A little more than a year ago, as the Dublin Film Critics' Circle brought a few bottles of hand sanitiser to the awards ceremony for the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, none of us would have guessed that the next one would be carried out remotely. The war would surely be over by Easter.
It was oddly appropriate that prize for best film – Zoomed by this correspondent from the luxury of his own sofa – in 2021 went to a film about a pandemic. Christos Nikou's Apples, a hit at the Venice Film Festival last September, has already been bracketed with the "weird Greek wave" that gave us Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari.
This remarkable film certainly has traces of compatriot forerunners – the world has been overpowered by a wave of amnesia – but it argues forcefully for its own place in the cinematic universe. Sending its protagonist into an environment that has become almost entirely unfamiliar, the film will, in years to come, be presented as a characteristic artefact of the Covid era, but Apples – conceived before the disease hit – also throbs with familiar, ancient engagements with human alienation.
Making delicious use of the Hungarian capital, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time rubs up against the surreal without properly embracing absurdity
Prizes to films that premiered earlier in the week included the best Irish film award for Tadhg O'Sullivan's extraordinary experimental documentary To the Moon and best actress to Joanna Scanlan for After Love. In a touching acceptance speech, Scanlan, a familiar face from The Thick of It and Getting On, revealed her family was from Passage West in Co Cork. The Michael Dwyer discovery award, named for this newspaper's late film correspondent, was awarded to Zofia Stafiej for her star-making turn as a Polish girl bouncing about an awkward Ireland in Piotr Doalewski's I Never Cry.
Best director went the way of Lili Horvát's Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time. The Hungarian drama, that country's submission for international film at the Academy Awards, concerns a neurosurgeon who, travelling home to Budapest from the United States, is surprised when a fellow doctor, whom she believes herself to have met, claims not to know her. Making delicious use of the Hungarian capital – the Chain Bridge is all over the action – the film rubs up against the surreal without properly embracing absurdity. There is a lot here about the intangibility of human perception.
Ivan Kavanagh, an old friend of the critics' circle awards, was back to pick up the George Byrne maverick award. Over the past 20 years Kavanagh has delivered features in a dizzying array of genres. The Fading Light, winner of best Irish film at these awards in 2010, was a drama of bereavement in the style of Ingmar Bergman. Two years ago, in Never Grow Old, he somehow managed to make a cracking western with John Cusack and Emile Hirsch. That last actor stars opposite Andi Matichak in Son, Kavanagh's latest horror. Premiering at Dublin film festival on Saturday night, the picture is a hugely impressive variation on the possessed-child shocker. There is plenty of slow-build in a film that may be offering us unreliable images, but there is also a fair degree of splattered plasma and chewed innards. Matichak is cracking as a mom who meets disbelief from all authorities.
A jury award went the way of another, very different – though often equally disreputable – highlight of the second week. Adam Rehmeier's Dinner in America certainly has familiar antecedents. The spirit of Jared Hess, director of Napoleon Dynamite, hangs over the nerd-leaning comic stylings. Though less threatening than the work of Todd Solondz, Dinner in America shares that director's interest in creative misanthropy. Kyle Gallner – who turned up to speak remotely to the critics' circle – plays the sullen singer in an indie band who accidentally ends up being entertained by one of his young female fans (Emily Skeggs). A hit at Sundance in 2020, the picture has every chance of being quoted for decades to come. Great performances, imaginative sneering, classic Americana. And it's always good to see Mary Lynn Rajskub (now playing the mom of grown-up characters, I regret to tell you).
The awards ceremony offered further confirmation that online variations on the traditional film festival can satisfactorily fill the gaps opened by Covid
Also premiering in the later sections of the festival was Undine, the latest from Christian Petzold. Fans of Neil Jordan will be interested to catch up with a film that derives from the same source as that of the Irish director's Ondine. Both nod towards mermaids. But Petzold's film is less romantic and, in figurative terms at least, a good deal dryer. The terrific Paula Beer, so good in the German filmmaker's Transit, stars as a historian who, in the aftermath of a bad break-up, becomes caught up in the psychomythology of Berlin. On first viewing, the picture felt a tad academic and arms-length, but Petzold's work – Transit was a case in point – has a habit of creeping up on you. By the end of the year, Undine might feel like a masterpiece.
Keep an eye out for David Burke and Seán Ó Cualáin's The Father of the Cyborgs. Financed by RTÉ and Screen Ireland, the documentary is a fascinating examination of neurologist Phil Kennedy, the pioneering doctor, originally from Limerick, who, after a career assisting people with "locked-in" conditions, implanted electrodes in his own brain as part of his researches into how technology can augment consciousness. An extraordinary meditation on ethics and the limits of science.
The awards ceremony, hosted by Tara Brady, president of Dublin Film Critics' Circle, offered further confirmation that, for one year anyway, online variations on the traditional film festival can satisfactorily fill the gaps opened by Covid. The festival gathered together a remarkably lively array of material to fill arthouse cinemas if, as the industry hopes, cinemas open before summer is out. It will be interesting to note if any online improvisations survive the return to bricks-and-mortar festivals.
The people behind Deadly Cuts, the closing film, would surely have preferred crowds to buoy up their lively comedy's premiere. Rachel Carey's piece, starring the always welcome Angeline Ball and perennially sparkling Victoria Smurfit, concerns a group of inner-city hairdressers fighting back against hoodlums. A bit more noise would have helped in that case.
Dublin Film Critics’ Circle awards for Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2021
Joanna Scanlan, After Love
Goran Bogdan, Father
Lili Horvát, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time
Acasa, My Home
BEST IRISH FILM
To The Moon
Lee Issac Chung for Minari
Viktor Kosakovskiy and Egil Håskjold Larsen for Gunda
GEORGE BYRNE MAVERICK AWARD
MICHAEL DWYER DISCOVERY AWARD
Dinner in America