The best of the Karlovy Vary film festival

A trip to a Czech spa that calls for showing some of the most daring cinema around? Count us in

Free fall
Free Fall György Pálfi

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival happened this month in the summery setting of the Czech Republic's main spa town. In the darkened cinema away out of the holiday vibe of beer-sipping chilled times, the fest – one of the world's most prestigious and oldest – was screening some of the freshest, most daring cinema of current times. Here are our highlights. 

ROCKS IN MY POCKETS (2014)

Latvia-born, New York-based animator Signe Baumane tells the stories of the women in her family - including herself - and their battles with mental illness in this dark, nakedly honest and blackly humorous film, which won her the FIPRESCI critics' award. A blend of hand-drawn work and papier-mâché stop motion, it depicts the difficulty of trying to live a ruse when psychological problems are not understood, and stigmatised.

FREE FALL (2014)

A pensioner jumps off the top of an apartment block and miraculously doesn't die. The elevator's out of order, and on the arduous trek back upstairs, she passes eight doors - each with a bizarre tale unfolding behind them. Hungarian Taxidermia director Gyorgy Palfi won the Best Director award for this vignette of tales, channeled through his usual black-humoured, surreal imagination.

CORRECTIONS CLASS (2014)

This daring, documentary-style social critique won 25-year-old Russian director Ivan Tverdovsky the top prize in the East of the West section (for central and eastern European films). It portrays a class of students with physical or mental disabilities left to struggle by the state and viciously turning their frustrations against each other after a budding romance disrupts their dynamics. The win bolsters hope for a new generation of Russian filmmakers who've been hit this month by censorship clampdowns and a new profanity law banning swearing in cinema. 

HARD TO BE A GOD (2013)

Monolothic, old-school grandeur marked Russia's two other most impressive offerings, Andrei Zvyagintsev's sombre, symbol-laden portrait of one man's ruination at the hands of institutionalised corruption Leviathan, and Hard to be a God, the long-awaited final epic of Alexsei German. Based on a novel by the Strugatsky brothers (who also penned the tale Tarkovsky's mystical sci-fi masterpiece Stalker is based on), Hard to Be a God sees under-cover historians from Earth visit another planet that is going through its Middle Ages and is a Bosch-like vista of torture and crudeness, awash in shit and blood.

MAIDAN (2014)

Expert documentarian Sergei Loznitsa floored us with the power of this politically charged film. Carrying all the urgency of the current situation in Ukraine, it captures with static cameras positioned as faceless observers events on Kiev's Independence Square as protest boils into revolution - the palpable shifts in the rhythm of mood of the people in a spontaneous choreography of emotion.

THE TRIBE (2014)

The drama that blew everyone's mind was also Ukrainian - this radically innovative study in alienation and brutality from director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, which is entirely in unsubtitled sign language. The otherworldly combination of silence and unpredictable violence sees a new pupil adapt to the demands of life in a boarding school for the deaf that also runs a prostitution operation for truckers.

CHERRY TOBACCO (2014)

This Estonian coming-of-age film from directing duo Andres and Katrin Maimik had its World Premiere, and charmed with its wry humour and languid summertime mood. After an amusingly awkward date with a guy her own age, teenager Laura (Maris Nolvap) takes off an a hiking trip to the stunning countryside, developing a crush on much older married player Joosep (Gert Raudsep).

JAUJA (2014)

Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso's surreal, hypnotic and irreverently witty head-trip stars Viggo Mortensen as a Danish engineer who sets off on a quest to find his beautiful 15-year-old daughter (Viilbjork Agger Malling) after she elopes with a young soldier into the strange, sea lion-dotted wilderness of 19th Century Patagonia, having rejected the advances of a lecherous lieutenant.

LOW DOWN (2014)

Elle Fanning bagged Best Actress for this biopic on musician Joe Albany directed by Jeff Preiss (the cinematographer on Chet Baker doc Let's Get Lost). In the downbeat take on the '70s Hollywood jazz scene she plays a teenager trying to reconcile her abiding affection for her heroin-addicted pianist dad with the deteriorating home life orbited by deadbeats and financial woes he subjects her to. 

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014)

The Midnight Screening strand showed some of the freshest takes on genre cinema. As well as US indie director David Robert Mitchell's Cannes hit It Follows was this hilarious collaboration from New Zealand talents Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement. The mockumentary, a charmingly idiosyncratic blend of Gothic Horror tropes and Kiwi humour, sees a bunch of vampires try to cope with the everyday stresses of a flat-share situation on top of the peculiar demands of their undead state.

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