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Highlights from the 2018 Los Cabos Film Festival

In early November, Los Cabos International Film Festival completed its seventh edition at the tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. I’ve attended six of those editions, missing only last year due to another commitment. I’m an aficionado of film festivals in general but this one in particular due to a love of Mexican culture and a fascination with the country’s recently burgeoning cinema.

The festival started out with great resources behind it, and I’ve been pleased to see it grow and build on its initial goal of bringing together the cinemas of Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. While the chance to see a well-curated selection of Mexican cinema has been its primary attraction for this critic, the festival, as its name clearly announces, is intended to have an international focus, and the proximity of Los Cabos to Los Angeles – as well as its fame as a tony tourist resort – has always guaranteed a healthy Hollywood contingent in attendance. 

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All festivals have up years and down years, and I’ll be honest in saying that I thought the 2018 edition of LCIFF was notably weaker than the one I saw two years ago, on several fronts. The Mexican section, which was characterized by some surprising omissions, suffered in comparison to its first-rate 2016 predecessor. For reasons unknown, the Canadian presence at the festival – apart from a talk given by outgoing Toronto International Film Festival head Piers Handling – was nearly invisible this year.

Star power, a highlight of past fests, was also diminished. For example, Adam Driver had to do double duty as the leading man in films by the two American directors the festival saluted, Spike Lee and Terry Gilliam. Yet those films seemed to indicate a bit of backsliding on the festival’s part. Where past editions have featured newly minted movies in their prime slots, Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” was old news by the time it served as the festival’s closing night attraction. And Gilliam’s long-delayed, problem-beset “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” despite energetic and committed work from a cast led by Driver and Jonathan Pryce, proved an overlong and rambling disappointment. (I am, however, grateful that the festival’s Mexican provenance meant that I could see it; legal problems reportedly are preventing a U.S. release.)

Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favorite” led the festival’s international slate, serving as its opening night selection despite appearing without the director or stars Emma Stone, Rachel Wiesz or Nicholas Hoult in attendance (see my comments on the film when it served as opening night attraction at the New York Film Festival). Otherwise, the international offerings this year largely upheld the level of quality of previous years, even if this of course meant paralleling the programming of similarly-scaled festivals around the world. The films included Jafar Panahi’s “3 Faces,” Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” Karyn Kusuma’s “Destroyer” and Paul Dano’s “Wildlife.”

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While I was mainly on the look-out for Mexican and Latin American films, the festival’s World Highlights section gave me the chance to see a couple of international co-productions that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere. I found both intriguing and worthwhile, noteworthy for their sharp acting as well as twists on familiar genres. In “The Sisters Brothers,” French auteur Jacques Audiard proves himself capable of adapting to American idioms in adapting Patrick deWitt’s novel about two brothers (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) who, in serving as hit men for a rich criminal, pursue a chemist (Riz Ahmed) who’s also being hunted by another of the rich guy’s agents (Jake Gyllenhaal). As a fresh take on the western, the film might make a good double bill with the Coen brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”; both films stress the dire circumstances and constant threat of death in the Old West, though Audiard’s, which is distinguished by strong work from its four leads, has a grittier, meaner view of the era than the Coens’ more expansive and folkloric vision.

Border

The other World Cinema entry, Ali Abassi’s “Border,” a Swedish-Danish co-production, furthers recent Nordic tradition of insinuating creepfests also exemplified by “Let the Right One In,” a vampire tale derived from a novel by this film’s co-writer, John Avjide Lindqvist. At first, there doesn’t seem to be anything supernatural about the story here, which probes the introverted life of a border guard named Tina (Eva Melander), who has a strange way of sniffing out both illegal substances and guilt on people but is also so ugly that she lives a reclusive life. Then she meets a guy named Vore (Eero Milonoff) who’s gnarly enough to suggest her male double (both actors required elaborate makeup to achieve their near-grotesque looks). When a romance between these two unlovelies blossoms, the movie’s supernatural element not only emerges but also steers us toward one of the most startling and bizarre sex scenes in recent cinema. At times recalling Tod Browning’s “Freaks” as well as the work of David Lynch, Abassi’s atmospheric, intelligently wrought thriller suppled some welcome indoor chills to complement the external warmth of Cabo.

Regarding the relative weakness of the Mexican films at this year’s festival, that judgment carries an admitted element of paradox since in some respects 2018 is bound to go down as banner year for Mexican cinema, if only for the extraordinary success of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” (which I covered in its appearance at the New York Film Festival: see link above). The winner of Venice’s Golden Lion and highly touted Oscar contender did receive two Special Presentation screenings at Cabo but without an appearance from Cuaron, who accompanied the film when it was shown at the Morelia film festival a few weeks before. (“Roma” has still not opened in Mexico and the nation’s two largest theater chains are refusing to show it unless Netflix respects their rule of a 90-day window between theatrical and online releases, which at present appears unlikely.)

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Of the (nominally) Mexican films that did play the festival, the best by far (“Roma” apart) was actually more of a Colombian film in that it was made in Colombia by the Colombian husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gellego, who previously made the Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent.” (The film’s producers include Mexican Nicolás Celis, who’s also a producer of “Roma.”) Like their earlier film, “Birds of Passage” (pictured at top) has an almost anthropological tone. When it starts, in late 1960s, we observe the traditional village life of the Wayuu people, who are mostly sustained by raising animals and trading. One day, however, young hot-shot Raphayet (Jose Costa) learns that some U.S. Peace Corps volunteers are looking for marijuana and he realizes a handsome profit by finding some for them. This leads Raphayet and his best pal Moises (Jhon Narvaez) into a steady business that becomes increasingly profitable and grows to include many Wayuu men. (One of the film’s big assets, though, is that its female characters, including Raphayet’s wife and her mother, are as well-drawn and consequential as the men.)

Based on real events, “Birds of Passage” traces the tribe’s increasingly complex and lethal excursion into drug trafficking into the 1980s. As in many such films, the dramatic arc starts out with the euphoria of quick success and wealth but eventually ends up in a morass of enmity, double dealing and destruction. Yet while the story may sound familiar, it feels fresh and novel, thanks to the filmmakers’ carefully understated approach and strategic use of both actors and actual tribespeople. Deservedly, the film will get an American release next year.

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