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Variety Critics Pick the Best Films of Venice, Telluride and Toronto

Our top reviewers agree on at least one thing: 'Birdman' is one of the early triumphs of the fall movie season

JUSTIN CHANG

“Birdman”
Even when his choice of material has been suspect, Alejandro G. (formerly Gonzalez) Inarritu has never given us reason to doubt him as one of the most purely gifted filmmakers of his generation. For him, no less than for Michael Keaton, this ferociously inventive plunge into the corroded soul of American celebrity represents a career-reigniting comeback; for that wizardly cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, it’s the latest in a steady stream of digital long-take miracles, like “Black Swan” as directed by Max Ophuls. (Venice, Telluride, New York)

“From What Is Before”
The extreme length is inseparable from the power and conviction of Lav Diaz’s historical epic about the devastation of a small Filipino barrio amid the political and military unrest of the early 1970s. As a slow-burning study of social decay, this winner of Locarno’s Golden Leopard prize is both a thematic companion piece to Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” and an improvement upon it, slipping beneath the ruins of a lost world to uncover a complex tangle of good and evil, mysticism and Christianity, stark horror and indelible beauty. (Locarno, Toronto)

“Rosewater”
With its coolly intelligent assembly and skillful performances, Jon Stewart’s dramatization of the harrowing 2009 imprisonment of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a fine debut feature by any measure. What makes it a singular one is Stewart’s bracing sense of the absurd, as evident here as it is on any given episode of “The Daily Show.” “Rosewater” isn’t satire, but it recognizes that hilarity as well as horror is a perfectly sane response to the human-rights violations on display. (Telluride, Toronto)

“Seymour: An Introduction”

It’s been a banner year for Ethan Hawke the actor, outstandingly versatile in “Boyhood,” “Predestination” and the Venice-premiered duo of “Cymbeline” and “Good Kill.” But it was Ethan Hawke the director who pulled off one of the year’s great revelations with this lovely and luminous documentary tribute to Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist whose ideas about artistic purpose and integrity achieve the graceful expression and revivifying clarity of a well-played Chopin etude. (Telluride, Toronto, New York)

“Time Out of Mind”
A remarkably nuanced, vanity-free performance by Richard Gere forms the centerpiece of Oren Moverman’s gripping study of a vagrant slowly grasping the depths of his despair, mapping one man’s tortured inner landscape as sensitively and assuredly as it navigates the dense urban labyrinth of present-day Manhattan. Bleak, challenging and completely sustained, it’s a film with the compassionate soul of Vittorio De Sica and the patience and concentration of Frederick Wiseman. (Toronto)

PETER DEBRUGE

“Birdman”
Like Kryptonite to comicbook movies, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s quicksilver satire of what’s become of Hollywood — skewering the way vfx bonanzas have all but displaced adult dramas on American movie screens — reveals a totally new side of Michael Keaton, who delivers the standout performance of the fall movie season opposite ex-“Hulk” Edward Norton. In a year crowded with showbiz satires, this one soars to the ranks of “All About Eve” and “Sunset Blvd.” (Venice, Telluride, New York)

“Gyeonju”
It’s not easy to dramatize a character’s internal search for self (I was mostly bored watching Reese Witherspoon hike her way to enlightenment in “Wild,” for example). That said, I found Chinese-Korean director Zhang Lu’s curious quest movie, in which a still-young professor putters around a city from his past, to be wonderfully poetic in the way it deals with “what if’s” — those lingering doubts we have about the roads not taken. (Locarno, Toronto)

“The Imitation Game”
The backlash has already begun against this beautifully written, elegantly mounted and poignantly performed historical drama, which focuses on the enigma of Alan Turing, whose landmark work in the field of artificial intelligence was inextricably entwined with his then-illegal homosexuality. The complaint seems to be that this is the sort of movie that wins awards (indeed, it just earned Toronto’s audience prize), and while critics may prefer subtler fare, I was blown away by how emotionally accessible such a film could be. (Telluride, Toronto)

“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”
Like his American namesake Wes Anderson, Swedish expressionist Roy Andersson crafts meticulous dioramas in which every detail serves to convey his droll view of human nature. Concluding the trilogy begun with “Songs From the Second Floor,” this Venice-winning satire seems all the more eccentric at a moment in cinema when so few helmers seem to understand composition and framing. My favorite shot: servicemen lining up to kiss their peg-legged hostess at Limping Lotta’s Bar. (Venice, Toronto)

“While We’re Young”
Nearly 20 years after “Kicking and Screaming,” Noah Baumbach still finds no shortage of material satirizing his generation’s ongoing resistance to acting their age. Serving up the sort of keen character insights more typically found in novels, Baumbach zeroes in on the insecurities faced by a mid-40s married couple (who would’ve thought Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts would have such great chemistry?) after they befriend a pair of hipper-than-thou twentysomethings. (Toronto)

SCOTT FOUNDAS

“Birdman”
Much (deserved) attention has been paid to Michael Keaton’s comeback performance and the long-take acrobatics of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, but those are just two of the manifold pleasures of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s backstage Broadway death-dream farce. Emerging from the self-flagellating self-seriousness of his three previous features, the Mexican director himself seems reborn here, spreading his artistic wings and taking dazzling flight. (Venice, Telluride, New York)

 “The Duke of Burgundy”
A movie that fetishizes the analog pleasures of celluloid almost as sensuously as its characters fetishize one another, British director Peter Strickland’s straight-faced yet deviously funny homage to ’60s and ’70s Eurotrash erotica certainly isn’t for all tastes. But for sheer aesthetic overindulgence, nothing else on screens right now can touch it. (Toronto)

“Horse Money”
The Portuguese director Pedro Costa continues his two-decade exploration of Cape Verdean immigrants displaced from a Lisbon housing slum in this hallucinatory odyssey, which finds Costa’s nonprofessional muse, Ventura, wandering through a nocturnal landscape haunted by the phantoms of his  and his country’s  turbulent past. A fiercely political, formally audacious work by one of the world’s most original cinematic thinkers. (Locarno, Toronto, New York)

“Top Five”
The third time as writer-director proves the charm for Chris Rock in this howlingly funny but also rueful and wise movie about a successful comedian trying to get his creative mojo back after a stint in rehab and a flop historical epic. Rock himself has had his own ups and downs in the movie business, but “Top Five” puts him back on top with its canny, confident mix of the silly and the sophisticated, the urban and the urbane. (Toronto)

“While We’re Young”
In his astringent new comedy, Noah Baumbach puts his finger so acutely on the gap between generations X and Y that some members of both camps will surely recoil from the shock of recognition. But as usual, Baumbach proves an equal-opportunity satirist, with a hidden tenderness lurking just beneath. The presence of Ben Stiller as a creatively blocked documentarian gives the movie a glancing connection with Stiller’s own Gen-X urtext, “Reality Bites,” while Charles Grodin (as Stiller’s eminence grise father-in-law) forges a link with Albert Brooks’ seminal “Real Life.” (Toronto)

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