Where to begin with a film like 12 Years A Slave? My limited range of expression feels unable to do its impact justice but I have an obligation to this blog, so I'll give it a shot. Steve McQueen's film is an unforgettable experience and one I don't think I will likely repeat again. That's no slight on the film, I saw Saving Private Ryan on opening night in 1998 and I haven't seen it since. I don't need to, its imagery is so indelibly etched on my brain that I've never been able to forget it and I expect 12 Years A Slave will be similar.
An extraordinary Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga, New York, who is lured by two men to Washington with the promise of a job he can't refuse. During dinner with the two men he is drugged and wakes up in shackles in a darkened room within sight of Washington's half-built Capitol building. He is savagely beaten by a man who informs him he is to be transported south to become a slave. It's absolutely heartbreaking and that's only the first 15 minutes.
Northup begins work for Ford, a relatively enlightened plantation owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford does not beat his slaves and allows them to pursue creative passions but after Northup has a run-in with Paul Dano's weaselly overseer, Ford fears for his safety and feels he has no choice but to sell him to the considerably less enlightened Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is a violent, debauched drunk who thinks nothing of waking up the slaves in his charge in the middle of the night to play music and dance for his amusement. He is also obsessed with a young slave girl, Patsey (a tremendous Lupita Nyong'o), who Solomon befriends. Epps sexually abuses Patsey and his obsession with her inspires a vicious jealousy in his vindictive wife (Sarah Paulson). The film contains one harrowing scene after another, culminating in an unforgettably brutal passage with Solomon being forced to whip Patsey.
British director, McQueen presents with great clarity the way the intelligent, erudite Northup is continuously dehumanized, having all vestiges of his identity, including his name, taken away from him. The performances throughout the film are of the highest rate, with even the minor characters, including Paul Giamatti's slave trader, having a huge impact. It is nevertheless Ejiofor who deserves the most credit. Like the film he's certain to be a front-runner for every award going and it would be no less than he and the film deserve.
James Ponsoldt's wonderful comedy-drama The Spectacular Now was another of my festival highlights. Channeling a young John Cusack, Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, a confident, amiable 18-year-old on the rebound from his last girlfriend. After she wakes him up on someone's front lawn after a particularly heavy night, Sutter embarks upon a relationship with smart but shy classmate, Aimee (Shailene Woodley). Although it's a familiar set-up, The Spectacular Now stands out because the characters and situations feel entirely real. This couldn't be further from the world of American Pie and as a consequence its impact is far more affecting. Ponsoldt often uses long takes, enabling Sutter and Aimee to get to know each other in real time. We witness the ebbs and flows of their first conversations and it's a total joy. Both Woodley and Teller are terrific and had this been made 25 years ago, you wouldn't have been surprised to see John Hughes' name attached. It's that good.
The Dare gala, featuring "films that take you out of your comfort zone" at this year's festival was French drama and winner of the Un Certain Regard directing prize at Cannes, Stranger By The Lake. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular at a lakeside cruising spot for men. Over the course of a few days during summer he falls hard for the handsome and mysterious Michel (Christophe Paou). Their encounters are passionate and physical but when Franck sees Michel drowning another man in the lake, instead of being turned off, it further piques his curiosity. Directed by Alain Guiraudie and fully deserving of the Dare title, it's an extremely frank and slow moving thriller about the nature of desire that builds to a breathlessly tense climax. It's in cinemas in March 2014 and one to look forward to.