By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 5, 2013 at 11:29AM
5. "Blue Is the Warmest Color"
The first sex scene in "Blue Is the Warmest Color," Abdellatif Kechiche's French coming-of-age drama about a young lesbian couple, lasts longer than any other sequence in the movie. To dwell on its length, however, shortchanges its relevance to this three-hour-long feature. After a brief heterosexual relationship in which she loses her virginity, 15-year-old Adéle (Adéle Exarchopoulos) falls hard for chic art student Emma (Léa Seydoux), and the moment they get the chance to take their clothes off the passion explodes. In the cavalcade of kissing, licking, slapping and moaning that follows, Kechiche makes apparent the intensity of their physical bond, which later enhances the heartbreak caused by watching it fall apart.
Exarchopoulos delivers a bold, thoroughly credible breakthrough performance at the movie's center, portraying her character as a woman trapped by the mixed messages around her. At school, her peers encourage her to date a male classmate who has his eye on her, but balk when they figure out she's dating a woman. Seydoux, barely recognizable during the first half under a mop of blue-dyed hair, perfectly embodies the freewheeling mentality that offers Adéle an escape from her staid existence. Their commitments to these characters carry the narrative. Yet Kechiche's screenplay, which draws Julie Maroh's graphic novel, manages to convey the depth of feeling shared by the couple so well partly by taking his time. The director has crafted such a believable world that it's hard not to get wrapped up in the stakes at hand. In that regard, sex is less the main ingredient in "Blue is the Warmest Color" than the overall ways that physicality impacts romantic attraction.
Appropriately titled "The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 and 2" for its French release, "Blue is the Warmest Color" elegantly tussles with the idea of reconciling desire with other factors involved in the cultivation of healthy companionship. In Adéle's case, the story continues.
4. "The Act of Killing"
In Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing," a pair of gangsters -- responsible for murdering an untold number of suspected communists in the years following the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government -- get the chance to recount their experiences. At first showing no visible remorse, the men boast of their achievements, and Oppenheimer capitalizes on their enthusiasm with a twisted gimmick: The men are given numerous opportunities to reenact the murders for Oppenheimer's camera, sometimes emphasizing their brutality and occasionally delivering surreal, flamboyant takes that offer a grotesque spin on classic Hollywood musicals. Playing make believe with murderers, Oppenheimer risks the possibility of empowering them. However, by humanizing psychopathic behavior, "The Act of Killing" is unparalleled in its unsettling perspective on the dementias associated with dictatorial extremes.
Oppenheimer's main focus is a lean man named Anwar Congo, one of several former members of the Indonesian paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth. Drawing from American movie clichés for his image as a menacing bad guy, Congo and one of his colleagues indulge Oppenheimer with stories of their murderous achievements while also complaining about the perception they face from the rest of the world. "We have too much democracy," one of them says. Frequently, the men refer to their power of gangsters as "free men," but Oppenheimer gradually reveals that no matter how much they justify their past, they remain trapped by the lingering feelings of discomfort that their horrific deeds have planted in their heads.
The case can be made that Oppenheimer lets Congo and the other participants off too easy. They never receive a direct comeuppance. However, "The Act of Killing" vilifies these men by implication. It's possible they might not mind the way they come off for the camera, as they're all to eager to explain themselves; it's that very eagerness, however, that confirms their guilt.
3. "Before Midnight"
With "Before Midnight," Richard Linklater has completed one of the finest movie trilogies of all time. Nearly 20 years have passed since Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) met on a train in Vienna and spent a passionate night together in "Before Sunrise," then abruptly parted ways, only to tentatively pick up where they left off nine years later with "Before Sunset." That movie ended without resolving a tantalizing possibility: Would Jesse, now a successful writer stuck in a dead-end marriage, truly miss his flight back home and spend more quality time with Céline? "Before Midnight" answers that question while asking many more, consolidating the full power of the earlier movies into a masterful treatise on the evolution of romance.
The simple answer is yes: Jesse missed his plane. Nearly a decade later, he's still dealing with the aftermath. But nothing is ever simple with these movies, least of all the fate of its characters. In the opening minutes, Jesse bids farewell to his 14-year-old son, who continues to live with Jesse's ex-wife in Chicago and just completed a vacation with his father in Greece. Jesse says goodbye, exits the airport and walks to his car…where Céline awaits alongside their twin daughters. After two decades, the couple has at last satisfied the fantasy of forming the life together that always eluded them in the earlier movies. Having established that much, "Before Midnight" dives headlong into determining whether it was worth the wait -- and once again avoids a firm conclusion. As Jesse and Céline discuss their history together, it's almost as if they've watched the earlier installments along with us. Nobody geeks out over the trivia of this franchise better than the fictional creations who lived through it, but even they can't predict what comes next.
While still leaving open their future prospects, the movie brings the experiment full circle by returning to the existential yearning Linklater captures so well. It's an inviting routine: "Before Midnight" is the rare cinematic achievement that implicates alert viewers in its mission to understand the mysteries of intimate connections. "I really cherish this communication we have," Jesse says to his son, but he's also addressing the audience.
I'm not the religious type, but the Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Lab has restored my faith…in cinema, at least. The team responsible for the likes of "Sweetgrass," "Foreign Parts" and this year's mesmerizing festival offering "Manakamana" truly forged new ground with "Leviathan," an expressonistic look at life onboard (and slightly off-board) a fishing boat in Massachusetts. Though they claim not to call themselves filmmakers, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel have certainly made a movie unlike anything preceding it.
There are moments in "Leviathan" so breathtaking that it's easy to forget they're also familiar. Captured on small digital cameras fixed to fishermen helmets, tossed beneath the waves and strewn across the deck among the dead-eyed haul, the barrage of visuals populating "Leviathan" contain a routinely dissociative effect. The dialogue is sparse and distant, drowned out by hulking machinery, wind and water. The movie could take place on another planet; instead, it peers at this one from a jarring and entirely fresh point of view.
Despite the overload of sights and sounds, "Leviathan" adheres to a remarkably cogent aesthetic filled with innumerable painterly touches, from the red and blue gloves of the fishermen to the dark yellows of the ship interiors. Even as its perspective grows increasingly alien, "Leviathan" is full of life.
On my forthcoming list of the best documentaries released this year, "Leviathan" ranks slightly lower than certain other titles, even though it's highest-ranked non-fiction effort appearing here. That's because, as much as "Leviathan" takes place in this world, it's even more effective at uncovering a new one.
1. "12 Years a Slave"
A lot of issue-driven movies delve into major historical themes with clunky artifice and didactic maneuvers that lead many viewers to give them a pass. "12 Years a Slave" isn't one of those. It doesn't make things easy, but it renders the plight of its luckless protagonist in personal terms. The culmination of the daring formalism the director displayed in his previous features "Hunger" and "Shame," McQueen's best work similarly conveys a combination of psychological and physical hurdles rooted in a singularly unnerving experience. But what's particularly remarkable about the movie is that it navigates these waters while commenting on the historical dimensions of slavery by burying them in the details. Each scene has an alarming immediacy to it that makes it feel as though it exists in the present moment. No matter how haunting it gets, however, "12 Years a Slave" remains hauntingly beautiful.
Based on Solomon Northup's 1853 bestseller, "12 Years a Slave" owes much to Chiwetel Ejiofor's knockout performance, as well as equally immersive turns from Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson. Brad Pitt's heroic arrival in the closing scenes is an act of mercy for all of us. But those who find "12 Years a Slave" unnecessarily masochistic only confirm its powers. With his slow-burn approach, McQueen converts the air of defeat into an unnervingly visceral encounter. More than a powerful elegy, "12 Years a Slave" is a mesmerizing triumph of art and polemics: McQueen turns a topic rendered distant by time into an experience that, short of living through the terrible era it depicts, makes you feel as if you've been there.