It feels good to be back at the world’s coolest film festival.
2023 has been a real return to form for this long time film-festival lover. Attending both SxSW and TIFF this year has fully restored the faith that movies are still amazing not only on the big screen but in a like-minded culture of movie buffs who want to take some chances and see something a little bit out of the normal mainstream fare. As someone who does both all of the new mainstream movies along with festivals, it’s truly wonderful to watch movies with people who share the same passion, if a little bit of craziness.
After a pandemic and restrictions got in the way, this is my first return to Whistler since 2019. I have attended all the way since 2007 and it’s an annual journey for me to see a few movies and hang out with filmmakers in the tiny but dedicated Whistler Village. Once you are up there it’s entirely a walking festival with all of the venues, industry events and parties just a few short minutes from each other in both the main village stroll and the upper village. From a mixture of big premieres to Mountain Culture films and even a few movies coming shortly to Netflix, this once again is such a diverse array of movies cultivated from Toronto-based, programmer-extraordinare Paul Gratton, who I saw many movies with a few months ago at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The opening night movie is the much anticipated MAESTRO from filmmaker Bradley Cooper (A STAR IS BORN) who also stars as composer Leonard Bernstein about his complicated personal history and his relationship to his wife. The movie will show in theatres on December 8th with a December 20th release to follow on Netflix, and I will have a reaction on GetReelMovies this week!
Closing out the festival is the terrific and important mountain culture doc ADAPTATION about mobility challenged . Some of the devices that are used here, especially in biking, are truly inspirational and the movie has such a positive impact on the future of this type of sport and sports in general. It really is something wonderful to see.
To curtian-raise the festival, here are a few of my other top picks, with more to follow throughout the week.
500 Days In The Wild
About: The 24,000 km Trans Canada Trail stretches across the continent of North America, connecting the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans. It is the longest trail in the world. For six years filmmaker Dianne Whelan traveled the entirety of the land and water trails, the only person to ever accomplish this journey. From pushing 150 pounds of bike and a heavy backpack over rocks to hiking through flooded bogs, paddling one of the largest lakes in the world, snowshoeing through dense forest, skiing and biking along pristine trails in all seasons, 500 Days in the Wild weaves Dianne’s adventures with her cross-cultural visits with those who live close to the land.
Reaction: A truly inspirational documentary, almost epic in length, but the movie becomes much more about the human spirit as it goes on. During the pandemic I took to the Vancouver Island trails and walked a lot of what Dianne did at the end of her journey, so I felt deeply connected to her complete journey. Using a bike, several tents and essential items, Dianne’s journey is a mix of her own personal footage and some additional crew at some points, reminding me of the BC-shot doc THIS MOUNTAIN LIFE from a few years ago. This is not only a love letter to Canada and its vast trails and culture but also of a deeply spiritual woman who is on an incredible journey that will stay with her for the rest of her life. Get out there for a walk sometime!
About: When Rachel, played by Michelle Harrison, receives life-changing news, she secretly grapples with her mortality while playing host to her friends who have grown up and gone their separate ways since college. Carrie, a mother of 3, Natalie, a workaholic neurosurgeon, former football star turned sportscaster Collin, and playboy man-child Danny join Rachel and her husband Michael (Jesse L Martin) at their picturesque home for a 25 year reunion on the beautiful and secluded Bowen Island. As soon as they are all together it’s like no time has passed; they laugh, drink and dance the night away. Rachel’s nostalgia is echoed by the group as they realize how much time has gone by, and how much they have all changed. As secrets are revealed, they are forced to change the way they look at their futures.
Reaction: A true “dramedy” of manners, RE: UNITING feels like a movie I hardly ever see anymore, with light mixes of Woody Allen’s single setting dramas along with a slight nod to TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. A very diverse group of people all meet up and we all follow each of the characters very carefully, all with their own voice. The Bowen Island setting is also a character of its own, complete with its characters taking advantage of BC powered enhancing remedies along with a lot of alcohol. It’s also always welcome to see Michelle Harrison, who I remember being wowed by here many years ago with HIT N STRUM, another BC-story that premiered at this festival.
Also from my writer Anna Hanks, who recently saw this at Austin Film Festival:
RE: UNITING is about a 25th reunion weekend of a group of college friends. It goes a gazillion places, from giddy fun to utterly heartbreaking choices. After a year of planning, the friends meet at the beautiful lake house of Rachel (Michelle Harrison) and Michael (Jesse L. Martin). It’s been years since this friend group was all together, without any of the members missing due to grown-up life interfering.
The group includes Collin (Roger Cross) a well known professional athlete turned big-time television host. His longtime naughty party-boy friend Danny (David Lewis) is his manager who knows all his secrets.
Natalie (Carmen Moore) is a coolly detached neurosurgeon who cares for her patients and has all the shoes she can possibly want. Carrie (Bronwen Smith) is a mom who excels at taking care of others, but who maybe doesn’t excel at taking care of herself.
In many ways the reunion weekend is what you expect. There’s drinking, there’s dancing, there’s hangovers and illicit substances of dubious quality and the appearance of a unicorn robe that you won’t soon forget. There’s even a memorable entrance via seaplane!
The meat of the story takes place via the group’s exploration of roads not taken and the regrets there, and the roads that were taken, if only briefly, which perhaps had unintended consequences. As the weekend rumbles along, one of the secrets that someone in the group was hiding turns out to be the one that makes all the rest pale in comparison. It’s that secret that takes the movie into a deeper level, in a way reminiscent of BEACHES (1988). It’s the one that explains the tissues left on the chairs of the auditorium during the film’s screening at the Austin Film Festival. Its a film that makes clear that relationships between people are what really matter in life.
With Love & A Major Organ
About: In a world where everyone’s heart is an object and there’s a strong societal pressure to dampen emotion, lonely Virtual Insurance broker Anabel (Anna Maguire) always follows her heart. At odds with this overly pragmatic society, and after a series of devastating emotional blows, she rips her heart from her chest and gives it to a man she’s fallen for, the strangely unfeeling George (Hamza Haq). Unburdened by her unique yet cumbersome heart, Anabel finds life easier. George, on the other hand, begins to feel everything, to the shock of his overbearing mother, Mona (Veena Sood). Anabel soon realizes she needs to get her heart back if she’s going to survive.
Reaction: I feel like if you are going to do a small budget story set in the future about automation, this is the way to do it. I loved the attention to detail and the subtle but effective comedy that came out of all of it. Though this is a pretty small Canadian indie, I do see a good release for this one outside of film festivals (especially some genre ones).
About: Human X, is Thierry Donard’s documentary about extreme sports athletes who demonstrate tremendous sporting resilience in the face of increasingly chaotic climate challenges, exploring their ability to adapt to the most dangerous conditions. These athletes who practice extreme sports, we consider them “extreme humans” because of their ability to overcome fear, risk, the different physical and mental challenges they face. In a world facing growing climate issues, these athletes are fine examples of sporting resilience.
Reaction: When I feel like I have seen so many sports and mountain documentaries at WFF over the years, HUMAN X goes a little further by focusing on some truly hardcore sports athletes who get right into the guts of what they do and why. HUMAN X takes the power of Go Pro and high-end digital cameras to the next level; the opening sequence alone is worth the price of admission as both performers are strapped with a camera and we cut back and forth from their perspectives. All matched to some truly stunning 4k cinematography that will look good on any big screen, and one I will remember for quite some time.
Much more to come this week from the 2023 edition of the Whistler Film Festival! For more information visit www.whistlerfilmfestival.com!