Notes From the 2019 Los Cabos International Film Festival

Does it make sense to fly to a tropical paradise and spend your time inside watching movies? Well, it helps if you’re invited to once again cover the Los Cabos International Film Festival, a jewel of Mexico’s fest slate located the tip of the Baja peninsula, home to some of the greatest films of the year making their local debut amongst the sand and palm trees. 

Founded back in 2012 as a showcase for the growing tourist destination, wanting a mix of Miami and Cannes that’s a quick flight for the Hollywood elite, the festival is really split into two major parts. One, at the more palatial Hotel Me and other locales, is home to producers, funders and filmmakers using their time here to do what comes naturally – eating, drinking and talking, often during the many gatherings and adventures organized for the premiere lot. For those here to see (rather than make) films there are the opening and closing galas, of course, but the majority of time is spent in a multiplex located at the Marina’s fashion mall. With dozens of locals, including many school children who attend as part of organized assignments, we watch everything from world premieres to hits from the film circuit, drawn by the intelligent and sympathetic programmers from Sundance, Cannes, TIFF and other A-list stops on the calendar.

Often stars are brought along, drawn by the opportunity to have some downtime themselves in the warm sun and salty waves. The area around Cabo San Lucas has been in a period of massive change, and even in the half-decade I’ve attended it’s palpable just how massive the investment has been in this area. In my teens the Pacific coast of Mexico was full of resorts where Northerners would fly, and Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta were common destinations for sunseekers. With changing political and social circumstances, those areas have seen a dramatic decline, with the majority of attention, dollars and even tourist-based employees migrating across the Sea of Cortez to seek out better fortunes in this more secluded, regulated, and, frankly, safe environ.

It’s this that’s makes for the underlying narrative of the festival, one that certainly has film as part of its core, but clearly the draw of the locale is even more palpable. For an event so closely tied to its touristic impulses, I feel absolutely no shame that I usually spend the first day of screenings scuba diving, enjoying the underwater views nearly as much as those I see on the cinema screens.

The opener this year was The Irishman, Scorsese’s brilliant rumination on aging and regret. While Marty didn’t make the schlepp, a taciturn DeNiro did come by to attend the red carpet, and while whisked quickly by waiting reporters by local Netflix staff he did have warm words about the event. It’s no coincidence he made the trek given that Nobu has recently opened a resort a 30 min drive up the Pacific Coast – the legendary actor and co-owner of the Sushi-resort empire found lush accommodation and time to participate in an official if belated grand opening of the opulent vacation compound.

There are other local connections to “that Irish movie” as well, with Mexico’s Rodrigo Prieto and Gastón Pavlovich in attendance. Prieto’s lensing helped bring the world of the housepainter to life, while Pavlovich, who as one of Scorsese’s producers shepherded Silence over its decades-long journey, performed a similar task for Irishman, helping transition it from Paramount studio picture to the quarter-billion dollar prestige project for Netflix.

In terms of selection the festival prides itself as a celebration of North American cinema, drawing equally from U.S., Canadian and Mexican output. TIFF Midnight Madness winner Twentieth Century ended up taking the major jury prize (our interview with the director Matthew Rankin can be found here), and it’s amusing to think that this surreal, angular, demented take on Canadian history speaks so well to an international audience even more oblivious to the lies it joyfully weaves. 

Loads of other more major films got Mexican premieres, including that other Netflix hit Marriage Story. Baumbach’s tale of divorcing artists, played with exquisite precision and emotional richness by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannsson, continues to generate fans, and I still maintain it even more than Irishman stands the streaming giant its biggest chance at Oscar glory.  Trey Edward Shuts’ Waves made a splash down here as well, with audiences again riveted by this tale of a brother and sister (Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russel) and the different lives they lead, mixing tragedy and empathy in startling ways.

Cannes films like Matti Diop’s award winning ghost-like story of emigration Atlantics, the whimsical and ambitious frenemy film The Climb by Michael Angelo Covino, and Ira Sach’s family dramedy Frankie all played to crowds of various sizes. Sundance film The Report, another Adam Driver vehicle, brought discourse of American hypocrisy and subterfuge to a local audiences that’s certainly inculcated in similar international nonsense. Other Park City faves included The Lodge, the brilliant yet underloved story of a family trip gone awry, and Honey Boy, Alma Har’el’s emotionally raw, documentary-like take where Shia Labeouf recounts his own complicated relationship with his father’s addictive personality.  

Other films included Antigone, Sophie Deraspe’s Sophoclean redux that’s Canada’s selection for Best Foreign Film, and that other bee-themed film, Honeyland, the stark and revealing Macedonian doc that got its wings last January in the cold of Utah. 

The closing film was meant to be Jojo Rabbit, that sublime slice of satire from Taika Waititi, but in a fitting way given the director’s Polynesian roots the screening was shifted when flooding drowned out the main amphitheater. The unseasonal downpour resulted in many cancelled flights, so one can only feel so sorry for this writer currently typing this sentence while sitting poolside at an airline-arranged all-inclusive resort, watching over the lid of the laptop the waves crash ashore on the sandy beach.

Other Oscar contenders like or Lauren Greenfield’s astonishing Imelda Marcos doc The Kingmaker played alongside more middling films like the Garland biopic Judy and Marjane Satrapi’s TIFF Gala, the Rosmund Pike-starring Marie Curie biopic Radioactive.

Perhaps the most brave and/or controversial and/or foolhardy selection was Ash, British Columbian director Andrew Huculiak’s true-life take of a local internet newshound whose life is upended by the wildfires he’s covering and the child pornography that’s found on his computer. An exploration of nuance and the subtleties of even the most sociopathic of behaviour, the film is challenging and memorable in many satisfying ways. Visually it’s quite stellar, with scenes shot by Joseph Scheweers using the Okanagan Valley’s sumptuous landscape and the haunting of real fires and their aftermath to provide a perfect infernal environment in which the story can be told. Unfortunately, despite committed performances by Tim Guinee and Chelah Horsdal, the film simply cannot live up to its heady expectations, the actions feeling more forced and maudlin than eliciting of empathy. The film saw its premiere at the Vancouver International festival, skipping TIFF either for quality, ideological reasons, or both, so it was a great opportunity here in this international setting to see one of the more provocative if frustrating films to come out of Canada this year.

Of course, the fest is a showcase for a diverse selection of films from this country. Carlos Lenin’s debut The Dove and the Wolf (La Paloma y El Lobo) debuted at Locarno and took home a prize here at Los Cabos. In the “México Primero” slate there’s still often an opportunity to find a gem among the selection, and this year’s audience award went to Mexican-Canadian Andrea Martínez Crowther for Birdwatching (Observar las Aves) about losings ones creative facilities as Alzheimer’s disease takes its toll. 

The Los Cabos International Film Festival proved once again to be an exemplary place to see some of the great films of the year, where you can walk out to beautiful sunshine and crisp ocean air after living in the world of the film you’ve just seen. It’s an intimate fest run by programmers who truly do have a passion to have the fest be far more than the parties on the beach and big galas, showcasing for local audiences films that often are far more provocative and challenging than even more metropolitan film selections will provide. It’s a wonderful tradition to be able to come back year after year, and despite the obvious financial struggles of trying to keep this core aspect of the fest going, it’s clear that for many this heart of the event remains committed to its programming above and beyond the more industry or celebrity-oriented elements.

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