Our guide to the 10 films you can't miss at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
Best of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2012
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The writer-director Benh Zeitlin’s poetic Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the best first features to emerge from the US in years. At its heart is a mesmerising (potentially Oscar-grabbing) performance from Quevenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, a feisty firecracker of a six-year-old who lives with her angry, ailing father, Wink, in the Bathtub, a wild southern delta community surviving outside a levee. When a Katrina-like storm destroys their home, Hushpuppy determines to save Wink and their free-spirited way of life. Feted at Sundance and Cannes, this is visionary filmmaking of the highest order.
October 16, 7pm, Vox 6 Cinema; October 19, 2.30pm, Vox 5 Cinema
* Stephen Applebaum
The Battle of Algiers
I’ve always wondered if the director Gillo Pontecorvo had any inkling just how influential his 1966 film would become. Although made as a historical dramatisation of the Algerian War of Independence, specifically the efforts of Algiers’ revolutionary cells to overthrow French colonial rule and counterinsurgency attempts to suppress them, it has since become something of a handbook in the art of urban guerrilla warfare and still hugely relevant today. But as a piece of filmmaking, it is simply spectacular, with the tension amid the Kasbah’s tight alleyways, the entirely unromanticised depictions of both sides and Jean Martin’s ruthless, unapologetic French commander making for breathless viewing.
Friday, 7pm, Vox 1 Cinema
* Alex Ritman
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
One of China’s most controversial cultural figures, Ai Weiwei’s achievements already loom large – be it helping design Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics or filling Britain’s Tate Modern with 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds. Alison Klayman’s up-close documentary goes some way to bottling the essence of this most compelling artist/activist, from tracing his early days in New York to watching him at work in his Shanghai studio. But it’s his myriad confrontations with the Chinese government – on Twitter, in his art, in person – that give the film its startling emotional impact. A fitting tribute to a courageous voice – you’ll be left in awe.
October 18, 8.45pm, Vox 4 Cinema; October 20, 1.15pm, Vox 4 Cinema
* James Mottram
It’s usually best not to pay too much attention to conspiracy theories, but that doesn’t mean exploring them can’t be a whole lot of fun. Rodney Ascher’s documentary inspects the web of speculation that has surrounded Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece The Shining since its release. Some believe the film is about the genocide of the Native Americans, others the Nazi Holocaust. It’s even suggested that the movie is the director’s tacit confession that he faked the Apollo 11 moon landing at the behest of the US government. Convincing or otherwise, Room 237’s wonderful use of archive film serves as a reminder of Kubrick’s timeless genius.
October 18, 7pm, Vox 1 Cinema; October 20, 1.30pm, Vox 1 Cinema
* Oliver Good
The directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris follow up their 2006 hit Little Miss Sunshine with an equally likeable and intelligent film: this charming and often hilarious high-concept comedy stars the usually serious Paul Dano as a novelist who writes about the girl of his dreams, only to see her come to life. Dano heads a talented cast that includes Elliott Gould (as his therapist) and the British comedian Steve Coogan. Superbly written by Zoe Kazan (who also plays the title role), the film possesses a light humour that guides you happily from start to finish.
October 17, 9.15pm, Emirates Palace; October 19, 9.30pm, Vox 4 Cinema
* James Luxford
A Respectable Family
There are echoes of vintage Hitchcock and Costa-Gavras in this gripping, contemporary film noir from the young Iranian writer and director Massoud Bakhshi. It’s a slow-burning suspense thriller which opens with a dramatic abduction seen from the viewpoint of the victim. Babak Hamidian stars as Arash, an academic who returns to his native Iran after more than 20 years away, only to become entangled in a murky web of violence and corruption linking his troubled family history to the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Still based in Iran, Bakhshi’s bittersweet love letter to his homeland has a subtle political subtext but packs a powerful emotional punch.
October 14, 7pm, Vox 6 Cinema; October 17, 4.30pm, Vox 6 Cinema
* Stephen Dalton
End of Watch
Fresh from its premiere at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, the third feature by Training Day’s David Ayer is a triumph of gritty, urban storytelling, tracking a pair of cops (Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña) on their daily rounds around South Central LA. Shot point-of-view style throughout (Gyllenhaal’s Officer Taylor is shooting a short film about his working life), the dangers posed to both sides of the law are terrifyingly real and urgent, as are the wives left behind to worry and weep. Gyllenhaal and Peña (like his director, a real South Central LA native) shadowed police for five months in preparation. The results are extraordinary.
Saturday, 6.15pm, Emirates Palace; October 14, 3.45pm, Vox 4 Cinema
* Ed Gibbs
Gael Garcia Bernal gives a career-best performance playing an advertising executive, Rene Saavedra, who has the task of masterminding the “No” campaign in a 1988 referendum on whether the Chilean dictator General Pinochet should stay in power for another eight years. Taking inspiration from American advertising of the period, Saavedra masterminds a jingle-led campaign that promises the population a happy future post-Pinochet. Using archival footage of the actual adverts, the director Pablo Larrain cleverly fuses fact with fiction. Of particular note is the aesthetic, filmed to look like it’s made on videocassette; it’s unattractive but is a masterstroke that perfectly captures the feeling of the era. It gets my vote as film of the year.
October 14, 7pm, Vox 5 Cinema; October 17, 1.45pm, Vox 5 Cinema
* Kaleem Aftab
Stories We Tell
Both of Sarah Polley’s first two directing efforts, Away From Her and Take This Waltz, featured a woman straying outside her marriage. But Stories We Tell, the actress-filmmaker’s third feature and her first documentary, explores that notion in a deeply personal way, relating the story of how the Canadian actress came to discover that the man who raised her wasn’t her biological father. Pieced together using interviews with siblings, family friends and relatives (as well as both men she calls Dad), along with Super 8 footage featuring her late mother who died when she was 11, Polley’s film is a revelatory and unexpectedly humorous journey into the heart of memory and identity.
October 12, 9pm, Vox 4 Cinema; October 14, 4.30pm, Vox 6 Cinema
* Matt Mueller
Caesar Must Die
Winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Caesar Must Die chronicles the fascinating staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a real-life maximum security prison in Rome. It’s helmed by the Italian veterans Paolo and Vittorio Taviani and we follow the convicts as they audition and rehearse for the play, all the while trying to contain their real-life rivalries threatening to derail the production. As they dissect The Bard’s text, they find its themes of fraternity and betrayal parallel to their own stories.
October 14, 6.45pm, Emirates Palace; October 19, 7pm, Vox 1 Cinema