times wrote: "In some ways, this is just another underdogs-go-for-it sports movie. In others, it is as sensitive and observant as an Edith Wharton novel."
Indeed, this documentary about the American Samoan national football programme, which had its premiere at Tribeca in April, features all types of characters: the goalkeeper haunted by a past drubbing, a ruthless outsider coach and a defender who has the equipment to play for the men’s team but chooses to dress as a woman off the field. The story revolves around the 200-square-kilometre South Pacific island’s attempt to qualify for this year’s Fifa World Cup in Brazil, but as you can guess it’s about a lot more than that.
“We put the film in the competition because the directors were able to gain the trust of the local community,” Cavina says. “They were able to get close to their subject with minimal interference in their lives.”
• Next Goal Wins screens today at 4.45pm at Vox Cinema 4 and on Monday at 3.45pm at Vox Cinema 6, Marina Mall
Cuba doesn't have a great track record at the Oscars. Some years, the country doesn't even bother to nominate a film, perhaps because they see the gala as an exercise in capitalist excess. There have only been two Cuban Academy Award nominees: one for 1994 Best Foreign Film (Strawberry and Chocolate) and the other for Andy Garcia's supporting actor nomination for The Godfather III. Pretty sad, considering Garcia moved to the United States at the age of five. The American actor Cuba Gooding Jr, who won the Best Supporting Actor gong in 1996 for Jerry Maguire, beats that haul on his own. But all that could change this year.
By some accounts, Behavior (Conducta) has "taken the Cuban box office by storm" (Miami International Film Festival). By others, it's "a breakout hit" (Toronto International Film Festival). There are no numbers to back this up and for all most of us know about the communist island's cinema "a breakout hit" might just mean the theatres actually had power that month. But what's interesting is that the country's authorities chose this film as their Oscar nominee. Behavior is not propaganda. It is an unflinching look at the poverty and social ills that plague parts of the country. And it dares to question the vaunted Cuban education system, which has achieved one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
Part Central Station, part Monsieur Lazhar, Behavior concerns a septuagenarian teacher who takes a troubled 11-year-old boy under her wing. When she suffers a heart attack, the boy is relocated to an institution. Upon recovery, the teacher challenges the system to do right by the boy and return him to school. "It raises questions about institutions and what role school has in a child's life," Cavina says. "Yet it's uplifting and engaging."
Thematic bonus: the boy raises pigeons. It’s not clear if the birds sit on trees thinking about metaphysics.
• Behavior screens today at 3.30pm at Vox Cinema 3, Marina Mall
No One’s Child
Two stories converged in the woods … and you lucky cinemagoers can see them both at this year's ADFF. No One's Child is about a boy raised by wolves who is discovered and introduced to civilised society. If this story sounds familiar, it's because it was also the plot to François Truffaut's 1970 movie The Wild Child (L'Enfant Savage), which screens on Friday, October 31 (7.30pm, Vox Cinema 2, Marina Mall) as part of the festival's Truffaut retrospective – wolf boy on Halloween, very clever.
“It was just by accident we presented these two films with the same starting point,” Cavina says. “They raise the philosophical question: what is humanity? Is it enough to be in a human body?”
To be clear, No One's Child is not a remake and has its own pedigree, winning both the audience choice and critics' awards at Venice. The setting is the biggest difference between the two lupine-themed pictures. Truffaut's film concerns the true story of a boy found in the French woods in 1798; the first-time director Vuk Rsumovic sets his in the former Yugoslavia just days before the beginning of the Balkans War. Politics play an important part in the latter plot, which gives No One's Child a provocative twist.
• No One’s Child screens tomorrow at 3.45pm at Vox Cinema 6 and on Friday, October 31, at 9.15pm at Vox Cinema 4, Marina Mall
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Do you trust critics when it comes to comedy? Neither do we. A bunch of film geeks scribbling notes in the dark at a morning screening can't possibly understand what's funny to a theatre full of paying customers, right? Yet, here's what Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience website had to say about a screening of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence that he went to in Toronto: "The room was jam-packed with press many of whom were laughing out loud and very frequently, which is not all that common in critics' screenings, I have to tell you."
The director Roy Andersson's style includes a drab colour palette, Monty Python-esque absurdity and exploitation of the mise en scène, a fancy French film term that mostly means the camera doesn't move much. Despite all these factors, the Swedish movie with the really long name is worth seeing.
“There are many different kinds of fun,” Cavina says. “It’s an incredibly staged piece of theatre. It is the son of a Scandinavian tradition of bleak humour that started with [the 19th-century Norwegian theatre director and playwright Henrik] Ibsen. And it’s extremely sophisticated in its architecture. Yet it is not only for those who know about cinema. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”
• A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence screens Sunday at 6.45pm at Vox Cinema 1, Marina Mall
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