12 Years a Slave – 8

Potent, powerful, punishing – it is hard to imagine a film that could better capture the human misery of slavery in America. Everyone acts their appointed role in this tableau, although I didn’t quite understand what Brad Pitt was doing on the scene. Once the black man is considered chattel, rather than humanity, all else follows (as has been true for Indians in the West, “gooks” in Vietnam, Arabs in Iraq and Afghanistan – it always helps when the “other” is a different color). Maybe because it was based on a true story, nothing seemed trumped-up for Hollywood. The bad guys were bad largely due to the system they were products of; even “good guys” could do little to buck it. Money, as usual, was the driving force, with a dollop of lust thrown in. Chiwetel Ejiafor, a surefire Oscar nominee, told the whole story through his eyes, and it was a hard story to take. Leaving the film was a solemn moment.

Blue is the Warmest Color – 8

Swann in Love is a minutely detailed account of a love affair, focusing entirely on Swann’s feelings, day by day, every moment of longing, pleasure, and above all, jealousy. Nothing really happens; there is no climax or denouement; it is just a portrait, of Swann in love, and how that love affects and changes him. Substitute Adele for Swann, and you pretty much have what happens in the inexplicably titled Blue. Not surprisingly, the movie, like Proust, is French – and the affair is homosexual. The acting, by the teenaged Adele Exarchopoulos, is every bit as remarkable as the novel’s prose. Adele is totally convincing as the young, unformed adolescent, coming to grips with her sexual feelings. It is, along with Cate Blanchett’s, the performance of the year. Lea Seydoux, in the Odette de Crecy role, is appropriately magnetic and inscrutable. The movie is not everyone’s cup of tea – nor is Proust – but it is a remarkable achievement.

Skipping the Festival

After five years of faithful attendance at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival I am prepared to let it pass me by this year. Part of the reason is the lackluster quality of the films I have seen the last two years. For several years, festival entries dotted, and even topped, my Top Ten lists; the last two years, nada. Some films, like the one about the Chinese bicyclist, have been excruciatingly bad. Furthermore, if there is a film that people generally rave about, there’s a good chance that it will open commercially: this certainly was the case in 2013, as I caught Caesar Must Die (excellent), The Sapphires (mediocre) and Hannah Arendt (disappointing) in the months that followed.
Second is the experience itself. Why show up an hour early to get a number, sit in a grubby theater (Metro 4) in a packed house, often in the front row or two, and in place of trailers have to watch the same tired Film Festival lead-in? Even worse are Opening and Closing Nights, when the line at the Arlington snakes around the block, all for a movie that, if good, you will be able to walk into with no wait a month or three later. The price may not be significant, but it, too, doesn’t favorably compare to films in commercial release.
I like the buzz, it’s good for the community, it can be fun running into people and talking to strangers in line, and I may miss the scene. But for one year, I will see if I can do without it.

Counselor – 5

I felt I was wallowing in a Vogue feature, every shot was oh-so-glamorous – and just as artificial. Nothing in the story computed, however. The “Counselor” was a cipher: there was no clue why Penelope Cruz loved him, why Javier Bardem or Brad Pitt befriended him, what he was doing in the movie or where he got the money to live so lavishly (his only visible client was a Latino woman for whom he was court-appointed, another unlikely event). The nihilistic tone of the movie, contributed by screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, made the whole thing slightly depressing without clearing up any of the mystery. The biggest mystery is why there would be all this fuss over a mere $20 million.