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Sitges 2008 the Good, the Bad, the Weird

Another 10 days at the world’s leading festival for fantastic cinema have come to a close. All the extraterrestrials have phoned home. And the zombies are in repose until next October. Despite very late nights drinking with actors, filmmakers, distributors and programmers from Finland, Colombia, Korea, Japan, Ireland, Australia, France, Canada, New York and, of course, Spain, I managed to see 23 or 25 or 27 movies, often sleeping on my feet, so that the whole experience began to feel like an endless reel.

Of course, that’s the nature of film festivals. But Sitges, being set in a picturesque seaside town, has a far more intimate feel than, say, Toronto or Berlin. Where else are you going to come back to the hotel from an after-screening party and bump into the silver-haired cast of Night of the Living Dead at 3:30 in the morning? Under what other circumstances would an interview with Hong-jin Na, director of Korea’s biggest box-office hit of all time, The Chaser, require two translators to convey Engish into Spanish into Korean, all more or less to learn that the guy really digs Quentin Tarantino?

Such moments are the joy and irony of Sitges, which also offered a (sometimes literally) killer crop of films. Here are my picks for the best, the worst and the strangest:

Best Film: Let the Right One In

Best Surprise: Dead Girl, a low-budget drama from LA-based filmmakers Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, which turns a River’s Edge-type scenario into a creepy adolescent freak-out. They say “you won’t believe what happens in the last 10 minutes.” The miles-wide eyeballs of viewers exiting the theater, shaking their heads, testified to that fact.

Lamest Film Inexplicably Selected for the Top Jury Prize: Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance. I’ll give Bill Pullman his sinister, Dennis Hopperesque turn as an FBI agent, and Lynch some credit for concocting a black comedy spun around the collision of rogue cops, a couple of drug addicts, a family on holiday, a pair of serial killers, and the conflicting accounts of the survivors. But there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, and nothing you can’t see coming from half-a-mile away.

Hot Korean Action Epic That Unexpectedly Put Me to Sleep: The much-ballyhooed The Good, The Bad, The Weird, which restages Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western themes amid the Manchurian badlands of the 1930s. The great Korean actor Song Kang-ho (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Host) steals the show as a slapstick roustabout on a treacherous treasure hunt (basically, the Eli Wallach role). But, even though this is the most expensive Korean film ever made, its endless (and unending) fight scenes never evolve into anything compelling.

Pretentious French Film I Was Surprised I Actually Liked: Michel Houellebecq’s La Possibilité d'une île. Directed by the controversial author from his own book, this oblique meditation on sex resorts, alien cultists and clones as the only hope for a soon-to-be extinct human race shifts in tone from dry satire to poetic elegy. Perhaps more of a philosophical treatise than a movie, it still compels your attention with imaginative design and mastery of a peculiar tone.

Most Controversial Movie No One in America Will See: This year’s French ultraviolent shocker, Martyrs, which divided audiences with its graphic saga of torture and revenge with a third act double twist that caused one spectator to vomit in the aisle. Unfortunately, it’s going straight-to-DVD because the stupid Weinstein Company owns rights to U.S. distribution.

Best. Short. Zombie. Flick. Ever: I Love Sarah Jane. The 14-minute Australian film discovers puppy love amidst the post-apocalyptic land of the undead.

Best. Jean-Claude Van Damme. Flick. Ever: JCVD. In which the beleaguered “Muscle from Brussels” takes on the role he was born to play: himself. Sorta. Meta like Charlie Kaufman and Pulp Fiction, while essentially skewering the Van Damme mythos, this satirical gaze into the navel of Europe’s greatest action hero ultimately makes you feel his pain.
By Steve Dollar

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