It’s been a long hangover after my week at New York Film Festival, trying to bring other preoccupations up to date before I turn my attentions back to the site. It’s no less embittering that the films I missed in the festival’s 2nd week were among my most anticipated, including Blue is the Warmest Color, Only Lovers Left Alive and Her. On the bright side, I didn’t have the added frustration of missing the NYFF secret screening, canceled this year due to an apparent lack of options, likely due to Foxcatcher and The Wolf of Wall Street pulling further back in release. That may have dampened some spirits, but looking at what London Film Festival passes for with their surprise screenings, we may actually be better off with a little less suspense.
For the sake of not clotting up the site with reviews for films still months away from release, it may be some time before you hear my fully elaborated thoughts on Gloria, The Immigrant or Tim’s Vermeer, but not quite so long in the case of Claire Denis’ Bastards, which surprisingly starts its release this Friday. There are some films you may very well never hear deeper thoughts from me on, so let me take a moment to address the duds of New York Film Festival. I’ve had my hour of despair with Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, two films too giddy with themselves to realize the irony of their corporate sponsored rebellions against corporate control. Those will eventually be seen, consumed, and possibly rejected by the public.
It’s revealing, then, that the very worst films of the festival were those with dismal chances at any U.S. distribution. I can’t express too much furious zeal against My Name is Hmmm…, designer Agnes B.’s clearly, obtusely personal film, because it feels and looks like something she made solely for her own personal benefit. The deficit of that means it doesn’t work very well for anyone else, its iMovie editing making it incredibly difficult to interface with the superficially scarred characters. It’d be a shock if this ever gets domestic distribution, but that’s a pressure this shoe-string budgeted film shouldn’t need to worry itself with.
If I have less issue taking a pickaxe to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Real, it’s because I’m shocked and dismayed as to how it ever got into the main selection of the festival. With the production instincts of a SyFy movie, but sadly not the same go-for-broke sense of gratuitous humor, what makes the insanity of Kurosawa’s film so unbearable is how profoundly boring it is. If nothing else it rewards us with the endless comic possibilities of the term “philosophical zombies”, the dream world parallel to what projections were in the similarly premised Inception. However if Inception wasn’t the best use of that premise, I can confidently say that Real is the worst.
But since I’ve had my fun with those, I should offer some reprieve to a handful of films that have grown ever so slightly on me since seeing them. Most particularly, and surprisingly, is Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman, which I chided at the time for lacking the adventurous mood of Charles Dickens. More and more I’m feeling that may be more to the point, turning the male-dominated culture on its side by focusing on the tattered and neglected women of his life. No wonder Estella is such a jaded vixen in Great Expectations.
Another one that’s grown on me a bit, though not quite to a redeeming degree, is the Palestinian Oscar entry Omar. Its political dilemma of multiple loyalties being betrayed is promising, even if it doesn’t delve enough into the morality of its male characters’ actions. Meanwhile the extreme close-ups of romantic female object Leem Lubany aren’t quite as appreciated as those of lead actor Adam Bakri, whose intensely sculpted physique is distracting, but… appreciated. He’s also a rather magnetic presence that I’d like to see more of, hopefully opposite less baseless and vacant characters.
Finally, I’m still struggling with my opinions on two remaining films of the festival. The more well known of the two is Manakamana, the latest documentary from Sensory Ethnography Lab who produced the striking experimental doc Leviathan for last year’s festival. Thankfully I wasn’t too queasy to endure it, but it very much is a film of endurance, even more so than Leviathan. Clearly from different filmmakers, its lack of visual ambition is made up for in its unsettling dissonances, filling its duration with 11 static long takes that nonetheless offer up massive stimulation via the landscapes shifting behind the individuals rising and descending aboard a cable car in Nepal. Not all of these long takes are so fascinating or necessary, but the thematic boldness of its set-up is still quite impressive. In short, more beguiling than gobsmacking, but I’ll get in deeper when the film is released by Cinema Guild next year.
Then there’s Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy, something of a romance film, but without the usual progression of a romance. It’s a lot more about love being lost than being love being kindled, which isn’t to say it’s a dour drought throughout. The film has the charming energy of 60s era Jean-Luc Godard, and Anna Mougalis excels as the Anna Karina substitute, a woman’s whose intense love and suspicion ends up turning against and consuming her partner, played by Garrel’s son Louis. It’s one I’ll enjoy perusing over, though it loses its steam and wiliness too quickly over its 77 minute runtime.
Other than the films, what else can I say about NYFF except that it was both a dream and nightmare? The wealth of cinematic offerings can be a bit much to handle at times, but I was even more upset by my own hesitance to talk to some of the amazing critics and people I sat amongst. I can verify David Ehrlich, Katey Rich and Peter Labuza are fun and intelligent people to talk with… or at least listen to while you think about talking with them before crawling back into your timid shell. Luckily I did get the chance to meet Nathaniel Rogers and Glenn Dunks of The Film Experience, along with another who I shamefully don’t quite remember his name. In any case, they were a joy to talk with, and I’m certain… okay, hopeful, that I’ll get have more active conversations with them and others in the future. If I have any suggestion for first or second time patrons of a major festival, it’s that they not worry about how insignificant they are and just enter into the conversation with confidence. It’s better than sitting awkwardly on the outside.
Film Misery’s Top 10 Films of New York Film Festival 2013
This may well be the only feature on this list not to get U.S. distribution, which comes from more of a lack of quantity than quality. Following a mother and son on vacation at a flat and largely uninhabited resort hotel, a setting it barely escapes once. That’s the short of it, and that long isn’t much more elaborate. A romance ends up cutting through their Freudian-in-intimacy relationship, a seemingly trite development which smartly pays off in traditionally awkward sweetness as well as non-traditional character study. In the case of son Hector, an indistinct vessel suddenly exploring his latest sexuality in manners both charming and implicitly introspective. In the case of mother Paloma, a sexually ignored body facing the end of her long passed childhood, but in all cases it’s a frankly funny, yet subtly heartbreaking bottle feature.
“The other queer movie at Cannes” has been the unfair go-to signifier for Alain Guiraudie’s white-heated erotic thriller, another single-location bottle film with genuine muscle in that eroticism. If it shares anything with Blue is the Warmest Color, it’s that it’s not making some public spectacle of that sexuality. Its beach-side setting is both secluded and wide in the open, its sexuality both guarded and viciously arousing, and its relationships both frigidly desensitized and covertly intimate. In short, it sneaks up on you, often to very genuine terror as its main character Franck willfully, and longingly, forgoes his safety to seek a relationship with Christophe Paou’s imposing body… er, mustache… I mean, Michel. His name’s Michel. However it’s Patrick d’Assumçao’s Henri that forms the deeper bond with Franck, setting the stage for an ending that perhaps puts too many of its cards on the table, but stops our breath in the humid intensity of its pitch black isolation.
But man, oh man, that mustache! Mind your milkshakes!
I’d love to say the Animated Feature race is over, but I worry just how severely the Academy’s Pixar devotion stems. Regardless of awards prospects, The Wind Rises represents a dazzling bright spot in a pretty dismal year for animation, its emotional impact amplified by its announcement as Hayao Miyazaki’s last film. Much as I’d like to hope for further flights of fantasies from the ani-maestro, the film makes it abundantly clear an era of creative renaissance is ending. After years fleeing to worlds of wild phantasmagoria and epic personal journeys, he finally must address the world he’s in, search for beauty in even the bleakest of times, and try to reconcile the horrors of our collective history with the creative and romantic desire present in every being. It’s a soaring achievement I look forward to revisiting and, like every film Miyazaki’s made, passing down to my children one day. (Full Review)
It’s tough not to feel a hint of familiarity in every Coen brothers film, and that’s admittedly one of the charms people find in their work. The stilted expression of their dialogue is beyond replication, and people have certainly tried, but there’s an honest acknowledgment of reality in all their work that grounds even their zaniest characters. Obviously reality doesn’t mean realism, and in spite their most down-to-earth story in… well, ever, they manage to create a subtly overbearing void surrounding the title musician. That may be from his state of disinterest in the world around him, or it may be the by-turns soft and hardened chill of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography. Either way, the overall is one of startling melancholy, something his previous films have often lacked, though often to their benefit. For once I can confidently say there’s unironic warmth in the cold the Coens put their characters through. (Full Review)
Wiseman was documenting the gratuitous slaughter of animals long before Leviathan came along, arguably even before Meat, his 1976 look at the meatpacking industry. Titicut Follies set a standard for human interest in his films without them ever becoming watered down human interest pieces. 50 years later, very little’s changed about how he goes about structuring his films. They’re still tightly packed with necessary, thought provoking, at times overly deliberate material, even when swelling over four hours. There’s an economy to At Berkeley that contradicts its heavy runtime, pulling us into a rhythm less of action than of intentful listening, pulling us into a seminar session without taking us exhaustively to school.
The most potentially tiring issue of Wiseman’s films is his focus on the business aspects of the institutions he looks at, and that tone does seep into the faculty meetings every now and again, but exists here more to display the generational divide between the teachers and the students. While the latter body’s idea of change is active rebellion, the former have the experience to realize there’s more woebegone negotiations involved in maintaining the standards of UC Berkeley, or any institution for that matter. For all that the new trailer talks of Berkeley’s eminence, it’s really just represented as an everyday university on a more expansive canvas. Subtle social prejudices are fought daily, machines never work properly, and nobody’s quite as thrilled by the acapella group’s performance as they are just performing it. (Full review)
Okay, the *other* film on this list you’ll almost certainly never see on a screen deserving of it, and no, this isn’t the Jason Statham film. At less than 30 minutes, Redemption packs more narrative and potent regret into its small timeframe than most other films do with two hours bloating their waistline. Made up of four vignettes shot in different styles, from traditional black and white to grainy home video, there’s such an aching sorrow to each of the stories narrated to us. Regrets of a father, son, lover vocally rebels against the austerity with which their lives are represented, until that austerity vibrantly bleeds into colour in the final segment from the perspective of a bride-to-be. It’s baffling to describe, baffling to behold, and baffling still to peruse over, but it’s so beguiling as to demand our attention. It’s nourishing that we can still rely on Gomes to turn in astonishing work, even when working on a “pet project”, which Redemption is anything but. It deserves commendation as much as any other film on this list.
It should come as no surprise that, much like she went from masterfully acclaimed Beau Travail to the slicing, divisive Trouble Every Day, Claire Denis would dive from White Material into darker, sensuous territory. In some ways Bastards makes a fitting companion piece to her carnal, seething take on the vampire mythos, here tackling the often glorified revenge saga with just as sharp a cleaving instrument. Appearances are never trustworthy in Denis’ films, but they’re the only evidence the characters have to go on. Michel Subor is the sickly, monstrous businessman. Lola Creton is the innocent, abused little girl. Vincent Lindon is the strong, forthright figure of solidity. Though everyone’s motivations are clear, the truth is far from it.
Returning to long-time collaborating cinematographer Agnes Godard, the two build as razor sharp a look as ever, the jump to digital well-suiting the jagged physicality of both the characters and the rain. Stuart Staples’ synth-score gives Bastards the beat and mood of an erotic thriller, inevitably forcing us into the same sickening position of objectification, particularly in a memorable recurring image of Lola Creton, commanding more staggering confidence each time it reappears. Every other repetition of action only incurs further doubt, as the title becomes less a signifier of any of these characters and more of, to fall back on an easy turn of phrase, a state of mind. The stages of grief rarely bristle with quite as much pleasurable pain.
Probably the worst way to recommend this film is to give a bare-bones plot description of it. Not that the sexual renaissance of a woman in her 50s doesn’t have some kink appeal, but you can already feel the “it’s never too late to seize life and love” message threatening to send us into wholly sentiment based territory. It’s thanks to the wisdom of Sebastian Lelio that the title character of Gloria never becomes a mere social summary of women past their prime, demeaning individual desire by turning Gloria into a stand-in for every so-aged viewer in the audience. Her sexuality is an undeniable aspect of her character, her intense desire for experience growing even more relentlessly charismatic with age.
You could say from this set-up that the film turns into a romance when Gloria starts dating the ardent, humble Rodolfo, but the pairing of these two characters is less romantic than it is combative. And if it is a fight, you’ll be damn sure Rodolfo ain’t winning it. Gloria’s cavalier wastes not, even as it wants for the kind of bravery Rodolfo is too worry-worn and tepidly submissive to accommodate. The tacit desperation of her lurid mischief proves not to be a convenient fallback for lack of cultural import, but a vibrant vehicle for Lelio’s gestures on generational boundaries. If nothing else – I’d argue there’s considerably more for me to plumb in a future review, including a run against Inside Llewyn Davis for best feline performance – Gloria certainly provides more pleasurable sex scenes than you’ll find in Bastards.
Movies don’t look like they used to, and they likely never will. However if Bastards has Claire Denis pushing bravely, boldly forward, The Immigrant shows James Gray reminiscing on more painterly times, though not brighter times, it should be stated. Even beyond the chilly, yet nourishing natural light scarcely cracking through the window curtains, the America shown here is covered in a hazy, damn near impenetrable fog, one which swallows Polish immigrants Ewa (Marion Cotillard, once again honoring her freely expressive face with fresh emotive pathways to explore) and sister Magda up, forcing the former on a journey of delicate self-loathing and reluctant redemption.
There’s visible love for the Coppola/Leone golden age of New York cinema, as well as the lavish productions of the silent era, but Gray doesn’t fall prey to his own fond homages. He and D.P. Dariusz Khondji imbue loving detail and a finely textured varnish unto their own cinematic Vermeer, from the grottoes of its darkest stretches to its profoundly moving final shot. If we expect Cotillard to astonish at this point, it’s even more to her credit that she can still surprise us with her depth of feeling. The gradual surprise of the film is Joaquin Phoenix, playing volatile, drunken fool Bruno who takes Ewa in, only to instinctively push her into prostitution. It’s to the film’s wisdom that it doesn’t fall into a safe, conventional romance, but smothers and stretches these two internally contorted individuals together and apart to swiftly, silently heartbreaking degrees.
I can already feel issues with Steve McQueen’s latest bleeding through the woodwork, in spite my impassioned straight-A grade review. There’s an undeniably universality about 12 Years a Slave that, while it guarantees it’ll play strongly with nearly everyone who sees it, might deny it a more piercing intimacy. Its overload of recognizable stars is also a distracting add-on, particularly in a crucial late moment of unwelcome celebrity grandstanding. And yes, it doesn’t feel like 12 arduous years have passed, an issue amongst others I may need to assess upon revisiting. It may feel a shocking, hypocritical betrayal to allow doubt in my own opinion, but even with those latent irritations raised, I still believe it’s a crucial film everyone needs to see, as well as a vital film of this moment in America. Don’t dismiss it as hyperbole when I say this is a turning point in American cinema, because I can see the brave techniques and much simpler bravery utilized here having irrevocable ripples in historical cinematic practice. But that’s just wishful thinking of a world as honestly, vividly presented as the one in this film.
But for the love of God, stop complaining about how hard it is to sit through! I’m going to let myself go on a tirade, because this is inexcusable. Complaining that an honest depiction of American slavery is to hard on *you* is just another continuation of the high-minded selfishness shown in the film. Please realize where you are! You are slouching in a comfy chair while watching people no different than yourself being raped, tortured, lynched and a myriad of other humiliations and abuses. There are nine other films on this list that exist to give you some kind of awe and pleasure, not that they’re missing here. If you stop worrying about your own precious innocence, you may just leave this movie a better, or at least better informed, person. But again, wishful thinking.