My Top 25 Picks of Films for Dubai International Film Festival 2014

The 11th edition of Dubai International Film Festival is back this month from 10th-17th December 2014. Last year's 10th anniversary edition was one of it's strongest and was curious to see how the festival would top itself in 2014.

But amidst rumours of downsizing and budget cuts during the past year, DIFF recently announced the budgets of the festival have been redistributed to focus on new initiatives, shifting from funding films to finding new distribution channels for films to be seen outside beyond the festival circuit, as reported  here and here

"We’ve been discussing this change for three years. We would have done it last year but because it was our 10th year we decided to go big, then relook at the entire strategy of the festival. We’re all really excited about where we’re going now. 

We want to focus on the business base of the industry. Up until now we’ve done a lot of work on the development side and that isn’t really a festival’s job.

We’re working on building links with all the main regional distributors, we’re expanding our Cinetech arm, where the industry can watch, buy and sell films online. We want to be a business destination for films, that’s where we’re headed.  Shivani Pandya, DIFF Managing Director  (via The National)

If the festival budget cuts means there will be a focus on bringing a wider range of films to our cinemas, television and even online, then I'm not complaining.

This year's edition is smaller with 118 films (compared to 174 last year) from 48 countries. Overall, the choice of films do feel toned down, opening with The Theory of Everything and closing with Into the Woods

Venues this year include the usual, Madinat Arena and Madinat Theatre (in Madinat Jumeirah) and VOX Cinemas in Mall of the Emirates, plus a new venue, free open air screenings (one film every evening) outside The Beach mall in Dubai Marina

Lots of the sreenings start later in the day, with too many screening at the same time, making it difficult for film festival nerds like me to pack in as many as we can. Looking at the schedule, on most days, I will only be able to see two films, sometime three (compared to previous editions where I'd watch four, sometimes five a day). 

But maybe this year's edition isn't targetting the film festival nerds. The film selection definitely feels more commercial cinema and less arthouse cinema. I was hoping Jean-Luc Godard's Goodye to LanguagePawel Pawlikowski's IdaPaul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice or Mike Leigh's Mr Turner would be included in this year's line up, but alas...  

After going through this year's line up, here's my list of top 25 picks in alphabetical order and why I selected them. The list covers films from all the categories, (except the short films). I hope I get to see as many as I can. The complete line of films can be found here and the schedule can be found here

Beats of the Antonov

About how the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains in Sudan are dealing with civil war and the role of traditional music. 

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

This film has been receiving rave reviews since its its premiere at the Venice Film Festival this summer. It recently won best feature and best actor at the Gotham Independent Film Award. Most importantly, it has Michael Keaton as a "washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory". 

Coffee For All Nations

Abed set up a coffee shop in Al-Walaja village near Bethlehem, in a spot surrounded by settlements but could still be reached by Palestinians, Israelis and foreigners. Through his coffee shop, "Abed turned his own tragedy into a transformative project..." 

The Crow's Egg

Two young brothers living in the slums of Chennai in India on a mission to taste pizza from the newly opened chanin "Pizza Stop". A commentary on consumerism, globalisation and class.  


You will need tissues for this. Based on true events that took place in Shenzen, China, about child abduction, the aftermath of parents dealing with a missing child and never giving up on searching. The third act in this film was unexpected. It's heartbreaking on so many levels. I watched this at a press screening yesterday, so I strongly recommend you don't miss this. 


Waleed Al Shehhi's film covers stories told over the course of 24 hours, about "three separate worlds that are ostensibly intertwined deep within one social community: femininity, masculinity and childhood", I am curious to see how this gets translated onto the big screen. 


This is Pakistan's entry for the 87th Academy Awards Best Foreign Film. It's about child marriage and a mother trying to protect her daughter. I suspect there will be lots of heartache in this film.


Loosely based on the life of director Mia Hansen-Løve's brother Sven, the film follows the developmemt of French electronic music in the 1990s. Great soundtrack guaranteed for all lovers of French electro. 

A Few Cubic Meters of Love

Inspired by a true story, this film is set in the outskirts of Tehran. It's a love story and a look at relations between asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iranians. 

Force Majeure (Turist)

About a Swedish family on a skiing holiday in the French Alps. A decision made by the father during an avalanche that had diners from a mountainside diner running for their lives will effect his family, leading to some unwanted consequences. The film won the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival. 


This film has been receiving high praise ever since it was first screened at Cannes where it won Best Director. I've been itching to watch it ever since. 

I am Nujoom, Age 10 and Divorced 

A second film about child marriage, this one is set in Yemen and is about the child going to a lawyer and asking for a divorce. Can't wait to see this. 

Letter to the King

Five stories about a group of refugees set in a day in Oslo, Norway. I've read good things about this film, so curious to see it. And it is set in Norway. Anything set in the Nordic region is usually a must see for me. 


A look at the Ukrainian civil uprising in the winter of 2013/14. There are no talking heads here, just its director Sergei Loznitsa's combination of "classical filmmaking and documentary urgency". 


A fiesty widowed single mother, her 15 year old son that suffers from ADHD and the ex-teacher neighbour. It looks chaortic, crazy, funny and touching. Mommy won the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. 

A Most Violent Year

It was named best film by National Board of Review a couple of days ago. Will be released in the US on 31st December 2014 and the UK will get it in January 2015, so this will be its international premiere.  

Nearby Sky

Nujoom Alghanem's documentary about Fatima Ali Alhameli, the first Emirati female camel owner to enter her camel in the UAE's camel beauty pageant competition and participate in Abu Dhabi’s camel auctions. Standing up to her male counterparts, she looks like a strong and determined woman. High five to her. 

Our Metropolis 

A portrait of Bangalore that is being reshaped to be a "world class metropolis". This documentary looks at how this change is impacting the lives of people living there, their relationship to the city and what does the transformation mean to them. It reminded me of what's happening in Dubai, so curious to see how the people in Bangalore are dealing with these issues.  


The film synopsis says it all: 

Nelly Lenz, a concentration camp survivor, has been left severely injured with a disfigured face. Following facial re-construction surgery, Nelly begins the search for her husband Johnny. When she finally does find him, Johnny does not recognise her. Nevertheless he approaches her with a proposal.

Since she resembles his wife, whom he believes to be dead, he asks her to help him claim his wife's considerable inheritance. Nelly agrees, and becomes her own doppelganger. She needs to know if Johnny ever loved her, or if he betrayed her. The more she reveals similarities to her dead counterpart, the more desperate and confusing their relationship becomes. 

Red Army 

About the Red Army ice hockey team, the Soviet Union and the "most successful dynasty in sports history". About the team's captain, Slava Fetisov who was transformed from national hero to political enemy. The Cold War played out on the ice rink.  

The Sea is Behind  

Another film where the synopsis intrigued me.

Tarik lives in a land without colour, a land where water is contaminated by a strange phenomenon of “water bugs”. Tarik wears make-up and dresses up as a woman. He dances on a cart that is drawn by a dying horse and his father has practically abandoned him.

One day, Tarik’s horse Larbi stops in the middle of a procession and refuses to take another step forward. Tarik will have to learn to live again and surrender to the colours of his life, which is the only way to escape the dullness of the world around him.

The Sleeping Tree 

An estranged couple with a sense of loss, but also looking for hope. Curious to know the role of the mysterious tree the film is named after. 

Trip Along Exodus 

In this documentary, its director Hind Shoufani traces her father's life and to understand some of the choices he made. He abandoned his life in US as an academic to join the Palestinian revolution of the 1970s, to create an opposition to Arafat’s mainstream policies of settlement.

Covering the period between 1948 and today's war-torn Syria, it includes interviews, archival footage and found material. It also includes some scathing commentary about the politics and the state of the Arab world. 

What we do in the Shadows 

A mockumentary about three vampires trying to get by in modern society. I love mockumentaries. 

Wild Tales 

A black comedy about six people who are stressed or depressed by "the drive for success, competition and the inequality of the world we live in". It's also Argentina’s submission to the 87th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

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