Flashback: International cinema in 2013

Eighteen years ago, when young Jesse and Celine walked in and then on and on into our lives, little did we know that their cheerful, flirtatious and brutally honest banter would stay with us for a long long time to come. Two young people walking the streets of Vienna, talking their minds out. No commitments. No hang ups. Just pure conversation about everything that matters to them under the sun. Richard Linklater’s 1995 romantic drama film Before Sunrise was that small film, in which nothing much happens, but redefined the idea of romance for a whole lot of youngsters.
With time, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have grown older, so have we and they are back in Linklater’s third instalment of their story, Before Midnight, which answers the question “what really happens after the happily ever after?” The couple, who is in their early forties, is yet again talking, but this time around the conversation is more about their day-to-day life and the effort required to sustain a long-term relationship. The film, driven by narrative, shows that staying in love should not be taken for granted. Realistic to its very core, Before Midnight is my story as much as it is yours.

A still from Before Midnight Image via Google Images
A still from Before Midnight
Image via Google Images

The tough side of love is what has gripped a lot of filmmakers this year. But unlike Linklater’s easygoing film, Abdellatif Kechiche’s French film Blue Is The Warmest Colour is a difficult and emotionally draining film to watch. The film, which shot to fame after being awarded this year’s Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is a coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Adele. It is not a revolutionary story, something that you have probably heard before, but what matters is how Kechiche chooses to tell it.
The most beautiful thing about BITWC is that Kechiche doesn’t reduce it to just another lesbian love story. When Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) and the blue-haired Emma (Lea Seydoux) fall in love, it is not the fact that they are both young women that catches and keeps your attention. It is the rawness in their relationship and the almost intrusive level of detail that the filmmaker has woven into the story. There has been many stories that show tumultous affairs between young people, but none as touching and real as BITWC.
While Adele finds her freedom, Solomon Northup loses his in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. The horrifying account of the life of a free born African-American man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery will leave you frozen in your seats. Based on Northup’s autobiography that was published in 1853, the film is sure to make a deep cut in the viewer’s heart. The memory of the whip that falls on a slave’s bare back and the rhythmic noises of the axes on wood will haunt you for some time to come.
Packed with powerhouse performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Northup and McQueen’s favourite Michael Fassbender who plays the borderline insane and extremely sadistic slave owner Edwin Epps, the film is one of the must-watches this year. It is also visually stunning, but the plight of the slaves that is so painfully sketched in 12 Years A Slave robs it of all its cinematic splendour the attention it deserves. Having survived this trauma and having lived to tell the tale, Northup’s story is testimony to the hardships of thousands of others who could not do so.

A still from 12 Years A Slave Image via Google Images
A still from 12 Years A Slave
Image via Google Images

This year was one that celebrated man’s survival instinct. Of all the films in this genre, two deserved special mention–Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, in which an astronaut gets lost in space, for making science fiction believable with marvellous strides in technology, and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, in which a 77-year-old man on a boat gets stranded in the Indian Ocean, for Robert Redford’s pathbreaking performance in a one-man-show. If Gravity relied on special effects and 3D to get it right, all that All Is Lost fell back upon was the acting credentials and screen presence of its single cast member. Both the films work well on completely different grounds and still put forward the same thought, the unbeatable fight till you die spirit of the human race.
Laughter, they say, is the best medicine. And, so discovers 27-year-old wannabe dancer Frances Handley (Greta Gerwig) by the end of Noah Baumbach’s rib-tickiling yet so matter of fact Frances Ha. Like the film’s title, which is nothing but a portion of the protagonist’s name written on a piece of paper that won’t fit fully into the panel of a door, Frances Ha is nothing but a slice of her life. There is a journey, but it doesn’t have any life changing impacts. There is loneliness, but it is not accompanied by long silences and sober music. There is love and friendship, but it is not made a big deal out of. This is just a simple film about a young woman who is not sure of what she is looking for, precisely the reason why she doesn’t end up finding it. So if you are looking for some symbolism, stop right there. Shot fully in black and white, Frances Ha derives all its colour from Gerwig’s lively performance.

A still from Frances Ha Image via Google Images
A still from Frances Ha
Image via Google Images

More than double Frances’s age, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) of Paolo Sorrentino’s Italian film The Great Beauty, uses the same route of dark humour, to reflect on his life that has gone by at 65. A writer, who has written just one forgettable novel, Jep revels as a socialite in contemporary Rome. The city comes alive in front our eyes in a never seen before way, with camber music and blinding party lights. We travel with Jep to many such exciting parties, all while lending a ear to his internal monologue. The film, that weaves in subtle philosophical references to its largely OTT canvas, is truly a class apart, thanks to Servillo’s brilliant performace and Sorrentino’s sensitivity.
In stark contrast to the excess of Rome is the gritty, corrupted and violent stories of contemporary China that Jia Zhange choses to tell in his film A Touch Of Sin. When the society fails you, everything and everyone you placed your trust in disowns you and when all hope is lost in the future, what do you do? Zhange uses four stories to narrate real life stories of the disillusioned common man who decides to take to violence out of desperation. Raw, and sometimes gory, A Touch Of Sin might make you decide never to step foot in China.
This list will not overlook the gems of animated features that came out this year and right on the top is the heart-melting Frozen. Fresh and funny, Frozen tells the story of a princess Elsa who is born with a special power of being able to turn all she touches to, not gold, but ice. The princess grows up and is given the inevitable crown of the Queen, but unfortunately she ends up freezing her whole village. The film, unlike many other made-for-kids films, doesn’t have an evil villian, but it is a conflict between Anna and her own power. It touches upon the complexities of real life but stays away from preaching and is livened by the music and humour.

Finally, it is family and relationships we all go back to in life, which is why Asghar Farhadi’s The Past is one film that should not be missed. His last outing, the Oscar-winning A Separation was also based on the same premise of divorce and the impact it has on the family. This time, Farhadi moves to Paris for his separation. But it is not the Paris of postcards that he puts in front of the viewer. It is that of a working class immigrant community struggling to make a life of their own in the city of love.

This absorbing, honest and emotional film yet again has a strong young adult character who is sensible and has a voice of her own. Navigating through the debris of a broken relationship and building on the revival of another, The Past moves ahead on a tone of despair hinting at the deep impact of one’s past on the next generation.

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