BlackBook’s 20 Favorite Films of 2013

As I find myself sitting on my knees typing away and thinking of the year behind and year ahead, I can’t help but wonder where the time has gone. Has it really been an entire year since I lamented over my least favorite films of 2012, or did I just blink a little too hard?But as 2013 draws the curtain on 2014, and for all of the myriad life changes, pleasures, heartbreaks, existential quandaries, and obsessions endured, a great deal of my emotional memory is centered around cinema. I can pinpoint my own state of being in correlation to the films I loved and the work that truly moved me. I look back on my absolute favorite film of the year, Shane Carruth’s confounding and beautiful Upstream Color and can remember precisely the person I was at that time and just what compelled me to see the film 23 times in a span of two months.

But whether it was 2013’s highly anticipated heavy hitters like Steve McQueen’s fearless 12 Years a Slave or hidden gems recently to have their premiere such as Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, it’s safe to say that it’s been a pretty damn good year for film. From psychotropic teen nightmares and 90s dinner party-esque Shakespearean adaptations to transcontinental love stories and visceral documentaries, the films of 2013 surely offer a bit of something to please every cinematic appetite. So although I’ve  sadly yet to see some of the year end blockbusters—which I am sure they’re worth praising—I thought it still necessary to share my favorite films of the year, as well as a look back on our extensive interviews with the filmmakers behind the pictures. I’ve opted to not rank the films, as I believe they’re all vital and brilliant in their own right, but must  give away my personal Best Feature award to my favorite treasure of the year. Hope you enjoy.

***UPSTREAM COLOR, Shane Carruth***

With Upstream Color, Carruth has created a tactile film in which the sounds and textures engulf you in its layered and complex narrative that’s as much about the interdependence and madness of love as it is about our inescapable connection to nature and the world around us. There’s a poeticism to the film despite its rich sense of structure and science that allows it to possess a spiritual quality that hits the heart more so than the mind.

Upstream Color is a fractured story about broken people, shattering your notion of love’s conventions and what draws one person to another. It forces you to let go and immerse yourself in their world and the story Carruth has created in a way that you rarely feel compelled to with most contemporary cinema. You sink into the story and allow it to ripple over you with its subtle yet absolute approach, and although it may fall into the realm of the metaphysical, it remains emotionally tangible. And I will freely admit that this is not simply one of my favorite films of the year thus far, but perhaps one of the most incredible films I have ever seen. There are few things I cherish more than the physical act of watching a film, and the experience of sitting down for two hours and allowing myself to be overcome. From Upstream Color‘s first moment, something clicks inside of me and I’m hooked, mesmerized and embedded into the roots of its world.

Read out interview with Carruth HERE.

THE GREAT BEAUTY, Paolo Sorrentino 

Filled with striking cinematography and grandiose imagery that heightens everyday existence and existential quandaries into matters of personal faith, his work exposes a universal truth lying in his subjects. Whether he’s taking us on a perfectly scored journey through the vast open roads of the American landscape or through the hallowed halls and lamp lit streets of Rome, there’s a distinctly fantastic thrill, haunting charm, and absolute pleasure evoked from his sense of cinema.

And with his latest feature—both his personal best and one of my favorite films of the year—Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is as ambitious as it is stunning. Starring the always captivating Toni Servillo—with a look that may be familiar but a freshness that enthralls—he and Sorrentino takes us into the world of Jep Gambardella (Servillo), a writer who has been drifting through a lavish lifestyle of parties and empty experiences since the success of his first and only novel. Examining the dichotomy between the history lingering in Rome’s landscape and psyche and the hollow artifice of modernity’s ephemeral charms, The Great Beauty studies Jep’s life as a “grand indictment of a man, and a society, that has lost its way.”

With an strange and oft grotesque hand—but one that’s always full of wonder—Sorrentino explores how we deal with love and loss, life and death, and the questions we must ask ourselves to give our existence meaning. “The great attraction of human beings, is that this beauty manifests itself in fleeting moments and thunders,” Sorrentino told me. “Exterior beauty is ephemeral, it comes and goes.” And it’s that sentiment which lingers throughout The Great Beauty,giving us a keen observation into the soul of both Jep and the Italy he strolls through night after night.

Read our interview with Sorrentino HERE.

FRANCES HA, Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha not only reflects what it means to simply exist at that time in life and in that universe, but shows the beauty in the mistakes made along the way, underscoring the idea that just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean it’s broken. Baumbach has crafted a film that feels refreshing and contemporary yet harkens back to to such European cinematic masters as Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard in its casual essence, reminding us of what we love so much about the filmmaking of days past.

Co-written with the film’s brilliant and versatile star, Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is infused with a unique magic that comes from a true meeting of minds. If you look back on Baumbach and Gerwig’s early work, it’s evident that the two are cut from the same cloth—both sharing an affinity for a particular kind of character’s journey, dealing with a sense of malaise as they meander through life, yet filled with a yearning for more. And whereas many of Baumbach’s film’s tend to err on the side of the misanthropic,Frances Ha is a film that makes you want to go out and engage in life. It’s an inspired and intelligent love letter to cinema that never stops moving while we follow the endearingly strange Frances as she dances from life to life.

At its core, Frances Ha is both a journey of self-discovery and a love story between best friends. With Gerwig’s frank yet tender touch, we see a realistic look at a fractured female friendship and the mourning that comes from feeling as though you’ve lost a part of yourself to someone else.

Read our interview with Baumbach HERE and our interview with Gerwig HERE.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Joss Whedon  

Playing out as a love letter to Shakespeare’s comedic tale of a merry war betwixt two lovers, Much Ado is brimming with charisma and sensual thrill. You don’t need to be a scholar of the bard to find yourself captivated by the story, with its silky smooth and velvety jazz-filled atmosphere, you’re eased into the film in a way that’s far from intimidating. Whedon infuses a conversational style to the story that makes it more accessible than any other Shakespearean re-workings in recent memory, adding to a charm that’s heightened by its phenomenal cast of characters.

Filmed in his own home in Los Angeles, for the director best known for hit shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, or Hollywood blockbusters like The Avengers, Much Ado was a welcome surprise. The comedy feels like a breath of fresh air, a respite from major studio pictures that allows Whedon the freedom to let loose with a rapturous mix of refinement and playfulness. Much Ado may seem minimalistic in its production style, but that speaks nothing of the beauty with which it was shot and the wonderfully nuanced performances by its sprawling cast.

Read our interview with Alexis Denisof HERE.

THE ACT OF KILLING, Joshua Oppenheimer

 The brilliant Texas-born director’s latest film, The Act of Killing, exposes its frightening subjects with a generosity and candor that you’re at once drawn to, yet viscerally unable to wrestle with. What you’re hearing and seeing on screen so unnerving that it almost feels like fiction. Executive produced by documentary film legends Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, Oppenheimer’s work focuses on the perpetrators behind the Indonesian genocide that occurred in the mid-1960s, a mass murdering of communists and Chinese by the death squad leaders who ushered in a regime of fear over the nation. But rather than simply tell the overarching story of these heinous acts, he worked with these now aged and troubled leaders to recreate their crimes in a highly theatrical and shocking way. Having murdered over a million people, one of the men to lead in the atrocity was Anwar Congo, whom Oppenheimer’s documentary focuses in on.

In a groundbreaking and uniquely evocative way to approach the subject, they reenact their crimes, playing out like homages to the American films that these gangsters idealized. Having spent years working in Indonesia, hearing these men’s stories and the plight of the survivors, he gives a raw and extremely personal look into the imagination and psyche of Anwar and his contemporaries. The film exists in the dichotomy of pure evil without remorse and the denial of that villainy in order to survive, and the result is a brilliantly executed exploration into a horrifying truth never before uncovered.

Read our interview with Oppenheimer HERE.

SUN DON’T SHINE, Amy Seimetz 

Bursting onto the screen with frantic gasp of air, Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine grabs you by the neck and holds you captive. From its fierce and emotionally-charged opening scene—a rough and muddy lover’s quarrel—to the dreamy back road driving sequence that follows, you’re entranced in the film’s hot and sticky world straightaway, teeming with tension, anxiety, and fear. With swampy earthy tones of the Everglades and rosy hues of passion, Seimetz’s directorial debut is both visceral and expressionistic, playing out through feeling and texture, guiding you with potent emotion as you follow a young couple on the run.

A character study that picks up after the act of murder, Sun Don’t Shine exists in the balance of what comes after, the post-crime delirium and limbo before consequence. Hazy voiceovers that harken back to memories of hopeful intimacy are woven throughout the unraveling and unnerving narrative, shedding light on the paranoid couple that ventures into the seedy tourist trappings of southern Florida with a dead man in the trunk. Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley bring a frightening sense of life into Crystal and Leo, playing them with every nerve exposed and emotions seeping out and fusing into the sweat on their skin.

Read our interview with Seimetz HERE.

12 YEARS A SLAVE, Steve McQueen 

With only a handful of features under his belt, director Steve McQueen stands out like a beacon for modern filmmakers. The fearless and outspoken filmmaker whose work is as brutally human as it is viciously beautiful, has given us the Michael Fassbinder-led Hunger and Shame, and now the absolutely visceral and exquisite 12 Years a Slave. And not only is McQueen talented, but it’s his self-possessed and outspoken nature and his refusal to pander to Hollywood or hide from challenge that sets him above his contemporaries. ‘Right now I couldn’t do a better film than Shame,’ he said back in 2012. “I couldn’t do better, but I hope the next one that I do will be better. It will be better.”

And although Shame was an masterpiece of emotionally gutting intimate psychology in its own right, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave has proved to surpass everyone’s expectations, and apparently, even his. As an unflinching and astounding director whose brilliance is evident in everything he touches, McQueen has delivered, what is sure to be, the year’s most epic film. With a passion and talent for exposing brutality with an honest and emotional eye, McQueen’s film showcases the work of a man who harbors an unwavering vision and an incredible ability to pull performances from the marrow of his actors. Without pandering to an audience, without trying to dull down the absolute horror of Solomon Northup’s story or the atrocity of slavery, McQueen’s film unravels you emotionally from its very start and leaves you with the sensation that you have truly just watched a film—that feeling you cannot shake even hours leaving the theater, that’s what cinema is about.

It may not be the first film about slavery, but it feels like the first to treat it with no filter, no safety net, no redemptive catharsis , but as an American holocaust, told entirely from the black perspective. To watch it with an audience is to participate in an act of communal, immersive exorcism, and the element that makes it not just bearable, but transcendent, is the pure, jaw-dropping artistry at every level of its production. The true life tale of Solomon Northup’s Kafkaesque nightmare—kidnapped from his free life and sold into brutal slavery—feels like a major step in healing the wounds of slavery’s past, by allowing us to take collective responsibility as we watch horror turned to exquisite art, without lessening any of its impact.  In a perfect world, it would win every Oscar hands down, but given the Academy’s predilection for unchallenging feel-good entertainment, it doesn’t stand a chance.  Fuck ‘em. It’s not just the best film of the year, but one of the best films ever made. And here’s a few of those superlatives to underline my point: Unmissable. Essential. Fearless. Profound. Unforgettable.’

SPRING BREAKERS, Harmony Korine

Sure, Spring Breakers has an easy allure: sex, drugs, violence, and gun-toting saccharine-sweet Disney stars in bikinis. But there’s more to Harmony Korine’s neon-fueled rite of passage tale than meets the bloodshot eye. Like a candy-coated nightmare, Korine gives a raw portrayal of what at first appears to be a fun and breezy ride filled with sparkles and the promise of escape from life’s mundane ennui, but Spring Breakers cuts deep and goes dark and filthy into places that frighten, mystify, tantalize, and thrill with a mix of pure pleasure and pain.

Getting his hands dirty in just about every medium, the 40-year-old auteur has been working for nearly two decades now, creating work that’s unapologetic and uncompromising, filled with morally ambiguous and socially maligned characters that exist in a very specific world on the fringes. Although Korine’s work breathes with a mise-en-scene of the hyper-real, there’s an element to his films that holds up a rusty, all too familiar mirror for ourselves in the most unexpected way. And with Spring Breakers, this is a new side to the director who has been warping our minds ever since the premiere of the Korine-penned Kids eighteen years ago.

Like a scratched album stuck on repeat, Spring Breakers follows four college girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine, and Ashley Benson) who rob a diner a in order to fulfill their escapist fantasies of heading down to St. Petersburg, Florida for a debaucherous once-in-a-lifetime vacation. But when their beer-soaked and sexually charged trip goes sour, it’s rapper and drug and arms dealer Alien (Jams Franco) that comes to their rescue. And that’s when the nefarious story really kicks in as the world becomes much more rough and dark. With the tone of a haunted pop song, the film evokes something physical, leaving you in a trance that’s both erotic and dangerously chilling. It’s entertainment with a bullet, cinema with a bite of fantasy—it’s fizzing and bursting to the surface with color and entirely intoxicating.

Read our interview with Korine HERE.

STORIES WE TELL, Sarah Polley

When a film intersperses its usual narrative with super 8 home movie footage, my mind tends to wander to movies like Paris, Texas and the ways in which these reels of images presented to us are not simply reminders of the past, but the physical manifestation of memory—an artifact lost to time. There’s a quality to our personal bank of recollections that’s fallable and always subjective, pitting itself against reality. And with her fourth directorial feature and first documentary, actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is by far her most stunning and human work to date.

As a personal essay about the hidden past of her family, the feature beautifully weaves together an incredibly well-constructed experiment in storytelling. In the film, there’s a line that reads: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story when you’re telling it to yourself or anyone else.” And that sentiment plays out as the through-line for the feature, as Polley’s family and those close to it reveal familial secrets, shared truths, and show us the ways in which we create the own narrative of our lives.

Stories We Tell also confronts the challenges of love—be it romantic or maternal—while exposing the myriad ways our own memory can deceive us. There’s a delicacy and heartwarming touch in Polley’s style of filmmaking that shines through in all of her work but is never more present here. It’s absolutely enthralling and fascinating to watch but heartbreaking in its honesty—always leaving you hungry to discover more. The film works as a eulogy as much as it does a perfect vehicle for self-discovery, yet feels universal in its open-ended questions and speaks directly to your soul in way that’s both rare and tender.

BLUE JASMINE, WOODY ALLEN

With his latest summer film, Blue Jasmine, Allen delivers his weightiest film in years—putting to bed the shallow, slight nature of his previous work, To Rome With Love. Whereas my main argument with the latter rests heavily in his flimsy, two-dimensional portrayal of female characters, with Blue Jasmine, Allen has written a character ferocious and full of force, allowing Cate Blanchett to deliver one of the best performances of her career. From her opening line of dialogue spoken to a kind, elderly stranger on a flight to San Francisco, you see Blanchett has completely vaporized into the skin of Jasmine—tear-stained eyes, anxious cadence, and all—fully sunken into the character’s fractured psyche. In the way that you felt exhausted—both physically and emotionally—after seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—the actor’s stamina in the role a marvel to watch—I left my screening of Blue Jasmine feeling more shaky and distressed than when I entered, my own anxiety and emotions unraveled by Blanchett’s bewitching performance.

Like a destructive force of nature that waltzes in and sucks the air out of the room, Blue Jasmine tells the story of a woman completely in the throws of a nervous breakdown. After losing her husband, her fortune, and any sense of security, Jasmine goes out west to San Francisco to move in with her adopted sister, Ginger (played brilliantly by Sally Hawkins). As a broken-down New York socialite cast into a middle-class world populated with “losers” she doesn’t find worthy of her time, Jasmine attempts to assimilate to circumstances but finds herself trapped by her own fantasies. After changing her name from Jeanette to Jasmine in college, she re-imagined a life for herself, elevating her place in society and relying on the kindness of rich men to aide in her fantastical delusions.

With a supporting cast of Andrew Dice Clay (as the tough blue-collar ex-husband of Ginger), Louis CK (as the seemingly romantic side-jawn of Ginger), Bobby Cannavale (the brutish yet vulnerable boyfriend of Ginger), and Peter Sarasgaard (Jasmine’s unsuspecting and ambitious boyfriend), the film lacks Allen’s typical sense of romantic flair and swaps it for a substantial and darker sense of emotion. There’s no fourth wall breaking, no slapstick, no giddy romance—even the romances in the film seem slight and tragic in comparison to the greater weight of existential and psychological unrest. It’s a colder, bitterer pill of a film from Allen than we’ve seen in recent years, and as it cuts back and forth from Jasmine’s fruitful past to her desolate present, we see how one person’s life can spiral down into oblivion as the agent of her own disaster and that of those around her.

Read our interview with the Blanchett, CK, and Clay HERE.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT, Richard Linklater

At one point in Before Sunrise, Jesse begins to admit that in the months leading up to his wedding, he couldn’t stop thinking of Celine. He would see her everywhere, all the time, always in New York—especially once folding up an umbrella and entering a deli on 13th and Broadway. But she was off living in Europe somewhere, so he knew he was crazy. And of course, Celine then tells him that she was actually living in New York at that time—on 11th and Broadway.  It’s a small moment but an absolutely heartbreaking one—knowing that their lives could have been entirely different had he just glanced out of the car window again to see if it was her, knowing that this person whom he met once, yet possessed him so completely as an intangible longing inside him, was in fact right under his nose— and he never knew it. They never knew it.

But yes, that’s is just one of many painfully wonderful and sob-inducing moments in Richard Linklater’s transcontinental love trilogy. And since Before Sunrise‘s premiere in 1994, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have been our Celine and Jesse, playing out the epitome of rare requited love thwarted by time and space. You watch these films, and for all the tears you cannot help but shed, you’re always left with the pangs of hopefulness. It excites something in you and tickles your heart to know that somewhere on a tram in Europe, your ideal soulmate could be pensively starring out a window wondering if there’s something he’s missing.

But in the words of Anne Sexton, “To love another is something like prayer and can’t be planned, you just fall into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief.” When it comes to matters of the heart, we’re often powerless to our desires, consumed by emotion over our will and no matter the time or distance, feel inextricably linked to the soul of another. And almost two decades ago, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy first simultaneously ignited our hearts and ripped them apart with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, only to do it all over again nine years later with Before Sunset.

But fast forward into the future with Before Midnight, we’re brought into the life shared between our Jesse and Celine—and it isn’t all romantic walks and silent longing that speaks to our hearts, but the way in which Linklater and his cast exposes what it truly means to love someone, and the struggles of a shared existence. Although still incomparably romantic, there’s a maturity and candidness about Before Midnight that’s mesmerizing and complex.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR, Olivier Assayas 

Opening with the Blaise Pascal quote: “Between us and heaven and hell there is only life which is the frailest thing in the world,” Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air takes us into a world of youth committed to the present. Going back to the year 1971, which he first explored with the poetic Cold Water (1994)—a film about the emotions of being a teenager—Assayas draws direct parallels between the two, yet where the former dealt in the abstract, Something is a more direct autobiographical look at his own memory of coming of age in that time. Paying tribute to those who inspired his own sensibilities as an artist, the film merges the person with the political, exploring the identity of youth in the aftermath of the May ’68 and the choices that inform our maturation into adulthood.

It’s a film about the intersection of creative passion and ideological inclination, where self-discovery for the teenagers in the film, comes through their devouring of films, books, music, and art of the time—from the poetry of Gregory Corso to the music of Syd Barrett. As representation of his own youth, Something in the Air tells the story of Gilles (played by Clément Métayer), a high school student in Paris who finds himself swept up in the political fever of the times. However, his passion really lies in his art—painting, drawing, filmmaking—which becomes a struggle with the others around him. Heavily embedded in the countercultural movement, we follow Gilles through his various muses/love interests Laure and Christine (played by Carole Combes and Lola Créton), and the evolution of his maturity. And as Assayas is a believer that cinema is a place “where what’s lost may be found, where the world can be saved,” he recaptures his idealistic outlook on the world that he sought to be a part of.

Originally titled Après mai, or After May, the film exists in the echoes of chaos, yet feels idyllic and gorgeously cinematic—but without over-sentimentalization or nostalgia. Rather, Something in the Air exposes the “places and emotions that exist in the daylight,” showing an arcane world slowing unraveling as a youth countercultural rebellion take precedence.

Read our interview with Assayas HERE.

LAURENCE ANYWAYS, Xavier Dolan

Spanning the course of an entire decade, Laurence Anyways tells the story of two people passionately and deeply in love with one another who are forced to confront their own notions of love and acceptance when the fabric of their relationship turns inside out. For Fred and Laurence, played brilliantly by Suzanne Clément and Melvil Poupaud, their romance is forced to change when Laurence reveals to Fred that he is becoming a woman. Together, they’re forced to examine not only the prejudices and fears of those they know and the society around them, but that which they unconsciously harbor within themselves. For ten years, Fred and Laurence find themselves breaking apart and coming together, ripping out their own hearts and that of each other, and dealing with the ultimate expression of dedication to another person and what it means to truly love unconditionally. Whether they’re physically together or apart, Fred and Laurence share an inescapable connection that is as volatile and potent as it is beautifully delicate and tender.

With his first feature, I Killed My Mother, Dolan crafted an artful yet minimalistic feature that bared the mark of his youth aesthetically but emotionally held an incredible amount of weight. And in his second feature, Heartbeats, he opted for ambitious style and gorgeous mis-en-scene over narrative complexity. But with Laurence Anyways, Dolan has melded the best qualities from his previous work into a film that is both absolutely stunning and wholly fantastic, yet hits that psychological and emotional sweet spot we so long for in a cinematic experience. And as his films are all wont to be, Laurence is impeccably scored with music that echoes the period of the film (the 1990s), utilizing the songs to reflect the interior of its characters and entwine us that much deeper into Fred and Laurence’s story.

Read our interview with Dolan HERE.

LEVIATHAN,  Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel

 After watching Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s collaborative documentary, Leviathan, there was no question as to how I was feeling. There was no other way to experience their film, that leaves you bruised from its wholly immersive and visceral cinematic ride that feels more like you’re looking in through a keyhole on frightening and isolated world beyond our reality, than to feel both exhausted and absolutely in awe.

More easily comparable to the anxiety provoking and emotionally stimulating sensations of looking at the work of Francis Bacon or Edvard Munch while listening to a dark, metallic piece of music filled with pleasure and fright,Leviathan is almost inarticulate in its possession. As a sensory ethnographic investigation that leads you through the world of commercial fishing, the sum of the film is far more than one might expect. Having first premiered in competition at the 2012 Locarno Film Festival, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel‘s film has been entrancing audiences’ since with its entirely unique wordless wonder and gives the perspective of the fishermen but also echoes their own haunting experience out at sea through the interminable sense of unease. But this anxious perspective is matched by the most striking cinematography that’s shocking in its beauty as it casts a light on every perspective of the boat and blends colors like an impressionist painting being thrown against the waves.

Read our interview with Castaing-Taylor and Paravel HERE.

STOKER, Park Chan-wook 

As deliciously evil and thrilling as it is visually-rich and haunting, Park Chan-wook’s fantastical gothic thriller Stoker plays out like an erotic waltz with sinister intentions. As his first English-language film, the acclaimed Korean director has crafted a quiet kind of suspense that shows the graceful unraveling of an isolated American family.

Stoker tells the tale of a highly intelligent girl, India (played by Mia Wasikowska), after her father dies in an auto accident on her 18th birthday. Following his death, her mysterious yet absolutely charming Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to stay with her and her unstable mother (Nicole Kidman). India’s questions arise as to the nature of Charlie’s appearance in their lives and although sensing his dark ulterior motives, she becomes infatuated with him, inexplicably drawn to this dark figure who has crept his way into her world.

It’s a story about he inherent nature of evil, as well as the sexual awakening of a young girl when first tempted by the desirable. India’s coming-of-age is the undercurrent for this bone-chilling and stunning feature from Chan-wook and writer-actor Wentworth Miller. Staying true to Park’s strong affinity for character-driven tales and his arresting visual style, Stoker is also enhanced by its biting and beautiful soundtrack from Clint Mansell that acts as its own character in the film.

Read our interview with Park Chan-wook HERE.

SIMON KILLER, Antonio Campos

As one third of Borderline Films—alongside Sean Durkin and Josh Mond—Campos produced Durkin’s Martha Macy May Marelene, just as Durkin had his hand in producing Campos’s latest feature, the brooding and visceral Simon Killer. The film tells the story of a lonely, heartbroken, dangerous, and horny college grad who heads to Paris, where he becomes involved with a prostitute (played wonderfully by Mati Diop), Simon Killer is an entrancing waltz with destructive impulse led by star Brady Corbet. As interesting as he is talented, the 24-year-old gives a haunting performance, playing Simon with utmost complexity—vacillating between evil boldness and desperate vulnerability.

Simon Killer goes deeper into Campos’s affinity for the disturbed male psyche with a film that’s rich in texture, tone, and color. It’s a dance between passionate aggression and emotional isolation that’s primal and fiercely enjoyable in its discomfort. Filled with stunning visual interludes like psychological cues that bring you closer into Simon’s sociopathic, music-fueled, and violently sexual world, the film is an optically and emotionally stimulating character study that packs a punch. No stranger to portraying morally unsound characters that walk the line between tantalizing and creepy, Corbet carries out Campos’s vision with a frightening possession.

Read our interview with Campos HERE.

AFTER TILLER, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson

Abstaining from the harsh, political bent of most documentaries focused on the subject of abortion, Lana Wilson and Martha Shane’s After Tiller takes a tremendously emotional and controversial subject and endows it with warmth and humility. Providing an illuminating and wholly important look at the power of personal choice, the film leaves the floor open for discussion—both giving insight into the intricacies of late-term abortion and the incredibly challenging lives of those who provide them. Dr. George Tiller, the leading physician to provide third-trimester abortions, as well as a strongly religious and loving family man, was assassinated in his church in 2009 by a pro-life extremist. And it’s in the wake of the tragedy of his death, where After Tiller picks up.

Focusing on the four doctors across the country that still provide these services to women in crisis across the world—Susan Robinson, LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, and Shelley Sella—the film gives us personal look into the day-to-day lives of these doctors, allowing them a stage to voice their opinions and knowledge, while giving a compelling look at the exceptional challenges the women who seek their care must face. And after feeling both confused and shocked when learning about Dr. Tiller’s death, and seeing the way in which the news coverage of the tragedy failed to focus on who he was as a person, Wilson and Shane set out to make a feature that examined the intimate details of these physicians who are at the center of a debate that continues to rage on. And as an extremely moving portrait with unprecedented access into these clinics, through the lens of After Tiller, we bear witness to first-hand accounts of the women undergoing these abortions, the reasons why they’ve made their decision, and the immense weight of that on their lives.

Read our interview with Shane and Wilson HERE.

THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN, Felix Van Groeningen

With his latest film, the absolutely devastating and remarkably wonderful The Broken Circle Breakdown, he explores the complex ways in which we deal with loss, how grief can fracture even the most solid foundations, and the way in which love may never be enough. Telling the story of Elise (Veerle Baetens) a beautiful and full-of-life tattoo artist and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) a strong and passionate blue grass musician, The Broken Circle Breakdown follows their relationship from the instantaneous bond and fiery romance of love’s first flames, to the disintegration of that connection and the despair that ravages their lives.

Adapted from the theatre play of the same title written by Heldenbergh, the film comes alive through its musical interludes that play like cue cards for our emotions, guiding us further into the story and allowing us to take a step back from the intensity of the narrative and slip into the visceral feeling living between the characters. And although the original stage play was a bare bones and simple expression construction—with only two characters narrating their tale between musical numbers—van Groeningen has managed to convey that same rawness and immediacy onto the screen. By telling the tragic and novel-esque drama with a non-linear structure, we’re forced to dive head first into the potent heart of the film, while Elise and Didier’s most sorrowful and blissful moments are presented side by side, giving even more weight to each unfolding moment. There’s a natural beauty and honestness to the film and in the performances of its brilliant cast that invites you in gently, entrances you, and then holds you in its tight grasp—digging itself down deep under your skin and into your veins.

Read our interview with  Van Groeningen HERE.

ONLY GOD FORGIVES, Nicolas Winding Refn

Set in the neon-lit back alleys and seedier parts of Bangkok, Only God Forgives is Refn’s penetrating and evocative take on the Western. It’s a film so dark—both aesthetically and tonally—that when I first arrived to see the film fifteen minutes late, I found myself sitting in the isles because there wasn’t a shred of light emanating from the screen with which to find a seat. The revenge story about the connection between mother and sons, the struggle for morality, and the fear of submission plays out like a psychotropic nightmare, aided by a brilliantly visceral score from Cliff Martinez.

Starring Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm, Only God Forgives is a shot to the arm of pure id Refn. He employs the close-fisted anxious aggression of his pre-Drive days while taking his visual cues from a post-Drive world, completely blanketing us in the violent underbelly of Bangkok and putting a sword to our throat. Although the film is riddled with silence and languidly glides through darkened moments, Refn manages to hold us captive with his always-present sense of ecstatic desire. He plays on the dichotomy of what’s in and out of frame as well as what we do and not know is stirring in the characters’ psyche. It’s a film that warrants multiple viewings, but only because there’s a real pleasure in the experience of disappearing into his neon dreams and bloody obsessions, and as he says: that’s where the fun is.

Read out interview with Refn HERE.

LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, Abbas Kiarostami

…I think giving away too much information is being disrespectful to the viewerʼs intelligence and own personality. I think I’ve always believed that spectators are just as creative as filmmakers. Filmmakers happen to have been in touch with a camera and production and so they’ve made something, but it doesn’t mean that people who are there to see the film have nothing to think or nothing to say or donʼt have their own creativity. So I just pay tribute to this creativity, not giving too much information. I have my loyalty to real life and in real life we never say anything to the other and we let the other also bring their own information and their own experience of life in the relationship that have with us, so why should it be different in film because you are sitting in a theater in front of a screen? Do you have to leave your curiosity and your own thinking aside and be fed by the film? Whenever I have the opportunity to see the people who are sitting in a theater after seeing one of my films, I look at their faces and I look at the features of the faces and I suddenly feel responsible and say well, these people look intelligent and thoughtful, they have plenty of things to say and so thereʼs no reason why I should be the one who tells them, they have things to tell me. So I create but then I need their creation back.

…this again is only loyalty to the real complex nature of human beings. I think even painters in classic paintings, they tried to show the soul of the portrait, of the human beings that they were drawing or painting because they realized that human beings were not uni-dimensional. So there was no reason why they couldn’t try and give something to this complexity of this plain character, this fool character. So in cinema, we have moving images, we have three dimensional images and why should we show people just as blind characters. Of course they are complex, and this complexity and even this secretiveness is part of human nature. Your soul dictates you not to reveal yourself immediately and not to appear naked and to have your own complexity, your own intelligence. So this intelligence should be considered. It has been in art and paintings so it definitely should be in filmmaking too.

Read our interview with Kiarostami HERE.

Did You Hear…? A BlackBook Audiobook Review of 12 Years a Slave – Presented by Audible

Listen in on your own: buy Twelve Years a Slave or get your first download free here.

I admit failure. I’ve never read Solomon Northup’s memoir Twelve Years a Slave. It is not an exaggeration to say this is one of the most important stories of American history. The book was originally unearthed from obscurity and annotated by Dr. Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon after being out of print for roughly 100 years. This past year saw a film adaptation that was met with resounding praise, and here I will admit my next failure: I have not watched that either. But my own failures here are now mute, because I have listened to the tremendous unabridged audiobook from Eakin Films & Publishing expertly narrated by Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor Louis Gossett, Jr.

The memoirist in Twelve Years a Slave is Solomon Northup, a learned and free man—freed by birth, having been born in New York, living with his wife and children. He is an exceptional fiddle player and a jovial character in the town. His talents are enjoyed by locals, and when promoters from a circus come to town they offer him a generous amount of money to join their troupe and travel to Washington, D.C., for a special performance. The invite is a twisted ruse. Solomon is drugged and shackled and bound for slavery after being sold at auction in New Orleans. Throughout the narrative he serves a number of different masters, some more barbarous than others, and all the time unable to declare he is a free man to avoid severe punishment.

Solomon delivers a detailed account of his life as a slave, but more specifically it shows his observations of the situations, scenes, and other people surrounding him in this temporary hell. Temporary, here, because we know that he is able, somehow, to bear the constant torment and with the help of a Canadian abolitionist prove that he is indeed a free man. His perspective is what differentiates it from other true-life accounts of slavery in that Solomon is forced into a life to which he is wildly unaccustomed, and so allows the stories of characters he encounters to guide us through a world we can never witness—a world he too is unfamiliar with and equally horrified by.

Louis Gossett, Jr. is consistent in his reading, and his cadence subtlety but effectively changes when reading a scene depicting heartbreak, frustration, horror, and even lightheartedness (as little as there is). For instance, he skillfully narrates a horrific scene in which  a female slave at Master Epp’s house, Patsey, is stripped naked, tied down on all fours and savagely flogged. The listener has no choice but to sit with baited breath as Gossett, Jr. delivers these lines: “the most cruel whipping that ever I was doomed to witness—one I can never recall with any other emotion than that of horror—was inflicted on the unfortunate Patsey,” and “Poor Patsey prayed piteously for mercy, but her prayers were vain.” Despite how hard at times it is to listen to the many scenes like this, it is hard to stop listening to the audiobook.

Brew a pot of coffee and take it all in in one sitting, because you are listening to a firsthand account of history. You will forget everything else and become enthralled by this story of a life altered by both extreme cruelty and extreme compassion. You will be angered and invigorated and relieved and challenged. It’s often been said that the memoir “reads like a novel” but it’s an irrelevant notion when you hear this wonderful and unique recording by Louis Gossett, Jr. He escapes seamlessly into Northup’s voice and grants us an ear to what is possibly the closest we could ever get to hearing Solomon Northup recount this incomparable story himself.

Listen to a clip below:

[hmp_player]

And the 2013 IFP Gotham Award Winners Are…

This year’s Gotham Awards not only celebrated some of the best independent films of the year but a handful the year’s greatest cinematic achievements as well—from Shane Carruth’s beautifully confounding Upstream Color to Steve McQueen’s visceral and fearless 12 Years a Slave. And tonight, the 2013’s winners were announced. Check out the full list below:

BEST FEATURE
Inside Llewyn Davis – Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

BEST ACTRESS
Brie Larson in Short Term 12
(Check out our interview with Larson HERE)

BEST ACTOR
Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

BREAKTHROUGH ACTOR
Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

 BINGHAM RAY BREAKTHROUGH DIRECTOR
Ryan Coogler for Fruitvale Station

BEST DOCUMENTARY
The Act of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer, director
(Check out our interview with Oppenheimer HERE)

EUPHORIA CK SPOTLIGHT ON WOMEN FILMMAKERS LIVE THE DREAM GRANT
Beneath the Harvest Sky – Gita Pullapilly, director

AUDIENCE AWARD
Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings – Tadashi Nakamura, director

*Personally I would have awarded Lupita Nyong’o for Breakthrough actor, considering her performance in 12 Years a Slave was absolutely brilliant and devastating. Amy Seitmetz would have done well to take home the award for Breakthrough Director as well with her anxiety-ridden post-crime delirium drama Sun Don’t Shine. And finally, Upstream Color will always remain the best film of 2013—in my opinion and considering I’ve seen it a total of 23 times. Although, Before Midnight and 12 Years a Slave were equally just at vital and wonderful and more than deserving.

 

What Should I Be Seeing in New York This Weekend?

Sundays may be a “wan, stuff shadow of a robust Saturday” or a day of “forced leisure for folks who have no aptitude for leisure,” according to Tom Robbins, but a weekend is still a weekend. The pleasure of a Friday night, the knowing the burdens of work week have a brief respite carry themselves into the following two days of leisure, and what better way to indulge in that leisure than heading to the cinema.

And this weekend, there are more than enough wonderful films showing around New York for you to disappear into. Whether it’s your favorite Bruce Weber documentary or some of 2013’s most wonderful films, there’s surely something to satisfy every cinematic appetite. I’ve founded up the best of what’s playing around the city, so peruse our list, and enjoy.

From Aronofsky to McQueen, Here’s What You Should Be Seeing This Weekend in New York – Movies – BlackBook.

Our 10 Favorite Films of This Year’s NYFF

For the last two weeks, the Film Society of Lincoln Center has been hosting to this year’s New York Film Festival—and it has been an absolute pleasure to attend. In our upcoming interview with director Claire Denis—whose new filmBastards premiered last week—she spoke about the festival, saying, “It’s a place where you have time to think about the film you just finished. You’re not under the pressure of publicity or competition. It’s an open space with people I like and people I like to meet, and so it makes me a better filmmaker.”

And for their 51st annual festival, NYFF unveiled some of the most acclaimed features of the coming few months and year—from the best of international cinema to the features that have been on the tip of everyone’s tongue for months. Alongside their incredible line-up of new films—from Spike Jonze’s Her and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive to Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin and  Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son—NYFF also is currently also hosting an expansive Jean-Luc Godard retrospective. So after the past few weeks of watching wonderful films from the Walter Reade theater, here are our ten favorite of this year’s NYFF (that we were able to catch), in no particular order.

Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch’s absolutely delicious and cool baby cool tale of bloodsucking, undead love. A playful and nocturnal examination of modernity’s foibles through the RayBan covered eyes of those who’ve lived through its beauty and its horror. Scored to perfection and directed with the touch of a man who knows how to make a story feel like a jazz riff, the film is as if the Nick Cave scene in Wings of Desire made friend’s with Mick Jagger in Performance to create your new favorite onscreen romance from Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.

The Immigrant
James Gray’s very own McCabe & Mrs. Miller that begins with familiarity but divulges into a trying look at the lengths one goes to for survival, the madness of love, and forgiveness as a means of salvation. Shot with a Vilmos Zsigmond-esque glow, the film has a painful allure that proves a wonderful showcase for its cast.

Her
Spike Jonze’s strange and frightening portrait of modern love that shows the dichotomy and tension between the comforting affection of fantastical, easy love over the struggles of real human connection. While at times sharply funny, beautifully moving, and very smart, the film felt like it could never fully commit to its own ethos, leaving the most profound moments unrealized or turned into comedy. But all the while, it was a brilliantly acted case study of emotion and visually a pleasure to take in without ever really cutting the skin.

A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke’s forceful tetraptych drama that explodes with violence yet allows its own moments for reflection. A portrait of modern China that explores the fine line between man and beast and the pleasure and satisfaction that can be derived from that brutality.

12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen’s fearless and unflinching masterpiece whose absolute brutality is matched by its adamant exposure to what makes us human and the evils we’re capable of. The film truly showcases the work of a man who harbors an uncompromising vision and an incredible ability to pull performances from the marrow of his actors.

Stray Dogs
Tsai Ming-liang’s bleak urban endurance test whose silence allowed for reflection but conjured up only slight emotion in the absence of movement. The removed spacial silence eminded me of Stephen Shore’s Oregon billboard, except it’s raining and devoured by someone’s incisors.

Like Father, Like Son
Hirokazu Koreeda’s emotional drama that forces us to question our own internal set of values and those that have given us life. It’s a delicate tickling of most potent emotional keys that asks a question almost too painful to consider answering and examines it with genuinely heartbreaking honesty.

Bastards
Claire Denis’ haunting family portrait that lives in the darkness that rises from the aftermath of death. An oddly sensuous nightmare voyage through an unforgiving world that lurks in shadows and painful lies. Exposes a kind of evil culled from the stories that we read and see everyday which have become second nature to us, their dastardliness barely leaving a mark on our skin.

Captain Phillips
Paul Greengrass’ thrillingly tense drama that captures you with a forceful hand and refuses to let go until its highly emotional end. Void of spectacle and infused with a kind of genuine force rarely seen in docudramas, the film possesses the cinematic excitement of the best hostage thrillers but strips the genre of its pretense.

Manakahmana
Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s entrancing and beautiful ethnographic documentary taking place high above the mountains of Nepal. As the Holy Motors of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, perhaps a packed theater is too limited for such a film, as it deserves to be free of confines. A meditative and exploratory journey that perhaps should be projected in a large space that allows for its audience to enter the film in a more unconventional way.

 

Your Alternate Essential List of Best Films to Watch This Fall

Waking up to sheets damped by thousands of droplets of sweat as a fan hums off in the distance, and waking up to the sound of wind rustling through leaves on the sidewalk as you shiver to pull yourself under the covers, are two entirely different sensations that leave two vastly distinct impacts on our psyche throughout the day. From the moment you awake, there’s a change that lingers through and penetrates our waking hours as the seasons rotate, and when it comes to fall—the best season by far—it’s a very welcome change of pace. We’re now able to rid ourselves of the anxious and torrid thrill of summer and return to our more hermetic selves, enjoying the richer tastes of the chillier months. Our lives become a little more insular, we may grow a little melancholy but it’s certainly the most beautiful time of the year and for all the nostalgic feelings that sweep in, basking in them is more of a pleasure than a burden.  

And as we don our knee-highs, sweaters, and boots and change our playlists to the darker and heavier notes, our cinematic preferences alter as well. But what makes a film distinctly a “fall film” has little do with the time in which its set but about a tone and texture of the film, a certain emotional through line that’s tethered to a certain seasonal state of being. And although a generous number of fantastic films are set to premiere this autumn—from McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street to Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color and Spike Jonze’s Her—if you’re looking for something timeless, something that feels distinctly in tune with the season—I’ve got you covered.  

Just as and 3 Women and Dog Day Afternoon were certainly summer films, I’ve put together a list of films that possess something that mirrors that seasonal affect of fall—from the smirkingly violent to the tragically romantic and the existentially wandering to the psychologically possessed. So here’s your alternate list of fall movies to watch over the next few months. Enjoy.  

Interiors


Funny Games

Buffalo ’66

Until the End of the World

Magnolia

Amour

Lost in Translation

Dogville

Hunger

An Autumn Afternoon

La Haine

Taste of Cherry

The Double Life of Veronique

Pina


Adaptation

The Ice Storm

Lost Highway

Three Colors Red

Husbands and Wives

Kicking and Screaming

Antichrist

Days of Heaven

Good Will Hunting

Fire Walk With Me

35 Shots of Rum

House of the Devil


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Carnival of Souls


Holy Motors

 

 

Sans Soleil

 

 

Performance

Get Excited for Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave’ With a Set of New Stills

In case anyone wasn’t already convinced that Steve McQueen has emerged as one of the most brave and fascinating directors of our generation, his latest film, the highly-anticipated 12 Years a Slave, will surely set you straight. Never one to shy away from potent emotion and exposing the darker side of the human experience, McQueen’s film has received an incredible amount of praise in the last few weeks for its harrowing and fearless portrait of slavery and evils man is capable of.

And with the film’s releases coming up in October, today you can see a new batch of stills from the film, featuring its absolutely brilliant cast—from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender to Lupita Nyong’o and Benedict Cumberbatch. And if you tend to be wary of films that garner this level of hype, never fear, this certainly lives up to expectations—and more.

v

c

x

v

x

c

d

x

TIFF in Review Part One: Fall Movies

Attending any film festival, a common dilemma is whether to go for the upcoming fall movies a few months, or weeks, ahead of release, or whether to pick the more obscure indie/foreign films still awaiting distribution. The advantages of  the former are that there’s nothing quite like seeing a world premiere with a rapt audience and the filmmakers in attendance, while also having the space to formulate one’s own opinion before a consensus is formed (or too many spoilers revealed). The advantage of picking the latter, is the chance of finding diamonds in the rough, and championing them—sometimes frustratingly, to a world that may never get the chance to see what you’re on about. My personal way around this dilemma is to mix it up and pick a smattering of both. And since I’ve just seen 12 movies in five days, I’ve decided to split my reviews accordingly, in two parts.  

j

12 Years a Slave

It’s hard to talk about Steve McQueen’s searing, masterful film without reaching deep for every available superlative, and a few more besides. It may not be the first film about slavery, but it feels like the first to treat it with no filter, no safety net, no redemptive catharsis , but as an American holocaust, told entirely from the black perspective. To watch it with an audience is to participate in an act of communal, immersive exorcism, and the element that makes it not just bearable, but transcendent, is the pure, jaw-dropping artistry at every level of its production. The true life tale of Solomon Northup’s Kafkaesque nightmare—kidnapped from his free life and sold into brutal slavery—feels like a major step in healing the wounds of slavery’s past, by allowing us to take collective responsibility as we watch horror turned to exquisite art, without lessening any of its impact.  In a perfect world, it would win every Oscar hands down, but given the Academy’s predilection for unchallenging feel-good entertainment, it doesn’t stand a chance.  Fuck ’em. It’s not just the best film of the year, but one of the best films ever made. And here’s a few of those superlatives to underline my point: Unmissable. Essential. Fearless. Profound. Unforgettable. (Opens in limited release October 18th.)  

j

Prisoners

I loved Denis Villeneuve’s last film, Incendies, so I already had high hopes for his first U.S movie, but I was still completely blown away by this epic, harrowing, uncompromisingly dark thriller. Hugh Jackman gives the first performance of his career that I’ve unequivocally loved, full of rage and helplessness as the survivalist father who takes the law into his own hands after his daughter is kidnapped. If that synopsis sounds predictable, rest assured the movie is anything but, following its brilliantly realized characters to a true heart of darkness as it explores big themes (faith, forgiveness, revenge, grief) while twisting the screws of its nail-biting premise to almost unbearable levels of tension and dread. Jake Gyllenhaal is equally revelatory in the role of the jaded but determined cop leading the investigation, as is the entire supporting cast. A brilliant script, brilliantly directed, that joins Seven, Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac in the ranks of the all-time great criminal investigation thrillers that resonate far beyond their storylines. (Opens in wide release Sept. 20th)  

x

Labor Day

Jason Reitman’s fifth movie in seven years breaks away from the knowing, arch humor of his previous work (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult) and embraces the genre of the “woman’s weepie” with unabashed, uncynical enthusiasm that will alienate many but reward those willing to be swept along by its charms. Set in 1987and awash in a golden-hued nostalgic glow that brings to mind a Wonder Years episode by way of Douglas Sirk, the story is told from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy living alone with his fragile, heartbroken mother (Kate Winslet) as an escaped convict enters their lives, and proves to be the perfect father/partner for each of them. Josh Brolin sells a potentially ridiculous role with rugged real-man charisma and soul, and Reitman ratchets up the emotional tension and release with old-fashioned skill—though my main criticism would be an over-reliance on score, especially during a pie-baking scene that provided unintentional laughter in the screening I attended. Nevertheless, it’s a good film to take your mother to, or to watch alone if you fancy a good cathartic cry, though I would warn away anyone who has zero tolerance for melodrama or sentiment. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)

  k

Philomena

Another great pick to take your mom to, Stephen Frears’ latest boasts a smart, witty, emotionally satisfying script by Steve Coogan—who in the role of a cynical journalist helping an elderly woman find her long-lost son, may have found the movie that finally sells him to an American audience. His chemistry with Judi Dench, playing the title character, is wonderful, and the story takes some interesting turns into darker territory while always remaining warm, humane and funny. Frears’ direction is solid if uninspired—I always think his films belong on TV rather than on a big screen—but his old-school professionalism is undeniably effective, always finding the right emotional beat in every scene, as well as the laughs. It won’t blow your mind, but it’s good, solid stuff, and easy to recommend, to just about anyone. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)

  k

Gravity

Wow. Beginning to end, I watched this movie with my jaw hanging on the floor and the back of my brain exploded onto the back of the theatre. It’s so rare to see a big-budget special effects driven movie that is so uniquely an auteur’s vision, and while Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic isn’t the philosophical meditation some hoped it would be, it’s a thrilling, genuinely awe-inducing ride like nothing you’ve ever seen. Evolving his use of long takes—so well-executed in the brilliant, underrated Children of Men—to a mind-boggling extreme (the film’s first take is something like 45 mins long), the astonishing visuals on display are used in the service of a genuinely emotional journey, that sees George Clooney use his charming, comforting presence to ably support Sandra Bullock’s moving, fierce and vulnerable star turn, unlike anything we’ve seen from her to date. Of all the films playing at Toronto, Gravity is most likely the one I will return to most often, just to bask in the wonder of its technical achievements, and surrender to its immersive window into zero-g existence, with our beautiful, distant planet circling below. Wonderful. (Opens in wide release Oct. 4th)  

i

August: Osage County

This much-hyped adaptation of Tracy Letts’ excellent play, is a mixed, though mostly successful bag. It’s an actors’ showcase through and through, with a cast to die for, and material that’s hard to screw up—boasting great characters, rich, blackly comic dialogue, and enough dramatic turns to fill an entire season of an American soap opera. Meryl Streep acts with a capital A, and she’s unsurprisingly impressive as the monstrous matriarch of a large extended family, but it’s the quieter turns that really stick in the memory—especially Julianne Nicholson as the quiet middle sister, and Chris Cooper as the benign but strong willed uncle. There are numerous meaty scenes for all the players to chew on (everyone gets their big emotional moment under the sun), and it’s a thrill to see Julia Roberts and Streep go head to head, most effectively in the film’s brilliant center-piece, a post-funeral dinner that spirals way out of control. Unfortunately, the film’s impact is dulled by a pace that lags thereafter, and what seems to have been a deliberate decision to soften the play for a wider audience (namely through the amber cinematography, classic Oscar-movie film-making, and obtrusive, somewhat treacly score), as John Well’s fine but uninspired direction never lets the material soar as high or dark as it wants it to go. Still, a very entertaining, very watchable few hours, that while not as great as it could have been, is most definitely worth your time. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)  

And that’s it for the big studio releases. Up next: Iranian immigrants in Paris, scrap-metal hunting kids in Northern England, broke musicians in Manhattan, teenage punk chicks in Stockholm, and foul-mouthed adults entering spelling bee competitions, as we round out the films that came to Toronto seeking distribution, and a place on next year’s movie calendar.

Steve McQueen’s Masterpiece ’12 Years a Slave’ Tops TIFF

“Right now I couldn’t do a better film than Shame,” said director Steve McQueen back in 2012. “I couldn’t do better, but I hope the next one that I do will be better. It will be better.” And although Shame was an masterpiece of emotionally gutting intimate psychology in its own right, McQueen’s follow up has proved to surpass everyone’s expectations, and apparently, even his.

As an unflinching and astounding director whose brilliance is evident in everything he touches, McQueen has delivered, what is sure to be, the year’s most epic film, 12 Years a Slave. With a passion and talent for exposing brutality with an honest and emotional eye, McQueen’s film showcases the work of a man who harbors an uncompromising vision and an incredible ability to pull performances from the marrow of his actors. Without pandering to an audience, without trying to dull down the absolute horror of Solomon Northup’s story or the atrocity of slavery, McQueen’s film unravels you emotionally from its very start and leaves you with the sensation that you have truly just watched a film—that feeling you cannot shake even hours leaving the theater, that’s what cinema is about.
 
And after its warm reception at TIFF and in Venice, last night 12 Years a Slave took home the award for BlackBerry’s People Choice award—and rightfully so. Is this an indication of Oscar contention? Will all the ravenous hype thus far elevate the film to a Best Picture award? Who cares. All that matters is that with this film McQueen has created a picture that will last in Hollywood and illuminate an enormous part of American history with an unwavering and beautifully-crafted authenticity. Looking at his progression from Hunger to Shame to this, we can only anticipate what he could possibly do next. “ I’m not reactionary; I’m not trying to stir the pot. I’m just trying to make films that have a reason to be made.”
 
 
The BlackBerry People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono)
 
The BlackBerry People’s Choice Documentary Award

The Square (Jehane Noujaim)
 
NETPAC AWARD

Qissa (Anup Singh)
 
ROLSCH FILM WORKS DISCOVERY AWARD

All the Wrong Reasons (Gia Milani)
 
RBC EMERGING FILMMAKERS COMPETITION

Requiem for a Robot (Christoph Rainer)
 
YOUTUBE AWARD FOR BEST CANADIAN SHORT FILM

Noah (Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg)
 
CITY OF TORONTO + CANADA GOOSE AWARD FOR BEST CANADIAN FEATURE FILM

When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig)
 
AWARD FOR BEST CANADIAN FIRST FEATURE FILM

Asphalt Watches (Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver)
 
Prize of the International Critics (FIPRESCI) for Special Presentations
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
 
Prize of the International Critics (FIPRESCI) for the Discovery Programme

The Amazing Catfish (Claudia Sainte-Luce)