Coming Soon: The Best Movies of The Year (That We've Already Seen)
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”
A public service announcement before we begin: While it admittedly shares a superficially similar storyline to “Badlands” and there’s a few sunkissed shots in the beginning that are familiar visuals, to call “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” a Malick re-do or modern update (as some have) is frustratingly reductive and off base. One of the best films of the year by far and an arresting, tense, smoldering crime/romance drama set in the 1970s, David Lowery’s third full-length feature certainly has very different moods, tenors and preoccupations than Mr. 'Tree Of Life.' Like a portentous bad moon rising, the outlaw tale of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a Cormac McCarthy tragic romance, a Johnny Cash requiem, a Will Oldham dirge and a Godspeed You Black Emperor tornado rolling into town, and you know that can't end well. It’s dark, atmospheric and burns with intense, sweaty dread. On top of all that it boasts a fantastic cast (who all deliver terrific performances) of Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster and an excellent comeback role for Keith Carradine. Simply put, it’s a must-see film. [Our review from Sundance 2013]
"Inside Llewyn Davis"
The logline for the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” may not be especially appealing on paper, but from the completely bravura opening scene, which is an exquisitely shot sequence of Oscar Isaac’s titular singer/songwriter performing a song in its entirety, we were completely and totally hooked. In fact, there was a particular moment early on where we felt ourselves relax completely, and more or less tune out our critical voice, because we simply felt in such safe storytelling hands. As an example of the sheer unquestioning pleasure that can be gained from watching a film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is unequaled this year. Isaac himself is breathtakingly good -- we’d liked him before but had no idea he’d be capable of anything as winsomely human and relatable as this performance. The story merely meanders through several days in his life and yet, loosely plotted though it is, it never lost its grip on our hearts and minds and engaged us completely through funny/sad, funny/happy and funny/funny moments until its thoroughly satisfying, sweetly melancholic ending. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful film, and finds the Coens in masterful form, turning in something that is entirely, idiosyncratically them and yet simultaneously something very new and perfect; a fully-formed story of a fully-formed character with whom it’s impossible not to fall just a little bit in love. [Read our review from Cannes 2013]
One of the highlights of the Cannes Film Festival, one that is already staring potential Oscar talk, Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” might be the best-written movie we’ve seen so far this year. With four main characters, caught up in a melodrama about divorce, the risk of this story veering into one dimensional histrionics is high, but Farhadi navigates it thanks to an almost novelistic drawing of his characters and narrative. The story pivots around Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and her ex Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) who has flown from Tehran to Paris to finalize their divorce. She’s already planning to move on and live with single father Samir (Tahar Rahim), but from the moment Ahmad steps into his old house he quickly sees that Marie has much than divorce papers to clear from a life that has fallen into an tapestry of complication which she strains to keep from unraveling. Farhadi has great compassion for his characters but he’s not above seeing their flaws either, and “The Past” never favors one character over another. Instead, over the course of the movie, as revelations come to light (particularly for the other characters in the movie) and the story dips and turns, it’s not so much our allegiances that change, as our understanding of the decisions that have been made and choices taken. The entire cast is outstanding, with special notice going to Pauline Burlet who plays Lucie, Marie’s daughter. She’s given a particularly tricky arc but thanks both to Farhadi’s writing and her pitch perfect delivery, Burlet brings real heart to someone whose soul is weighted with tremendously damaging knowledge. Dense and astonishingly well developed, and capturing the messiness of relationships and elusive qualities that bring people together and push them apart, Farhadi’s film is a deeply human look at the struggle to move on from the mistakes, pains and emotional scars from our past so we can forge a brighter future. [Read our review from Cannes 2013]
Given that it was made by a female director in an environment as hostile to both women and film as Saudi Arabia (where women can't drive, and cinemas have been closed for decades), it's genuinely staggering that "Wadjda" -- which made its U.S. debut at Tribeca on its way to a full release from Sony Pictures Classics -- turned out as brilliantly as it did. Owing equal debt to Italian neo-realism and more contemporary Iranian cinema, Haifaa Al-Mansour's feature debut follows the title character, a rebellious 12-year-old girl who enters a Koran-recitation competition at school in order to win enough money to ride a bike. Meanwhile her mother (Reem Abdullah) fights to hold on to her husband, whose wealthy mother is encouraging him to get a second wife. To a western audience, Riyadh might feel like an alien setting, and Al-Mansour shoots the city, and the world, with both the back-of-the-hand expertise of an insider and the inquisitive eye of an outsider (she went to film school in the U.S., and had to direct mostly from the back of a van, lest she be seen doing the job in public). It's an unashamedly political picture but relaying its message -- about the rotten lot of women in the country -- through the personal and the specific, with a humanism that refuses to demonize difficult characters like Wadjda's father (Sultan Al Assaf) or the stern headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd). It might tip into sentimentality in places, but it's the kind of sentiment that's entirely earned, and few would begrudge it in a film as warm, sweet and beautifully made as this. [Read our review from LFF 2012]
"Blue Is The Warmest Color"
While we’re not yet sure of the details of the U.S. release of Abdellatif’s Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color," we’re fairly certain its Palme d’Or win and near-deafening buzz should see distributors Sundance Selects strike sometime in 2013. It’s a film that deserves as wide an audience as possible in spite of its forbidding length; a hugely powerful work of great empathy and insight that features a performance from Léa Seydoux that would probably have been the most talked-about coming out of Cannes had it not been overshadowed by that of the film’s lead Adele Exarchopolous. Exarchopolous, feeling like she’s come from nowhere, is in every single scene, the unflinching center of our attention and identification throughout, and Kechiche weaves the film around her so unobtrusively that you almost don’t feel his presence (except possibly in the film’s laudably graphic but nonetheless overlong first lesbian sex scene) -- surely a mark of an exceptional skill. We’ve been a fan of the director’s previous work (the drably-titled “The Secret of the Grain” is anything but drab, and a great favorite) but here he finds a previously unmatched depth and resonance in the simple charting of a first love from its initial giddy, heady heights, through a realistic and relatable relationship to its end, and the messy way one of us always stops loving the other first. That central relationship may be same-sex, but the film is profoundly wise about how it feels and what it means for your sense of self to be in love, no matter who the object of your affections. It gives it a universality far beyond any reductive categorisation. [Read our review from Cannes 2013]