As always, I didn’t cover the year’s releases comprehensively enough to say these ten are the best, but they’re among the new films I most enjoyed watching. I would have said I really don’t go to the TIFF Lightbox that often, but the record shows it’s where I saw eight of these, so maybe I’m the archetypal Lightbox patron. I hope no one finds out!
All is Lost (J C Chandor)
Here’s a film to make you realize how little you actually saw Robert Redford in his heyday, how classic lighting and framing softened our sense of him, internally and externally. Chandor strips away his hiding places, both literally and figuratively, placing him alone and battered on a grievously damaged yacht, trying to survive. Likewise putting himself right out on the line, the director impressively avoids making his film too existentially schematic, or overloading it with symbolic significance; he certainly shows up the trite characterizations that marred Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity.
Amour (Michael Haneke)
Haneke’s Oscar-winning study of a long-married couple approaching the end of their lives is much less oppressive and depressing than some commentators claimed: the point, it seems to me, is that a love (or whatever it might be) that sustains an intertwined life for so long, and especially a life that’s not merely functional and morose, is created by and belongs entirely to its participants, inherently beyond the knowledge of others. It’s a mesmerizing viewing experience, composed with such specific weight that it holds itself in your mind for much longer than most films do, even good ones. And of course, as everyone says, the performances are fairly spellbinding.
Bastards (Claire Denis)
Denis’ latest film is one of her bleakest pieces of material: a contemporary film noir, constructed from classic raw materials, which might intermittently make you think of Polanski’s Chinatown, albeit with myriad differences. It again demonstrates her immense power as a filmmaker – forcing us into contradictory impressions and reactions, into constantly reassessing what’s before us and thus in some way ourselves, and her interests and affinities seem almost boundless. For me, it’s somewhat too tightly wound to carry the impact of her very finest works, but only for one of the greatest of filmmakers could you place such a richly controlled, allusive film on any kind of second rank.
Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mongiu)
Mongiu’s film is set in more or less the present day, in a small Orthodox convent set above a small rural Romanian town, where a young woman’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. It’s easy to simplify the picture as an exercise in metaphysical despair, and to caricature the simplicity of Mongiu’s filmic language. But it’s much more multi-faceted than that, drawing on very tangible attention to detail, and carefully placing the charged events in the context of the local community, of the mundane, transient preoccupations of the modern world. Perhaps in the end justice will be done, as that’s defined, but whether that bears any correlation with truth or progress is unknowable.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)
My review of this year’s winner at Cannes certainly contained more caveats than those of the other nine films included here: I called it “a kind of greatest hits album of young contemporary lesbianism” and said: “if you have qualms about films that define women by their physicality and sexuality to a degree that men rarely have to endure, you won’t find much consolation here.” So maybe in a stronger year, it wouldn’t make my best ten. But its main actress Adele Exarchopoulos is a mesmerizing presence, powering a film that works best if you think less about the modern world and more about old actress-infatuated melodramas.
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
Baumbach’s gently shifting study of a young woman trying to make her way in modern-day New York – that is, in Girls territory, basically - is so subtle and skillful, it almost makes that show, and his own previous work, look heavy-handed; among much else, it confirms all the buzz about its star and co-writer Greta Gerwig as the truest current heir to classic Hollywood. The film’s evocations of the French New Wave, and its black and white cinematography, place it in a tradition of eternally provocative and fulfilling cinema, created out of relative poverty of means, ventilated by a rejection of deadening conventions.
Ginger & Rosa (Sally Potter)
Potter’s film follows two friends in England in 1962, deep in the folds of the Cold War and of nuclear escalation; a time when it’s plausible to think the world might be on the edge of wiping itself out, spawning a fruitful time for radicalism and activism. Potter immerses herself with great skill in the intimacy of interactions and experiences, and if the film is relatively more formally conventional than most of her previous work, its “feminist” power is undiluted, as Ginger ultimately starts to feel her way to a radicalized identity beyond rhetoric and clichés.
Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Kiarostami’s Japanese-made film, built around a young woman sent by a pimp to the house of an elderly professor, was largely marginalized as a prime example of “art” cinema, but I found the film as suspenseful as any straightforward thriller, almost unbearably so in its final stretch. It lacks the raw elements of clichéd filmic beauty but is as ravishing as anything you’ll ever see: every scene is a small miracle of composition and light, sometimes astounding you with its simplicity, sometimes with its detail. And it draws meaningfully on notions of female oppression and lack of empowerment, and on a broader feeling of siege and dissatisfaction.
Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas)
Assayas’s film about a group of young people in 1971, immersed in art and politics, represents a very specific and very French time and place; among much else, it’s consistently ravishing to look at. But its horizons are far from narrow – the film overflows with ideas and possibilities, causing you to reflect on (in Assayas’ words) the “predetermined obsolescence” of so many other movies. In the end the characters start to move on or compromise, but what wouldn’t you give to live in a time where even the compromises are so thrilling?
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke)
Jia’s masterly film consists of four loosely-connected episodes, each a story of systemic injustice in modern-day China, ending in personal tragedy. At times, it has the startlingly brutal and bloodily stylized moments that form the basic grammar of the “action” genre, but it redeploys them not as periods, leading nowhere except into their own sick entrails, but rather as question marks, profoundly probing the environment that gave rise to them. Although certainly pessimistic, it’s constantly visually ravishing, filled with remarkable compositions.