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.