My Top 30 Picks of Films for Dubai International Film Festival 2016

The 13th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival is on from 7th - 14th December. This year's line up includes 156 films (full features and short films) from 55 countries. This is an increase in number of films compared to last year which was 134. Additionally, there's a new section added to the festival's programme focused on 3D films titled DIFFerent Reality, and it looks like there's a focus on 3D in general at this festival. The films included in this section are all short films and will be curious to see the response to these films. 

The festival will open with John Madden’s Miss Sloane starring Jessica Chastain close with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (in 3D) directed by Gareth Edwards. Both are very mainstream Hollywood films and I'm curious why the festival team chose to start and end with these two films. 

The good news is there is a diverse selection of films from 55 countries and I am looking forward to discovering new gems. 

Below are my top 30 picks (in alphabetical order) for this year and you can see the complete festival line up here. I said this last year and will repeat it again, the films screening at the festival wll NOT be censored, never have been. If you're concerned films with adult content will be edited, fear not. You will get to watch the film in original format.   

Expect daily reports via Tea with Culture podcast. You can listen to last year's updates here

20th Century Women
Director: Mike Mills
Rating: 15+ 
USA | English dialogue | 119 mins  

A beautifully mannered character drama from writer/director Mike Mills set in Santa Barbara of 1979 and focusing on teenager Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who lives with his singer mother Dorothea (Annette Bening).

Worried that she cannot seem to connect with her son, she enlists help from would-be artists Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who rents a room at their house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s childhood friend who he is in love with, to try and help him figure out what it is to be a man. With delightfully drawn characters and great dialogue, the film is made with a delicate poignancy.


76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami
Director: Seifollah Samadian
Rating: PG
Iran | Persian and French dialogue with English subtitles | 76 mins 

Photographer Seifollah Samadian (also a friend and collaborator of Abbas Kiarostami) put together this affectionate and insightful documentary after the death in Paris of the influential Iranian director and artist, utilising footage that takes in many phases of his busy artistic career.

There are no interviews, which allows the footage to reflect Kiarostami’s own simplicity as a technical filmmaker and shows his sense of playfulness and embrace for the world around him, while the title reflects not only the running time but also that he died aged 76 and 15 days old.


After the Storm
Director: Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Japan | Japanese dialogue with English and Arabic subtitles | 117 mins 

When it comes to tackling the nature of complexities of family relationships, there are few better than Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, who has nimbly dissected similar themes in recent films such as Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister. 

This film is lighter in tone than some of the earlier dramas, but it suits the gently funny structure that mulls over father-son relationships, as it focuses on former novelist - and now private eye and gambling addict – Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), as he struggles to stay in his son’s life. Delightfully nuanced characters and strong use of imagery help Hirokazu’s film achieve the perfect balance of humour and pathos.


Director: Andrzej Wajda
Rating: 12+ 
Poland | Polish dialogue with English subtitles | 98 mins 

Recently deceased Polish film legend Andrzej Wajda delves into a dark episode in his home country’s history in his last film. In Afterimage he focuses on avant-garde painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Boguslaw Linda), who loses an arm and leg in the First World War, but who goes on to become an acclaimed abstract painter, teacher and who stands up against the strict dictates of Stalinist code of Socialist Realism.

He is reduced to poverty and with rich irony one of the few jobs he can find is painting massive banners of Stalin in heroic manner. Beautifully-made and driven with typical Wajda passion and insight, it is a fascinating glimpse into Polish history.


Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces
Director: Yousry Nasrallah
Rating: 12+ 
Egypt | Arabic dialogue with English subtitles | 110 mins 

Yehia is a chef who runs a catering company with his two sons, Refaat and Galal. Refaat is a passionate cook, while Galal is quite the ladies’ man. Yehia’s niece Karima, is promised to wed Refaat, but Refaat is in love with Shadia, and Karima too is in love with someone else – but is waiting for an appropriate moment to reveal her ‘secret’.
During a peasant’s wedding, catered by Yehia and his sons, an offer is made for the business, which Yehia refuses, and results in interesting developments.


Certain Women
Director: Kelly Reichardt  
Rating: 15+
USA |English dialogue | 107 mins 

Writer/director Kelly Reichardt confirms and consolidates her credentials as one of the great chroniclers of unromanticised moments in the lives of American women (and those they interact with). This adaptation of a series of short stories by Montana native Maile Meloy is elegantly sustained and beautifully performed.

The three stories – starring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams (a regular player in Reichardt’s films) and Kristen Stewart – are loosely connected and resolutely low-key in terms of broad drama. And yet, they they are all impressively textured, subtle and strikingly performed as they chart moments from ordinary working lives in the Big Sky Country.


The Cinema Travellers
Director : Shirley Abraham, Amit Madheshiya
Rating: 12+  
India | Hindi and Marathi dialogue with English subtitles | 96 mins 

A delightful documentary that beautifully explores the fast-waning days of the grand tradition of tent cinemas, which have long toured the remote villages of Maharashtra in western India.

While beautiful to look at – from the aged equipment, enthralled viewers, faded tents and aged projectionists – it is also moving and insightful, as it delves into the precarious world of film exhibition on the road and the expected impact on it from pirated DVDs and cable television.

But the underlying joy that accompanies these tent cinemas makes Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s film a documentary to cherish.


Egyptian Jeanne D'Arc
Director: Iman Kamel
Rating: 12+ 
Egypt | Arabic and English dialogue with English subtitles | 85 mins 

Influenced by Carl Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928), EGYPTIAN JEANNE D’ARC is a modern documentary fusing genres through dance, poetic narrative and mythology to examine women's circumstances in present day Egypt. In the context of post-revolution Egypt, the film explores issues of women’s emancipation by drawing attention to women’s repression and their feelings of guilt particularly amongst Egyptian female artistes.


Director: Zeki Demirkubuz  
Rating: 18+
Turkey and Germany | Turkish dialogue with English subtitles / Colour / 115 mins 

Director Zeki Demirkubuz’s modestly mounted, yet astute and classically made film has in its sights an attack on traditions that still keep women in society without rights. The story focuses on seamstress Emine (Aslıhan Gürbüz), who struggles to look after her son Mete, after her husband left her behind with debts.

When her son needs urgent medical treatment, her old flame Ziya (Taner Birsel) offers to help pay bills and soon the pair are lovers. But in true melodramatic fashion her husband returns, and is expectedly angry and drama ensues.


Foreign Body
Director: Raja Amari  
Rating: 15+ 
France and Tunisia | Arabic and French dialogue with English and French subtitles | 92 mins 

Like hundreds of illegal immigrants, Samia lands on European shores. Haunted by the fear of being followed by her extremist brother whom she had denounced to the authorities, Samia first finds refuge at Imed’s home, a former acquaintance from her village, before ending up working for the rich widow Leila. These new meetings mingle with her headlong flight, where desire enhances tensions.


Director: François Ozon
Rating: PG
France and Germany | French and German dialogue with English subtitles | 113 mins  

French writer/director François Ozon’s black-and-white period drama is beautifully elegant and painfully sad, but driven by memorable performances and an underlying sexual tension. Pierre Niney stars as Frenchman Adrien, who arrives in a small German town just after the First World War to lay flowers at the grave of Frantz, who had died in combat.

He gets to know Frantz’s parents as well as his fiancée Anna (Paula Beer), all of whom are still in mourning, but welcome him when he says he knew Frantz when he studied in Paris. But as truths slowly emerge, his link to Frantz is gradually revealed. A beautiful and gently profound film.


Honey, Rain and Dust
Director : Nujoom Alghanem
Rating: PG
United Arab Emirates | Arabic dialogue with English subtitles | 86 mins  

Aisha, Fatima and Ghareeb are amongst the best known honey specialists in the northern parts of the UAE. Ghareeb is also considered a beekeeper because he established a sanctuary at the top of the mountains, where he can be in control of the surrounding environment and protect his honeybees. 

Fatima and Aisha prefer to roam the mountains freely to find the highest natural honey. Meanwhile, the bees are coping with climate change, survival challenges and the production of honey. Involuntarily, the bees have become integral to the lives of Aisha, Fatima and Ghareeb. But, for how long and to what extent can the bees keep providing?


Hotel Salvation
Director : Shubhashish Bhutiani
Rating: 12+ 
India | Hindi dialogue with English subtitles | 102 mins 

The debut feature from Indian filmmaker Shubhashish Bhutiani is a charmingly gentle drama about a father and son getting to know each other while also dealing with life's realities. After a dream, 77-year-old Daya (Lalit Behl) decides he needs to travel to the sacred ghats at Banaras before he dies, and recruits his son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) to accompany him.

Their journey is laced with humour and pathos as the pair gradually make their peace while on their journey, eventually making their way to the Hotel Salvation, a place where the elderly spend their final days.


I am Not Madame Bovary
Director: : Feng Xiaogang
Rating: 12+ 
China | Mandarin dialogue with English subtitles | 139 mins  

The sheer filming elegance of Feng Xiaogang dovetails perfectly with Fan Bingbing’s powerful lead performance as a woman, who takes on Chinese bureaucracy, as she stubbornly fights to restore her honour after a false divorce and charges of sexual misdeeds.  
The film is presented in a round frame, which helps give a deeper sense of peering into the troubled life of village woman Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) as she fights her way up the convoluted Chinese legal ladder to seek justice. It is a beautifully structured film, blessed with a playful dark humour.


Director:  Behnam Behzadi
Rating: 12+
Iran | Persian dialogue with English subtitles | 84 mins 

Director Behnam Behzadi’s engrossing and engaging new film features a striking lead performance from Sahar Dowlatshahi as Niloofar, a confident and driven single woman, who owns her own tailoring shop in Tehran. 

She appears in control of her life, but when her ill mother (Shirin Yazdanbakhsh) collapses after a walk in the polluted city, Niloofar finds herself forced to move out of Tehran and look after her mother in a vacation villa out of the city. Before she knows it, her selfish brother has rented out her shop and the comfortable and – almost – independent life she leads is ripped apart. She must find a way to try and ‘invert’ her life once again.


Lady Macbeth
Director: William Oldroyd
Rating: 18+
United Kingdom | English dialogue with Colour | 89 mins 

This British film was one of the standout discoveries at Toronto, and certainly its style, structure and strong performances make it a strong debut feature for theatre and opera director William Oldroyd.

The film relocates Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District” to rural northern England of the 1860s, where young Katherine (an excellent Florence Pugh) is newly married to an older man in a passionless marriage of convenience and embarks on a fierce love affair with groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Its bleak nature and intelligent questions about race in British history help define Lady Macbeth as a fresh vision of the classic British costume drama.


The Man Who Saw Too Much
Director: Trisha Ziff
Rating: 18+

Mexico | English and Spanish dialogue with English subtitles | 88 mins 

The passionate, visceral and vibrant work of photographer Enrique Metinides provides a fascinating backdrop for filmmaker Trisha Ziff, as she delves into his life and complex personality. A photographer since childhood (apparently he photographed burning buildings from firemen’s shoulders) he found fame with his hyper-violent images while working as a tabloid photographer.

To balance his reputation, he also stopped filming to help victims of incidents he was shooting, and in a reflection of his innocence he has a collection of toy fire trucks and ambulances. An enthralling and intriguing film.


Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Rating: 15+ 
USA | English dialogue with Arabic and French subtitles | 138 mins 

This beautifully made and powerfully moving film features a magnificent central performance from Casey Affleck. He plays Boston janitor Lee, a man living with pent-up grief and who has to address sadness and revelations from his past when he is notified of his brother’s death and has to reluctantly return to his close-knit hometown community and try to do the best for his brother’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

As Lee struggles to do his best he has to face aspects of his past, in particular a moving scene where he encounters his ex-wife, wonderfully played by Michelle Williams.


The Oath
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Rating: 15+
Iceland | Icelandic dialogue with English subtitles | 110 mins 

Acclaimed filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur (whose work includes big budget fare such as Everest, Contraband and 2 Gungs) both directs and stars in this gritty Nordic thriller.  He plays an Icelandic heart surgeon worried about the hard-partying and drug-taking lifestyle of his daughter Anna (Hera Hilmar) and decides to try and free her from her petty criminal boyfriend Ottar.

The juddering blend of styles sees the film veer between violent thriller and tough-love drama, with Kormákur delivering a strikingly brooding performance that matches the stark Icelandic landscapes.


Off Frame aka Revolution Until Victory
Director : Mohanad Yaqubi
France, Palestine, Lebanon, Qatar |  Arabic, English, French, Italian dialogue with English subtitles | 62 mins

Off Frame aka Revolution Until Victory deals with the history and development of militant cinema in the Middle East. The film researches the motives and circumstances behind this genre and questions its dramatic end in 1982.

In resurrecting a forgotten memory of struggle, Off Frame reanimates what is within the frame, but also weaves a critical reflection by looking for what is outside of it.


On the Milky Road
Director : Emir Kusturica
Serbia | Serbian dialogue with English subtitles | 125 mins   

Acclaimed director Emir Kusturica aims for reflective magical realism in this rural folk tale/love story, and also casts himself in the lead role of a wistful milkman who attracts the loving interest of an Italo-Serbian woman (played by Monica Belluci) on the run from a British peacekeeping force general she sent to prison.

Kusturica’s character, Kosta takes milk to frontline troops in rural Bosnia and is set to marry Milena, a former champion rhythmic gymnast, but things change when Belluci’s character spots this unlikely donkey-riding lothario. Packed with oddball magical moments; some slapstick comedy as Kusturica also gets to play piano in a couple of jolly party scenes.


One More Time with Feeling (3D)
Director : Andrew Dominik
Rating: PG
France and United Kingdom | English dialogue | 112 mins 

Though on one level, Andrew Dominik’s documentary – largely shot in black and white – is a film aimed at following the recording of “Skeleton Tree”, the latest album from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, its very timing in the period after the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur, who died after a fall from a cliff near the family’s Brighton home, means that it also dwells on raw emotions, trauma and mourning.

It is an often candid film – as well as one that works musically – as Cave talks about the pain of loss as well as needing to keep on being creative; though it also reinforces the rare talent of Cave and his musicians.


Only Men go to the Grave
Director: Abdulla Al Kaabi
Rating: 15+
Arabic dialogue with English subtitles / Colour / 80 mins 

After the Iraq-Iran war ended in 1988, a blind mother welcomes her estranged daughters to tell them a secret. Unfortunately, she accidentally dies while sharing it. During the funeral, the daughters try to deal with their mother’s sudden death and also work together to unveil her secret by looking for clues from visitors.

Throughout the funeral, their own lives continue to unravel, giving room for buried family tensions to gradually surface, while struggling to deal with their own secrets and deep-rooted guilt. The daughters start to question everything about their mother’s life after a peculiar encounter.


Director: Cristi Puiu
Rating: 12+ 
Romania | Romanian dialogue with English subtitles | 173 mins 

Some three hours long and shot almost entirely in a packed and cluttered Bucharest flat, this latest film from talented filmmaker Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Aurora) is a wonderfully absorbing film. It weaves its way through a family reunion that offers a thoughtful insight into the modern-day Romanian middle-class, as Puiu observes tensions and misunderstandings as a family come together at a memorial dinner.

The encounters between the family members veer between dramatic to gently amusing, with Puiu allowing the differing characters to emerge as fully-rounded and appropriately complex people.


Voyage of Time
Director: Director : Terrence Malick
Rating: 15+ 
Germany | English dialogue with Arabic subtitles | 90 mins 

Acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick finally gets to reveal the project that he has been mulling over since the late 1970s, with this beautifully mounted film – voiced by Cate Blanchet. It details a stunning journey through the origins of the universe, through to the present time and beyond. Using impressive special effects, Malick delivers a poetic delve into the nature of life and death and on the origins of mankind, featuring mesmerising footage from the ocean floor through to the planets. If the cosmic sequence in his film The Tree of Life offered a taster, then this is on the whole, quite an awesome thing.


Withered Green
Director : Mohammed Hammad
Rating: 15+ 
Egypt | Arabic dialogue with English subtitles | 73 mins 

Withered Green is the story of young Iman, a conservative religious person, who takes people's opinions of her into account and shows uptight restriction to all the withering social traditions. However, a shocking discovery prompts her to do away with all these withered traditions that she once clung to. Withered Green is director Mohammed Hammad’s debut feature and premiered at Locarno.


Wolf and Sheep
Director: Shahrbanoo Sadat  
Rating: 12+ 
Denmark, France, Sweden and Afghanistan | Hazaragi dialogue with English subtitles | 86 mins 

Writer/director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s acclaimed film, which won a prize at the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes, shrewdly strikes a tonal balance between documentary and drama as it dwells on life in a small Afghan village, where little has changed over the years.

Sadat’s camera and story focuses largely on the children of the village, weaving together a story that subtly tackles the importance of tradition and rituals in a community, where life is tough but also supportive, and where storytelling takes its place alongside life’s lessons. It may be simple in structure and tone, but its insight and sincerity shine through.


The Worthy
Director: Ali F. Mostafa  
Rating: 18+ 
United Arab Emirates | Arabic dialogue with English subtitles | 100 mins 

In a dystopian future, when the water supply has been poisoned, a group of unlikely survivors has taken refuge in an abandoned hangar. They struggle to stay alive and protect one of the last remaining sources of uncontaminated water.

After a near-deadly altercation with bandits, who want to seize the water, two strangers appear to help fight off the bandits. The survivors’ leader agrees to host the strangers, as long as they conform to the camp’s rules. When one of the strangers betrays the group, the compound descends into madness, leaving only one question: who is worthy to live and to lead?


Your Name
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Rating: 12+ 
Japan | Japanese dialogue with English subtitles | 106 mins 

Following the great tradition of Japanese ‘seishun eiga’ (youth drama), writer/animator Makoto Shinkai’s film focuses on two teenagers – a boy and a girl. The girl, Mitsuha, lives an unhappy life in the countryside and the boy is a high-school student, Taki, whose story takes an unusual spin with the pair switching bodies in their dreams.

There is plenty of humour to be sure, but also more serious undercurrents as they struggle to deal with unexpected situations and rather unfamiliar yearnings. Shinkai is being hailed as the ‘new Miyazaki’, and while his films lack the ‘fantasy quest’ that defined Miyazaki at his best; they are certainly beautifully crafted anime fare.


Zaineb Hates the Snow
Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Rating: PG
Tunisia | Arabic and French dialogue with English subtitles | 95 mins

2009. Tunisian nine-year-old Zaineb and her mother will rebuild their lives in Canada with a man she was in love with before she married Zaineb’s father, who died in an accident. Zaineb is told that once she is in Canada, she can finally see the snow. But she wants nothing to do with this new country, because Zaineb has decided to hate the snow.

Covering six years in the life of a charismatic young Tunisian girl and her changing family life, Zaineb Hates the Snow is a beautiful and poignant coming-of-age documentary told through the eyes of a wide-eyed little émigrée.