Curtain raiser: What to see at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival

Reese Witherspoon goes hiking in Reese Witherspoon goes hiking in “Wild,” the closing night film of the Philadelphia Film Festival.
Credit: Fox Searchlight

There are several dozen titles spread across the Philadelphia Film Festival’s two weeks, from giant comic book movies to tiny movies that have yet to be discovered by more than adventurous programmers. Return to our site to see capsule reviews running throughout the next fortnight.

The biggies

There are no earthquaking debuts at this year’s fest, but there are titans no one would sneeze at. Its two opening night films — the Bill Murray grump-hangs-with-kid comedy “St. Vincent” and the Michael Keaton comeback whirligig “Birdman” — will hit theaters soon (in the former’s case, Friday). But the PFF did nab “The Last 5 Years,” a smash at the Toronto Film Festival, allows Anna Kendrick to sing and dance through Jason Robert Brown’s musical, which runs the gamut of a relationship in musical numbers.

Closing night goes to “Wild,” in which director Jean-Marc Valee, having helped Matthew McConaughey to an Oscar with “Dallas Buyers Club,” may do the same to Reese Witherspoon. She plays a woman hiking some thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, and if that sounds monotonous, know it’s been written by Nick Hornby.

Elsewhere: “The Imitation Game” tells of not only the top secret quest to decode the Nazi’s Enigma machine, but of its head brainiac, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who wound up punished by Britain’s anti-homosexual laws. And if tony English films are on one side, the other side is represented by “Big Hero 6,” Marvel’s first big toon.

Juliette Binoche teams up with Kristen Stewart for Juliette Binoche teams up with Kristen Stewart for “Cloud of Sils Maria.”
Credit: PFF

The established masters

PFF has always been strong at landing the latest from the world’s finest directors, and this year is no different. In addition to Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language,” which is reliably difficult (but fun — it has 3-D and a dog), there’s “Clouds of Sils Maria,” which pairs handheld master Olivier Assayas (“Carlos,” “Summer Hours”) with no less than Kristen Stewart. The former Bella Swan is getting raves for playing the assistant to a famous actress (Juliette Binoche, predictably brilliant), but the draw should still be Assayas’ observant and thrillingly immediate style.

Speaking of famous actresses, Marion Cotillard finds herself in “Two Days, One Night,” the latest grim but calmly observed social drama from Belgium’s Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (“Kid with a Bike”). She slightly dirties herself up to play a worker rushing around after finding her bosses have asked employees to vote for keeping her or their much-needed bonuses.

Elsewhere: He’s only 25, but Canada’s Xavier Dolan is basically a master, with five features under his belt, one of them (“Laurence Anyways”) a nearly three-hour opus. His latest, “Mommy,” isn’t short either, but it’s just as acclaimed, focusing on a single mother with a violent son. Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Climates,” “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”) thinks even bigger, with his latest, “Winter Sleep,” running nearly as long as “The Godfather Part II.”

Elisabeth Moss tries to say with cranky Jason Schwartzman in Elisabeth Moss tries to say with cranky Jason Schwartzman in “Listen Up Philip.”
Credit: Tribeca Film


For his first film with name actors, Philly native Alex Ross Perry (“The Color Wheel”) nabs no less than Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss but doesn’t change his singular, rough, shot-on-film aesthetic. Schwartzman plays a young novelist who’s let success turn him into a full-on jerk, much to the shock of his girlfriend (Moss). It’s all very Philip Roth, but darkly funny enough to make you lunge for a stiff drink once it ends.

Last year director Peter Strickland impressed with his euphonious (and very pretty too) “Berberian Sound Studio.” His follow-up is allegedly even more astonishing. “The Duke of Burgundy” takes the Eurotrash sex films of the 1970s but considers what happens to its kinky lovers — here, a pair of spanking women — when they’re not actively engaged in eros.

Elsewhere: Ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (“Girls”) tries his hand at directing a documentary, with the predictably visually ravishing “Ballet 422,” about the Lincoln Center’s crew. “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter,” meanwhile, has one of the craziest plots in recent memory: Rinko Kikuchi plays a Japanese loner who thinks the treasure in the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” is real and sets off to North Dakota to find it. It’s awesome.

The Philadelphia Film Festival runs through Sunday, Oct. 26th. You can explore the schedule and buy tickets here.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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