NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
2013 – 51st Festival
The 2013 NYFF ended on 14 October. This excellent Festival—the 51st edition—was the first under the expert leadership of Kent Jones…and what a spectacular festival it was! Kent and the Selection Committee (Kent has been a member of the Selection Committee for as long as I can remember; but, in his new role as Director of Programming for the NYFF, this was his first year as Chairman of the Committee) put together an incredible Main Slate of 36 wonderful selections, two fabulous Gala Tributes (one to Cate Blanchett, followed by a surprise screening of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine; and the other to Ralph Fiennes, followed by a screening of his new film, ), an amazing Revivals series (including the only one we were able to get to see, a recently restored print of the marvelous 1997 Providence by Alain Resnais), a series called How Democracy Works Now (ten superb feature-length films by Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson getting inside the process of the Senate dealing with the immigration bill from 2001-2007), and a Godard retrospective entitled Jean-Luc Godard - The Spirit of the Forms (consisting of 45 features, 11 medium-length movies, many shorts, and 3 TV series). It was an overwhelmingly wonderful 17 days—during which time Nancy and I saw 26 films!
So as not to bury the lead, I’m going to put a list of the Main Slate films I saw here, as well as before the reviews of them which follow further on in this piece (the name of each film is linked to my review of it, below, if you’d like to jump ahead):
THE MAIN SLATE of FILMS IN THE FESTIVAL
In the end, of the 23 Main Slate films I saw, there were 11 that I thought were wonderful, four I felt were really good, two I thought were good films, and all of the remaining six, all were quite enjoyably watchable and at very least OK—there was not a single really bad experience in the lot. This is pretty amazing for a festival that is dedicated to taking chances and that tries to present a broad range of films it deems to have artistic merit in a number of directions. (That’s 65% that were films I’d thoroughly recommend as being between “really good” and “wonderful,” and 100% that I felt were at the very least “quite watchable”!) And the 3 non-Main Slate films (Providence, The Senate Speaks (from How Democracy Works) Now, and Hmm…) were all wonderful.
There were two Gala Tributes in this year’s NYFF, and we were able to attend both.
The first honored Cate Blanchett, and began with clips from her many amazing films (including two long segments I had been hoping they would include—a long bit of her playing Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes 2007 I’m Not There, and a large segment of her playing both herself and her down-and-out cousin opposite one another in Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 Coffee and Cigarettes), followed by a simply ecstatic interview of her done by Kent Jones. I have always known Blanchett was a superb actress, and I have always thought she was extremely beautiful, but I was surprised to learn how extremely intelligent, funny, and witty she is! The Tribute was followed by an unannounced screening of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, in which Blanchett stars and does an extraordinary performance. You are probably aware that I have sworn off Woody Allen films, after four consecutive times friends insisted that this next one really was worth seeing—only to be sorely disappointed. Nancy wanted to stay to see it; I absolutely did not. Arnaud Desplechin (whose films we love and whose was one of the Main Slate films in the NYFF this year) insisted we should stay and watch it with him and his wife Florence, and I gave in. It was better than I had feared, but not great. (As Alex had insisted to me, “it’s not great; but, if you were simply to come across it as a film in the NYFF and had no idea who the director was, you’d think it was a pretty good film. He is correct that my real problem is that Woody Allen was one of my heroes, and that I have not resigned myself to the fact that he has not made a masterpiece of the caliber he was rather regularly capable of—nowhere even close—since the end of the last millennium.) Cate Blanchett does give an incredible performance. Nevertheless, the film suffers from exactly what I have been unhappy about in this 21st century filmmaking: it has no real soul. Woody Allen used to have a deep insight into the human condition, and all his films therefore had a profound humanity in them that allowed them to be funny—even to make fun of people—and still convey a soulful respect for people’s humanity; and he has lost that connection to humanity. In, Blue Jasmine everyone is stereotyped and disdainfully made fun of. This is perhaps most uncomfortably obvious in his stereotyping of the lower class characters, but it is also true in his view of the wealthy. The script—and I assume the direction—insists on ruining what could have been a great performance by Bobby Cannavale, an actor I think has great talent. Blue Jasmine is better than the other films Allen has been making, but it is still very much more in tune with the better of them than it is with any of his earlier, profoundly wonderful works.
The second honored Ralph Fiennes, and it was followed by a screening of his new film, . The format was the same as that of the other Gala Tribute—beginning with clips from the many wonderful films in which Fiennes has acted, but also including clips from the other film he directed, his 2011 Coriolanus, followed by an interview of done by Kent Jones. Fiennes is definitely an accomplished actor, and it was interesting to hear him speak about his work; but the onstage performance of Cate Blanchett was an ectremely hard act to follow. The screening, however, was of a film that Fiennes not only starred in, but directed—and it was one of the selections for the Main Slate of this year’s NYFF (q.v., my review, below).
We were only able to see one film from the ten in the series called How Democracy Works Now by Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson, but what an incredible film it was! The series examines the process of the Senate’s dealing with the immigration bill from 2001-2007. There are three things about the one we saw, The Senate Speaks, that struck me as profoundly true: first, the film was able to make the issue of immigration more powerfully clear than one usually see it presented (and clarity on the crucial issue is a very pressing necessity in our country at the moment); second, while I am not unfamiliar with how the US Senate operates, this film was able to bring me inside the actual machinery of that body and provide make more tangibly real and explicit insight into the inner mechanics of the Senate processes in a way that was thrilling to me; and, third—and perhaps least expected—it was totally enjoyable, good filmmaking! What a treat to find an engaging, interesting, and even entertaining piece of documentary cinema that was also able to do the first two things I have mentioned as well. I intend to see the entire rest of the series.
I was particularly disappointed that we were unable to schedule any of the tantalizing films in the Revivals series other than the recently restored print of the marvelous 1997 Providence by Alain Resnais, which we did get to see. And what a treat it was! Neither of us had ever seen this film, Resnais’ first English-language film. The film seems to follow the relationship of a husband and wife, prosecutor Claude (Dirk Bogarde) and Sonia (Ellen Burstyn); but soon we realize that the narrator (John Gielgud) is actually so much more than that: he is Claude’s father, Clive; he is an ailing old author, mostly lying in bed in his country mansion; but it gradually becomes clear that he is also the author of the tale that we are watching of the relationship between Claude and Sonia and various other characters—every so often, he stops the narrative and re-arranges some element in it, often restarting an altered version of the story. It is an amazing piece of artistic construction, presaging some of what Dennis Potter will be doing a decade later in his magnificent The Singing Detective—which Resnais then himself picks up on another decade later with his Same Old Song (On connais la chanson), which was in the 1999 NYFF. With the slight exception of the military death/afterlife metaphor—which seems now very dated and trite, and certainly overly belabored in this film—this film is a totally enjoyable masterpiece. In classic Alain Resnais fashion, there is layer upon layer of reality; and we are happy to find ourselves immersed in the delicious complexity of it all. Providence was one of the very favorites of my films that we saw as part of this year’s NYFF.
The only “problem” with this year’s NYFF was that there was such a profusion of treasures, it was impossible—even for us—to avail ourselves of all of them. There were the usual wonderful talks (HBO Directors Dialogues, with Paul Greengrass, Fred Wiseman, Richard Curtis, and Agnieszka Holland; and an HBO ON Cinema session with James Gray), the Views from the Avant-Garde (with 45 programs in glorious Super-8, 16mm and 35mm film and HD formats), a Convergences program (focused on the intersection of technology and storytelling), a Shorts program, a Film Comments Magazine Presents screening of Steve McQueen’s new 12 Years a Slave, and a 20th Anniversary Screening of Dazed and Confused.
For those who are interested, the entire Main Slate of the 2012 NYFF and the Film Society descriptions of each event can be found at http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff2013/series/nyff51-main-slate-official-selection. My reviews of past years of the NYFF can be found at www.RLRubens.com/nyff.html.
For those of you who over the years have not noticed my subtlety in this—and who can be blamed for not looking to me to be subtle about my judgments about anything—I thought I might mention again that I have always placed my reviews of these films in approximately descending order of how much I liked them. (Had I chosen to include it along with those in the Main Slate, Providence and The Senate Speaks [from How Democracy Works] would have been high on this list.) This year some of the differences in rankings are ambiguous and insignificant: the relative positions with in the top four, and within the next seven, the following four, and even within the six after that are all almost impossible to decide clearly.
The list is composed of active links, and clicking on a title will take one to the review of that film. All films are dated 2013.
THE MAIN SLATE of FILMS IN THE FESTIVAL
The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu) (Japan; release date: 8 November) The great creator of beloved Japanese anime feature films (e.g., the 2008 Ponyo, and Princess Mononoke from the 1997 NYFF), writer-director Hayao Miyazaki has announced that The Wind Rises will be his final film. I simply was not prepared for the emotional depth, visual beauty, and compelling story telling of this amazing film: the fact that it was an animation prejudiced me in a totally incorrect direction. It is a love story that is sophisticated beyond all expectation. Essentially the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Japanese Zero—the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane used, among other things, to attack Pearl Harbor. Miyazaki’s own father had been in the aviation industry, and there is obviously a deep, personal identification with Jiro’s deep love for flight and passionate devotion to aeronautical engineering—as well as for his humanity and kindness. The story starts in Jiro’s youth, and progresses through his experience as a young man during the earthquake of 1923, in which he first meets the young woman who is to become the love of his life. Jiro is completely absorbed in the poetic beauty of the airplanes he is creating—and yet this is always against the backdrop of knowing that they are intended as instruments of destruction. And against this external world tension, the rending internal tensions of his love play out. There is something extremely literary in the poetic beauty of the story and its multiple levels of meaning. There are also very directly literary elements within the film: there are many references to Thomas Mann, and to The Magic Mountain, in particular (tuberculosis plays a major role in the film); but the very title of the film is from a poem by Paul Valéry, “Le cimetière marin” (“The Graveyard by the Sea”)—and the first line of its final stanza is oft-repeated throughout the film: “Le vent se lève! . . . il faut tenter de vivre!” (“The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!”); and the entire poem is worth reading in connection with the film. In many ways, The Wind Rises is about living, although it is full of death. Similarly, it is an anti-war film, even though it is about the creation of a weapon of war. But it is the mark of how great the filmmaking is that I found myself rooting for Jiro to succeed in realizing his design for the Zero! (It is an interesting sidelight that I’d love to know more about from any of you who have knowledge in the area, but while the film acknowledges that the Japanese borrowed heavily from the advances in aviation by the Germans—and even the Italians—it does not make any mention of the often-made assertion that the Zero was heavily based on earlier American fighter plane technology. None of this in any way detracts from what is thought to be the original genius that also went into the Zero’s design.) The film is also visually a most striking and beautiful experience: the settings are wonderfully painterly—at times feeling like light-infused impressionist landscapes by Monet, at times darkly realistic like street scenes from Hopper. The Wind Rises was one of the truly incredible experiences of the Festival!
Nebraska (US; Paramount Vintage; release date: 15 November) Alexander Payne is a regular at the NYFF: and, although I did not much like his last film (The Descendants at the 2011 Festival—well-directed and acted, but badly written), Sideways was one of my favorites of the 2004 NYFF, and About Schmidt was one of my favorites from the 2002 NYFF. In directing Nebraska, Payne has created a masterpiece. It opens with an old man, Woody (played magnificently by Bruce Dern) walking down a highway in Billings, Montana. The police stop him, and Woody tells them he is going to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect the million dollar prize he believes he has won in a publishing sweepstakes. The police return the clearly disoriented, dementing old man to his family—his hilariously angry wife Kate (June Squibb), his sons David (Willl Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk)—who do not know what to do with Woody, no less what to do about his obsession about getting to Lincoln to collect his prize. Filmed powerfully and beautifully in black and white by Phedon Papamichea, Nebraska moves back and forth between the comic and the melancholic, but it is movingly gripping and emotionally intense throughout. Payne and his excellent actors capture specific aspects of midwestern life, while at the same time exploring profoundly universal themes. Dern gives a truly bravura performance—and if there is justice in the world of cinema, he should be an Oscar contender. It is also just an incredibly well-constructed, well-executed piece of filmmaking. This one is a must-see.
Only Lovers Left Alive (US; A Sony Pictures Classics release) Jim Jarmusch has written and directed some of my favorite films, and this latest, Only Lovers Left Alive, is right up there, Early in the film, DP Yorick Le Saux films a beautifully dark sequence driving along the nighttime streets of Detroit that is resoundingly reminiscent of the incredible sequence Robby Müller filmed of the streets of New Orleans for Jarmusch’s fabulous Down By Law (which was in the 1986 NYFF). Historically, Jim has expressed his unique and coherent vision across a myriad of genres: his magnificent 1995 Dead Man was a Western; his 1999 Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai was something of a cross between a gangster film and a samurai film. But just as these masterpieces are in no way adequately described by—or contained within—the genres he was utilizing, so, too, it is both simultaneously true and inadequate to consider Only Lovers Left Alive to be a vampire movie. Nevertheless, while it is not a horror movie, it most assuredly is a film about two vampires, Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston), who have been lovers and partners down through the centuries. Swinton and Hiddleston give two most unbelievably extraordinary performances: against the slow-paced movement of the film and the ageless evenness of their “dead” existences, they provide an understated but enormous sense of power and a pale but almost electric vitality. Swinton, who is always astounding, is used by Jarmusch to the greatest depth imaginable (and actually made me wonder for the moment whether, indeed, she might in real life actually be one of the creatures which the film is about!) It is the “Zombies” of the world (as we humans are humorously referred to by the vampires) who are actually lifeless and forces of death—poisoning our experience, our environment, and—most ironically—our own blood. And these vampires do live on blood—although they feel far safer ingesting pure blood from tested hospital sources than risking the potentially tainted blood from random humans. But what they really live on, what really gives life and meaning to their existence is culture—art, music, literature, and science (the expressions of the human creative urge and relationship)—and the people with whom they lovingly share this—those others who create, and those others who are really open to let in the fullness of experience. On the deepest level, this is a film about human experience—only it is the vampires who are the most profoundly human in this regard. As always in a Jarmusch film, there are delightfully humorous moments intertwined with the deeper levels of what is going on. There are fun elements that are added by their friendship in Tangiers with fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (played by John Hurt): for example, his remark to Adam, “If only I had known you before I wrote Hamlet.” And, as always, there is a profound beauty and richness to the cinematographic experience. Only Lovers Left Alive is a most unusual, most rewarding film. I cannot wait to see it again!
Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (France: release date in early 2014) Allow me to begin by saying this is a most enjoyable, involving, and interesting film. Arnaud Desplechin has made many wonderful movies, many of which have been in the NYFF (most recently in the 2008 NYFF), but Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian is by far his most interesting, successful film to date. Arnaud co-wrote this terrific film with Kent Jones (Director of Programming for the NYFF) and Julie Peyr, and it is the riveting story of a Blackfoot Indian, Jimmy Picard (played in extraordinary fashion by Benecio del Toro) who is brought to a hospital in Topeka, Kansas, because ever since his skull fracture sustained during his service in WWII, he has been suffering from debilitating headaches, visual distortions, and blackouts. The hospital, which is, of course, the Menninger Clinic, recognizes that his problems are not the result of a traumatic brain injury. They enlist the aid of George Devereux (played with incredible depth, intensity, and energy by Desplechin regular, Mathieu Amalric), who journeys across the country specifically to help out—on a temporary basis—with this enigmatic patient and his diagnostic situation, which the hospital suspects may be being confused by culturally specific issues. The actual Devereux, upon whose important book, From Anxiety to Method in the Behavioral Sciences, the story—and the screenplay created from it—is based, was an unusual maverick: he was a Hungarian Jew who became a Christian in France, and later came to America and studied Mohave Indians; he was a musician, who became an ethnographer and then an anthropologist, and—after the time of this film—a psychoanalyst. (It is far from accidental that Mathieu Amalric’s performance reminded me repeatedly of Peter Lorre!) Whereas the doctors at the hospital had found Jimmy uncommunicative and unreachable, Devereux forms a very personal and mutual deep relationship with Jimmy—in part through his knowledge of Indian culture, and in part because of the humanity of his relating. From a psychoanalytic perspective, there is a fascinating tension between the outdated, classical concepts Devereux keeps spouting to his colleagues and the extremely modern, interpersonal style of his actual interaction with his patient. (It intrigued me that someone in the psychoanalytic world of the 40s would have felt free to work in that mode, until I later learned that Devereux had been close friends with Géza Róheim, whose having been analyzed by Ferenczi would explain it.) Although the ideas in this film are extremely deep and sophisticated psychoanalytically, Jimmy P is not about psychoanalytic theory. Rather it is a deeply human story; and it concerns the humanity of both this patient and of this therapist. Every aspect of the story is charged and intense—including Devereux’s love life; every character is deep and rich; and every emotion is real and meaningful. This is a most unusual and successful film of a most unusual and important story.
Inside Llewyn Davis (USA; CBS Films; release date: 6 December) This new film, jointly written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is quite good, but it will not go down as being among my favorites of their works (in that category are their 2009 A Serious Man, the 2000 O Brother Where Art Thou, and the1998 The Big Lebowski). Although I think they are quite brilliant filmmakers, I am not a big—or typical—fan of their works: I have not particularly liked No Country for Old Men (from the 2007 NYFF), the 1996 Fargo, or many of their earlier works. Inside Llewyn Davis is mid-range for me in their oeuvre—I enjoyed it, but I did not love it. I have always assumed that it is the violence that puts me off—as I am very negatively sensitive to violence in movies; but, after seeing Inside Llewyn Davis, I suspect that it may also be a certain cruelty in their vision that I find difficult. (One film writer friend said of this film: “It is funny and it is cruel; I like funny, and I don’t mind cruelty; but in this film I’m not always sure which is which, and that bothers me.”) I would have thought I would have liked Inside Llewyn Davis much more than I did: it is about a young folksinger (played very effectively by Oscar Isaac—and roughly based on Dave Von Ronk), whose record—after which the film is named (and, in addition to its title, is also roughly visually modeled on the cover of the 1962 album, “Inside Dave Von Ronk,” right down to the presence of a tabby cat [which, BTW, was among the best characters in the film])—has been a big commercial failure. Through the beautiful black and white images of 1962 NYC (the DP was Bruno Delbonnel, rather than Coen brothers regular Roger Deakins), we follow Llewyn back and forth in time during a dark week in his attempt to survive in the Greenwich Village folk world, scrounging off his friends and admirers. It has a generally excellent cast, including a pair of “successful” folk duo friends (played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), and a folk star wannabe played by Adam Driver; and talented (and uncredited “cats”—not of the “hip” [or even “hep”] variety, but rather of the furry sort); but the show is stolen by an amazing—albeit brief—performance by F. Murray Abraham, who has the single best line in the movie—and perhaps in the NYFF. I generally liked the film, although the only part that truly resonated with me was the tension between the folk world of Llewyn and the Beat generation, jazz, hard drug world of Roland Turner (played amazingly by John Goodman) and his driver/sidekick Johnny Five (well-played by Garrett Hedlund, who appropriately has just come from playing Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady Beat icon in Walter Salles’ 2012 film version of On the Road): I remember well how these two sides vied disdainfully with each other for top “outsider” status, and this competitive tension is evocatively captured. The end of the film subtly but wryly gestures at where the competition will end up—and with whom. The folk music score was effectively overseen by co-Executive Producer T. Bone Burnett.
Real (Japan) Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a filmmaker whose works we have deeply appreciated (e.g., his Tokyo Sonata from the 2008 NYFF). Real is a complicated work to classify: it is a romantic love story; it is a story about technology, development, and human values; and, most apparently (or, apparently apparently), it is a science-fiction film. It centers on a couple, one of whom has been in a coma for a year. The central science fiction conceit is that the other is going to attempt to reach his beloved’s inner psychological experience by using some new medical technology—merging with each other’s conscious and unconscious psychological states, and perhaps be able eventually to awaken the other from the coma. Real is clever, suspenseful, and moving—and quite visually beautiful. There are unsuspected elements—some wildly unexpected—and turns that keep the viewer off-balance, but deeply involved. Nevertheless, as with all Kurosawa films (BTW, Kiyoshi is unrelated to the more famous Akira Kurosawa), there are increasing levels of depth and meaning. It is one aspect of Kurosawa‘s genius that his films are watchable and entertaining on a popular culture level, while they at the same time have a level of intellectual sophistication and unusual sensibility that make them particularly appeal to me as well.
Captain Phillips (Opening Night; USA; Sony Pictures; opened 11 October) Paul Greengrass did the rather compelling Bloody Sunday (which was in the 2002 NYFF), and he is clearly a great director of action films (viz., 2004 The Bourne Supremacy, and 2007 The Bourne Ultimatum). I, however, am not a great fan of action films—and I had a lot of discomfort in advance of having this one, Captain Phillips, as Opening Night of the NYFF. And, while I have always really liked Tom Hanks in comedies (I loved him in Splash in 1984 and in Big in 1988—and even 10 years later in his Nora Ephron stuff like You’ve Got Mail; and, if you’ve never seen it, check out [on YouTube] my favorite early appearance of his in the hilarious Taxi episode, “The Road Not Take: Part I” ), I really never have liked him much in serious roles. So I was rather dreading seeing Captain Phillips on Opening Night of this year’s Festival. And the first few terrible minutes setting a domestic background for Captain Richard Phillips, the title character Tom Hanks was playing (not mitigated by the presence—unrecognized by me at the time—of Catherine Keener, whom I usually love, as Phillip’s wife, Andrea)—with its unnecessarily jerky, hand-held camera work, and Hanks’ terrible attempt at a Vermont accent—made me fear I’d have to gnaw my own arm off before the film was over. Nevertheless, once the scene shifted to the village in Somalia, all began to change. And before long, I was so absorbed in this edge-of-your-seat thriller, that the film absolutely had me. The story (screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the 2010 book by Captain Richard Phillips, A Captains Duty) is based on the actual story—which I, and most of the folks I’ve talked with, actually remember from the news in 2009—of four young Somali pirates (wonderfully played by first-time actors Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, and Mahet M. Ali) who seized the Maersk Alabama, a large, US-registered container ship bound for Mombasa. At Opening Night, director Paul Greengrass introduced on stage Tom Hanks and three of the actors who played the pirates—followed by the real-life Captain Phillips himself (and several of his crew members who were in the audience were asked to stand, as were some of the naval officers [in full dress regalia] from the US Navy rescue ship). Neither my knowing the actual story, nor Phillip’s physical presence on stage kept me from being terrified during the film that the pirates were going to kill him! That is pretty powerful and successful filmmaking. Captain Phillips is a totally successful film, Tom Hanks was wonderful in the role…and it was a fun Opening Night!
Stray Dogs (Taiwan/France) I love the films of Tsai Ming-liang. I think my all-time favorite is his amazing What Time Is It There? (from the 2001 NYFF); but I also loved his Goodbye, Dragon Inn (from the 2003 NYFF), and his 1988, The Hole. Stray Dogs opens with two young children, sleeping in a dilapidated room, with an unidentified woman seated next to them, brushing her hair slowly. She leaves—and, while she is not to be seen again, we are led to conclude she was their mother. For the rest of the film, they are—at least in the nights, sleeping in the ruins of an abandoned modern building in the decay of Taipei—in the care of their father, Tsai Ming-liang regular, Lee Kang-sheng. The father earns his meager living by standing all day (pictured in the cold of the wind and rain) holding up an advertising sign in the middle of a busy highway intersection, along with a throng of similarly employed men. Stray Dogs is the story of all of these various “stray dogs” (occasionally punctuated with some actual stay dogs), trying to survive and have lives in the cruel deprivation of poverty—on the edges of the modern urban world. Tsai’s films are not for everyone: among other things, his pacing can be extremely slow; and he has a penchant for holding shots for an unusually long time. Before this screening of Stray Dogs, I was telling/warning one of the friends we had brought to see it that in Goodbye, Dragon Inn Tsai had an almost 6 minute unbroken shot of an old women slowly limping down a long corridor toward the camera. It turned out that the penultimate scene in Stray Dogs is actually an unbroken 15 minute shot of a man standing behind a woman, both motionlessly staring in the direction of the camera. You should know that this actually was a deeply moving and intensely emotional scene: when a single tear runs down her motionless cheek, it reverberated in every nerve in my body. This film is as powerful and moving as it is strange and odd; but I loved it.
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Nugu-Ui Ttal-Do Anin Haewon) (South Korea) Hong Sang-soo has created an amazing body of films, which, rather incredibly, are more-or-less continuations and variations on each other—and many of which have been in the NYFF: Turning Gate (2002), (2004), (2008), and (2010); as the Film Society write-up put it, “each new film building on the overtones and ramifications of the one preceding it. In this, Hong’s 14th film, a beautiful young film student named Haewon (Jeong Eun-Chae), already somewhat alienated from her classmates by her psychological distance from them and by the fact that she has had an affair with their filmmaker-professor (Lee Sun-Kyun), is set further adrift by her mother’s departure for Canada to live with her brother. In dream and in fantasy, she tries to make her way—although whether she is attempting to solidify an identity for herself or trying to avoid doing so is not so clear. She has her passions and her resentments, her aspirations and her fears, and her vitality and her pathology. It has been called “a chamber piece,” and that seems appropriate since it is in one way very small and personal, and yet in another very broad and universal, and it has simple themes and melodies that intertwine and interact with an elegance and complexity that create harmonies and undercurrents of special resonance.
American Promise (USA; opened 18 Ocotber) Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, two Black professionals (the former a psychiatrist, the latter a lawyer) turned professional filmmakers, have created one of the most important, thought-provoking, and enjoyable documentaries I have ever seen. American Promise chronicles the twelve year journey of their son Idris and his close childhood friend Seun from kindergarten through graduation from high school and transition to college. The two boys journeyed through Dalton together; and Joe and Michèle filmed them doing it. These two wonderful, smart, talented Black kids made their way through this rigorous and excellent—but essentially White, upper-crust, East Side—private educational institution. To me, the film raised—in every dimension imaginable (educational, parental, societal, racial, et al.)—profound questions about the spectrum of possibilities from support on the one end to expectation on the other; and it explored the implications, advantages, and dangers of every place along that spectrum, including the dire consequences of the overly extreme. It is on one level about these two very individual boys and their very specific families; it is, on another level, about the question of Black boys in a White school—and, on another, about being Black in American society; but, on yet another level, it is about maintaining identity in general—ethnic, cultural, and individual—and fitting into larger societal groups, and into society as a whole. You are certain to disagree with some things, and even to be angered by some things; although you certainly will be left pondering many, many things. It had all of us talking at first for hours, and ultimately for days, about the issues it raised and our reactions—emotional as well as intellectual—to them. But do not be misled: this is not a dry, intellectual documentary, but rather a totally engaging, entertaining piece of filmmaking that will keep you riveted! It is funny; it is at times infuriating; it is heart-warming; it is heart-breaking. Brewster and Stephenson were amazingly candid and brave about what they kept in the final product: it contains elements that reveal some of their deepest wisdom and humanity, but it also contains some of what must be for them painful failings and mistakes. (It was also obviously extremely brave of Dalton to allow them to do this film.) It is one hell of a great film. It should be mandatory viewing for any parent—as well as for anyone interested in education, or individual growth.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle) (France; Sundance Selects; opened 25 Ocotober) Abdellatif, whose Black Venus was in the 2010 NYFF, directed and co-wrote (with Ghalia Lacroix) this film (based on based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh) which won this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes. Given the advanced descriptions, all of the ballyhoo about how explicitly sexual it is, and the fact that it is three hours long, I had expected not to like it. We were told we should see it, however, and we were surprisingly glad we did: it is actually a quite good film! It is the story of the sexual awakening of a 17 year old high school student, Adèle (played to beautiful perfection by Adèle Exarchopoulos). We follow her longings and ecstasies across the period of several years—from her masturbation experiences, through her adolescent attempt at heterosexual sex, to her discovery of her deep passion for lesbian sex. Through every stage, Adèle’s childlike innocence (and Kechiche makes this a major visual focus of the film, spending long periods of time focusing on the youthful look of Adèle’s face—even repeatedly having close-ups of her face for extended periods as she sleeps [something that contributes to the three-hour length of the film]) is juxtaposed to her intensely passionate sexuality; but it is only when she forms a relationship with a slightly older university art student, Emma (Adèle is 17, and one presumes Emma is in her early twenties—although the Film Society description of the latter is “the older woman”), that she achieves an unbounded level of intensity—that is not only sexual, but also includes a loving connection. Emma (extremely well-acted by Léa Seydoux), has blue-dyed hair, exudes an air of self-confidence, and is already comfortable in her place in the lesbian world; she is also sensitive and patient with Adèle, in a very loving way (not unlike the slow, loving way the director focuses on images of Adèle throughout the film); but the level of the incredible sexual passion between the two clearly represents something unique for both of them. And we do get to see very extended and explicit examples of their passionate love making—and it is extremely erotic (and, I have been told, not simulated). I have nothing against this, of course (although it was fun to watch some of the NYFF audience in Alice Tully Hall have difficulty with it—and angrily [and hilariously] walk out at various moments); I actually quite enjoy it! Nevertheless, scenes of explicit, erotic, sex alone do not make a movie—and Blue Is the Warmest Color is a movie, and a relatively good one, and that. It has its shortcomings—not least of which being the extremely stereotypic reactions of her high school classmates; and there are some questions that have been raised about how much the film represents the male bias of the perspective of its director. Nevertheless, there is an emotional and psychological complexity in this film, and even a rather sophisticated central theme about the question of Adèle’s emotional maturation—and lack thereof.
Bastards (Les Salauds) (France; Sundance Select; opened 23 October) This latest work by the amazing Claire Denis (whose incredibly powerful was a favorite of ours in the 2009 NYFF) is a rather brutal, dark, emotionally devastating story about a commercial ship’s captain Marco (played by the very intense Vincent Lindon) who, after his brother-in-law’s suicide, precipitously leaves command of his vessel to go to the rescue of his beautiful but deeply troubled teenaged niece (Lola Créton), who has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. The tale unfolds in a non-linear fashion, but includes: the niece’s having been compelling involved in a viciously sexual situation; a horrible, powerful, financially successful businessman-villain (played by Michel Subor); his beautiful woman Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni); and the myriad of complex and unexpected interconnections between all of their lives—including an affair between Marco and Raphaelle. Denis and her long-time DP Agnès Godard give an entrancing visual beauty to this disturbingly ugly story. It is powerful and gripping, and incredibly well-done; but it is extremely difficult.
At Berkeley (USA; opened 8 November) This four hour documentary by the legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman takes us inside the current workings of the University of California, Berkeley. We are brought into everything from meetings of the cabinet of the Chancellor of the University, through meetings of faculty committees, classes, labs, and social gatherings, down to the maintenance department caring for the beautiful grounds. We see things from multiple perspectives—that of administrators, of students, and those of the surrounding community—and the result is a picture that is as rich in its detail as it is grand in its scope. Wiseman at times evocatively focuses on images of minutia (e.g., the arm of a female student repeatedly paying with a water bottle as she listens to her professor in class); but he also presents a deep understanding of the mission and nature of this excellent, high level and quintessentially public university. We are drawn into the financial and political pressures that are currently being dealt with to make Berkeley function. We see people whom we like and admire, and some whom we doubt and even dislike; but, at all times, we feel a real and direct connection to what we are seeing. This is a rather amazing piece of filmmaking, and an incredible insight into the way this institution functions on every level and from every angle.
Gloria (Chile/Spain; Roadside Attractions) Sebastián Lélio directed and co-wrote (with Gonzalo Maza) this funny, poignant film about an attractive, divorced, middle-aged woman, Gloria (wonderfully portrayed by Paulina García). Gloria rather bleakly frequents dance clubs, but eventually she meets an older man, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), with whom she begins to form a relationship. The hopes and fears, connections and disconnections, passions and disappointments all are woven into the fabric of this entertaining but not unrealistically optimistic film. There is vibrancy and energy, illusion and distortion; but there is also a frankness and complexity to this look at romantic relationships in middle (and late-middle) age. (We should be encouraged not to forget, however, Churchill’s adage that, “Second marriages represented the triumph of hope over experience.”) Gloria is enjoyable and entertaining—and even uplifting at moments; but it does not shy away from recognizing the persistence of people’s problems in dealing with the realities of their lives, practical as well as psychological.
Alan Partridge (UK/France; Magnolia Pictures) This big-screen adventure of Alan Partridge, the narcissistic, bumbling, obnoxious, but hilarious character created by Steve Coogan in a set of comic BBC television series (The Day Today, Knowing Me Knowing You, I’m Alan Partridge, and I) was written by Coogan and a team of four others, and directed by Declan Lowney. I have enjoyed this character in the past, and I enjoyed the film; but it is definitely not a great film. It is an extremely funny film, however. Partridge (played, as always, to silly perfection by Steve Coogan), is a radio broadcaster, working in for “Radio Norwich,” which has just been taken over by a big corporation. The plot involves the downsizing of the staff, and the resulting armed reaction of one of the DJs, Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), who was let go in the process. A hostage scenario—described by the Film Society as “somewhere between Dog Day Afternoon and Die Hard”—ensues, in which Alan Partridge serves—in a characteristically self-serving way—as the intermediary with the police, in the midst of heavy media coverage that can only be described as a circus. It is a deeply silly story, and plot and the situations within it are inane; which meant I at times felt guilty at how hard I was laughing throughout the film. I deem Alan Partridge to be a guilty pleasure; but, as most guilty pleasures, it is a lot of fun!
Her (Closing Night; USA; Warner Brothers Pictures; release date: 18 December) Set in LA in the near future, Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, an isolated, lonely man, whose divorce is about to become finalized, and who makes his living as a successful writer for a company that provides the service of creating "personal" letters for its customers to send to people in their lives. Theodore purchases and installs the latest operating system for his home computer: software that has learning capabilities, and right from boot-up begins to establish an evolving, increasingly personalized relationship with its user. The voice of the program (provided in the film by Scarlett Johansson) is the manifestation of the growing virtual personality the program is learning to create from interaction with Theodore. As an mutual decision, the two of them decide this virtual personality should be named Samantha. Surprise, surprise, Theodore begins to fall deeply in love with Samantha. It is actually a very clever premise, and there are many elements in the story—especially early on—that work quite effectively, and with some warm and funny level of psychological sophistication. Unfortunately, it seems that writer-director Spike Jonze may have spent too much time working with his former writing associate Charlie Kaufman: the two of them have been involved in a couple of reasonably wonderful films (the 2002 Adaptation, and [which was in the 1999 NYFF]). Kaufman, who brilliantly wrote both of those films, has for me one glaring flaw: he does not seem to know how to end his films—and the incredibly clever Being John Malkovich was particularly problematic in this sense. In Her, Jonze has creating a potentially interesting film that ends up going nowhere; and the fact that it seems so obviously heading in such an unfortunately empty direction started to bedevil me watching it from about midway through the film. There were all sorts of rather profound and interesting issues potentially raised by Her: the question of relationships in a technological world, and the question of technology in a relational world; the underlying nature of relationships themselves; the role and meaning of narcissism; the possible scope of Artificial Intelligence: and possibly even issues about the nature of personality in general. Unfortunately, the film never fully delivers on any of this. It is pleasant and entertaining enough, and engaging for a while—and I liked Scarlett Johansson as a disembodied voice far more than I have as an on-screen presence (even if some of my friends think this to be strange); but it just ends up flat.
Jealousy (La Jalousie) (France) Jealousy is the story of two young theater actors, Louis (played by Louis Garrel, Philippe’s son) and Claudia (played by the entrancing Anna Mouglalis), who are lovers, attempting to find a way to make things work—in their careers, in their relationship, and in their lives. I found the characters (with the exception of the truly wonderful little girl, who basically stole the show for me) to have been annoying (especially the character of Claudia, whose late adolescent angst bothered me) in a way that reflects a view of love relationships that is prevalent in a certain brand of French filmmaking. In many ways I enjoyed the process of watching the film, and there are moments in it and things about it that are quite wonderful; but ultimately something about it left me quite cold. I am not familiar with the many films of Philippe Garrel, and I am afraid this one is not going to make me go back and explore what I might have missed. But this is a gorgeous film, visually: it powerfully and elegantly captures faces and settings in beautiful back and white images; and the DP was the great Willy Kurant (who filmed Godard’s 1966 Masculine Feminine).
The screening of this film was preceded by a tribute to Ralph Fiennes, which included clips from his films and an interesting onstage interview of Fiennes by Kent Jones.
Two decades ago, a sensational investigative biography by Claire Tomalin of the young actress Nelly Ternan revealed that the great Charles Dickens had a secret 13-year affair with her—beginning in 1857, when he was 45 and she was18. Fiennes directed this screenplay adaptation (by Abi Morgan) of that story, and he stars in it as Dickens. Fiennes gives a very convincing, lively performance as Dickens, and Felicity Jones is both lovely and effective as Nelly. I agree with the Film Society that The Invisible Woman presents “a fresh, vivid sense of daily life in late 19th-century London; and it is fun to see Dickens at work writing some of the stories we all know and love (although there is rather less of that than I might have liked). I had trouble accepting the importance in his life and work that the film attributed to Nelly, however. While it may even be historically true that she played such a role, the film does not convince me in any way of this; and, without that, there is very little import to the story, and the film, therefore, left me rather flat. It was beautifully filmed, and clearly DP Rob Hardy (whose work I do not know) is quite talented. The other characters—and especially Dickens’ wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) and Nelly’s mother and sisters—were basically undeveloped and shallow. In the end, The Invisible Woman felt like much ado about nothing.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Centerpiece; USA; Twentieth Century Fox; release date: 25 December) Alas, what has been done to the wonderful little 1939 short story by James Thurber on which this film was based? Ah, for the 1947 Danny Kaye film, of the same name. I had not expected too much from Ben Stiller as the director, but the NYFF did chose it to be its Centerpiece… Stiller actually did not do a bad a job directing; it was what he was directing that was the problem. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starts out well enough: Walter Mitty (played quite well by Ben Stiller (who seemed quite perfect for this role) is an appropriately milquetoast-ish photo editor at the soon to be defunct Life Magazine, and he intersperses his tongue-tied moments of inability to speak when confronted by the new manager (Adam Scott, who has come to downsize the staff and close down the print edition) with wild flights of action-filled fantasy. While this is all a quite reasonable updated take on the original story, there is something about the comic book super-hero, action film version of his fantasies that seems a quite a bit too much. There are moments that are quite wonderful: there are some very funny moments with Patton Oswald; and the very pinnacle is the one brief on-camera appearance by photographer Sean O’Connell (one of the most perfect little performances I have ever seen Sean Penn deliver, by the way), whose off-camera presence is an ongoing factor throughout the film. There are some sweet moments in the film, and there are some fun moments as well. But there was no reason for the film to go where it ultimately does—the globe-trotting, adventurous hunt Mitty goes on to find the missing negative Sean O’Connell sent to Mitty as the perfect photograph for the magazines final cover; and that is a place completely different from the Thurber story, full of tritely predictable turns of plot, and extremely pedestrian. I guess the real villain here was Steve Conrad, who wrote the screenplay, although the producers likely bear a great deal of the blame as well.
Le Week-End (UK; Music Box Films) I didn’t pay close enough attention: I had assumed that Le Week-End was a French comedy! The fact that it was directed by Robert Michell (whose was in the 2012 NYFF last year), and that it starred Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan should have been a big hint that it was, in fact, British—although I suspect it was meant to be far more of a comedy than I found it to be. Le Week-End is the story of Nick and Meg, a middle-aged, middle-class couple (Broadbent and Duncan) who decide to do a weekend in Paris in the hope of dealing with the problems in their moribund marriage. At some point during this trip, Meg asks why Nick has been so testy and horrible to her recently, and he confesses that it is because, as he has been unable to tell her for weeks, he had been forced into early retirement from his position at a very mediocre college (where he had spent his career teaching) for telling a Black woman in one of his classes (who had come to complain about a grade) that if she spent half as much time on her studies as she did on her hair (shades of Henry Higgins), she might be able to rise above her situation! (Unfortunately, this may be the funniest thing in the film.) There are some other lighthearted moments in Le Week-End, some sweet moments, and even some moving moments; but, in general, it feels that the story-line has just been thrown together from such moments in a way that lacks any real coherence or which would lend any forward movement to developments. Perhaps worst in this regard is the character of Nick’s old American friend—and now a popularly successful author—Morgan (played dreadfully by Jeff Goldblum—whom I usually really like). Moreover, there is more depression and sadness in this story than anything else. In its overall effect, it is quite dreary.
All Is Lost (USA; Roadside Attractions; opened 18 October) I had really been looking forward to this one—I had liked director J.C. Chandor’s first film (the 2011 Margin Call), I like Robert Redford, and it’s about a sailing—and I had heard it was astounding. Alas, I was very disappointed. All Is Lost is about a man (identified in the credits only as “Our Man,” and played by the only person in the film, Robert Redford, who is sailing single handed his sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We learn nothing about the man’s life, his history, or the purpose or nature of his journey; and the fact that the film is totally and starkly about the man in relation to his immediate situation is an extremely powerful and appealing aspect of the drama. The action begins with him awakening to find his boat is taking on water, and he discovers that his hull has been holed by a metal shipping container, apparently gone overboard from a container ship at some point. The man frees his vessel from the container—which is leaking its cargo of sneakers into the water—and makes a fiberglass repair to his damaged hull. (He is revealed as knowledgeable, prepared, and competent—although, to a boater’s eye, the repair he makes to this large hole, right at the boat’s waterline, seems worryingly insubstantial.) The man attempts, unsuccessfully, with the little power left in his water-damaged batteries and radio, to make a distress call; and these are the only few words of dialogue in the story—with the exception of an occasional expletive or rare scream of anguish. He then proceeds to contend with storms, further damage, and all the imaginable elements of the ensuing struggle for self-preservation. Given Redford’s talent—and his strong, weathered visage—this could have been an amazingly powerful study of man alone against nature; and its wordlessness could have enhanced the effect. The film did so for a while. Unfortunately, All Is Lost did not live up to its potential; instead, it sank. The initial hint was the uncomfortably maudlin feel of the prologue spoken by Redford before the visuals began: a soliloquy one could only assume was his last thoughts to whomever he had left behind in the world. But, once the action began, I began to forget the uncomfortable warning of its tone. Until, that is, somewhere well into the film, when the mawkish music began to play an increasingly large role in the experience. Once it began to include the ultimate in saccharine sentimentality of the rise and fall of choral moaning, I began to become nauseated in a way that had nothing to do with the Indian Ocean. The film proceeded to sink thematically into a similarly maudlin emotional visual tone, as well. In the end, I fear All WAS Lost. What a shame, as it could have been quite wonderful film. And since J.C. Chandor wrote this as well as directed it, the blame is totally on his shoulders for this shipwreck.
Omar (Palestinian Territories) I really liked Hany Abu-Assad’s when it played in the 2005 NYFF, and I was therefore eagerly looking forward to Omar. The title character, Omar (Adam Bakri), is an appealing young Palestinian man who routinely—and innocently—climbs over the Israeli separation wall to see his girlfriend Nadja (Leem Lubany); but he is also involved with her brother in a plot to murder members of the occupying Israeli army. Unfortunately, Omar lacks all of the beautiful balance and immediate reality that made so importantly special. Here the Israelis are unmitigatedly brutal and horrible—simply caricatures which leave no room for any subtlety or complexity in attempting to understand the difficult realities involved. Omar is billed as a “tense, gripping thriller about betrayal, suspected and real, in the Occupied Territories,” and the film does have many of those elements—and Abu-Assad knows how to present them in an effective visual fashion. Unfortunately, Abu-Assad’s screenplay wreaks havoc with these elements—the plot moves through a series of frankly unbelievable twists that are at the same time totally improbable and completely predictable, and this ultimately undermines the very tensions he wished to create.
The Immigrant (USA; Radius-TWC) This period piece directed and co-written (with Richard Menello) by James Gray, set in sepia-toned 1920s Manhattan, is the story of a young Polish woman Ewa (Marion Cotillard), who we see arriving at Ellis Island with her coughing, obviously ill, sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Magda is predictably put into medical quarantine, and Ewa is being denied entry because of her “questionable morals”—having to do with something that has occurred on her voyage to America—and the fact that the address of her sponsoring family member has been declared invalid. Enter the well-dressed American Bruno Weiss (played by Joaquin Phoenix), who is obviously a regular figure at Ellis Island, and whom Ewa begs to help her. He decides to intervene on her behalf, and ends up bringing her home to his family. It turns out that Bruno is a shady burlesque hall manager/pimp who may or may not be extremely kind-hearted. Ewa, is willing go to any extreme and to do anything to try to help get her sister Magda released from Ellis Island and brought into the country. The plot thickens when a magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner) appears on the scene, in some sort of a historically contentious relationship with Bruno, and, eventually, who becomes a competitor for Ewa’s affections. I suppose this could have been a very powerful and moving story, but I am afraid it is not. In fact, to be extremely cruel (and even more extremely politically incorrect), The Immigrant is really more of an extended Polish joke about the incredibly simple-mindedness and gullibility of Ewa. The plot gets progressively more unbelievable and contrived, the acting is quite bad, the directing is dreadful, and the end result quite bad.