A Touch of Sin
A work of national cinema meant primarily for an audience outside of its home nation, A Touch of Sin is a disturbing mosaic of contemporary global China, depicting the excesses and injustices of a country growing through an unprecedented combination of organized labor and capitalist exploitation. A potent combination of genre play and political commentary, Zhangke Jia’s episodic film is as much a masterwork of a tightly controlled, discomfiting tonal range as it is a revealing micro-examination of uniquely 21st-century forms of economic injustice. I believe we’ll be talking about this molotov cocktail of a film for years to come.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coens’ most interesting, challenging, and unconventional films have always been their character studies, and now they can add Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis alongside Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik in their repertoire of struggling, unheroic protagonists. The most mature and restrained film the Coens have made to date, Inside Llewyn Davis is a brilliant folk antibiopic that never confuses the beauty of art with either a romanticization of the artist or an opportunity to divulge in hazy nostalgia for “his era.” Instead, Inside Llewyn Davis intricately illustrates how impossible it is to place oneself within the infinitesimal venn diagram that intersects important music and commercial fame. For Llewyn, the art of music is an inherently destructive trade because of the false equivalence of self-worth and commercial viability.
Pablo Larrain’s No might be the most important narrative film about politics to have been produced so far this century, depicting with incredible insight and wit the cultural transitions that have made it impossible to disentangle democratic participation from consumer choice. One of the most ambivalent of Pablo Larrain’s films about recent Chilean history, No chronicles the toppling of a dictatorship through a form of civic discourse that reduces complex ideas to an ad-friendly slogan, and engages in a layered critique of neoliberalism through an absolutely thrilling horse-race of a campaign. But when victory is predictably achieved, No implores the viewer to reflect, “At what cost?”
Blue is the Warmest Color
The French title of Abdellatif Kechiche’s years-spanning romance translates to The Life of Adele: Chapters 1 & 2, referring to the younger of Blue is the Warmest Color’s much-lauded couple, magnificently played by Adele Exarchopoulos. The French title is far more fitting, as it ignores the film’s overextended hue-based theme in favor of recognizing the exceedingly intimate character study that this film actually is. Outside of the film’s voyeuristic and tonally inconsistent sex scenes (which I blame on the director’s misplaced gaze, not on the acts themselves), Kechiche maintains his camera tightly on Exarchopoulos’s face for nearly the entire three-hour running time, through which we not simply witness but experience her coming-of-age through eating, crying, loving, kissing, and possessing varying levels of shy contentment. I don’t remember another film of recent memory in which I was invited to so immersively live in somebody else’s psyche; at times I literally forgot I was watching a film.
12 Years a Slave
Several well-intentioned critics have referred to Steve McQueen’s stunning depiction of Solomon Northup’s harrowing move from freedom to slavery to freedom as the “definitive” movie about American slavery. But the true brilliance of 12 Years a Slave is that it achieves exactly the opposite, refusing to ever homogenize the subjugated pre-Civil War African-American experience, depicting slavery not as a unified subjectivity but an experience dependent upon a myriad of circumstances pertaining to many identity positions and social rules. Beyond Chiwetel Ejiofor’s astounding lead turn, the supporting cast speaks to a variety of different orientations and historical truths without ever being reduced to a token for Northup’s narrative (excepting Brad Pitt’s white savior). Rather than pursuing any notion of a definitive story of American slavery, 12 Years a Slave is expansive, attesting by its existence alone the fact that there are so many stories that have yet to be told about our history’s ugliest institution.