Top 10 Festival Films: Torino Film Festival

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Matt Micucci picks his top 10 films from the 31st Torino Film Festival (22 – 30 November 2013).

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10 – Sweetwater (Sweet Vengeance) (Logan Miller, Noah Miller)

 

The Miller brothers put a stylised and even exaggerated spin on the all too often seen formula of the revenge film. Sweetwater  is, in fact, a blood triangle set in Western times between a super-villain religious fanatic, a free spirited renegade sheriff and a former prostitute angered by the murder of her husband. As a Western, it resembles much more the freshness of spaghetti ones then the classics of Americana.

 

The Millers bring their own personal stylistic touches that make Sweetwater an invigorating mix of violence and gore with the occasional laugh-out-loud comedy touch. The cast, particularly its lead players Ed Harris, Jason Isaacs and January Jones, plays along with the fun atmosphere of the film with some entertaining extravagant performances.

 

Some may find its eccentricity excessively annoying and slipping into parody, but there is no denying that Sweetwater is an enjoyable romp all the same.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Robert Rodriguez, 2003), I Do Not Forgive…I Kill! (Fedra West, Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent, 1968)

 

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9 – The Dismantling (Le Démantélement) (Sébastien Pilote)

Joining a small trend of films about farmers struggling to keep up their rural lifestyle in the 21st century, The Dismantling is the tale of a sheep farmer who chooses to sell his sheep farm that was handed down to him from his own father in order to come to the financial rescue of his daughter.

Despite the fact that this film may be seen as a man’s relentless descent into a self-inflicted unhappiness, this film is quite enjoyable and even crowd pleasing. This is not only because The Dismantling paints an interesting and intriguing domestic picture through wonderful photography that really treasures its countryside surroundings. It is also due to a great leading performance by Gabriel Arcand, who balances his character’s quietness with his own facial expressions that conceal benevolence, melancholia and unconditional love all at once. Furthermore, the sheep farmer is portrayed with an air of solemnity and heroism, as if he were a lone ranger alienated from the outside world and mighty in his struggles to fight back the fast paced urban modern way of living. This in turn leads us to wonder whether what we are seeing is the act of unconditional love of a father for his daughters or a sign of defeat of a man of older and outdated principles in this technological age – the latter point strengthened by a profound hostility towards an unwanted computer being brought to his house.

This core dilemma is quite troubling and the aforementioned descent culminates in an ending full of poetry and an unsettling contrasting joyful despondency, which fulfils the power of the intimate and sometimes even uncomfortable character study that is certainly worth the wait, even through its dead moments and a slow start.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – An Unfinished Life (Lasse Hallstrom, 2005), It’s All So Quiet (Boven is Het Stil, Nanouk Leopold, 2013)

 

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8 – Traffic Department (Drogówka) by Wojciech Smarzowski

Smarzowski takes a corrupt and immoral police traffic department as a starting point for his provocative thriller that comments heavily on social and political decadence as well as a total lack of violence. The central plot follows one of the members of the traffic department wrongly accused of a murder and desperately trying to clear his name. Doing so he unearths scandal upon scandal, from small community ones to ones of international scale.

While the plot would wrongly lead one to think it unoriginal, Traffic Department is very engaging and wilfully challenging, making use of sharp editing and shooting footage from different cameras from professional ones to iPhones. This leads to a jumbled jigsaw-like pace that induces and even forces the viewer to play an active part in the film and interact with it.

The conclusions it draws are shocking and confrontational as we witness a fundamental lack of morals and a natural lenience of the characters to vice, particularly with the seven main characters of the titular department with each one standing as a representative of each one of the seven deadly sins. Thought provoking and fearless but be warned – this is no work of light entertainment. Traffic Department is experimental and a film that could easily be classified as difficult, though it remarkably became the highest grossing film in Polish cinemas that year.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2003), The Wedding (Wesele, Wojciech Smarzowski, 2004)

 

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7 – Men Show Movies and Women Their Breasts (Manner zeigen Filme & Frauen ihre Bruste)(Isabell Suba)
 

Isabell Suba takes on sexual discrimination and film festival snobbery in her guerrilla filmmaking mockumentary that is among the most exciting and rebellious pieces of cinematic experiments of modern film.

After her own short was picked for Cannes, she sent an actress to pose as her and shot a film of her experiences as a filmmaker that comes to contact with the less glamorous side of the biggest and most talked about film festival of the year. Thus, this is how a huge opportunity ends up being a disappointment. Some of the conversations between the central characters of the director and producer drag and then there may be a whole argument about the relationship between the filmmaker and the producer being uncomfortable, as well as the individual characters being pretty stubborn and unlikable. But that is faithful to the realistic approach that Suba chooses to employ.

Interesting and captivating, as well as filled with compelling observations, Men Show Movies and Women Their Breast certainly makes its statement loud and clear.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe, 2002), Lenny Cooke (Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie, 2013)

 

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6 – Cycling with Moliére (Alceste á Bicyclette) (Philippe Le Guay)

Films about acting are rarely as delightful and mature as le Guay’s Cycling with Moliére. Here, in the French countryside, two actors battle it out for the role of Alceste in Moliére’s celebrated play The Misanthropes as they rehearse for an upcoming production.

The film works on many levels, with its underlying themes of passion and ego played tastefully and almost disguised with finesse under its reassuring chamber comedy approach that almost disguises the screenplay’s intelligence in its juxtaposition with Moliére’s work. Furthermore, everything is perfectly balanced, such as the comedy with the intimate portrayals of the characters that reveal a more compelling and dramatic side to Le Guay’s work.

Of course, it all would never have worked without its great leading performances, with Fabrice Luchini as the retired and disenchanted cynical actor who connects with the character of Alceste in a personal way delivering a particularly remarkable performance.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972), The Trouble With Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)

 

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5 – The Stone Roses: Made of Stone (Shane Meadows)

A documentary on the reunion of one of the biggest and most influential bands in modern music, The Stone Roses. Shane Meadows, who shot the film, brings his own passion to the table and allows his love of the fan to be a guiding light in the making of his documentary. The result is as infectious as the music and the energetic feel of the piece create an atmosphere of excitement that seems to genuinely represent the very same excitement that followed the news of a seemingly impossible reunion.

On top of that, The Stone Roses: Made of Stone allows an intimate behind the scene look at the band and looks at its history from another point of view. A truly remarkable stand out documentary as far as rock and roll music documentaries go, in the end it kind of comes down to the people’s personal tastes. Those who aren’t fans of the Roses will criticise Meadows for failing to restrain his own adoration of the band, while those who love the Roses will only be able to moan the absence of hits like Love Spreads in the soundtrack.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Shine a Light (Martin Scorsese, 2008), 24-Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)

 

4 – A Train to Moscow (Il Treno Vá a Mosca) (Federico Ferrone, Michele Manzolini)

A Train to Moscow represents the crème de la crème of archive documentary. The story is that of a man from a small Italian town a few years after the Second World War who had the opportunity to travel to the Soviet Union and meet Stalin as a supporter of the Italian communist party. The trip and the social culture of the times are well reported by the fact that he had a hobby of shooting videos with Super-8, and that is the footage that makes up the film.

Ferrone and Manzolini, understanding the power of these amateur films, convey their power by allowing them to entrance the viewer with a hypnotic pace conveyed by some good editing decisions and soundtrack picks. This gives the documentary a priceless dreamlike quality that makes it a wonderful and priceless experience, which is ultimately full of melancholia and represents an important time of hinted socio-political rebirth of a nation deeply affected and disenchanted by the horrors of warfare but also its resulting disappointment.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012), Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)

 

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3 – The Stag (John Butler)

John Butler’s take on the Irish bachelor party traditions is not the infantile comedy that we have been used to expecting – a prejudice mostly shaped by more expensive production that make use of similar elements. This is the story of a man getting married and going off on a ‘Stag’, a trip to the mountains, with his friends and his future brother in law to be, a man whose infamous reputation as a loose cannon has people calling him ‘the machine’. Despite their initial friction, they slowly end up connecting not only to nature, but with each other as they reveal personal sides with one another that will have made their trip worthwhile.

John Butler’s film is filled with hilarious creative comedic gags, yet it is its emotional depth that catches one off guard and makes The Stag infinitely more rewarding than similar films. The Stag has this remarkable ability to be hilarious one moment and the next harrowingly intimate thanks to a very clever and well balanced screenplay. Though the cast does not include any big names, they all do a great job in conveying the strength of the film and its story. Furthermore, The Stag plays up on the Irish element of the film almost fearlessly.

Entertaining and overall rewarding, this seems to be destined to become a true gem of Irish cinema’s comedy genre and there is just no reason why it shouldn’t be.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997), Three Men and a Leg (Tre Uomini e una Gamba, Aldo Baglio, Giacomo Poretti, Giovanni Storti, Massimo Venier, 1997)

 

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2. – This is Martin Bonner (Chad Hartigan)

A real treat. Hartigan builds a great atmosphere in his tale of escape from alienation, re-kindling with the outside world and human warmth. This is the story of Martin Bonner, an Australian born man who moved from the East Coast to the Nevada Desert for work, and his meeting with an ex-convict Travis as he tries to re-connect with the outside world and his estranged daughter.

The film overflows with convincing humanity, whilst its unhurried pace and its lack of usual cinematic hyperbole makes it all more rewarding. In other words, This is Martin Bonner achieves exactly what it sets out to – it portrays hope but doesn’t force an ending though perhaps it captures a beginning in the most compelling of ways.

The simple beauty of the film is translated fully by the style of cinematography that recalls classic filmmaking by making use of old fashioned techniques such as zooms and 360 pans that not only rekindle cinema with some casually forgotten evocative feelings but also reveal a particular side of the US. This in turn leads to the construction of an atmosphere beautifully charged with nostalgia but also melancholia. A remarkable film of simple beauty.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy, 2003), About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002)

 

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1. – Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)

The Coen brothers shift slightly out of their comfort zone with a more character driven story that has an urban grittier film. Inside Llewyn Davis follows the predicaments of a struggling folk singer in new York City in the early sixties as he struggles to get the recognition and fame he feels he deserves as a musician. All the while, he certainly suffers for his art, constantly penniless – so much so that he is unable to even afford himself a winter coat – and encountering nothing but closed doors.

Oscar Isaac in the leading role is absolutely amazing and delivers the kind of magnetic performance that was required. In fact, his face alone is able to reveal an endless array of emotions from anger to frustration, concern and disenchantment to sadness and kind-heartedness. He’s a lot like a beaten dog, who despite the hardships takes his fair share of beatings and still relentlessly gets up for more. This is what also leads him on a desperate and in many ways hopeless trip to Chicago to meet a big producer and show him a latest work of his. On top of that, he is able to evoke great feeling through his singing as well as his acting.

Strong support is provided by the likes of Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman. On a narrative level, the film is engaging from start to finish. Though one would expect a certain frustrated and angry tone to dictate the tone of the film, Inside Llewyn Davis is soft-spoken and has a type of unexpected warmth that makes it endlessly charming. What is absolutely remarkable, in fact, is the way in which Joel and Ethan Coen are at their ease at not only telling the story in an engaging way, as they have after all done in the past. It is the way in which they remain totally respectful and faithful to not only Llewyn’s dreams and visions but also to the cultural atmosphere of the times and the type of music that is the true driving force of their latest work. And at this point, it is only right to mention that the soundtrack is memorable and it’s easy to see that some of its numbers in particular will spin off and take on a life of their own beyond the film. The photography is also arguably much grainier that in any other film by the Coens. This evokes the style of the cinema of the time, the American New Wave, where a lot of the films were also character driven. This adds to the faithful atmosphere of the time and conveys the prestige of the work that is certainly among the most solid that the great American filmmakers have ever made.

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), Cisco Pike (Bill L. Norton, 1972)
NOTE: This top 10 does not include films I included in the Top 10s from the Venice Film Festival, the Cork Film Festival or the BFI London Film Festival. It does, however, include all of the films I watched and reviewed at this year’s Torino Film Festival.
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Top 10 Festival Films: BFI London Film Festival

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Matt Micucci picks his top 10 films from the 57th BFI London Film Festival (9–20 October 2013).

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10. – Salvo (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza)

Set in hot Palermo, this is the story of a cold-blooded killer who gets himself into trouble with his own people when he can’t kill off the blind sister of a man who tried to murder him.

Conveying the element of the girl’s blindness, the film is quite a sensorial experience that drifts away from the usual cinematic language by putting less emphasis on dialogue and more on creating a compelling atmosphere moved forward by the titular character’s conflict of emotions. Without disregarding its moments of tension and intense showdown, what seems to start as a violent gangster film becomes a hopelessly tragic love story that is at once harrowing and charming.

Saleh Bakri is an excellent choice as Salvo, and delivers a penetrating performance as the man of few words, one in fact which often recalls Clint Eastwood in the renowned Sergio Leone Dollars trilogy.

 

WATCH THIS IS YOU LIKED – Gomorrah (2008, Matteo Garrone), A Fistful of Dollars (1964, Sergio Leone)

 

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9. – Locke (Steve Knight)

Ivan Locke will not be going home tonight to watch a football match with his family. Nor will he be able to supervise a major concrete pour to facilitate the building of a huge skyscraper. Ivan Locke is driving down to a hospital where a woman, who is not his wife, is giving birth to his child. This film follows his night time car trip as he deals with both his precarious family and professional issues over a series of phone conversations, convinced that he is making the right decision.

It seems that with Locke, Steve Knight’s concept was to take the appeal of radio plays to the big screen. As a result, his film is one of the most intimate portrayal of a fictional character in cinematic history. The cameras –  red epics that make the film’s darkness all the more vivid and add a certain visual beauty to the film – never leave the enclosed setting of the car, and yet Locke remains gripping, intense and even entertaining throughout.

The whole experiment would never have worked if it hadn’t been for Tom Hardy’s amazing and yet often restrained, perfectly balanced performance. In this film, which can seem like the ultimate vanity project for any actor, he shows amazing skill,  literally carrying the weight of the film on his shoulder.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Buried (2010, Rodrigo Cortés), Cosmopolis (2012, David Cronenberg)

 

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8. – Ida (Pawel Pawlikowksi)

Anna, a young girl brought up in a convent, is just about to take her vows and become a nun. Before she does, her Mother Superior insists that she try to reconnect with her last remaining relative, her aunt Wanda, an intellectual and strong woman. After some initial hostility, the two set off on a road trip looking for the place where Anna’s parents were executed and buried during the Second World War.

Pawlikowski’s latest work feels like a journey of a character’s self-discovery but also a journey through the meanders of Poland’s historical conscience. Shot in glorious black and white photography, each frame is carefully composed and adds a poetic depth to the narrative and conveys the careful structure of the character development.

All the while, Kulesza and Trzebuchowska share wonderful chemistry in their moments of soft spoken melancholia and pathos with their performances of their respective characters, who have radically opposed personalities, that conveys Ida’s lack of emotional obviousness in favour of a more honest and touching approach.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – My Summer of Love (2004, Pawel Pawlikowski), The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, 1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

 

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7. – Child’s Pose (Pozitia copilului) (Calin Peter Netzer)

All wealthy 60-year-old Cornelia really wants is for her thirty-something son to reciprocate the love she has for him. Her son Barbu, on the other hand, would simply like her to leave him alone. However, when Barbu is involved in a tragic car accident killing a small child in the process, Cornelia, who sees this as an opportunity to win back the love of her son, is thrust back into his life.

The first thing that strikes about this film is the unflinching urgency with which it unravels. The exciting pace of the film is made even more entertaining by its faithful portrayal of the everyday humour and drama of the common mother and son relationship which it aims to represent. However, Child’s Pose is also remarkable for the way in which it portrays such a relationship by not only making use of a harrowing and very original plot, which is centred around a compelling theme of loss, but also for the way in which Romanian director Netzer allows his characters to openly reveal their honest vulnerabilities and eccentricities.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Mamma Roma (1962, Pier Paolo Pasolini), All About My Mother (Todo Sobre Mi Madre, 1999, Pedro Almodóvar)

 

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6. – The Double (Richard Ayoade)

Richard Ayoade’s follows up his widely acclaimed debut feature Submarine with another stylised film that deals with obsession, love rivalry and psychopathy. Based on Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, this is the story of an irreparably shy and downtrodden young office clerk hopelessly in love with a colleague Hannah, whom he is fixated upon but whose presence despairingly intimidates and mortifies him.

His difficult life is made all the more difficult when a new worker who looks exactly like him but has a complete opposite and extrovert personality is hired and takes advantage of him in any way he can, by exploiting his office work to climb through the company ranks and even stealing the woman he loves.

The Double is remarkably overflowing with creativity and a visual style that recalls the classic film noir, or even the thriller dramas of the late mute period, but also flirts with the bizarreness of the science fiction works of Terry Gilliam, particularly in the creation of a mostly timeless American setting. The way it is composed and structured, whether it is in the mise en scene of each frame or in the narrative developments of the story itself, is fearlessly obvious yet its confidence and exciting pace makes it gripping and entertaining all throughout.

On top of that, it has a sweet and romantic inner core that ensures The Double an irresistible charm, which completes the stylish nature of Ayoade’s direction. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast in this film, and shows amazing versatility and skill in the uneasy portraying two characters who look and dress exactly the same but who are radically different in nature and purpose. In fact, it is obvious that without the strength of Eisenberg’s performance the film would have crumbled and lost credibility.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam), American Psycho (2000, Mary Harron)

 

5. – Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Jigoku de Naze Warui) (Sion Sono)

The cult Japanese Yakuza film genre gets a trendy and exciting update in Why Don’t You Play in Hell? by director Scion Sono, who has been described as the Japanese Quentin Tarantino – and the comparison between the two directors certainly rings true considering Tarantino’s venture into classic cult Japanese genre films with Kill Bill.

The story, based on a screenplay Sono had written fifteen years earlier, involves the violent exploits of two rival Yakuza gangs. One of the gang leaders, as a gift to his wife, wants to make a film star out of her daughter who had reached the peak of her fame as the child in a famous toothpaste commercial. Parallel to this is the story of a group of excited renegade young filmmakers who call themselves the ‘Fuck Bombers’.

The meeting between these two stories will lead to an exciting rollercoaster ride of riveting action sequences, hilarious comedy gags and stylish ultra-violence. The key to Sono’s film is exaggeration, and it has rarely ever worked so consistently. The screenplay never misses a beat, and unravels thrillingly through an imaginative approach and plot developments that wilfully extend its boundaries to boarderline ridiculous. Furthermore, the film’s visuals are wonderfully outlandish. In the midst of this spellbinding chaos is also an unorthodox yet much appreciated tribute to the death of celluloid.

In short, Why Don’t You Play in Hell is a remarkably imaginative riot that establishes its director as a modern cult film visionary and is more than likely to win him a devoted following from here on.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003, 2004, Quentin Tarantino), Fist of Fury (Jing wu men, 1972, Wei Lo)

 

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4. – Sacro GRA  (Francesco Rosi)

A decadent nobleman, a transvestite prostitute, a botanist on a mission to save palm trees from insect infestation, a kind-hearted paramedic. They are only four of the many colourful characters who live in the areas around Rome’s famous Ring Road followed by Gianfranco Rosi in his latest work.

This year’s Golden Lion winner, the first documentary to win the coveted prize, Sacro GRA feels as much like a tender and heartfelt look at these everyday people as it does an enchanting portrayal of the magical side and uniqueness of these individuals. It also feels like the more realistic spin on the familiar multiple plotline structure that is prominent in fiction filmmaking but never feels as genuine and harrowing as it does in this documentary.

Furthermore, its wonderful and careful photography makes it seem like a touching and entertaining narrative drama that is often at once funny and tragic – an approach that both reveals and flatters Rosi’s scope of seeking and showing the beauty of the comedy and drama of everyday life.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Fellini’s Roma (Roma, 2972, Federico Fellini), The Four Times (Le Quattro Volte, 2010, Michelangelo Frammartino)

 

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3. – Starred Up (David Mackenzie)

David MacKenzie takes the essence of the domestic drama of a difficult father-son relationship and confines it to the tense and claustrophobic setting of a prison.

Starred Up is the story of a rebellious teenage inmate whose angry life deteriorates when he is transferred to the same prison as his father. The father’s attempts at helping his son, in fact, seem to do nothing but fuel Eric’s rage even more and risk putting him into more trouble with the guards. MacKenzie digs deep within the psychology of the characters and their somewhat distorted and selfish priorities.

In the end, this testosterone filled drama is also a harrowing and hard-hitting intimate portrayal made even deeper and more compelling by the wonderful magnetic performances of Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn, who invest body and soul in their honest and sometimes disturbing interpretations of father and son.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – In the Name of the Father (1993, Jim Sheridan), Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)

 

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2. – Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adéle) by Abdellatif Kechiche

Much more than the sexually explicit film its controversial nature would have you believe. Director Kechiche knocks down conventional boundaries to truly examine the passion of the love story between two young women, Adele and Emma, from their schooldays to their young adulthood.

While it was based on a graphic novel, a lot of Kechiche’s own concerns with class and society are represented in this film. And while it is true that the sex scenes are lengthy, steamy and imaginative it is equally true but not as acknowledged that the scenes where the girls converse are equally as long and allowed to breathe.

This is a technique that truly reveals the most intimate details of the romance between the two central figures in the film and helps establish a fresh kind of connection with a modern audience. While the film occasionally suffers from its share of overzealousness, it is truly remarkable how the film can remain absorbing despite its length of over three hours.

Lead actresses Adéle Exarchoupoulos and Léa Seydoux deliver praiseworthy and very brave performances, which were of vital importance to give the film the right kind of credibility. Furthermore, with their beauty, sexual chemistry and tenderness they have all the potential to become modern cultural icons of romanticism whether the censorship boards like it or not.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain, 1973, Jean Eustache), Pauline at the Beach (Pauline á la Plage, 1983, Eric Rohmer)

 

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1. –Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru) (Hirokazu Koreeda)

The lives of two very different Japanese families are shaken when they discover six years later that a mix-up in a hospital inadvertently swapped their two male babies. This bombshell inevitably leads to much psychological and emotional distress on both sides of the story, and especially in the father of one of the families who is led down a road of deep and meaningful re-evaluations of fatherhood as well as reflection own struggles with exposing his own emotions.

After dealing with the separation of a pair of young siblings in his previous work, I Wish, Kore-eda returns to the domestic drama territory in a profoundly moving film. However, apart from the story and thought provoking discourse, which also carefully contrasts family traditionalism with modernism, the filmmaker also employs a tasteful kind of style in bringing the story to the screen which is tastefully defined and doesn’t shift the attention away from the intimacy of the meditative nature of Like Father, Like Son and its difficult themes.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – I Wish (Kiseki, 2011, Hirokazu Koreeda), Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari, 1953,Yasujiro Ozu)

 

NOTE: This Top 10 does not include films that were included in my Venice Film Festival Top 10. It does, however, include all the films I watched from every one of the festival selection i.e. Official Competition, First Feature Competition, Documentary Competition, Thrill, Journey, Cult, Love…
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Top 10 Festival Films: Venice

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Matt Micucci picks his top 10 films from the 70th Venice International Film Festival (28th August – 7th September 2013)

 

10. – Gerontophilia (Bruce la Bruce)

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An 18-year-old discovers his sexual fetishism for old men after he falls in love with an 81-year-old inhabitant of the nursing home he works in. Bruce LaBruce returns with another controversial feature. Yet this time he ditches – perhaps momentarily – his visual explicitness and usual tastelesness for a more classicist and romantic approach in quite a remarkable way.

With production values upped and a more complex narrative, Gerontophilia not only shows that Bruce LaBruce could perhaps re-invent himself as a more mainstream kind of non-conformist filmmaker, but also represents his audacity at creating a film which represents a kind of remarkable artistic rebirth.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Hustler White (1996, Bruce la Bruce), Harold and Maude (1971, Hal Ashby)

 

 

9. – Nobody’s Home (Deniz Akcay)

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The story of a selfish and depressed mother, her caring adult daughter who longs for her own independence, her estranged and rebellious son and her neglected youngest daughter. They are four people who not only struggle to feel like a family after the death of their husband and father but also slowly but surely seem to be on the road to destroying each other’s lives.

Deniz Akcay’s Nobody’s Home is a remarkable first feature that brims over with emotional pathos in an oppressive urban background. However, the most interesting aspect of the film is that apart from its heart-breaking domestic drama, it feels like a fresh landmark for Turkish cinema in its representation of female characters and situations that go beyond the traditional conservative ways.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, 2011, Asghar Farhadi), Head On (Gegen die Wand, 2004, Fatih Akin)

 

 

8. – Lenny Cooke (Bennie Safdie, Joshua Safdie)

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The rise and immediate fall of promising young basketball star Lenny Cooke as he gears up for the 2001 NBA Draft but fails on the grounds of meritocracy. We meet him years later as he inevitably reflects on his mistakes in letting himself miss the opportunity and waste his natural talent.

This film was screened as a special exchange between the Venice Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival. It is a very gritty feel with a beautiful feel of urban decadence. The stock footage looks dirty and raw, making it seem more legitimate. The Safdie brothers are very reminiscent of the other legendary brothers in documentary, the Meysels.

In Lenny Cooke, in fact, they employ the same guerrilla tactics of direct cinema and let the characters speak for themselves and seduce the camera. Ultimately, however, out of the natural comedy of the world in which they film comes an honest tragedy of fate and Shakespearean remorse right up to epilogue, which is at once dramatic and poetic.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IS YOU LIKED – Salesmen (1968, Albert Maysels, David Maysels, Charlotte Zwerin), Hoop Dreams (1994, Steve James)

 

 

7. – Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas)

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The story of the meeting between a Columbia University student called Allen Ginsberg with two other beat literary icons to be – Jack Kerouac and John Burroughs. The meeting takes place around the figure of Lucien, a suave rebellious figure who seems to inspire the three yet also often places them in dangerous situations.

Krodikas, in his first feature, revives the spirit of the beat writers by giving himself little time to complete the film, and even the slight imperfections in the cinematography recall the missing punctuations in a sentence by Kerouac. Kill Your Darlings has a very modern feel and is suitably directed at a younger audience through its edgy style, a sexual charge and incorporating modern music in the soundtrack. Furthermore, the aimed casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg proves to be suited and his performance quite brave.

While many will argue whether Krokidas went too far in making the beat culture look contemporary, there is no doubt about the fact that Kill Your Darlings is an appealing and fashionable take on the times as well as a harrowing look at the pain behind the greatest of artists.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – The Great Gatsby (2013, Baz Luhrmann), The Breakfast Club (1985, John Hughes), If…. (1968, Lindsey Anderson)

 

 

6. – Redemption by Miguel Gomes

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Four men in different times and place settings recall different stages in their lives and an event which deeply affected them. A genial mix of experimental essay documentary filmmaking and cleverly creative political satire, Miguel Gomes’ film plays with the viewer’s perception of the archive imagery and the deep and sentimental voiceovers to imagine some plausible event that would have shaped the lives of four important politicians and made them what they ultimately become.

In this way, he thematically recalls what we could call the ‘rosebud’ element from Welles’ Citizen Kane. As such, it also works as the recreation of an imaginative re-invention of the term ‘public figure’ in its most open definition.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – La Morte Rouge (2006, Victor Erice), Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker)

 

 

5. – Walesa. Man of Hope (Andrzej Wajda)

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Legendary Polish filmmaker Wajda returns to shed new light on another important moment in Polish history and completes his trilogy; after the Man of Marble and the Man of Iron, here is the Man of Hope.

This time his subject is Lech Walesa, an electrician who was responsible for founding the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc. And this time his subject is still an alive and kicking important figure in Polish modern history. For Wajda, this is the return of his somewhat recognisable style of classics such as Man of Marble for which he also used archive footage, a mixture of black and white photography with colour photography and a steady pace. The visual style is quite remarkable particularly when considering that this film did not have a big budget. Through its sometimes poignant sense of humour and use of irony in the portrayal it is also delightfully satirical and deserves added points for entertainment.

Perhaps it is not as passionate as his best work, but like a lot of his works he has that matter-of-fact consistency from which a genuine desire for unearthing the Polish conscience can be drawn. Wajda himself announced a while back that his biopic on Walesa might have ended up controversial, however, it never feels like it is, but it rather feels like the solid and confident work of an experienced filmmaker. It wouldn’t be fair not to mention Robert Wieckiewicz’s excellent performance as the titular historic figure.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmuru, 1977, Andrzej Wajda), The Iron Lady (2011, Phyllida Lloyd)

 

 

4. – Bethlehem by Yuval Adler

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The Israeli Palestinian conflict is always a hot and controversial topic to be dealing with. Yuval’s choice of dealing with it for his first film reveals him as quite ambitious and audacious. Bethlehem is the story of three men who are caught in the middle of the storm; a man from the Israeli Secret Service, a leader of the Palestinian militants and an informant who is emotionally attached to both sides by friendship and family.

Adler’s film is a powerful spy thriller, yet it has nothing to do with the conventional perception of the genre, particularly in its realistic approach that refuses to sugarcoat the cultural context of the story. Bethlehem is also admirable for its refusal to pick sides or make major political statements choosing instead to focus on the emotional side of the story and the intensity of the characters as individuals. While some may still find the inevitable political implications a little uneasy, Bethlehem is a remarkably powerful work.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – Bloody Sunday (2002, Paul Greengrass), The Hurt Locker (2008, Kathryn Bigelow)

3.  The Armstrong Lie (Alex Gibney)

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The investigative documentarian par excellence of this generation, Alex Gibney, returns shortly after the release of his fearless The Story of WikiLeaks and Mea Maxima Culpa with another gripping and exciting documentary that retains the urgency of unfolding history.

Here, the subject of his documentary is Lance Armstrong, the seven times Tour de France winner who was caught for doping, thus tainting his legacy as sports icon. The interesting aspect is that in 2009, Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France after his retirement would have been the subject of another Gibney documentary which would have looked at him in a totally different perspective. This adds a personal element to the film which makes it a little more personal and hence interesting whilst never taking over the mystery of the plot as it unravels at an exciting pace. Gripping and entertaining, this film is also a fascinating look behind the scenes at a sport tainted by doping scandals.

Alex Gibney is a trend setter and there is no one better, at least in cinema nowadays, in making the kind of films that he makes and in making them with such an amazing consistency.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013, Alex Gibney), The Imposter (2012, Bart Layton)

 

 

2. – Philomena (Stephen Frears)

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A down and out reporter comes across an Irish woman named Philomena, whose son, who would now be fifty, was taken away from her by the Magdalene Sisters. He decides to write an article about her as he helps her trying to find him. The screenplay, based on a true story, is solid gold, with its perfectly timed balance of humour and drama. Furthermore, despite the fact that it deals with the heavy issue of a Catholic Church scandal, it also remains quite balanced in dealing with it from the two different perspectives of the lead characters on faith and spiritualism in general.

The acing is masterful. Judi Dench stars as the titular character with a performance that is full of sensibility and humanity – it is arguably her best performance of all time, sweetly melancholic and humorous. Steve Coogan opposite her is the perfect disenchanted cynic – he also deserves praise for co-writing the screenplay and producing the film. All in all, Frears’ film is a crowd pleaser, but one full of meaning and purpose acheiving the prose that most of its kind fail to accomplish.

 

WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU LIKED – The King’s Speech (2010, Tom Hooper), Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005, Stephen Frears)

 

 

1. – Stray Dogs (Tsai Ling-Miang)

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The portrait of a family in Taiwan that lives in a certain state of decadence. This film will split the audience in half. While some will never stop praising it, others will quite simply have no time for it. Its reliance on lengthy uneventful and still shots as well as a narrative that seems to go nowhere will frustrate many viewers. But then again, this film is not for everyone and that is part of its appeal.

Tsai Ling-Miang moves at his own pace and doesn’t seem to be interested in shifting away from his still and challenging style. Stray Dogs is, whether people like it or not, a truly magnificent vision and a purifying experience. Very often as an audience we are used to the camera pointing at a subject only if that subject will do something or interact with an object in some way. Here, the opposite happens most of the time, and the audience is hence led to interact with the scenes and lack of action in a subconscious and unique way. Yet, the intensity of the lack of action is powerful in its own unique way.

In a sense, with Stray Dogs in particular, Tsai Ling-Miang re-invents the cinematic language but the perception of its beauty and its emotion relies on the will of the viewer to tag along for the ride and be transported by this hypnotising and stunning film. Of course, Stray Dogs heavily hints at serious themes, like the decadence and frustration of modern culture, but on a human level it is just as intense.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Vive l’Amour (Aiqing wansui, 1994, Tsai Ling-Miang), Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)

 

NOTE: This top ten is more or less in order of personal preference and is only of the films that I have seen.  As well as that, it only includes the films that were part of the official programme of the festival and its different selections – main competition, Orizzonti, Venice Days, Settimana della Critica, Venice Film Market, special screenings and out of competition screenings. Hence, it does not include the Lux Prize finalists. Although these three films were screened during the festival, they were not actually part of the official programme and were treated as a different and independent section.

 

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