Festival gems at your fingertips

With on-demand increasingly making a mark on Sundance and Cannes, festivals are launching their own streaming sites

These days, the words “it’s an interesting time” tend to be code for “it’s looking awfully bleak” – but in the spirit of (very) early springtime optimism, it’s an interesting time for film festivals. The likes of Cannes, Berlin, Sundance and Toronto once had a clear place as kingmakers, places where films could stake an early claim for big-screen canon status, firming up their critical standing before beginning the long trickle down through cinemas worldwide.

Now, however, even the industry’s most illustrious festivals are facing a shifting timeline, and a less glamorous reality: that they’re increasingly acting as gilded launchpads for films that may never be seen on a big screen again. Last year, Cannes faced heat from French exhibitors outraged that competition selections from Bong Joon-ho and Noah Baumbach were Netflix-bound. Meanwhile, a year after handing its top prize to a straight-to-Netflix title (Macon Blair’s warped, riotous, eminently stream-worthy comedy I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore), Sundance struck another blow to purists last month. Critically hailed as the film of the festival, Jennifer Fox’s reportedly shattering abuse survival drama The Tale, starring Laura Dern, saw its Oscar buzz switch to Emmy chatter overnight when it was acquired by HBO Films for a cable TV release.

With film festival programmes so swiftly merging into the home entertainment market, some are getting ahead of the shift by building streaming platforms of their own. Now available in the UK as an Amazon Prime channel, Sundance Now has been around for a while, though its selection of amply exposed indies and prestige TV (from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Wallander) isn’t particularly specialised. Its separate Doc Club outlet has more lovingly selected niche fare – look for Jeff Malmberg’s remarkable post-traumatic art study Marwencol (2010), for example – but a still-narrow menu.

Lily Newmark in Pin Cushion.
Lily Newmark in Pin Cushion. Photograph: Rob Baker Ashton/PR Company Handout

I’ve just come from a week at the more austerely curated Rotterdam film festival, where the vast festival centre is slathered in as much promotional material for their new IFFR Unleashed streaming service as there is for the films playing in their cinemas. As they’ve done before, Rotterdam is temporarily offering a sample of this year’s programme to the online public on FestivalScope. For the next week, curious cinephiles can check out Canadian director Ian Lagarde’s outlandishly apocalyptic vision All You Can Eat Buddha, complete with talking octopus, or Christopher Makoto Yogi’s beguiling Hawaiian reverie August at Akiko’s, among others.

IFFR Unleashed gives Rotterdam’s distinctly off-kilter programming a permanent, beautifully designed library of its own; every film on the platform is an official selection from a previous edition of the festival. Subscriptions are as yet unavailable outside the Benelux region, though UK viewers can access films on an individual basis. “Experience the Rotterdam fest – in the comfort of your own home!” isn’t the sexiest pitch in the business, and much of what’s on offer won’t ring a bell. The festival has a longstanding taste for hard-work, high-fibre art cinema of the type that scares off distributors, which is all the more reason for IFFR to ensure their continued exposure. But the gems are there for the patient and adventurous.

Swiss director Nicolas Steiner’s documentary Above and Below is a transfixing patchwork of American psyches marginalised by the modern world, while Frenchman Gaël Lépingle’s Julien is an adolescent study that woozily captures the short, summery, uncertain gap between the end of school and the beginning of everything else. For these titles, being seen online handily trumps never being seen at all.

Loving Vincent.
Jaw-dropper… Loving Vincent. Photograph: Way to Blue

New to streaming & DVD this week

A Woman’s Life

(Arrow, 12)
Judith Chemla’s extraordinary performance as a woman broken by bad marriage and curtailed dreams lights Stéphane Brizé’s soft-textured, tough-minded Guy de Maupassant adaptation from within.

Loving Vincent

(Altitude, 12)
Billed as history’s first oil-painted animation, this Oscar-nominated Vincent van Gogh biography isn’t particularly fresh in its historical insight, but it’s a visual and technical jaw-dropper.

Tarka the Otter (Network, PG)
A welcome Blu-ray debut for this lovely, enduringly sob-worthy but winningly unsentimental creature feature.

Magic Mike XXL

(Netflix, 15)
One of the all-time great sequels, this richly grimy, grinding ode to bodily pleasure and the female gaze makes it to Netflix just in time for Valentine’s Day. Treat yourself.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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