The International Film Festival Rotterdam, which concluded its 41st iteration this past weekend, is a place to get lost. I'm not just talking about the oddly modern streets of this Dutch port city, one of the principle victims of the German's furious WWII bombing campaigns, although that is one of its seductive pleasures. You walk out into the crisp Dutch nighttime air from the foyer of a budget hotel on Baan Street, a small cobblestone alley near the city's famous ports, the ones that in years to come may be threatened by rising oceans, and you know mystery lurks both on the streets and within the festival's famously broad program, even as it's been slimmed down by about 20 percent or so from the four hundred-plus selections of years past.
Among American films world premiering in Rotterdam, buzz was strong for both Julia Halparin and Jason Cortland's Now, Forager: A Film About Love & Fungi, and Matt McCormick's road trip doc The Great Northwest, but generally Rotterdam is more friendly to young international auteurs and the American avant-garde. Terrence Nance was on hand with his decidedly experimental Brooklyn-set feature An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. Truly artisanal filmmaking in the mode of the New American Cinema, it employs stop-motion, traditional animation, reenacted narrative, awkwardly filmed interviews with the director and the woman whose beauty informs the title. It is a lovely and deranged summation of the director's not quite but almost unrequited and purely platonic love that is as inventive as it is glibly humorous.
Takashi Miike made his first big international splash in Rotterdam, with Audition in 2000, and returned this year with the world premiere of his latest film, Ace Attorney, a bizarre, oddly satisfying video game adaptation and otherworldly legal satire. Consistently stylish, frequently corny and always watchable, it flames out long before its 130 minute plus running time comes to a close. Like much of Miike's big-budget work, it is significantly overlong, providing another example of a master filmmaker in full bloom who is perhaps overindulged (he's perhaps the most prolific director in all of Asia), whose craft and wit are unsurpassed but whose reputation allows him to work without the limitations that might make his movies more vital and economically structured.
Disco, flying saucers, long-haired sheriffs who speak in the lilting accents of American southerners on Italian beaches can be found in Davide Minuli's handsome and preposterous The Legend of Kaspar Hauser, easily the most outlandish thing I saw in Rotterdam. Shot in handsome black and white on the beaches of Sardinia, Manuli's film features perhaps the mostly deeply unhinged performance of Vincent Gallo's increasingly strange career as a film actor. Or shall I say pair of performances, as the always caustic actor, director, writer, musician and provocateur stars as both as the aforementioned English-speaking long-haired sheriff (perhaps the film's most sympathetic character, although that adjective is a stretch) and the Italian-speaking, white jumpsuit-wearing, motorcycle-riding assassin sent to dispose of Mr. Hauser.
Manuli allowed his actors to improvise much of the dialogue, but rarely has so little form been employed by a director using that technique; at times the text feels like a parody of Thomas Pynchon as written by a stoned Italian high school student who has been the better part of his senior year watching Gummo. Shot in the longish takes that signify Serious Cinema to citizens of festival-circuit-land, the movie is a pop bonanza; I almost wish it had been direct by Madonna, but perhaps even she couldn't have outdone Manuli in the garish pretension and perfume ad aesthetics categories. Still, it's almost worth the watch for the terrific score by French house music star Vitalic, and as a reminder of just how good Werner Herzog's version of this same story truly is.