NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
2014 – 52nd Festival
For many complicated reasons, I never got around to writing up all of the films from this year’s 52nd New York Film Festival. At the end of October 2014, there were 8 films from the NYFF that were already in current release in theaters, and I wrote them up at that point: Laura Poitras's CITIZENFOUR, Alain Rersnais's Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter), Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, Alejandro Iñárritu's Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage), Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip, Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room (La chambre bleue), and David Fincher’s Gone Girl.
I usually wait until I have written my reviews of all the film we saw in the NYFF (we saw 24 that year) before sending out my reviews (my reviews of the films from prior editions of the NYFF have be viewed on my website at www.RLRubens.com/nyff.html), but some of these films from this year's Festival were simply too wonderful to miss—and some were in limited release and may not be in theaters for long—so I decided to go ahead and send the eight reviews out before finishing the rest—and this may have contributed to my not having ever finished the others. Somehow, I just lost my momentum.
Anyway, I am finally posting here on my website the reviews I did do.
The reviews of these films are listed below, roughly in descending order of my preference for each film
CITIZENFOUR (World Premiere; Radius, release date, 24 October) I cannot believe with all the wonderful films that were in this year’s NYFF that one of our very favorites was a documentary—but what a documentary! In CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras (who did the powerful documentaries My Country, My Country  and The Oath ) has created a magnificent dramatic film as well as an important documentary record. In the 20 October edition of The New Yorker, George Packer describes CITIZENFOUR as “a political thriller in three acts.” As described in the NYFF program, “In January 2013, filmmaker Laura Poitras was in the process of constructing a film about abuses of national security in post-9/11 America when she started receiving encrypted e-mails from someone identifying himself as ‘citizen four’ who was ready to blow the whistle on the massive covert surveillance programs run by the NSA and other intelligence agencies.” The gradual revelation and introduction of the film’s main protagonist is done in as emotionally dramatic and powerfully suspenseful a way as I have ever seen done in any piece of cinema—despite the fact we all came to the screening already knowing that it was Edward Snowden. As the thrilling narrative of the story grippingly unfolds on screen, we come to have insight into the person of Snowden in a way that I could not have begun to imagine: nothing that I knew about him from the massive publicity he ended up receiving even began to hint at the intelligence, refinement, and elegance of this young man. Like a Jimmy Stewart character in a Frank Capra movie, Edward Snowden is seen to be an everyday citizen who is spurred to unusual action by unusual circumstances—a patriot who feels he has to risk everything he personally has to address a great societal wrong. The other main character in the room with Snowden and the rarely seen Poitras is Glenn Greenwald, formerly a reporter for The Guardian and deeply involved in reporting abuses of privacy committed by the NSA, who does most of the interacting with Snowden. Poitras and Greenwald flew to Hong Kong to spend several days with Snowden and became the center of the group of journalists to whom he entrusted the revealing of the information he had provided. (An unexpected side light of the process was how concerned Snowden was to insure that the people he chose to do this would do so in a responsible manner—who would make public the relevant information in his purloined documents without causing any unnecessary collateral harm to agents and people not concerned with the central issues he felt the need to make public, and would be technologically and personally responsible enough to protect it in the process.) CITIZENFOUR is completely successfully done as an edge-of-your-seats thriller of a story, while at the same time it is a profoundly moving character study of a man moved to action—rising to tragic stature in his risking all he has personally to do what he feels is morally demanded of him. It is also a chronicle of one of the pivotal moments in recent history. For those who are already convinced that Snowden is a perfidious villain, the strong positive bias of this film’s perspective of course will prove difficult; and admittedly there is within this issue an extremely complex question of balancing civil liberties and national security. Personally, as an old time First Amendment liberal, I am far more concerned about the massive infringement of civil liberties (periodically I have as the .sig file on my email the famous 1759 Benjamin Franklin quote, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither.”), so I have a powerful bias in this matter. And the film makes no attempt at balance in dealing with this moment in history—so if you are looking for a weighing of these issues, you will not find it here; CITIZENFOUR has a firm, clear position. It received a standing ovation at the Festival, and the most sustained applause of any film in this year’s NYFF—all of which repeated as Laura Poitras, Glen Greenwald, William Binney, Josh Appelbaum, and all the others involved in disseminating the Snowden documents or in making the film then took the stage, and then again when members of Snowden’s family took the stage. Whether you are moved to agree with the political slant of this film or not, CITIZENFOUR is a fabulous piece of filmmaking. For us it seems a must-see experience, enjoyable as it is important
Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter) (US Premiere, France, Kino Lorber, release date: 24 October) I adore the works of Alain Resnais: from his 1959 Hiroshima, Mon Amour (a newly restored print of which is currently being shown at the Film Center) and his 1961 Last Year at Marienbad (L'année dernière à Marienbad), to his 2012 You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Vous n'avez encore rien vu), Resnais’s films have thrilled and delighted me. He was present at the very first NYFF with Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and in 2009 he was present at Opening Night of the 2010 NYFF with his Wild Grass (Les herbes folles), which was my favorite film in the Festival that year. His death this past March saddened me, and is a profound loss to the film world. (And what marvelous, impish character he was! During the 2010 NYFF, he discovered Bed Bath and Beyond across the street from Lincoln Center, and he kept dragging his actors there when they arrived in NY. I have memories of him and Mathieu Amalric coming back to Tully laden with packages from there.) And his final film, Life of Riley, fulfilled all of my wishes and expectations. As with You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, Life of Riley is as intricately involved with theater as it is with themes of mortality and death. His usual repertory cast of incredibly wonderful actors are involved in rehearsing a play that they are going to stage: the wonderful Sabine Azéma (Resnais’s real-world wife) plays Kathyn, who is married to a doctor, Colin (played by Hippolyte Girardot); Caroline Silhol is Tamara, the wife of the wealthy businessman, Jack (played by Michel Vuillermoz); Sandrine Kiberlain is Monica, the girlfriend of Simeon (André Dussollier), and recently separated wife of the eponymous “George Riley,” who, along with “Penny,” the director of the play they are rehearsing, are major presences in the story but who never actually appear in any form. (Are George and/or Penny alter egos for Resnais? Or elements there of? Your call…) The story line is simple: Colin, as Riley’s physician, has learned that George is dying of cancer; Kathryn wheedles the information out of him, and then proceeds to blab it to everyone; Jack, who is Riley’s best friend, is grief struck; everyone is—or wants to be—having an affair with everyone else, especially George; and, in the midst of all this, they all are rehearsing this play. If this sounds like a typical French farce, it is—at least to a satisfyingly humorous degree; and Life of Riley is a really funny film. But that does not begin to describe what Resnais has created here. The Alan Ayckbourn play Life of Riley, upon which Resnais based this screenplay, is—as is Resnais’s film—the story of this group of friends rehearsing another Ayckbourn play, Relatively Speaking. These embedded layers of story are reflected and further complicated in the way Resnais’s film is constructed: these three couples live in the English countryside, to which we are introduced in drawings, which morph on screen into real world filmed images, which then transform into crude stage sets in front of which the action of the film takes place—even though it is clear that these are not the sets for the play they are rehearsing, but rather theatrical transformations of the world of the film itself, symbolically transported into the world of theater. Although we often are listening to the characters running lines for the play within the film, we do not see the actual rehearsing of the film itself. The main actions take place in front of the exteriors of the three houses, but in their stage-set transformed representations. (It is fascinating to note that not until the very end of the film are we ever permitted to enter into the interiors of any of the homes, even though that is often where the most significant actions are occurring—in every level of the realities.) Life of Riley is a deeply satisfying, philosophically thoughtful, enormously meaningful contemplation of the meaning of life, mortality, and death; but one that never makes this contemplation weighty or heavy-handed, but rather remains happily enjoyable and life-affirming in its entirety. Along with his prior two films, Wild Grass and You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, Life of Riley forms a magnificent farewell trilogy appropriate to the life and work of this fabulous filmmaker
Whiplash (USA, Sony Pictures Classics, release date: 10 October) is an electrifying first feature from 29 year old Damien Chazelle, described to us by Gavin Smith (Senior Programmer at the Film Society, editor of Film Comment, and a member of the Selection Committee) before we saw it as “a cliff-hanger” and a film we’d love—and he was completely correct on both counts. Based on a short film of the same name by Chazelle (which was shown in last year’s NYFF), Whiplash is the story of Andrew (amazingly well-played by 18 year old, Miles Teller), a student at “the most prestigious music conservatory in New York.” Andrew is an aspiring jazz drummer, desperate to work with Terrance Fletcher (wonderfully played by the accomplished J. K. Simmons), who presides over the prestige jazz performance group at the school. Mr. Fletcher is a perfectionist—demanding beyond the limits of reason and harsh well into the range of the blatantly sadistic—who exhorts, demeans, berates, and terrifies his students in an attempt to elicit excellence from them, without regard to the emotional devastation he causes in the process. Andrew is hell-bent on making it work with Fletcher and on succeeding whatever the cost. The relationship/warfare that ensues between them is as gripping as it is intense. Whiplash very deservedly won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was dubbed “Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard.” The film is an emotional roller coaster, but it is also an exciting, powerful, and extremely well-made film—well-worth the exciting ride. The music, particularly the band’s performances of Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” and Ellington’s “Caravan, is as emotionally absorbing as it is entertaining. And the climax of the film is truly ecstatic—even to one who dislikes drum solos, and is wary of drummers in general.
Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage) (France. Kino Lorber, Release date: 29 October) At 83, this is the 43rd feature film by the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) master, Jean-Luc Godard. I did not like his last film, Filme Socialisme in the 2012 NYFF (which was the only time I included in my “Parrot Droppings” a review written by a friend), although I am a great fan of Godard. This is an opulently gorgeous film: its visual images (both their form and their colors), its sounds and music, it words (both spoken and visually presented text) are magnificent. All of the experience is intensified; from the often-used hyper-saturation of color to the hyper-realism of the textual graphics, Goodbye to Language has an amazingly powerful impact. And in this film, Godard uses 3-D technology further to enhance the experience; he uses it only partially to create realistic perspectival depth, but more frequently to create emotion an experiential depth. In a way that is at times extremely disconcerting, Godard uses the fact that the radio-controlled 3-D glasses allow the viewer’s eyes to see different images virtually simultaneously: sometimes the image in one eye is out of focus, while in the other eye it is in focus; sometimes the image seen by the one eye is moving in a different direction or at a different speed than that in the other eye; and sometimes each eye is presented with a totally different image, which one’s brain then has to superimpose on each other. He does precisely the same thing with the right and left channels of the sound track; and, in a sense, he does something similar with the words and actions. The effect is novel, and it is challenging; but, for the most part, it is highly successful. The film is structured in two main parts, and within each part there is a series of sections that basically repeat in each. There is a story about a man and a woman and the relationship between them; and there is the awareness of the inexorable passage of time; then it all repeats in the second part—but not exactly. Nevertheless, it is not the plot that has any central importance; in fact, one can only conclude that the main character throughout the whole film is Roxy, Godard’s beloved dog. Although I adore much of his work, I have never been able to take Godard seriously as a philosopher; and it has always been clear that he does consider himself to be one. In Goodbye to Language, however, it feels easier to ignore the more heavy-handed philosophical intentions (pretensions?): I feel even the title suggests that we need not attend too deeply to the linguistic meanings, and instead can feel free to absorb the emotional tone and sensuous beauty of the film—and Goodbye to Language is profoundly redolent with these. It is movingly obvious that Godard is dealing with the issues of aging and mortality—and the rivers float by much as the flow of time itself. It is just much more satisfying to take in the magnificence of his aesthetic feelings about these issues rather than the specifics of his more intellectual musings. Even at its 70 minute length, the film feels a bit overly long due to some of the structural repetitions Godard has introduced; but this is a minor quibble. This is a movingly beautiful film—although clearly not for everyone.
The Blue Room (La chambre bleue) (North American Premiere, France, Sundance Selects, release date: 3 October) I love Mathieu Amalric’s acting, and he has had major roles in great films as diverse as those of Alain Resnais (Wild Grass and You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet) to those of Julien Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), including being a regular in the films of our friend Arnaud Desplechin, so I was eagerly awaiting this one, which he directed, wrote, and stars in. The story is the adaptation of a crime novel by Georges Simenon; and the story is about Julien Gahyde (Amalric) who is intensely involved in an affair with a pharmacist, Esther Despierre (very erotically played by Stéphanie Cléau, who was the co-author with Amalric of the screenplay), and, naturally, Julien’s wife, Delphine (played by the even more beautiful, if more sexually subdued Léa Drucker). The action of this part of the storyline takes place primarily in the “blue room” of a hotel, where we get to see rather explicit and steamily erotic sexual encounters between the adulterous pair. Fun, of course; but the really wonderful thing about this film is the mood Amalric creates: it is intensely noir, completely befitting its crime novel origins and its tip-of-the-hat to Hitchcock; but it is also quite Kafkaesque in its earlier portions—with intermittent scenes of Julien being interrogated by the police in a way that is not understandable for a long time, although it becomes progressively clear how deeply in the clutches of that system Julien is as the film progresses. If all this sounds terrific, it is because it was! Unfortunately, all of this high-intensity dramatic mood does not really go anywhere. The plot lines continue to develop and thicken, but they do not sustain the intensity or drama of the earlier mood. I have to confess that I even found it dragging a bit at times, despite its mere 76 minute length (something of which I am always appreciative). So, in the end, I found this one somewhat disappointing, despite how well-done most of it was.
Gone Girl (Opening Night. World Premiere. 20th Century Fox and New Regency, release date: 3 October) This one was operating at a disadvantage for me, as I am slow to like movies in the NYFF that are so clearly aimed at a mass audience (although I do understand the perceived need to open the Festival which such things—at least occasionally; and some, like David Fincher’s The Social Network which opened the 2012 NYFF were even terrific films), and I also have a particular aversion to films over two hours (unless there is something extraordinary that justifies what I otherwise feel to be a presumptuous intrusion on my time). Nevertheless I have liked some (his 1999 Fight Club and his 2007 Zodiac, in addition to The Social Network)—but not all—of David Fincher’s films. Gone Girl, I am afraid, is not going to make it onto the short list of ones I have liked. The story is simple, although it ends up with several, mostly predictable convolutions before it’s done: Ben Affleck is Nick Dunne, whose wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing on the day of their fifth anniversary; and the tale is told against the progression of the number of days that ‘the girl’ has been ‘gone.’ The acting in this film is actually uniformly wonderful: I was pleasantly surprised by the excellence of Affleck, from whom I did not expect that; Pike was chillingly wonderful (although given that her character having diplomas from both Harvard and Yale hanging on her wall, I had made me wonder what Fincher would have her do, given his grim view of Harvard in The Social Network); and all the supporting cast did well—Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s old boyfriend Desi, Carrie Coon as Nick’s sister Margo, Kim Dickens as Detective Rhonda Boney, and Tyler Perry as Nick’s lawyer Tanner Bolt. And Fincher does indeed succeed in creating one of his signature, dark, somber, threatening moods. The real problem with Gone Girl is its story—and, since both the screenplay and the novel it was based on were written by the same person, Gillian Flynn , it is clear the blame rests with her. The story is poor: it is contrived, shallow, plodding, and pretentious—and these are not good things in mystery. In some ways the movie could be seen as harmless enough entertainment, but not at its ponderous 145 minute length: at that length it was not able to move along with the pace that would be necessary for lighter entertainment. And the fact of its pretensions—even in the predictable but intended as profoundly surprising turns of plot, and even in the weightiness of Fincher’s somber mood, which in other contexts would be additive—also militate against accepting it as just an entertaining trifle. And as a serious film designed to exude gravitas, Gone Girl simply lacked the requisite depth or substance to make it work. (Of course, for a wonderful spoof version of Fincher’s mood creation, I recommend to you instead the episode on our son’s show, Community, entitled “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” [because it deals with the ‘ravages’ caused by the crime spree of the ‘ass-crack bandit,’ who has been terrorizing the campus by dropping quarters down people’s butt-cracks] which was done from beginning to end in the style of a Fincher film, including the credits. Same dark Fincher moodiness, but far more fun!)