Best films may be saved for last

SAN SEBASTIAN — The San Sebastian Film Festival headed into its final stretch Wednesday with no world preems having set the town on fire — though Jaime Rosales’ “Bullet in the Head” stirred polemics enough.

One theory doing the rounds is that, having frontloaded the edition with films with stars — like Javier Bardem and Antonio Banderas — San Sebastian director Mikel Olaciregui may be backloading some of the fest’s best pics: the world preem of “Dream,” from Kim Ki-duk, arguably the highest-profile auteur in Competition here, plays Friday.

But it may well be that San Sebastian, just as Berlin and Cannes before it, will end up re-enforcing the view that 2008 was a so-so year for art film and niche filmmaking.

Meanwhile, a bevy of pics seen at other fests have stirred good to sometimes rave reactions. Rachid Mashawari’s Competition player “Laila’s Birthday,” for example, was as well received in San Sebastian as it was in Toronto.

Two films sharply divided opinions.

One was “Bullet.” Rosales’ third film, after “Solitary Fragments,” chronicles the life of a Basque, who, at a cafe car park, draws a gun and shoots a Civil Guard in the head.

Lensed in longshot, sans audible dialogue or context, pic drew applause, boos and even abuse at Tuesday’s press conference: one Spanish journo complained it humanized Basque ETA terrorists, which was precisely one of Rosales’ points.

“Bullet” charmed most, but not all of Spain’s top scribes, topping a San Sebastian Competition crix poll published by El Diario Vasco.

“Bullet” split international crix. Some thought it boldly experimental, others unintelligible or simply not engaging.

At least it served to stir debate, though most arguments center on the virtues of “Bullet” as a film rather than, as Rosales wanted, the absurdity of terrorism.

Another world preem, Belgium’s “Louise-Michel,” co-produced by Mathieu Kassovitz, prompted an international vs. Spanish critical divide.

The comedy, about pinkslipped femme factory workers hiring a contract killer to waste their former boss, provoked hoots of laughter at the press screening, upbeat foreign scribe reactions, but left Spain’s top reviewers cold.

Toronto player “Fear Me Not,” from Dane Kristian Levring, and Sundance winner “Frozen River,” from Courtney Hunt, led early Competition running.

“There’s talent and sensibility in this portrait of two women worn down by life,” said Spain’s El Pais of “River.”

World preeming in Horizontes Latinos, Christian Poveda “La Vida loca” drew rave to good notices for its unflinching, intimist portrait of a violent Mara youth gang in El Salvador.

Heddy Honigmann’s “El Olvido,” a docu portrait of Peru from the bottom up, received near unanimous praise.

Youth Award votes were led through Wednesday by Steve McQueen’s Cannes Golden Camera winner “Hunger,” already a Cannes standout, Fin Miika Soini’s “Thomas,” about an ageing widower loner, and Spanish hip-hop pic, “El Truco del manco,” from Santiago A. Zannou.

Another Spanish first feature, Daniel Hernandez’s “Ordinary Boys,” proved an elegant, non-preachy portrait of a Tetuan district where five of Madrid’s train bombers were born and bred.

Juan Vicente Cordoba’s “Night Flowers,” an oral history of a working-class Madrid ‘hood, went down well with Spanish critics.

Meryl Streep arrives tomorrow to pick up the festival’s Donostia Prize, a career achievement award, on Friday.

Fest runs Sept. 18-27.

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