The Best of Film Festival Early Reviews: Part One

With the Telluride and Venice Film Festivals premiering some of most highly-anticipated and acclaimed films of the coming season, TIFF just beginning, 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 quality for 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 with 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.  

And 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. 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 for yourself, check out our collection of snippets from the early reviews coming in—featuring some of the most anticipated films of the year from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to Xavier Dolan’s Tom A La Ferme.   


12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen 

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



The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam

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. The Playlist

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

It doesn’t really add up to much, beyond a timely reminder that it would be better for everyone to stop uploading and downloading and just unplug and be human. The dialogue and ideas in Pat Rushin’s stuffed screenplay can be quite funny, and the cast carries them off well. 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 construction. —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

Tom a la Ferme, Xavier Dolan

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



The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki

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

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 

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

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Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming-liang

“With its constant focus on dripping faucets, leaky houses and driving rain, this is unmistakably a Tsai Ming-liang joint. Here, the water that surrounds the characters at every turn – rough weather, bogs, drains, buildings, public restrooms – takes on an almost biblical presence, as if even the inanimate elements bare a grudge against their modest existence. Though Stray Dogs boasts that rare quality of being unlike anything else out there, the film it bares closest comparison to is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The similarities only begin to reveal themselves in the climactic stages where the film takes a turn for the poetically existential. The characters appear to have been naturally gravitating towards their own iteration of The Zone, that unusual space which, once inside, professes to offer answers to profound spiritual conundrums.Little White Lies 

The mix of tenderness and dereliction, the constant presence of rain and wind, the eerie sense of a life on the fringes in which other humans pass by like ghosts in the background (or are we watching a family of ghosts?), the possibility that the cabbage, the mountain mural and a patriotic Chinese song the father sings at a certain point may add up to a lament for a lost rural lifestyle, and the other-worldly melancholy that pervades the whole exercise, are the scraps we cling on to in the absence of story. Not enough for a square meal – but sometimes at the movies, hunger is more memorable than satiety. —ScreenDaily



The Unknown Known, Errol Morris 

“Yet, the film’s failure to offer any big revelations is just as much Morris’ fault as Rumsfeld’s, as he too often feeds questions to his subject in a jokey, barroom manner which highlights a potential intellectual chasm between interviewer and subject. One irony of the film is in its deep focus on torture tactics used in American military prisons, many of which were sanctioned by Rumsfeld himself. You can’t help but wonder what would have happened had Morris’ opted for a ‘what’s good for the goose…’ methodology, and blasted Christina Aguilera tunes at him in a darkened prison cell in order to get him to blab. The format the film adopts is having Rumsfeld rifle through his old memos (referred to internally as ‘snowflakes’), reading them out and then reflecting on them with Morris. The tone of the film is probably more instructional than investigative, as Rumsfeld clearly thinks he’s in front of the camera to merely talk through his political decisions rather than justify them. There are perhaps one or two occasions where Rumsfeld feels the ropes lightly pressing against the small of his back, but he’s always quick with a counter-attack or nifty dodge.” —Little White Lies

It may just be that not enough time has passed—there’s a big difference between the forty years that went by before McNamara sat down for “The Fog Of War,” and the ten between the start of the Iraq war and “The Unknown Known.” And with Rumsfeld in his 80s, you can see why Morris was keen to get him on record when he had the opportunity. From a procedural perspective, the film is an insightful look into the life of a Secretary Of Defense, but as an exploration into how the war in Iraq was allowed to happen, it’s much, much less satisfying.—The Playlist



Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier

Of course, perhaps Saulnier’s greatest asset is his lead actor – Macon Blair was faced with the unenviable task of making Dwight at once both childlike and savagely capable, a feat made all the more demanding by how the narrative requires him to resist caricature at every turn. While Saulnier is happy to indulge in the pulpier side of things (perhaps even a tad too much at the very end), Dwight’s adventure only works if his flexible morals and slippery sense of purpose remain relatable so that viewers can be allowed to appreciate the character’s struggle with his dissolution into violence. Blair, who makes a memorable bid to become the Joe Lo Truglio of the genre world, is more than up to the challenge, combining wide-eyed deadliness with the disarming lucidity of his conviction to create a memorable antihero worthy of Saulnier’s exquisitely crisp cinematography (continuing the recent trend of polymath filmmakers, the director shot the movie himself). —  

Saulnier’s first film was the underseen but wickedly funny “Murder Party.” That picture was a lark; a comedy about a group of hipsters who were torn between natural sadism and the thought that killing innocents was passé. That ironic distance is absent from Saulnier’s much more accomplished second feature, one that never leaves Dwight’s perspective, and therefore his broken prioritization of what will keep him out of danger. There are no moments of safety once Dwight has committed his first sin, and as such there are no moments of safety in “Blue Ruin.” Saulnier has made a film of almost unbearable tension, a no-frills pressure cooker that rattles the senses not just for what occurs (the brief moments of violence are convincingly staggered and upsettingly abrupt), but for what’s waiting just off screen at every turn. It’s easily the most suspenseful American film of the year, a thriller that feels like lightning across a quiet night sky; sudden, terrifying, and excitingly singular. —The Playlist

Under the Skin, Jonathon Glazer

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  

And so it goes, for a needlessly protracted 108 minutes, as initial intrigue gives way to repetition and tedium. Glazer has always been longer on atmosphere and uncanny moods than on narrative, but the fatal flaw of “Under the Skin” isn’t that not much happens; it’s that what does happen isn’t all that interesting. The world as seen through alien eyes, it turns out, looks much like the world as seen through the eyes of a schizophrenic  (“Repulsion”), a paranoiac (Lodge Kerrigan’s “Keane”) or a sociopath (Cristi Puiu’s “Aurora”) — which, if it’s Glazer’s point, is one he makes early and often, Johansson doing her best to convey varying degrees of blankness and incomprehension at her own actions and those of others.

Owing to the dominant GoPro video aesthetic, “Under the Skin” becomes visually monotonous, too, only in a few more conventionally staged sequences featuring the kind of sharp, painterly images that graced Glazer’s prior features and the opening moments of this one. Similarly, all of the pic’s tech qualities are intentionally rough-hewn, with the combination of noisy location sound recording and cast’s thick Scottish brogues rendering large swathes of dialogue incomprehensible. —Variety

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      

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