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From the Hamptons, Six of the Best

Oct 16, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

With its 21st edition the Hamptons International Film Festival has "finally made it into adulthood," to quote the founders. Indeed, HIFF prospers. It's getting bigger and better, while remaining easy to navigate. Offering a blend of comedies, docs, bios and shorts, HIFF skims off the best from the major fests, from Cannes to Toronto, including high-profile films heading for the academy awards. You can also meet and greet rising young actors; and participate in "conversations" with veterans such as Helena Bonham Carter (playing Liz in Burton and Taylor) and Bruce Dern, winner of Best Actor in Cannes for Nebraska. True, you may encounter the occasional geezer at the Guild Hall venue, who may forget he's not in his own living room and loudly share his insights during a screening. But the ability to bob and weave from one venue to the next among the turning foliage of the Hamptons banishes minor discontents. As did the rum punch from the Founders' Party. Here from this year's fest are six of the best.

Philomena by Stephen Frears. Winner of the HIFF Audience Award, "Philomena," starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (also co-screenwriter), is that rara avis, a thinking person's film that's also a crowd pleaser. It revisits 1950s Ireland, when Catholic authorities shamed thousands of "fallen" women, such as Philomena, into giving their children up for adoption. This deeply affecting story of a mother's search for her lost child doubles as a furious indictment of church policy. Its denouement feels just about perfect.

The Past (Le Passe) Talk about baggage, whole steamer-trunks-full. In this semi-sequel to A Separation by Asghar Farhadi (Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film), Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) travels from Iran to France to finalize his divorce from Marie (Berenice Bejo, The Artist). He arrives at her modest digs to encounter Marie's live-in bf (Tahar Rahim, superb), a passel of troubled kids, and ghosts of lives past that threaten to overwhelm present and future. American studio films triumph with cutting-edge technology (see Gravity). While an Iranian auteur such as Farhadi (filming a multi national cast in France) fashions riveting drama about the forces that cause couples and families to implode. Tahar Rahim ought to win Best Supporting in a turn that poignantly captures a man hamstrung by past loyalties.

Kill Your Darlings by John Krokidas is the most successful film to date about the Beat Generation, a group that's proved challenging to other filmmakers. Based on factual material, Krokidas uses a jazzed-up, hectic style to recreate high times among Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and his circle at Columbia in 1944, as Ginsberg slouched toward the creative vision that would rock America. At the center is an account of the real-life murder of David Kammerer, who was infatuated with Allen's fellow student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Most fascinating is the provocative spin Krokidas brings to this co-called "honor slaying" in an intensely homophobic age. Some might judge Radcliffe miscast, but DeHaan could seduce Mel Gison.

The Invisible Woman by Ralph Fiennes also stars Fiennes in a pitch-perfect portrayal of Charles Dickens as he finds love outside his marriage with the seventeen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones). Given the mores of the period, Ternan was forced to remain invisible during the long affair that ended only with Dickens's death. "So this is how it will be," she resignedly tells Dickens in a poignant scene. Buffs of literary drama will revel in this recreation of Victorian-era writers and thesps moving through feverishly lit interiors. It's worth noting that Kristin Scott-Thomas plays Ellen's mother, reuniting her with Ralph Fiennes for the first time since The English Patient.

Blue Is the Warmest Color, by Abdellatif Kechiche Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, "Blue" took the Palme d'Or in Cannes and has been sparking controversy ever since. It's a love story extending over some 10 years about high school junior Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) and college art student Emma (Lea Seydoux), from first passion to the practicalities of a shared household. What has unleashed all the hoopla -- and earned the film an NC-17 rating -- is the extended segment of two women making love. A master at dissecting class distinctions, Kechiche also captures the lived moment with a delicacy that eludes other filmmakers. The unwarranted but perhaps understandable fuss surrounding Blue ranges from the accusation that it's a male pornographic fantasy about lesbians; to outrage that a filmmaker of Arab origins would film the same-sex pairing condemned by his culture. Go judge for yourself.

Her by Spike Jonze. Confession: I left before the end, earning the enmity of a whole row of viewers, but I'm including this film because A) it closed the New York Film Festival; and B) everyone else seems to love it. Terminally whimsical and fey, it's a futuristic fantasy about Theodore, a lonely guy (Joaquin Phoenix, chameleonic and superb) who falls in love with Samantha, his computer operating system (artfully voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As the wife who dumped Theodore, Rooney Mara bows in and out, her anorexic thinness sending a toxic message to young women; while Olivia Wilde cameos as a disastrous blind date. True, Jonze's premise is an intriguing flight of fancy about love in our techno-culture, but as someone whose internet provider provides little or no connection, I found it gimmicky; devoid of a narrative motor. Best moment: Theo and Sam going at it while the screen fades to black. Best feature: the dreamy pastel-hued production design that magically evokes a digitized future.