Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Celebrates Critics Choice Movies

Variety critics pick some of the best films screening at the festival

Variety Critics Choice celebrates its 20th anniversary as a key Karlovy Vary International Film Festival section.

Animals
Switzerland-Austria-Poland
If you can’t trust the talking cat, whom do you trust? Such are brain-frying quandaries viewers may face deep into the darkness of this deliciously unhinged, blood-laced adult fairy tale from Swiss-Polish writer-director Greg Zglinski. Setting out with real-world levels of macabre nastiness as it wittily probes the marital faultlines between a bourgeois Viennese couple attempting a restorative Alpine getaway, the film takes a smooth, almost imperceptible left turn into David Lynch-worthy realms of illogic that will leave adventurous audiences both rapt and dazed, dreamily uncertain of where exactly they lost the plot. Unraveling this cat’s-cradle isn’t half as important or pleasurable as getting entangled in it to begin with. Zglinski’s espresso-dark humor and icy formal precision may nod to a host of expert cinematic mind-gamers, from Roman Polanski to Lars von Trier, but “Animals” gleefully cultivates its very own kind of crazy.
— Guy Lodge

Columbus
U.S.
There’s an old saying, often attributed to Martin Mull: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In many ways first-time writer-director Kogonada’s “Columbus” treats architecture like music, as its protagonists write, talk, bicker and dance about an extraordinary collection of modernist structures in the unassuming Midwest town of Columbus, Ind. The hypnotically paced drama carried by the serendipitous odd-couple pairing of John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson is lovely and tender, marking the mono-monikered Kogonada as an auteur to watch. The relationships between each of the characters are imbued with warmth and humanity, and the filmmaking — like the city’s structures designed by the likes of Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pei — are gorgeous. In this unconventional American film, Kogonada is less interested in romance than in the characters’ overlapping and divergent worldviews and dreams, based on culture, environment, and upbringing.
— Geoff Berkshire

The Distinguished Citizen
Argentina-Spain
Taciturn novelist Daniel Mantovani (Argentine star Oscar Martínez, who won the best actor prize at the Venice film festival for his performance) has an ambivalent relationship to fame: It has brought him the kind of wealth few authors can ever imagine, yet he’s concerned such success means he’s not the challenging writer he was at one time — an idea that’s amusingly conveyed in the opening scene, when he voices his fears while receiving the Nobel prize. Five years later, the Barcelona-based author remains too much in demand, politely declining most offers, until he gets a letter from his hometown of Salas, Argentina. It’s been four decades since he’s been back, despite using Salas as the setting for all his stories, and his return provides not only humor, but poignant insights into such themes as the burden of success, lost ideals, and whether artists truly give back to the communities they’ve creatively mined for decades.
— Jay Weissberg

God’s Own Country
U.K.
In case it didn’t court “Brokeback Mountain” comparisons directly enough with its tale of two young sheep farmers finding love in a hopeless place, “God’s Own Country” seals the deal with one winkingly quoted shot: a work shirt draped on a wire hanger, poignantly removed from its wearer. Twelve years on, Ang Lee’s film has proven enough of a cultural milestone to merit such affectionate homage; luckily, Francis Lee’s tender, muscular Yorkshire romance has enough of an individual voice to get away with it, depicting a tentative romance between coarse English farmboy Johnny (Josh O’Connor) and the Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) who comes to work for the season. Intimacy doesn’t come naturally to a man who has been raised in a household where caring is expressed through work, but rather than over-exerting well-worn clichés about rural homophobia, the film reveals pockets of tolerance in unexpected places.
— Guy Lodge

Heal the Living
France
A 17-year-old car crash victim lies brain-dead in a hospital, as doctors urgently pitch the virtues of organ donation to his distraught parents; over in another town, a middle-aged mother of two with a severely degenerative heart condition goes on the waiting list for a transplant. What sounds like fodder for a routinely gripping episode of “ER” is complicated with rare depths of personal and sensual detail in French director Katell Quillévéré’s sublimely compassionate, heart-crushing third feature. More polished but no less authentically humane than her previous works “Suzanne” and “Love Like Poison,” this spidering ensemble piece — adapted from Maylis de Kerangal’s internationally acclaimed 2014 novel — boasts beautifully pitched performances from the likes of Tahar Rahim and Emmanuelle Seigner. But it’s Quillévéré’s soaring visual and sonic acumen that suffuses this sad, potentially familiar hospital drama with true grace.
— Guy Lodge

Hounds of Love
Australia
An outwardly normal suburban Perth couple who abduct, torture, and murder schoolgirls must face their funny games in this genre-bending powerhouse thriller from first-time director Ben Young. Brave audiences will be rewarded, if that’s the word, with a harrowing ride that morphs from discrete horror to probing character study and back again in a vivid yet admirably restrained 108 minutes. Far from Michael Haneke-level lurid, the film generates a coiled depravity and almost unbearable tension from the determined tracking shots of cinematographer Michael McDermott and Dan Luscombe’s trance-like, Tangerine Dream-inspired score. Clayton Jauncey’s production design is detailed and evocative, keyed around kitchen knives. For such a bold film to work, the performances must be all-in, and the three leads are committed to Young’s vision: Ashleigh Cummings is fearless as the would-be victim, while Emma Booth is terrifyingly skittish and Stephen Curry (who is, believe it or not, a popular Australian comedian) redolent of pure evil.
— Eddie Cockrell

Lost in Paris
Belgium-France
As anyone who has seen “L’Iceberg” and “The Fairy” knows, Abel and Gordon are quite possibly the two funniest clowns working in cinema today. No, really: Dominique Abel is a Belgian-born, burlesque-trained human pretzel and gifted physical comic on par with Chaplin or Keaton, while real-life Australian wife Fiona Gordon is a Tilda Swinton-tall redhead with Olive Oyl elbows and an Easter Island profile. With their latest film, they take audiences to Paris, where she plays a shy librarian desperate to find her missing Aunt Martha (the final role of “Amour” star Emmanuelle Riva), while he plays a harmless hobo who pops up practically everywhere she goes. Let the comic situations begin as this duo travels from one corner of the city to another (nearly getting incinerated at Père Lachaise cemetery one moment, dangling from the rafters of the Eiffel Tower the next), creating some of the funniest moments you’ll see on screen all year.
— Peter Debruge

Merry Christmas Mr. Mo
South Korea
A droll comic drama filmed in glorious widescreen black-and-white, “Merry Christmas Mr. Mo” follows a terminally ill barber (played by distinguished character actor Ki Joo-bong) whose dying wish is to make a short film directed by his distant son. What might have been a mawkish exercise in implausibility is instead fashioned into a consistently amusing and frequently touching tale of love, family and reconciliation with the past. Played to deadpan perfection by an appealing cast and directed with impressive assurance by first-time feature helmer Lim Dae-hyung, this lovely tale channels the spirit of early Jim Jarmusch films such as “Stranger Than Paradise” into its ultra low-key humor, dialogue non-sequiturs and loving monochrome photography of notionally unremarkable locations. Without ever succumbing to sentimentality, this offbeat crowd-pleaser will also move many viewers to tears by the time Mr. Mo’s task is completed.
— Richard Kuipers

Strawberry Days
Sweden
Every summer, the Polish workers come to the Swedish countryside and pick strawberries. They tend the fields all day and keep to themselves at night, while the landowners hardly bother to learn their names. It’s a cycle as sure as the seasons themselves, though this year is different as one of the foreign fruit-pickers’ kids is old enough to take an interest in the host family’s daughter, and there among the strawberries a case of young love blossoms for the first time, complicating the entire arrangement, for the migrant workers are expected to make themselves invisible. In this sensitive, sun-kissed teenage romance, Swedish director Wiktor Ericsson invites us to recognize and identify with these faceless outsiders, asking for equality on the simplest terms. Though the setting may be specific, its appeal is universal, boasting a texture so rich, you can practically smell the ripe strawberries in the air.
— Peter Debruge

Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves
Canada
With its multiple aspect ratios, on-screen quotes, and cutaways to news broadcasts and documentary footage — not to mention a musical overture and interlude — this three-hour Quebecois political epic unfurls with a bravado as outsized as its title. Inspired by the student demonstrations that sparked the Maple Spring in 2012, co-directors Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie apply the language of radical cinema to a tense, mournful and profoundly ambivalent portrait of radicalism. Following four far-left activists as they commit acts of vandalism and terror to foment an uprising against the capitalist system, the film channels their passion while insistently questioning their methods and perspective. Politics aside, the dynamics at the film’s heart are practically universal among youth movements, resulting in a bold portrait that pulses with the vitality of four young people who, however flawed or foolhardy, sincerely want to change the world.
— Scott Tobias

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