With the Telluride and Venice Film Festivals premiering some of most highly-anticipated and acclaimed films of the coming season, and TIFF and NYFF on the horizon, we’ve been watching as the early reviews—both of excessive praise and harsh aversion—roll on in. But such examination can be treacherous territory. So many of the initial reactions appearing over the weekend related the impression and impact of the films seen, strictly in terms of how they thought the feature would fare come Award season.
But is that really the mark of how great a film can be and lasting impact it will have? No. Personally, I rarely find myself reading a heavy bit of criticism until after I allowed myself to absorb the film fully and formulate an opinion for myself unfettered by the inflection of other’s words, no matter how compelling. The point isn’t to walk in the theater with an agenda or with a preconceived notion of its greatest or to exit the theater keeping a shame in absolutely falling in love with a film. But let’s be honest, it’s hard to resit seeing what some of our favorite writers had to say thus far.
When it comes to festivals, reviews can make or break a long-waited anticipation—squashing the thrill or hyping in into an unnecessary realm that will only lead to let down. And with the an impressive line-up of films having already debuted this past week, long-lead reviews may not have the ability to hinder your perception as powerfully as it might if you knew you were seeing the film tomorrow. So for those you not attending the festivals in the coming months, check out our collection of snippets from the early reviews coming in, featuring some of the most anticipated films from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to Xavier Dolan’s Tom A La Ferme.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave
“The recent popular revenge fantasy Django Unchained notwithstanding, there have been so few good and strong films about slavery in America that, for this reason alone, 12 Years A Slave stands quite tall. With director Steve McQueen dedicating himself to detailing the “peculiar institution” with as many dreadful particulars as he can, Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a fine cast with a superior performance as the real-life Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into Southern slavery until being miraculously rescued. Perhaps the nature of the story is such that the film can’t help but be obvious and quite melodramatic at times, but it gets better as it goes along and builds to a moving finish. Despite the upsetting and vivid brutality, Fox Searchlight has a winner here that will generate copious media coverage, rivet the attention of the black public, stir much talk in political and educational circles and appeal to film audiences who crave something serious and different.
…Ejiofor is terrific in a demanding character who’s put through the wringer physically, mentally and emotionally. One feels his determination to get back to his family virtually at all times even though he doesn’t talk about it, and toward the end there is an unusual extended close-up of him in which he looks out toward the unknown future as his eyes express a quicksilver array of emotions, from wonder to fear to hope.” THR
“This radiant aesthetic, coupled with the rousing use of spiritual songs, provide a beacon of optimism amidst so much hate, once again proving cinema’s place as the ultimate human-rights medium. It’s a shame that such injustice was allowed to exist for so long — 12 years for Northrup and nearly 250 for those less fortunate — and an even bigger disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face.” Variety
“Amistad,” meet the Marquis de Sade, in the form of slavemaster Michael Fassbender, who puts his victims through more tortures than Mel Gibson ever could have imagined for Jesus.
…As for McQueen’s work, advance chatter had some wondering whether he had what it took to make a mainstream entertainment his third time around, but there won’t be much questioning of that after doubters see “12 Years a Slave.” It has the strokes you’d expect out of a studio picture but also some moments few other directors would have attempted, like an agonizingly beautiful sequence in which Solomon literally tip-toes his way through a near-hanging that goes on for several silent minutes. If McQueen could forge a career working arthouse moments into multiplex movies, that’d be a case of mistaken identity we’d be happy to live with.” The Playlist
Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem
“That’s the major bum note to the film, but if you can look past it, there’s much to like, from Waltz’s performance to the typically rich production and costume design. It might not be a return to the form of “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “The Fisher King” and “ Twelve Monkeys,” but it’s a lot better than what we’ve had from Gilliam in the last decade, and we sincerely hope there’s plenty more to come.”
“Those who made it to the end of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” or “Tideland” will be amazed to find Gilliam sinking even further here than those low-water marks. The production notes, as if trying to forestall inevitable criticism, make many mentions of the quickness with which the production was executed and the challenges of the low budget, all of which is all too apparent onscreen.” Variety
Gilliam’s frequent DP Nicola Pecorini bring a strong sense of continuity with the look of the director’s previous work, though the choice to shoot on 35mm film in 2D rather than digital is counter-intuitive. Composer George Fenton, in contrast, creates a romantic-sounding score out of electronic music. The special effects have some high points too, like the rotating Rubik’s cubes that sail across the computer screen to complete a Tower of Babel construct.” THR
“For all that, the film has a ragged charm, a Tiggerish bounce, and a certain sweet melancholy that bubbles up near the end. It is a wilfully iconoclastic film from a wilfully iconoclastic man. And it shows, for better or worse, that Gilliam is still in the game and eyeing the prize, despite his spectacularly ill-starred recent career. At the age of 72, Gilliam obviously retains an enormous capacity for hope. In this respect, he’s a little like Qohan, who sits waiting for a phone call that will definitively explain the meaning of life. Of course, there’s no phone call; it’s all a delusion. Yet still he sits, because there’s hope in the waiting and what else is the point?” The Guardian
Xavier Dolan’sTom a La Ferme
“And indeed, the film marks his growth in all kinds of ways. We’ve found him a little awkward as a performer in his own previous films, but he gives a strong and even likable turn here (matched blow for blow, often literally, by the excellent Cardinal). And it’s his most expansive and impressive work visually too, with the photography by "Incendies"’ Andre Turpin taking full advantage of the rural landscape and claustrophobic interiors.
…We might not unreservedly love the film, as has been our experience with previous Dolan films (confirmed fans may well have a better time with it). But it’s certainly his best film, and if he keeps growing at this rate, it’s only going to be a matter of time before he comes up with something we really cherish. And in the meantime, it’s great to sit back and watch a fascinating filmmaker continue to find his voice.” The Playlist
“It’s a short leap, of course, from Highsmith to Hitchcock — not that “Tom at the Farm” has anything in common with “Strangers on a Train,” barring the obvious homoerotic ancestry. Though he shows an unexpected knack in the film’s opening and closing stages for razor-cut suspense, Dolan fosters the Hitch connection mainly through the lush strings of Yared’s almost ever-present score, one so uncannily in thrall to Bernard Herrmann that viewers familiar with Dolan’s previous output — hitherto reliant on tastefully curated jukebox soundtracks — may initially assume he’s sampling extracts from lesser-known film scores from the Golden Age of noir. So overwhelming and insistent as to constitute a narrative voice in itself, Yared’s work constitutes a significant formal risk, but its sweeping intricacy stands in sufficiently stark contrast to the film’s otherwise contempo-chic construction to make it a thrilling one.” Variety
“With his fourth feature completed at the tender age of just 24, Dolan has established a reputation for himself as a director of original and entertaining queer cinema. Tom at the Farm is confidently delivered, its shots composed with a careful eye, and its occasional stylistic flourish – ratios change in moments of danger, for instance – hint at someone pushing at the possibilities of cinema, if not quite breaking through.” CineVue
Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises
“But even beyond the love of planes, this feels like perhaps the director’s most personal film. He’s careful to portray the designers as artists rather than just engineers, and it’s easy to find parallels between Mitsubishi and Studio Ghibli at work. In many ways, Jiro’s obsessive attachment to his work feels like Miyazaki’s Kunstlerroman—his portrait of the artist as a young man.
…It’s a touch disappointing that the film’s biopic structure proves as constraining as it does; most of the story beats play out as you’d expect them to in a film like this one. But if the story itself is conventional, the way it’s told is anything but. There’s a lot to unpack here, with debate likely to continue long past its eventual U.S. release (and it should be noted that it’s fairly surprising that Disney have picked up a film that features as much smoking as half a season of "Mad Men," even given the long association between the two studios). It might not be the director’s most immediately accessible films, but it’s among his most fascinating and beguiling.” The Playlist
“Naturally the animation is a joy to behold. The film’s crisp colours and commanding lines summon up a ravishing portrait of pre-war Japan with its puffing steam-trains, huddled neighbourhoods and lulling nocturnal tram-rides through town. Some of the setpieces (most notably the apocalyptic earthquake that leads to the burning of Tokyo) are the equal of anything the director has produced in Spirited Away or My Neighbour Totoro. But the film itself is genteel to a fault. It’s too polite, it needs more bite. It lets enigmatic Horikoshi off the hook, bobbing out to the clouds, forever out of reach.” The Guardian
“Power-producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, friends of "Miyazaki-san" who have helped his films secure better North American distribution in recent years, introduced The Wind Rises. Kennedy said that a Horkioshi film has been on the director’s to-do list for years, and that he even considered making it as a live-action film. She also noted Miyazaki’s retirement announcement — which was met with gasps from many audience members who hadn’t heard the news — and Marshall added, "In our opinion, he saved his best for last.” THR
James Franco’s Child of God
- “The whole thing feels sort of tossed off, like it was made by film students over a couple of weekends. And that’s the root of our problem with Franco’s directorial work. His restless and experimental nature is to be lauded to a degree, and you feel that if he were to focus his considerable energies on a single project, then he might be able to come up with something special. Because otherwise, if he can’t make a piece of material like "Child Of God" into something worth watching, we’d probably rather see him spend his time in other people’s movies.” The Playlist
- “But as a character study of a figure said to be partly inspired by Wisconsin murderer and body snatcherEd Gein (also an influence on the killers in Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the film succeeds on its own terms. That is in large part down to Haze’s unstinting commitment to the role. Looking wild-eyed or shifty, Lester twists his toothy mouth into sick grimaces or foams with vicious imprecations, barely audible grumblings, or the garbled stream-of-consciousness ravings of a diseased mind. (The film screened in Venice with English as well as Italian subtitles, no doubt due to the thickly accented dialogue.)
…Shuffling around his wilderness domain with his rifle tucked under his arm, hunched over in pain, scratching and twitching, Lester is a memorably bizarre figure. He’s a monster but also a sad example of America’s dispossessed rural poor, who fittingly invites both disgust and sympathy.” THR
- “Could it be that Franco has now become a victim of his own gadfly nature, his pesky reputation as a jack of all trades? He has now reached the point where everything he does, every move that he makes, risks being viewed as a gesture or a silly little game. But Child of God has merit and should be judged on its own terms. If this director were half as clever as he thinks he is, he would take his name off the credits and give his critics a taste test. Tell them the picture is the work of an unschooled, first-time film-maker, born and raised in Tennessee. Many, I’m betting, would be easily convinced. They’d lap it up, smack their lips and ask for more.” The Guardian
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity
“Much like any art form, great cinema is defined by its ability to transport those who experience it — to an invented place, to a bygone time, even into a stranger’s state of mind. The medium can take us where we could never otherwise go, and in the case of Alfonso Cuarón’s effortlessly riveting “Gravity,” it can introduce us to fears that we never knew we should have in the first place…Comparisons to this year’s Robert Redford survival drama, “All is Lost,” have been long in the making and entirely fair, though I was myself called back to the surprisingly life-affirming tenor of “The Grey” (my #1 of last year). The fact that Cuarón’s film strives to be something more than thoroughly harrowing — no small feat in and of itself — solidifies its existence as a marvel of not just technical craft but sheer imagination as well. The one imaginable caveat that keeps “Gravity” from embodying every reason I go to the movies is its lack of a musical sequence (though, in fairness, I didn’t stay after the credits). This is breathtaking, dizzying filmmaking. This is truly awesome.” Film.com
“Maybe it’s fitting that a film about two lonely figures adrift in outer-space should itself be dominated by the cosmos. Clooney and Bullock give dogged, decent performances here, but they are inevitably shouting to be heard; utterly at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Cuaron takes the two stars and stitches them against a vast canvas of roaring sound design and terrifying 3D visuals. Ruined satellites pitch and yaw. Shrapnel zips through the darkness like shoals of silver fish. As the screening wraps up, the delegates are politely instructed to return their spectacles to an usher and not leave them on the seat. Gravity, after all, offers a stark warning of the dangers of debris, clutter and human waste. With a little good fortune, even the 3D glasses will eventually find their way back home.” The Guardian
“All in all, it would be impossible to overestimate the difficulty of what Cuaron and his top-of-the-line crew have pulled off, or to guess at the staggering number of decisions that were made regarding specifics of camera placement and movement; the motion-control robots that were used on the actors to plausibly simulate zero-gravity conditions; the marvelous scope and detail of Andy Nicholson’s production design; and the meticulous integration of visual effects, all-digital backgrounds, traditional lighting schemes and other live-action lensing techniques. But perhaps the boldest risk of all was the decision to combine these elements in a manner that would hold up under the prolonged scrutiny of the camera, in single-shot sequences of such breathtaking duration and coherence. Somewhere, one imagines, the spirits of Stanley Kubrick and Max Ophuls are looking down in admiration. Variety
Shane Salerno’s Salinger
"The film’s final revelation about Salinger’s unpublished work — if true — is certainly one of the most significant to ever hit the literary world. I won’t reveal anything more about it, though, because that would be unfair to the filmmakers — just as, I’m afraid, it was unfair to Salinger for the filmmakers to include some of the things that they did. Is that the sort of world we want to live in, where privacy is completely dead? Being a fiction writer — as opposed to, say, a politician — should not come with the prerequisite of being a public figure. And this was a man who, for a variety of reasons that the film addresses very well, never wanted to be one." THR
"Nevertheless, even with its epic volume of details, "Salinger" ends just when the story gets started. Announcing "a second act unlike any writer has had," several dramatic title cards detail the contents of books scheduled for posthumous publication between 2015 and 2010: a WWII love story, a religious manual and — perhaps most significantly — dual histories of the two invented families already famous from his work, the Glasses and the Caulfields. It’s unclear whether it will be worth the wait or shift the public understanding of Salinger in any specific fashion. In any case, while the movie ends with a cliffhanger, the sequels are already on en route." Indiewire
"Salinger’s unanchored rage, his deeply conflicted notions of innocence, are as central to his work as to his life. What makes “The Catcher in the Rye” a young-adult novel — which is to say, what limits it — is its implicit endorsement of Holden’s delusions: that children are pure, that a sweet little girl is wiser than any grown-up, that simply to grow up is to be diminished. Indeed, if anything gives that last notion the lie, it’s Salinger’s art. Holden Caulfield could never have written the story of Holden Caulfield. That could have been written only by the man who lived through Utah Beach and experienced the Holocaust firsthand. The man who spent his whole life trying to unsee what he saw." The Washington Post
Michael Faber’s Under the Skin
"Whether or not there’s much feeling to take away in the end is another story. Eerily scored throughout by Mica Levi, “Under the Skin” is a deliberately oblique piece of work that prizes rhythms and textures above hows and whys. If that very notion makes your skin crawl, then don’t bother, but more curious audiences may find that Glazer’s film does that well enough on its own." Film.com
"In a perfect world, Glazer would win the top prize on Sunday and not have to wait another nine years before he makes his next film. But we do not live in a perfect world, and Under the Skin is perhaps best viewed as an icy parable of love, sex and loneliness. The director leads us between empty seashores and cacophonous nightclubs. He turns a hidden camera on the streets of Scotland and watches unnoticed as the people shop and smoke and tap out their texts. Increasingly, it seems, Johansson wants to find a place in this throng. But try as she might, she can’t quite fit. The TV set is a mystery, and the slice of chocolate cake only sticks in her throat. Driving on the road, she encounters a fellow pariah, a young man with a bone deformity, who shops by night and has no friends. A little later we shall see this figure again, wandering naked and bewildered on the outskirts of town, just another lost soul who’s in search of a home." The Guardian
"Johansson is nothing short of iconic here; her character is a classic femme fatale in the film noir tradition, down to the plump red lips and deep fur coat, but with a refrigerated nothingness at her core. She looks at her fellow cast members as if they are from another planet – which is, of course, exactly as it should be. Even the Scottish landscape looks alien: dawn mist rolls across lochs like curls of space dust. Glazer’s astonishing film takes you to a place where the everyday becomes suddenly strange, and fear and seduction become one and the same. You stare at the screen, at once entranced and terrified, and step forward into the slick." The Telegraph