It's that time of the year again, and the 2011 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival will arrive just in time to provide some desperately needed relief from wall-to-wall election chatter.
For 10 days from next Thursday, a selection of venues across the city will screen more than 120 documentaries, dramas, romances and comedies from all points of the globe. For film lovers it's a huge treat, but the problem, as always, is negotiating your way through a bewilderingly diverse programme.
So, who better to guide us than festival director Grainne Humphreys? She's now in her fourth year in charge, and among the cinematic goodies she has lined up this year are a selection of new Romanian, African and Latin-American films. Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez will be in town to discuss their film The Way, and Kevin Spacey will present a special screening of cult favourite The Usual Suspects.
Other guests will include Guillaume Canet, Ken Loach, Harry Shearer and Stellan Skarsgard, and during the festival students from the Gaiety School of Acting will be mounting what Humphreys describes as "guerrilla performances" of key movie scenes around the city. But the films are the real stars of this show, and I set Grainne the impossible task of choosing the 10 she'd most recommend.
"Well, for a start," she says, "Takeshi Kitano's new film Outrage is a brilliant return to form. It's a really stylish Japanese gangster thriller, and it won't be getting a general release here sadly, so this will be the only chance to see it on the big screen.
"Then there's a Canadian film called Incendies, which is directed by Denis Villeneuve and which I think will probably win the best foreign language film Oscar this year. It's about two Montreal brothers who go to Tel Aviv to deliver two letters to a father they never knew and a brother they've never met. It's stunning."
There are some fine documentaries on show this year, and one of Grainne's favourites is The Woman with the Five Elephants. "It's such a terrible title," she says, "but it's an amazing film about this Ukrainian woman called Sveetlana Geier who came to Germany from Kiev and has spent the last 20 years translating Dostoevsky's five novels into German. It might sound a bit rarefied but it's really interesting.
"A lot of people will remember the extraordinary and shocking Greek film Dogtooth from 2009, and Attenberg has more than a little in common with it. It's directed by Rachel Tsangari, who was a producer on Dogtooth, and it's kind of a collection of stories about a group of stunted individuals and the strange connections between them. It's highly recommended."
Grainne describes director Marcin Wrona as "the bright new hope of Polish cinema", and his latest film The Christening has been very well received on the festival circuit. "This is the type of film that will be snapped up and remade by Hollywood," she says. "It's about these two childhood friends, one of whom got married while the other joined the army. And when the soldier returns to be godfather to his friend's son, he ends up defending the family from local gangsters. It's really well made, and has this incredible, exhausting pace to it."
Another highly praised foreign-language thriller at the festival is Austrian director Benjamin Heisenberg's The Robber. "The main character is this marathon runner who robs banks on his days off," says Grainne, "and I don't say this lightly but it's unmissable. It's one of the most streamlined and disciplined films you'll see -- it's quite exceptional."
Stellan Skarsgard is normally seen by international audiences in supporting roles, but in the new Swedish film A Somewhat Gentle Man, he takes centre stage. "He plays this ex-con who returns to his hometown after getting released from prison and tries to settle down. Skarsgard is excellent in it."
The Dublin Film Festival has always been a broad church, and the horror genre is honourably represented this year by Irish director David Keating's The Wake Wood. Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle play a grieving couple who get involved in a strange pagan cult in the hope of seeing their dead daughter again. "I'm not a huge horror person," says Humphreys, "but this has a really clever script and a great cast and in a way it's like a weird Irish version of The Wicker Man."
The final one of Grainne's festival top 10 is Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing. "Vincent Gallo plays this guy who's picked up by the Americans in what might be Iraq or Afghanistan and subjected to extraordinary rendition. But about 20 minutes in he escapes, and for the rest of the film you literally follow this man on the run. Gallo won best actor for it at the Venice Film Festival, and there's practically no talking, but it's brilliant."
What, I wonder, would she recommend for those non-film buffs who might like to dip in and out of the festival? "Unknown is a very entertaining thriller. It's directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who made the Spanish horror film Orphan, and stars Liam Neeson.
"There's also The Way, Emilio Estevez's film that stars Martin Sheen as a bereaved father who does the Santiago pilgrimage and meets various people along the way. I'm fascinated that he's done this film that is so close to the Catholic values he espouses, and I'm really curious about the response it will have because it's a film that's quite honest, and brave."
There are some fine Irish films to look forward to, including Snap, Carmel Winters' gruelling drama about the abduction of a child, and Paul Fraser's directorial debut My Brothers.
All that, and of course the ever-contentious surprise film.
"It's always lively, that night, it's always just about the first thing to sell out every year, and it wouldn't be the same if there wasn't a fight about the merits of what we've chosen. But no one ever knows in advance what it is," she concludes with a smile, "not even the projectionist."
The Jameson Dublin International Festival runs from February 17 to 27. www.jdiff.com
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