Now streaming on Netflix: Four of my 2013 favorites

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Very cool news: Four films from my top 10 of 2013 for The Film Stage are now streaming on Netflix. These are greats from filmmakers like Claire Denis and Noah Baumbach — and all four are must-sees. Below are my write-ups from The Film Stage.

Blue is the Warmest Color (#8):

The plot is, in some ways, simple: Teenager Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), a college art student, and the two fall in love. During the course of the three-hour film, we see the highs and lows of their passionate relationship. But the film is much more complex, much more involving, much more vivid than that. It is, I think, one of the finest films ever made about young love. Yes, the film features several graphic, extended sex sequences. But they are only a small part of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s creation. The emotion is what stands out, and that is what makes those scenes memorable, not how graphic they are. “I have infinite tenderness for you. I always will,” says Emma late in the film. The viewer feels that tenderness — and shares it. What a great love story this is, and what a glorious portrayal of two unique people.

Bastards (#7):

Claire Denis continues to demonstrate why she is one if the world’s most provocative and important filmmakers with this razor-sharp, chilling bit of film noir. Dark, disturbing, and unforgettable, Denis’ film is a brutal shocker. There are images — blood running down a dazed, naked girl’s legs; the inside of a hellish barn; one of the most mesmerizing night driving sequences in film history — as brilliantly composed as any in recent memory.

A Touch of Sin (#6):

Jia Zhangke’s four-story tapestry is a harsh, epic exploration of modern China, and a study of defeated characters that rewards close viewing. In each story, violence comes quickly, sometimes coupled with absurdity: a villager strikes back against the oppressive powers-that-be, a killer takes aim due mainly to boredom, a sauna worker is pushed past her breaking point, and a young person shuffles from job to job with disastrous results. What does it all mean? For Zhangke, that is the ultimate, likely unanswerable question.

Frances Ha (#5):

There’s a sequence about thirty minutes into Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha that captures a feeling of real joy. Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, runs down the street, twirling, leaping, and smiling, in a Carax-appropriating scene set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” The sequence seems, well, perfect, and in some ways, so is Frances Ha. It’s a simple, funny, moving story that captures the experience of drifting through your twenties, growing apart from friends, and discovering who you are as well as any film I’ve ever seen. A perfect film? It sure feels that way.

My top 10 of 2013: Bastards (#7)

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More from my Film Stage top 10 list. 

Claire Denis continues to demonstrate why she is one if the world’s most provocative and important filmmakers with this razor-sharp, chilling bit of film noir. Dark, disturbing, and unforgettable, Denis’ film is a brutal shocker. There are images — blood running down a dazed, naked girl’s legs; the inside of a hellish barn; one of the most mesmerizing night driving sequences in film history — as brilliantly composed as any in recent memory.

TIFF follow-up: Bastards, Blue, and Dallas

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Most of the films I was sad to miss at TIFF 2013 have not yet been released, although there are a few — Rush and Enough Said come to mind — that I simple have been unable to catch up with. Happily, though, there are a few that I was horrified to miss that I have been able to see. It seems funny now to remember how I gazed at the TIFF schedule, desperately seeking a way to fit in Dallas Buyers Club and Gravity, for example. It seems especially silly since I knew those were coming soon. Every year I tell myself I need to see more films that I’ll likely never come upon again …

Anyway, the five films below are TIFF selections I was able to see since the festival ended. It’s a solid group … mostly. (Incidentally, All Is Lost did not play TIFF, but would have been listed below with 4 stars if it had.)

 

Bastards — 4 stars

Dark, disturbing, and unforgettable, Claire Denis’ film is a brutal, noir shocker. There are images — blood running down a dazed, naked girl’s legs; the inside of a hellish barn; one of the most mesmerizing night driving sequences in film history — as brilliantly composed as any in recent memory.

 

 

Blue is the Warmest Color — 4 stars

I have already written a bit about Blue; suffice to say, I adored it. It has been interesting to see more of the backlash develop, and read some harsh criticism of the film. There are some valid thoughts there, but I stand by my belief that this is a very special love story, and one of the finest films of this year.

 

Dallas Buyers Club — 3 stars

I just saw Dallas, and I must admit, I’m still wrestling with my verdict. It is a highly watchable, very entertaining film, with strong performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. It does a fine job of establishing its place (Texas) and time (the mid-80s to the late-90s). Perhaps … it seemed more entertaining than it should. This is, after all, a film about the AIDS crisis. For the moment, I am going with 3 stars. It’s a fine film — I just can’t decide if I can call it a great one.

 

Gravity — 3 stars

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is another tricky one. Make no mistake, it is a stirring cinematic achievement, a technical wonder, and a real experience. But the writing is awful, the characters poorly drawn, and, as a friend pointed out after seeing it at TIFF, Gravity is essentially a survival story, nothing more. All Is Lost does a far better job of reaching beyond the genre’s limitations. Still, what a wonder!

 

Parkland — 2 stars

Pre-TIFF, I was very interested in this Kennedy assassination drama. Its central concept — a multi-character look at how that day affected individuals like Abraham Zapruder — is fascinating. But the resulting film is dull and unmemorable. Its heart is in the right place, but Parkland takes one of the most complex moments in American history and renders it … sleepy.

Claire Denis, Jia Zhangke, and Jafar Panahi are TIFF13 “Masters”

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The complete list for the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival has arrived, and it features — get this — 288 films. When all is said and done, between press screenings, public screenings, and pre-fest screeners, I’ll probably end up seeing around 10 to 15 of these, and dammit, I think that’s pretty good.

TIFF kicks off in exactly two weeks (!), and I have lots of reading and pondering to do before then. The public schedule is up, the press schedule dropped yesterday, and sites like Indiewire have helpfully put together complete breakdowns.

I’ll be talking TIFF quite a bit here over the next few weeks, and pretty much every film site in the world will be doing the same. One of my favorite “programmes” at the festival is the “Masters” lineup, which last year included Michael Haneke, Christian Mingiu, Abbas Kiarostami, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Olivier Assayas, among others.

This year’s Masters list is a bit less “sexy,” and lacks some of the names I was really, really hoping might still squeeze in. It was unlikely that the Coens or James Gray would end up here, but I held out hope … Instead, they’re joining Spike Jonze and Ben Stiller for a particularly explosive New York Film Festival lineup.

(I’ve actually been a little hung up on these titles that are NOT coming to Toronto, to the extent that I have not properly judged the films that actually WILL be there. I need to get over that …)

But there are some biggies here. Claire Denis has been on a fascinating run, and “Bastards” drew wildly mixed notices from Cannes, which excites me. Also featured are the latest from Jia Zhangke, Hong Sangsoo, Jafar Panahi … Some usual suspects? Perhaps. That does not make it any less impressive.

Here is a rundown of TIFF”s 2013 Masters programme, with descriptions from Tuesday’s press release:

“A Touch of Sin” (Tian zhu ding) (Jia Zhangke, China/Japan, North American Premiere) — An angry miner, enraged by the corruption of his village leaders, takes action. A rootless migrant discovers the infinite possibilities that owning a firearm can offer. A pretty receptionist working in a sauna is pushed to the limit when a wealthy client assaults her. A young factory worker goes from one discouraging job to the next, only to face increasingly degrading circumstances. Four people, four different provinces.

“Abuse of Weakness” (Abus de Faiblesse) (Catherine Breillat, France/Belgium/Germany, World Premiere) — An extraordinary collaboration between two legends of French cinema, Catherine Breillat’s brutally candid autobiographical drama stars Isabelle Huppert as a stroke-afflicted filmmaker manipulated by a notorious con man.

“Bastards” (Les Salauds) (Claire Denis, France, North American Premiere) — Supertanker captain Marco Silvestri is called back urgently to Paris. His sister Sandra is desperate; her husband has committed suicide, the family business has gone under, and her daughter is spiraling downwards. Sandra holds powerful businessman Edouard Laporte responsible. Marco moves into the building where Laporte has installed his mistress and her son, but he isn’t prepared for Sandra’s secrets, which muddy the waters. Starring Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni.

“Closed Curtain” (Parde) (Kambozia Partovi and Jafar Panahi, Iran, North American Premiere) — A house by the sea; the curtains are pulled shut, the windows covered with black. Inside, a man is hiding with his dog. He is writing a screenplay, when suddenly a mysterious young woman appears and refuses to leave, much to the writer’s annoyance. But at daybreak, another arrival will flip everyone’s perspective.

“Concrete Night” (Pirjo Honkasalo, Finland/Sweden/Denmark, World Premiere) — A 14-year-old boy in a stifling Helsinki slum takes some unwise life lessons from his soon-to-be-incarcerated older brother, in Finnish master Pirjo Honkasalo’s gorgeously stylized and emotionally devastating work about what we pass on to younger generations, and the ways we do it.

“Home From Home — Chronicle of a Vision” (Die Andere Heimat — Chronik einer Sehnsucht) (Edgar Reitz, Germany/France, North American Premiere) — Edgar Reitz tells this dramatic story of love and family against the backdrop of rural Germany in the mid-19th century, a time when entire poverty-stricken villages emigrated to faraway South America. The story centers on two brothers who have to decide whether they will stay or go.

“How Strange to be Named Federico: Scola Narrates Fellini” (Che strano chiamarsi Federico: Scola racconta Fellini) (Ettore Scola, Italy, International Premiere) On the 20th anniversary of Federico Fellini’s death, Ettore Scola, a devoted admirer of the incomparable maestro, commemorates the lesser-known aspects of Fellini’s personality, employing interviews, photographs, behind-the-scenes footage as well as Fellini’s drawings and film clips.

“Moebius” (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea, North American Premiere) — South Korea’s celebrated perennial provocateur Kim Ki-duk (“Pieta”) returns with this twisted family chronicle perched somewhere between psychological thriller, grotesque comedy and perverse ode to the pleasures of sadomasochism.

“Norte, The End of History” (Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan) (Lav Diaz, Philippines, North American Premiere) — In Philippine cinematic luminary Lav Diaz’s latest work, partially influenced by Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” a man is accused of murder while the real killer roams free.

“Our Sunhi” (Uri Sunhi) (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea North American Premiere) Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo’s latest follows an aspiring young filmmaker who becomes the object of desire for three very different men, in this smart, resonant dramedy.

Incidentally, Quebecois filmmakers Robert Lepage and Pedro Pires’s “Triptych” (Triptyque) was previously announced as part of the Canadian features lineup, and one additional title was announced in the Midnight Madness programme: the world premiere of Alex de la Iglesia’s “Witching & Bitching” (Las brujas de Zugarramurdi). I took a look at the other MM films a few weeks ago.

Photo from “A Touch of Sin” courtesy of TIFF