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There’s something funny about this year’s Filmfest D.C. There are jokes, too.
For its 26th edition, Washington’s annual international film festival has at its center “The Lighter Side,” a program of comedic fare with a slightly suspect tagline: “Politics Isn’t the Only Thing Funny in Washington!” Hardy-har.
Don’t let your groans get the better of you, because the selection contains some promising breadth: Filmfest opens this Thursday with Starbuck, a Canadian yarn about a down-on-his-luck sports nut whose sperm donation years prior yielded 533 children. From there, “The Lighter Side” includes a Japanese adaptation of a Nintendo game (Ace Attorney), a Basque black comedy involving a bloodlusting geriatric (Happy New Year, Grandma!), an American buddy flick in which the buddy is made of chips and circuits (Robot & Frank), and a handful of loving—or, well, patronizing—odes to the provincial eccentricities of village life (The Finger, Baikonur).
And while the more than 70 titles presented at Filmfest include a smattering of art-house fare, the 20 comedic movies emphasize the event’s defining characteristic: While many marquee festivals trade in world premieres, auteur mainstays, and cinéaste-appropriate seriousness, Washington’s general-interest film gathering is really about mainstream, middlebrow fare from across the globe. If Filmfest’s aim is to give its audience a sense of place, then importing other country’s blockbusters and industry output feels a lot more honest and instructive than premiering, say, the latest arty torture porn from Lars von Trier.
The festival’s other special programs are “Caribbean Journeys”—which includes a biography about the founder of Rastafarianism (The First Rasta) and another about the iconic musician who helped make the religion global (Marley), not to mention fiction and nonfiction films from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago—and “Justice Matters,” a grouping of humanitarian-minded docs that should get festival-goers sufficiently amped up for Silverdocs. Elsewhere, Filmfest is rich in Asian epics and pop-cultural documentaries; one tale of transexual identity in repressive Tehran, Facing Mirrors, is stirring and complex despite striking some overly familiar universal chords.
The festival wraps up next Sunday with The Intouchables, another comedy: It stars François Cluzet, of the brilliant thriller Tell No One, and Omar Sy, in what’s being billed as a breakout performance, as a disabled millionaire and his soulful live-in assistant. Damaged spirits will be healed! Life will be affirmed! Hearts will be warmed! The earnest buddy comedy is, not shockingly, the most successful French film of all time.
If you’re feeling snooty about that, find a different film festival.