Watching Australian director Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain one morning at the sixth annual Los Cabos International Film Festival, I was struck by the fullness of the auditorium and by the prominence of children in the audience. Peedom’s film is an essayistic documentary about humankind’s relationship with mountains all over the world, with tender, ruefully poetic narration (spoken by Willem Dafoe) that emphasizes how our appreciation of nature can morph into an urge to conquer it, rendering the wild another of the controlled habitats from which we seek refuge. Mountain isn’t what Americans would designate a “children’s film,” as we have a habit of parking young ones in front of whatever A.D.D.-afflicted cartoon happens to be topping the box office at any given moment. It was gratifying to see such a varied audience turn out for Mountain, imparting hope as to the communal possibilities of cinema in the 21st century. Of course, many of the children were whispering and running around the theater, seemingly bored with the film in front of them, but at least they evinced some effort and curiosity.
The festival programming favored Mexican, American, and French-Canadian films—including breakout art hits such as David Lowery’s A Ghost Story and Joachim Trier’s Thelma, as well as upcoming holiday fare like Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing—though Asian and European titles were also included. Each night of the four-day festival, which ran from November 8 to 12, there was a gala spotlighting a high-profile American production, which led to my seeing films that I would’ve usually saved for my home turf. These gala screenings were held at the Cultural Pavilion of the Republic, an elegant stone building with a long, sloped ramp that lent itself readily to red carpeting, so as to be navigated by chic and beautiful guests and professionals. Inside this building was the largest theater that I’ve seen in a long time, reminding me of the once opulent vastness of film-going.
I attended two of the gala events, hunched with journalists and photographers in the press section off in the lane running parallel to the festival’s red carpet. These events were intimate, as those sorts of things go, and at poignant odds with what I took to be the real aim of the Los Cabos International Film Festival: a democratization of global cinema. There was no overriding “theme” that I could detect of the programming, though the films, with the partial exception of the American titles playing each night, tended to be free-associational and resistant to three-act structuring.
Golden Exits, the new film by Alex Ross Perry, a favorite of this festival for years, is an explosion of the director’s aesthetic, a symphony of actors delivering alternately astonishing and overwrought dialogue and often framed in epic close-ups by cinematographer Sean Price Williams that appear to glance fleetingly into the chasms of the characters’ souls. Golden Exits has inevitably been compared to the work of Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman—associations that Perry’s courting—but the film’s controlled looseness also suggests the filmography of John Cassavetes, particularly Faces.
Like Allen, Perry focuses on rarefied New York City couples in the throes of vague unhappiness, their uncertainty embodied in this case by a stranger (played by Emily Browning in a revelatory performance), who serves as a potential siren for bored and insecure men played by Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz and Jason Schwartzman. Allen might’ve used the Browning character as simply an embodiment of temptation, while Perry, more like Bergman, evinces a palpable empathy for her own terrifying loneliness and confusion. At 33, Perry is a little young to be making an opus on the perils of middle age, and this displacement informs Golden Exits with an extravagant strangeness. The film is the fantasy of a prodigy who presumes to have seen his future, by peering into the looking glass that is the art of his heroes.
The American films that I saw here tended to favor close-ups, while the Mexican films symbolized their characters’ emotional turmoil through landscapes. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Battle of the Sexes, which opened the Los Cabos International Film Festival this year and has been playing in America for several weeks, is a formulaic underdog story that retrofits fashionably woke contemporary sentiments into a 1970s setting, telling the story of a tennis match between ranked player Billie Jean King and ex-champ and flimflam man Bobby Riggs. If not for Emma Stone’s performance as King, the way she brings to flesh the pain of a woman wrestling with culturally indoctrinated neuroses, the film would be disposable and sunk by Steve Carell’s predictable hyperventilating as Riggs. A close-up of King’s face, as she weeps after the tennis match, is powerfully evocative of her internal demons, and, in this festival context, inadvertently rhymes with the mighty facial canvases of Golden Exits.
By contrast, Astrid Rondero’s The Darkest Days of Us, which had its world premiere at the Los Cabos International Film Festival this year, uses dusty and existentially empty Tijuana landscapes as a mirror into the soul of the film’s protagonist. Returning to Tijuana after years away to lead a construction project, Ana (Sophie Alexander-Katz) wrestles with the memories of her dead sister and of a relationship that turned sour. Complicating matters further, Ana has a house that she may or may not sell to a potential new lover, who’s tormented by her own respective history. The Darkest Days of Us always appears to be on the verge of turning into a genre film, though Rondero never relieves the narrative’s tension with such conventional developments, allowing the characters to drift away and get lost in their longing. The film has a phantasmal ineffability that’s embodied by pockets of darkness on screen, which are punctuated by shafts of a bar’s noir-ish light. Rondero understands why people go to bars alone: out of hope that something different may happen to them, so as to disrupt the sameness of ritualized life.
Daniel Graham’s Opus Zero also had its world premiere at the festival. Paul (Dafoe again) is an American composer looking into the origins of a musician whose work he’s hoping to resurrect, leading to riffs on legacy, reality, and copying that are perhaps deliberately reminiscent of the concerns of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. That’s a lot of thematic meat for a first-time filmmaker to chew on, and Graham isn’t up to it, as Opus Zero twists itself in repetitive and baffling circles, though Dafoe grounds the film with his charisma and confidence. It’s notably appealing how Paul, an American in Mexico, owns up to his ignorance of the culture around him, embracing correction and education with a respect for his surroundings. With a different actor, this humility might’ve been overemphasized to the point of ironic smugness, but Dafoe’s ghostly, erotic dignity rhymes with the barren beauty of deserts and antique buildings—sights that aren’t dissimilar to the desert vistas that accompanied my drive into Cabo San Lucas from the airport.
Speaking of Dafoe, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project was also playing here, and though I could easily see the film in America, I was curious to discern a pattern among all the Dafoe films playing at the Los Cabos International Film Festival. And Dafoe grounds The Florida Project, as he does Opus Zero, with his seeming casualness of being—with his understanding of his presence as a kind of found object. Dafoe has played deeply strange men for so long that his normalcy, when evoked, carries a tang of hard-won grace. In The Florida Project, Dafoe’s Bobby, a manager of a slum motel outside of Disney World, is so transcendently decent that one understands this empathy as having arisen from decades of pain. Bobby is a quiet counterpoint to the chaos of the motel, which is defined by the lives of the poverty-stricken who’re driven to desperate, occasionally joyous measures. Dafoe’s delivery of the narration in Mountain offers a similar element of contrast, evoking the ageless splendor of mountains, while evincing languid rage at their exploitation.
One of Dafoe’s most important collaborators, Paul Schrader, was at the Los Cabos International Film Festival this year, giving a press conference in conjunction with a tribute that included screenings of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and First Reformed. The conference was set at The Resort at Pedregal, which suggests a spacy and depopulated fantasy realm nestled within—and gated off from—the heavy tourism of Cabo San Lucas at large. Reached via a tunnel going through the surrounding cliffs and mountains, Pedregal features one of the most stunning beachside vistas that I’ve ever seen—so stunning, in fact, that it was good enough for Nicole Kidman, who arrived for a surprise press conference two days after Schrader, so as to receive a lifetime achievement award from the festival.
Schrader and Kidman’s respective press conferences offer a lesson on the privileges and perils of fame. For this critic, Schrader is a legend, but he sells far less tickets than Kidman, a significant artist in her own right, as well as one of the most famous and heavily photographed people in the world. The Schrader conference was comfortable, laidback, and featured actual questions about the filmmaker’s art. Schrader riffed on the “epochal” changes currently affecting society, from what he understandably sees as a hopelessly apocalyptic climate change to the sex scandals rocking Hollywood to the way that instantly accessible media has changed filmmaking. These days, Schrader said, it’s easier to make a “slow film” because slowness is so acutely felt by citizens of a fast culture. I asked him if the outrageous Dog Eat Dog was a veteran’s attempt to keep up with this modern speed-freak tempo, and he said that he wanted to make something that “rocked” with Nicolas Cage after Dying of the Light was taken out of his hands.
Kidman’s conference was stuffed with journalists, a few of whom were allowed to ask questions that appeared to have been approved beforehand and were puffy even by the standards of puff questions. Kidman was asked to disclose her favorite thing about Mexican culture—seemingly several times—and about the differences between working on TV and in cinema. The actress was courteous, but she appeared to yearn for more art-centric questions—the sort that Schrader received, even if he was afforded less attention. Near the end of her conference, Kidman interjected a reference to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog as a way of politely refuting the easy TV/cinema binary that the interviewer was determined to establish.
The final gala of the festival was kicked off with an awards ceremony—I only saw one of the winners, Yesterday Wonder I Was, a beautifully filmed yet laborious riff on mutable identities in a monochromatic Mexican city—and concluded with a screening of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film, currently playing in America, is an astute choice as a closer for this fest, as its obsessions with cultural ghosts and personal secrets parallels the concerns of many of the films that I saw during my stay. The jokiness and hard genre violence of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri also offered a contrast from the plaintive poetry of the films I saw, reveling in primordial obscenity and splatter that’re connected haphazardly to a self-justifying notion of revenge begetting more revenge.
The narrative makes little sense scene by scene, with wild tonal contortions and character 180s, yet this incoherence is the source of the film’s intoxicating energy, which is harnessed by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell in what’re among the finest and most daring performances of their respective careers. Film festivals allow films to blur in the mind, fostering cross-associations that would never arise in a more isolated context. McDonagh’s disreputable bloodshed physicalized the atrocities that loomed, undefined, over the atmospheres of many of the other films, ending the sixth Los Cabos International Film Festival on a note of operatic anguish.
The Los Cabos International Film Festival ran from November 8—12.
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