Before we go into the list, here's how people voted this year. In the past, you voted upon leaving a screening by tearing a piece of paper at the number you wanted to give to the film:
5: -very good
1: -very bad
Those numbers haven't changed, but the method of voting has. Tickets are acquired online, and linked to an email address. After a film for which you bought a ticket has finished, you get sent an email with a link to vote, and it can only be used once for each ticket you bought. Did this change the ratings given to films? Hard to say. There may be a difference in awarding a film immediately after seeing it, or doing it the evening after.
Voting in general was generous this year. Two films got the incredible score of 4.8 out of 5. Just think: there's always that one person who gets rubbed the wrong way and gives a "1", even at a great film. You need 16 people voting a "5" to offset that vote to achieve an average of 4.8, so averages like those are pretty incredible!
And it didn't stop at those two. Every film in the top-10 scored 4.6 or higher. Out of the festival's entire program this year (250 features and shorts), 73 films got higher than a 4.0, which means there was an amazing choice of crowdpleasers.
20: DEPOT - Reflecting Boijmans (4.39 out of 5)
This is a bit of a local affair. Rotterdam's most famous museum is the Boymans van Beuningen art museum, but it's closed for renovation and will not reopen for at least another 5 years. The museum pulled a cool trick though: while no museum shows all its art, and a closed museum generally shows none, the Boymans uses its storage facility to great effect. All its art is actually in storage, and to facilitate the museum's renovation, it created a super-modern depot, looking like an upside-down mirrored half-globe with a garden on top. It houses new restoration labs, gigantic vaults with different moisture and temperature... . And, unique for this kind of storage facility: while the museum itself is closed, you can visit this depot.
Director Sonia Herman Dolz made a documentary about the building, its conception and realization, and it had its world première at this festival. And (local?) audiences loved it.
19: Joram (4.40 out of 5)
Running from the Mumbay police for a murder he did not commit, laborer Dasru desperately tries to keep himself and his newborn daughter Joram alive while travelling back to his home province. In my review of this world premièring film I wrote the following:
Joram is a thrilling film, beautifully shot, well acted, and an exciting manhunt mystery. But as you may have guessed by now, director Devashish Makhija isn't afraid to throw a lot of social commentary into the mix. It doesn't hurt the film at all but the background does crawl under your skin, and for days afterwards you'll be thinking back on what you saw.
18: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (4.41 out of 5)
Director Pierre Földes has created an anthology of animated shorts based on the works of ultra-famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. The 2011 earthquake, weird creatures and emotional problems with (or without) relationships are loosely connected in the narrative. I seriously need to check this out and thankfully I will have opportunity for that as the film is also in the line-up of several animation festivals.
17: Pretty Red Dress (4.42 out of 5)
Director Dionne Edwards has made a film about a woman who wants to win a Tina Turner lookalike contest and her husband who starts to feel funny about her new red dress, wanting to try it on for himself. This queer-tinged relationship drama about black people in London was a crowdpleasing surprise at the festival.
16: No Bears (4.43 out of 5)
During the festivals awards ceremony on February 3rd, amazing news was released: Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who was on hunger strike to protest his bizarre incarceration, had been let out of prison. Very, very good news indeed!
His films have often been playing at the Rotterdam Festival, both in support of him and because they are damn good, and his newest is no exception. No Bears is a weird mix of narrative and documentary, in which the director himself seems to be followed while filming the efforts of a couple trying to flee Iran.
15: Malin TV (4.45 out of 5)
Another local affair (and another World Première): "Malin" is the Chinese bastardization of the name Marin, a pseudonym for the famous Rotterdam-born activist and communist Henk Sneevliet. Visual artist Gyz La Rivière directed a documentary about Sneevliet, who managed to visit both Lenin and Mao and has several sites in the Netherlands named after him.
14: Blue Jean (4.46 out of 5)
Director Georgia Oakley made this drama about a closeted lesbian gym teacher, in which the main character needs to reconcile her life with her yearnings. And this happens in eighties England, where Margaret Thatcher's dreaded "Clause 28" just came into effect, which forbade mention or "promotion" of homosexuality. Actress Rosy McEwen got widely hailed for her tremendous performance here.
13: Cairo Conspiracy (4.46 out of 5)
This thriller focuses on the election of a new great Imam by the Supreme Council of Scholars. Novice Adam is approached by secret services to survey the procedure, as the choosing of whoever becomes the new Imam may be of influence to international affairs. But in the labyrinthine politics of the Middle East, who is Adam really working for? And what will be asked of him?
Swedish director Tarik Saleh is by now a veteran of making these tangled political mysteries, and his latest may be his best yet, according to Rotterdam audiences.
12: My Little Nighttime Secret (4.46 out of 5)
In this world première, Russian director Natalya Meshchaninova tells a harrowing tale of a teenage girl who desperately wants to be rescued from a bad home situation, but is unable to show this properly to her close friends.
11: Four Little Adults (4.51 out of 5)
Polygamy is the subject in Finnish director's Selma Vilhunen comedy-drama, another world première at the festival. Two couples turn out to consist of very close friends to each other's partners, and start to experiment a bit among themselves. To positive effect!
10: 100 årstider (4.56 out of 5)
Director Giovanni Bucchieri used to be a dancer at the Royal Swedish Ballet, but as time and afflictions catch up with him he thinks about reinventing himself. This art project shows him experimenting with art, with life, with coping with age and his bipolar disorder. Yet another World Première for the festival, and yet another crowdpleaser.
9: The Whale (4.60 out of 5)
By now Darren Aronofski's newest film has achieved legendary status, both as a disputed work full of stereotypical triggers concerning fat-shaming, and as a fantastic platform for Brendan Fraser's abilities as an actor. Our Eric Ortiz Garcia loved it, and says in his review:
The Whale finds humanity and honesty in each one of its troubled characters (...) The film evokes Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and is one of his most empathetic works.
8: If We Burn (4.63 out of 5)
This is the second time this work by Singaporean directors James Leong and Lynn Lee visits the festival, the first time being a 2020 showing of a work-in-progress version. This time Rotterdam got treated to the finished project: a massive four-hour-long overview of the immense civilian unrest in Hong Kong during the Summer of 2019, when over a million Hong Kong people took to the streets to protest a new package of Chinese laws stifling democracy. Not surprisingly, the footage shown is often amazing and MASSIVE. Another world première, this was the highest rated live-action documentary of the festival.
7: One Last Evening (4.63 out of 5)
In director Lukas Nathrath's new drama comedy, a young couple gets ready to move from Hanover to Berlin, and they invite some friends to celebrate their last evening in Hanover. Things of course do not go as intended, with strangers showing up and old problems resurfacing. This Tiger Award nominee is yet another world première (Rotterdam basically is focused on new talent) and a review will be following soon!
6: WICKED GAMES Rimini Sparta (4.64 out of 5)
Another high-rated world première is in this list, courtesy of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, but like with If We Burn this is kind of a remix of earlier seen material. See, Ulrich wasn't able to create this ultra-long film as he intended initially, and used the footage to make two regular-sized films first: Rimini and Sparta. But guess what? The two protagonists in those films are brothers, and mixing the two films together into a single (though multi-threaded) narrative of three-and-a-half hours apparently adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Martin Kudlac reviewed the separate parts last year, here and in length here, and he thought both where rather good already.
5: Orphea in Love (4.66 out of 5)
Veteran director Axel Ranisch is a bit of a legend in Germany, an artist in several different media, including theatrical productions and opera. He combines several in this film, in which a struggling immigrated opera singer, running away from her past, falls in love with a ballet-dancing pickpocket. In opera it's hard to exaggerate (everything is over the top already) and Ranisch fully embraces that aesthetic in Orphea in Love, making the film a feast for ear and eye alike. Review coming soon!
4: Endless Borders (4.68 out of 5)
Another world première: Iran-born German director Abbas Amini made a suspenseful film about an exiled teacher on the Iranian-Afghan border who decides to help a family escape the Taliban regime.
As this is the winner of this year's Big Screen Award, Endless Borders will get a guaranteed theatrical arthouse release over here in the Netherlands later this year, and be shown on national television afterwards. And the director gets 15,000 EUR (and if a distributor picks this up he/she gets 15,000 EUR too). Yep, THAT's the Big Screen award and it is cool.
3: The Blue Caftan (4.74 out of 5)
The last three films in this list were all tied for first at 4.8 out of 5, with each having only one screening remaining. I quipped that The Blue Caftan would drop a bit because out of the many people flocking to the high audience rating (these are published daily, so the high numbers sell extra tickets near the end of the fest), some would not be prepared for the queer content of the film. Well... it dropped, but only by 0.05 points. In truth, the differences in ratings are so minute among the top 3 that any order would have been possible.
In Moroccan director Maryam Touzani's drama The Blue Caftan, we follow Halima and Mina, a married couple in Morocco who run a clothing store. Halima is secretly gay and meets lovers on the sly, which Mina suspects but grudgingly allows. When a new hire in the workplace proves to be a dashingly handsome young man, he awakens feelings in both Halima and Mina. Whoops...
This is Morocco's entry for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film this year, and judging from the audience reaction in Rotterdam, it stands a decent chance!
2: No Dogs or Italians Allowed (4.76 out of 5)
Note that I called If We Burn the "highest rated live-action documentary", and I needed to add the "live-action" bit because of this film. French filmmaker Alain Ughetto tells a beguiling story about his grandparents, and how they left Italy for France. If this sounds mundane I'm selling the film short, because it is a fantastic narrative full of incredible drama, backbreaking toil and heartbreaking history. And all done with stop-motion puppetry.
In my review I said the following:
No Dogs or Italians Allowed is, in short, excellent. I would advice anyone with an interest in history to give it a look. On top of its narrative merits it is also an interesting show of workmanship: Alain Ughetto shows fantastic use of puppetry as a serious medium for adults and brings a message without becoming preachy. "Breaking the fourth wall" to pull you into the story more is a neat trick, and a counter-intuitive one.
True words that! I hope it gets a great Blu-ray release so I can watch it over and over again.
1: Dalva (4.77 out of 5)
This is why I love festivals: I would never ever have watched this film if not for the incredible word-of-mouth it got while playing here in Rotterdam. A film about sexual abuse of a minor? Yuck. Not touching that with a ten-foot-pole.
Thing is, neither does director Emmanuelle Nicot, and her approach makes the film not only watchable, but compelling. We follow the titular Dalva, a 12-year-old girl who gets forcefully separated from her father by the police, at the start of the film. And I do mean follow: she doesn't leave the screen until the end titles. And as we watch with her, we feel with her.
So based on its reception at the festival I grudgingly did watch it and was thoroughly gobsmacked by it. I ended my review with the following words:
Dalva is the best drama I have seen in years, hands down. It tells respectfully and clearly about a difficult subject, and all pitfalls are avoided. No easy lynchmobbing, no unpalatable sensationalism. Just a fantastic lead performance, and an honest, detailed look. This film comes highly, highly recommended.
The Rotterdam audiences agreed with me and awarded the film the top spot. And that concludes the list! Want to see where your favorite ended up? Check the festival's whole list here.
Let's see what next year brings: I only need to wait another 50-and-a-half weeks...