The 5 Best Films of the 2013 Locarno Film Festival

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It has now been nearly 10 days since the 66th Locarno Film Festival ended and, consequently, some may say a little late for a wrap-up post. I didn’t mean to delay this for so long but the post-festival hangover lasted longer than I expected it to. As did the jetlag.

The silver lining to this dark cloud, however, is that there is now enough distance between the festival and me writing this article for the dust to clear. The flood of content I saw over the course of 10 days left impressions that needed to be removed from sleep-deprivation, deadline phobia and butt numbness. As a result, something I loved when the lights came on has barely lingered in my mind since but a film I was ambivalent to while walking out has grown on me and asserted its latent qualities.

This has made me confident in the trustworthiness of the ranking I’m about to provide. At Locarno, I saw 22 new films, 2 restorations of classics and 2 episodes of a television show. I’m now listing my five favorite films (I thought of doing ten titles but that was broadening the field too much) and I feel good about according them their ranks. After all, they have stayed in my mind for close to a fortnight.

Please bear in mind that I am only including the new releases I saw (or else the list would just be “2001: A Space Odyssey” occupying all slots) and that I was not able to catch an embarrassingly large amount of films. I apologize for that.

Without further ado, let’s begin!

5. "Master of the Universe" (director: Marc Bauder)

MOTU

He was one of Germany’s leading investment bankers achieving profits of several millions a day. Now he sits in an empty bank in the center of Frankfurt and talks. A frightening insider’s view from a megalomaniac parallel world behind mirrored façades.

This German documentary consists of one person talking inside one building for 93 minutes on the subjects of economics, banks and investmen — WAIT! It’s not boring. On the contrary, it is one of the most gripping and immersive portraits of a life few of us can imagine leading, and a world even fewer of us can imagine completely. There were portions during this film that left my jaw agape at the sheer preposterousness of the things they described. Towards the end, the jargon gets a little overwhelming and the talk starts whizzing above your head. That’s the only thing stopping me from ranking this higher.

Moreover, make sure you see this on the largest screen possible because it is, hands down, the most visually striking thing I saw at Locarno. The desolate skyscraper is presented in a cold and chilling fashion across scope, and cinematographer Weiffenbach Boerres manages to capture some truly memorable images.

4. "Our Sunhi" (director: Hong Sang Soo)

Sunhi

Sunhi graduated from college, majoring in film. In order to ask about a recommendation letter from Professor Choi to study in the US, she visits her university after a long time. Sunhi expects Professor Choi to give her a good recommendation letter because he likes her. She also meets two other men she knew: Moon-Soo, who just became a film director, and Jae-Hak, who is a well-established film director.

After watching Hong San Soo’s latest, my first thoughts were that I wouldn’t have many thoughts about this film. It seemed like a cinematic soufflé, enjoyable while it lasted but with few aftereffects.

Boy, was I wrong. This dramedy wormed its way into my brain and has stayed there since. Hong veterans inform me that this is one of his more humorous works, and I certainly laughed aloud on multiple occasions. The film has a theatrical vibe; Hong wanted long takes, characters to enter & exit the screen, static compositions. This grew on me after a while, and I actually love the insular feel it lend the movie. The story of Sunhi exists in its own bubble, and nothing will change that. Also, Hong fans shouldn’t worry: he maintains his staple of perennially drinking people.

3. "The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears" (directors: Bruno Forzani, Hélène Cattet)

Body's Tears

A woman disappears. Her husband investigates the strange circumstances surrounding her disappearance. Has she left him? Is she dead? As he proceeds with his inquiries, his apartment becomes more of and more an abyss that seems to have no way out...

I was so glad that the International Competition category at Locarno featured, what is essentially, a haunted house movie. The greatest compliment I can pay this film is that I never, ever want to watch it again. This intense viewing experience left me physically exhausted by the end, and if it had lasted 15 minutes more I would have had a splitting migraine. Forzani and Cattet make Michael Bay look like a picture of restraint, that’s how incessant their editing is and how relentless their sensory assault is.

The screening for this movie witnessed the most walkouts I have ever seen; nearly 100 people rushed for the exit. Even I regard having sat through this without shutting my eyes an achievement. The filmmakers should consider this film as one too.

2. "Gloria" (director: Sebastián Lelio)

Gloria

Gloria is a 58-year-old divorcee determined to defy loneliness. Free-spirited, she fills her life with singles’ parties, on the hunt for instant gratification that often lead to disappointment and emptiness until she meets Rodolfo, a former and older naval officer. Their intense passion forces Gloria to face unexpected challenges and to confront her own dark secrets.

The final scene of Gloria is perfection. It’s been 15 days since I first saw it and I’ve replayed it in my mind every single day since then, without fail. Every single beat in it is beyond reproach; when the eventual cut to black occurred, I wanted to stand up and clap for Gloria.

That I got so invested in the fate of Gloria and felt so much joy by the end is testament to (a) how engaging Sebastián Lelio’s character study and Paulina Garcia’s performance is and (b) how heartwarming and rewarding Gloria’s tale is. Having premiered to accolades at this year’s Berlinale, this drama deserves all the adulation it is receiving.

1. "Short Term 12" (director: Destin Cretton)

ST12

Grace, a 20-something supervising staff member of a foster care facility navigates the troubled waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend, Mason, as a new entrant reminds her of her own troubled past in more ways than one.

I seriously debated placing this title on the top; it’s not like Destin Cretton’s sophomore feature is lacking for coverage or raves (award-winning runs at SxSW and Locarno have taken care of that) and Gloria does feel like a classier pick. However, to deny the effect this film had on me would be tantamount to lying and I caved in. Short Term 12 is the best feature film I saw at the 66th Locarno Film Festival.

I’ve written extensively about the film (review here and analysis of its protagonist here) because it’s just that good. Cretton deftly handles the delicate material and rides the kind of sympathy only genuine earnestness can evoke. Brie Larson gives one of the best performances of the year and drags you in to root for Grace’s fate. The film is an emotional rollercoaster, and left me on a high I can only be thankful for.

The first public screening of this film drew a sustained standing ovation that lasted for 10 minutes. It came out in the States this week; you owe it to yourselves to check it out.

This was not an easy list to make, and I’m going to cheat by calling out a couple of other films that nearly made the cut (or, as festival juries put it, “special mentions”).

- The French romantic drama Tonnerre begins as a naïve love story, and it’s charming at that. However, when the romance devolves the plot evolves into a darker picture of extremely flawed human beings. No character in this murky saga is perfect, and nor is the film, but it strongly impressed me with its realism and wistfulness.

- The Japanese drama Tomogui (English title: The Backwater) is twisted, jaw-dropping but extremely entertaining. The story a visceral blast of hatred spreading across decades, and reveals itself to be a revenge thriller at just the right moment. I walked out pleased as punch, which is not an emotion echoed by any of the characters.

…and that’s it! That’s the end of my coverage from the 66th Locarno Film Festival (and not a minute too soon, I think). I really hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed being there to report it!