Variety’s Critics’ Choice Unspools at Karlovy Vary

Variety's Critics' Choice Unspools Karlovy Vary

Variety’s critics reveal their choices for the publication’s annual Critics’ Choice sidebar at the Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival, which runs July 3-11.

Above and Below
(Switzerland-Italy)
Director: Nicolas Steiner
A mesmerizing plunge into the damaged psyches of five characters floating by on the margins of American society — from a couple scraping by in a Las Vegas drainage tunnel to the young woman determined to be among the first crew to colonize Mars — this remarkable graduation film serves as a perfect companion piece to the wave of post-apocalyptic stories flooding TV and megaplexes. The latest (and best) in an unlikely subgenre of not-quite-documentaries to spring up around the desolate expanse beyond California’s Inland Empire, the pic delves into a patch of the American frontier that appears even less inhabitable now than it did in the time of John Ford classics. These dried-up lakes and sun-scorched vistas offer fertile soil for the artistic-minded, in this case concentrating on five individuals who simply don’t fit into the modern world as we know it. — Peter Debruge

A Blast
(Greece-Germany-Netherlands)
Director: Syllas Tzoumerkas
Almost nobody is having a blast in “A Blast,” and that statement can probably be extended to viewers of Syllas Tzoumerkas’ aggressive, agitated second feature. Still, this story of a young mother’s nervous breakdown in the face of financial ruin displays more than enough rough-and-tumble directorial nerve, coupled with bristling socioeconomic critique, to magnetize those accustomed to the headier demands of Greek New Wave cinema. The national seething over Greece’s ongoing financial crisis has powered much of the country’s recent cinematic output, though filmmakers have tended to address the subject through opaque allegory. Not so in “A Blast,” where scarcely any issue (or insult) goes unspoken, and where the narrative pivots drastically on a family’s ruinous business debts, its thrashing energy anchored by a fierce star turn from “Dogtooth” lead Aggeliki Papoulia. — Guy Lodge

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson
(U.K.)
Director: Julien Temple
The characteristically playful, pop-culture-savvy approach to the documentary form of onetime punk-scene enfant terrible Julien Temple might seem ill-suited to the subject of mortality, but storied rock-guitarist Wilko Johnson’s unexpectedly buoyant response to the news that he has inoperable pancreatic cancer makes for a film about saying goodbye that is itself void of grief, fear or regret. After checking off a couple of bucket-list items, Johnson has ample time to simply enjoy the heightened, near-euphoric sense of awareness he’s experienced since his diagnosis, which proves more liberating than traumatic. Remaining personal instead of retreading Johnson’s career, the film feels delightfully alive, inventive and droll, very much like its unassuming subject, and its perspective on terminal illness is a rare tonic. — Dennis Harvey

Fidelio: Alice’s Journey
(France)
Director: Lucie Borleteau
Anchored by a courageous lead performance, this emotionally complex debut chronicles a sexually liberated sailor’s voyage of self-discovery aboard an old freighter, where she fights for respect among the randy crew— including the handsome captain, with whom she shares a romantic past — while her faithful partner anxiously awaits her return. A metaphorical mermaid, Alice seems to become a different person at sea, toughening her skin to survive as the lone female assigned to a vast cargo ship. Though women are too seldom allowed to be the proactive agents of desire in other movies, Alice doesn’t exist merely to excite male characters. We experience the movie through her eyes, juggling the temptations put before her, pining for the partner she left behind and dealing with the consequences of her actions. It’s a refreshing depiction set in a truly unique setting. — Peter Debruge

Goodnight Mommy
(Austria)
Directors: Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala
A fairy tale for “Dogtooth” enthusiasts, this elegantly stylized, thoroughly unnerving thriller takes place in an austere, isolated Austrian home, where twin boys begin to suspect that something is wrong with their mother. But that’s only the beginning of this family’s dysfunction, as tension escalates to torture. Mommy looks monstrous when she comes home from the hospital, her body sexy but her face wrapped entirely in bandages. At least her two kids have each other. That seems to be the one thing stopping this scary-looking woman from doing something really cruel to one of them. . Hiding a twist that forces audiences to reconsider everything that came before, the co-directors have dreamed up a home-invasion scenario where the aggressors lived there all along, cleverly constructing each scene so all can be explained, if only as dreams, and even the waking moments have a nightmarish feel. — Peter Debruge

The Lesson
(Bulgaria-Greece)
Directors: Kristina Grozeva
& Petar Valchanov
Loosely based on a real-life incident presented here as a last-act plot twist, “The Lesson” is a stripped-to-essentials drama about economic stress and mounting desperation. The naturalistic style of the storytelling is stealthily enthralling, as is the lead performance by Margita Gosheva as a Bulgarian schoolteacher who is inexorably driven to the edge by crushing debt. Early scenes recall Charles Bukowski’s warning about “the continuing series of small tragedies that send a man to the madhouse.” Later, a sequence that begins with Gosheva’s car breaking down, and continues with her frantic rush to make a bank payment, is more suspenseful than most Hollywood thrillers. But Gosheva overshadows everyone else onscreen with her portrayal of a desperate woman who only gradually reveals herself as fully capable of going to extremes.
— Joe Leydon

The Reaper
(Croatia)
Director: Zvonimir Juric
Three intertwined stories that unfold over a single night in an isolated Croatian village add up to grim but compelling viewing in this tense, nuanced drama. Aided by a superb, seasoned cast and stellar camerawork from Branko Linta (a prizewinner at the Pula Film Festival), Zvonimir Juric captures the atmosphere of volatility and despair in a place where former deeds are not easily forgotten and the recent past is still a raw wound. In one segment, a gas-station attendant intervenes after seeing a man accused of rape attempting to offer a woman a ride. The way in which this revelation and its aftermath play out is superbly executed, and could serve as a master class in both cinematography and acting. Later, we learn even more about this character, a man who has been defined and isolated by his crime, just as the region in which he lives is still trapped in the thrall of the war. — Alissa Simon

The Summer of Sangaile
(Lithuania-France-Netherlands)
Director: Alante Kavaite
Cartwheeling stunt airplanes aren’t the only things that soar and plummet in this sensuous and sensitive teen romance, where the real roller-coaster ride is that of turbulent adolescent emotions. Filmmaker Alante Kavaite returns to her home turf for this heartfelt snapshot of love and self-discovery, enhanced by two hugely appealing lead performances by newcomers Julija Steponaityte and Aiste Dirziute. Their eyes first meet at a local aerobatics show, and the attraction moves quickly from mild crush to all-consuming infatuation. At its best, the film captures the special intensity of those relationships in which everything seems to fade away, save for the other person. Onscreen, the gamine Dirziute and the hypnotic Steponaityte pull us so deeply into their shared rapture that, indeed, we lose all sense of which way is up. — Scott Foundas

Sworn Virgin
(Italy-Switzerland-Germany)
Director: Laura Bispuri
The rising profile of transgender issues could clear an arthouse path for Laura Bispuri’s sensitive debut feature, though it’s not a film that actively advertises its own topicality. Set instead within a fascinating subset of Albanian society where female-to-male gender transition is a tradition as old as the snow-blasted Alpine hills, Bispuri’s film stars an effectively cast Alba Rohrwacher as a rural woman who, after living as a man for 14 years, embarks on an uncertain path to reclaim her original identity. Under the region’s code, known as the kanun, a woman may forswear her female identity to live as a man, taking a vow of lifelong chastity. In exchange, she is exempt from the servile role prescribed for women — an oath that essentially amounts to the exchange of one set of sexual liberties for another. — Guy Lodge

Vincent
(France)
Director: Thomas Salvador
Given the surfeit of superhero movies, it comes as a very pleasant surprise to see a low-budget indie taking an unassuming guy with special powers and playing it with a minimum of razzmatazz. In his debut feature, director-performer Thomas Salvador completely upends the genre, crafting a film as self-effacing as its title character, in which a man gains inhuman strength when he comes in contact with water. Although such movies nearly always carry messages about not fearing what makes us distinctive, big-budget tentpoles tend to bury the characters’ humanity under Everests of bombast, losing sight of why such themes matter. Instead, “Vincent” makes this idea its central motif: Here’s a guy who’s not out to prove anything, yet by virtue of his gifts, he becomes a target of fear. Impressive shots of his dolphin-like swimming represent basically the sole nod to effects.— Jay Weissberg

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