Another Cannes Film Festival has come and gone, and in its wake we're left with the movies that will shape the cinematic landscape for the year to come (and beyond). These are the movies for which 2013 will ultimately be remembered, and – if our critic's response to the festival slate is any indication – 2013 will be remembered very fondly. Jordan Hoffman, our tireless workhouse on the front lines of the French riviera, encountered one great film after another, even though his only true disappointment was a grave one, indeed. So take a look at the list below, and let the bitterness of not attending Cannes succumb to the joy that we still have all of these films in our future.
Mr. Hoffman wanted me to mention that he missed "Behind the Candelabra," "The Bling Ring," and Jury Prize winner, "Like Father Like Son."
THE WORST OF THE FESTIVAL:
"Only God Forgives" (Nicolas Winding Refn)
There’s an old expression in musical theater – you don’t leave humming the lights.
No panoply of pyrotechnics is ever a real substitute for what you’ve come to see. On Broadway it can be showtunes, at the movies, usually, it’s a story. Nicolas Winding Refn, the unpredictable director of “Drive,” “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising” has decided to double-down on design with his new one, “Only God Forgives.” The result is for insiders only. The type of gearheads who thrive on lenses and know the mechanics of color timing – they’ll go into sugar shock. Those looking to connect with characters or sink their teeth into a narrative will be gravely disappointed.
... There’s no way to overstate the gorgeous look of this film, but the mannered dialogue and deliberateness of pace becomes less of an homage to Asian revenge films than a parody. Fetishists will love it from opening credits (in Thai) to the closing dedication to Alexander Jodorowsky. (Which, for what it’s worth, I found unfair to the great master of surrealism, but I guess the two directors are pals.)
If one wants to root around for depth it is there, I suppose. Gosling, the Son, is a redeemer through his shred of dignity. But Chang, ruthless and all powerful, is perhaps on the side of right. But just as only God may forgive, only stoners who are blown away by gruesome violence and Cliff Martinez scores will have any interest in parsing this tale. The rest won’t be quite so forgiving.
THE BEST OF THE FESTIVAL:
10.) "The Immigrant" (James Gray)
Ewa Cybulski's story of how she got to America is just like everyone else's - in that it is completely unique. She arrived at Ellis Island with no money, the address of a relative and a sister sick with tuberculosis. Among her other unique qualities: she's played by Marion Cotillard and even beneath paupers' rags she exudes beauty. When the immigration guard notes that she was marked as a "woman of ill character" during the passage (and there's no one to pick her up) it's enough of a red flag to deport her back to Poland.
... Luckily, or unluckily, or both, I suppose, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) is there to witness the whole thing. With a few greased palms he's able to ferry her across to the Lower East Side, a warm bed and, soon enough, a job at his "theater."
... "The Immigrant" is a deliberately paced picture with few scenes of explosive action. It won me over with its detail (Bruno's apartment is a replica of one you'll find in New York's Lower East Side Tenement Museum) and its realism. You sit in the audience and think, yep, this kind of stuff really happened - maybe even to someone in my family. Even those unimpressed with the film (and there have already been many) will be forced to admit its final scenes and sublimely framed last, lingering shot are extraordinary. For my money this is the best film of its kind since Elia Kazan's "America, America," and a reminder of the hardships immigrants went through and continue to go through to this day.
9.) "Jodorowsky's Dune" (Frank Pavich)
What would you do if you could change one fact of history? Kill a major dictator when he was still a boy? Go back to the dorm elevator and ask that one girl out that only now, with the gift of hindsight, you recognize was flooding you with signals? Hardcore cult cineastes know what they would do – they’d return to pre-”Star Wars” 1975 and convince, by any means necessary, the big movie studios to cough up the $15 million necessary to make Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” a reality.
Arguably the most legendary of unmade film projects, Jodorowsky’s “Dune” (the subject of “Jodorowsky’s Dune,”) just becomes further heartbreak the more you read about it. The cast and crew assembled – the “spiritual warriors” as the great Chilean-born Mexican-French filmmaker of Ukranian descent describes them – are an “Avengers”-level team-up. However, Frank Pavich’s new documentary (which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight sidebar) goes out of its way to remain optimistic. It shows that the painstaking work that went into the film’s preproduction, as if by the force of its very existence, has created a legacy with rippling effects that have significantly altered science fiction.
8.) "Borgman" (Alex van Warmerdam)
“Borgman,” Alex van Warmerdam’s surreal dark comedy, appears, on paper at least, to be a cautionary tale about invaders who can penetrate even the most secure of home environments. The film’s magic is in keeping your sympathies on the side of the mysterious visitors, even when they are murdering innocent people. For a while they seem like class war vigilantes – or maybe just leeches – until, finally, we’re left with but one conclusion: they are evil. “Borgman”‘s crafty, trickster-ish screenplay, always two steps ahead of you, keeps you rooting for clues, enough to put your ethics on temporary hold.
...What works wonderfully, however, is the unease of not knowing just who, if anyone, deserves our sympathy in this story. The infiltrators are all so charismatically nonchalant (and well dressed) that it is hard not to cheer them on, but as the body-count of innocents unlucky enough to get in the way of their scheme increases, the “Funny Games” fourth-wall break isn’t even required.
There isn’t a dull moment in “Borgman,” and while there are social implications it is, at a basic level, a horror film. It is to its credit that it takes us some time to determine who are the true victims.
7.) "The Past" (Asghar Farhadi)
Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” is, without question, the best episode of “The Young and the Restless” I’ve ever seen.
It is a nosy film – one that revels in a slow, unending onion-peel. In its maws: an extended, unconventional family inexorably drawn to dysfunction. Mostly set in a warmly chaotic home undergoing symbolic restoration (on a patch of land cut from the neighborhood on a diagonal) “The Past” is just about as good as a relationship drama is ever going to get. The plot is teased out with deliberate grace, the performances are sublime and the revelations, even the most melodramatic, feel right and true. It’s big canvas stuff painted by a new master.
Much like Farhadi’s Academy Award-winning “A Separation,” “The Past” eventually focuses on an unknowable event – what went through the mind of a woman as she tried to kill herself. But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. “The Past,” in ways that reminded me of Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Falling In Love,” takes its sweet time in delivering the key info about who our key characters are. This unusual approach is unsettling, keeping you hyper-attentive to the drama happening in the present scene.
6.) "Bastards" (Claire Denis)
Sometimes there are detective movies without detectives. Or, more to the point, the detective is the audience. Clarie Denis’ newest film, the evocative and cool “Bastards,” is a thriller that purposefully obscures the thrills. There are striking revelations, but nothing as gauche as a Shyamalan twist. It is, at heart, a straightforward story, but told in an intentionally complex manner, rewarding the audience at its conclusion. There’s even a peek at surveillance footage, and while it does offer up something of a character unmasked, it is more about finally understanding a dark corner of a person’s soul.
Printed out on index cards, “Bastards” is simple, but Denis’ film holds plot points close to the vest. The effect offers a strange empathy with the characters. I’m not saying I want every movie done in this elliptical fashion, but when done sharply it can make for a compelling experience. I haven’t had so many post-screening conversations to nail down the implication of certain shots since “Upstream Color.” Unlike Shane Carruth’s pseudo-scientific psychedelic freakout, however, this is ultimately a straight-up tale of vengeance.
5.) "The Congress" (Ari Folman)
There are different milemarkers along the road to “The Congress”‘ brilliant conclusion where many audience members will check out. For some it may come with the instigating premise – that “Miramount” Studios wants to buy the digital image of actress Robin Wright (played by Robin Wright) to make whatever movies – and publicity statements – they want via computers while the “real” Robin Wright goes into media exile.
Others may jump ship when, years later, Wright goes to the “Futurological Congress,” held at the Abrahama Hotel owned by Miramount-Nagasaki, where perception is (literally) animated by drug-induced hallucinations. When questions are asked like “is this real or in my head?” and the answer comes back “both,” there are some who are simply hard-wired to reject this sort of mind-scrambling sci-fi.
By the third act, where all of existence is reprogrammed into individualized utopias of personally-programmed bliss, some will roll their eyes or maybe even let a raspberry rip at the screen. But those who revel in trippy science fiction (“The Congress” is very loosely based on a Stanislaw Lem novel) may end up drooling like the pacified narco-entertainment zombies that are, according to the film, our future.
4.) "All is Lost" (J.C. Chandor)
We’re all, of course, floating on a liferaft under a burning sky and adrift on harsh seas, hoping against all common sense for some sort of salvation. But for Robert Redford’s unnamed character in J.C. Chandor’s (“Margin Call”) magnificent “All is Lost” it is no metaphor.
We open with a little voice over, a vague note accepting responsibility, asking for forgiveness, and assuring that the author fought as long as he could. The imagery is gorgeous, endless gray waters merging with a rosy-fingered dawn above. After a title card reading “eight days earlier” we see Redford asleep in the cabin of a high-end yacht. In rushes water and, strangely, shoes.
... From bow to stern, Chandor delivers pure cinema. Thrilling and adventuresome, this is a career highlight from the uniquely sympathetic Robert Redford. I know he’s committed to the next “Captain America” film but if I were him I’d do whatever I could to wiggle out of that contract and retire on top. He’s a lock for every award imaginable, but more than that he’s a symbol for the enduring spirit of will under harsh, unendurable circumstances.
3.) "Only Lovers Left Alive" (Jim Jarmusch)
Some jokers out there will tell you that Jim Jarmusch’s new film “Only Lovers Left Alive” is about vampires. Those are the types of people the vampires in this movie roll their eyes at.
Tilda Swinton (Eve) and Thomas Hiddleston (Adam) are two “spookily entangled” (to use Einstein’s phrase) individuals. Eternal outsiders. Spiritually connected. Slow moving, withdrawn and the smartest people in the room by a hundred fold. They ought to be, as they’ve been around since the dawn of time, seem to have knowledge of upcoming events (“Have the water wars started?” “No, they’re still all about oil,”) and have had a hand in creating many of mankind’s major works of art. Or, part of them at least. Adam only gave Schubert a section of a symphony (an adagio) because he wanted a “reflection in the world.”
A reflection? Wait, so this movie is about vampires? Well, I suppose, as the characters (and this also includes a Tangier-based “Christopher Marlowe” played by John Hurt) do need the occasional sip of blood to survive. And the pure stuff, not the tainted garbage most humans carry inside them. But this film really is about artists – committed artists who live and suffer at the fringes of society. They have intense knowledge about certain things, like the Latin names of all plants and animals, or knowing the exact date a guitar is made just by touching it, but they live in a shadow world. They can only exist at night, and even then it is just a shuffle between occasional creation and getting their next fix.
2.) "Inside Llewyn Davis" (Ethan & Joel Coen)
While I do sometimes get misty-eyed at the movies, it’s rare that tears ever start pouring down my face. And when it happens (and, again, it’s rare) it most often happens at some point of catharsis – when characters I know and love experience great triumph or tragedy. Why was it, then, that I was bawling at the five-minute mark during Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis?” The story hadn’t started. I didn’t even know anyone’s name. Was it the cat?
Well, yes, it might have partially been the cat. If you remember Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan chasing his hat in “Miller’s Crossing,” that tune is reprised only this time it’s a cat and he does more than just run away. Some typically Coens-ish uncooperative spatial geography (they’ve recreated those drops from “Blood Simple” in every film) forces badly-bent vagabond folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) to take care of a cat, at least until he can contact its owner (Ethan Phillips). That means a long ride from the enriched milieu of Columbia University’s Upper West Side all the way down to freewheelin’ Greenwich Village – a descent into Purgatory that the animal just knows isn’t going to go well.
With just a few strums on the soundtrack’s guitar and some carefully placed period cars the Coens recreate the early 1960s, the fulcrum moment when conformist Eisenhower America iss about to segue into Vietnam and counter-culture. Llewyn Davis is damn talented, but beaten low. He’s trying to create a name for himself as a solo act, and we learn that his former partner just committed suicide. Davis may be a tiny bit ahead of his time – he isn’t a fresh-faced folk revivalist in a clean sweater – he’s a genuine troubadour. He’s working class (son of a merchant marine, when he isn’t shipping out himself) and lives hand to mouth. With no fixed address he bums nights off couches, frequently from fellow musicians Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan.) He has the drive to be a star but he has two key problems – bad luck and, to be frank, he’s something of a jerk.
1.) "Blue is the Warmest Color" (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Love comes in all kinds of flavors but none linger like first love. It might not be the right love, or the best love, but it is a transformative love, a necessary love – and there is no dearth of films that have tried to capture its special blend of exuberance and heartbreak. Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is The Warmest Color” (also known as “La Vie D’Adele: Chapitre 1 & 2″) ranks in the very highest percentile of such attempts. If you don’t see yourself in its fierce depiction of intense emotion I both envy and pity you. It is a masterpiece of the genre, a damn near perfect film.
Our story concerns Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) a shy high school junior who likes to read. She has a circle of friends, though her relationship with some of the girls is somewhat on the receiving end of light bullying. She catches the eye of a boy; she likes him well enough, offers him her virginity, but something isn’t clicking. She can’t shake the moment of eye contact she shared with a college-aged girl with blue hair. She fantasizes about her at night and, after a uncomfortable trip with a male friend to a gay club, she walks down the block to a lesbian bar. Naturally, she meets the girl, Emma (Lea Seydoux) and soon they are hanging out.