NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
2015 – 53rd Festival
The 2015 NYFF
ended on 11 October. This Festival—the 53rd edition—again under the
brilliant leadership of Kent Jones
(Director of the NYFF) and Lesli Klainberg (Executor Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center) was a spectacular
The Selection Committee (chaired by Kent Jones, and including Dennis Lim, FSLC Director of Programming; Marian Masone, FSLC Senior Programming Advisor; Gavin Smith, Editor-in-Chief, Film Comment; and Amy Taubin, Contributing Editor, Film Comment and Sight & Sound) put together an incredible Festival, with a Main Slate of 26 wonderful selections (including: our very favorite of the 20 we saw, our friend Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days (Trois Souvenirs de ma jeunesse), closely followed in our personal hierarchy by Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre, Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore); an amazing series of Special Events (including a fabulous 15th Anniversary screening of O Brother Where Art Thou, and an exciting screening of PT Anderson’s Junun, two of our favorite things in the whole Festival); a great Revivals series (we could only see one, De Palma’s Blow-Out); Spotlight on Documentary (a fabulous series, of which we were only able to see one, but it was terrific: Immigration Battle/Reasons to Believe, by our friends Michael Camerini, Shari Robertson); a Dorsky/Hiler retrospective entitled “Luminous Intimacy: The Cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler” (which we unfortunately were unable to get to); [I review the films we saw in these three additional segments of the Festival following my reviews of the Main Slate films]; and several other amazing series and events we were just not able to avail ourselves of (due to our time constraints only)—Convergence (“a variety of interactive experiences, panels, and presentations”), Projections (“a broad range of innovative modes and techniques, including experimental narratives, avant-garde poetics, crossovers into documentary and ethnographic realms, and contemporary art practices”) and Talks. It was a fabulous, fun 16 days—during which time Nancy and I saw 24 films (we were supposed to see 26, but we ended up just not being to do one of the Revivals and one of the of the documentaries).
As always, the range of films in the NYFF was extremely wide—ranging from obscure and very unusual, art films (to use an old expression) to major Hollywood adventure films. Given that range, is rather impossible for a person to like everything in the NYFF. The only thing that unites this diversity, however, is that all the films are great examples of what they are—they are all excellent, even though some of them I actually disliked.
Some of these films are already in release, or are being released this week: Steve Jobs, The Walk, The Forbidden Room, Bridge of Spies (16 October), The Assassin (16 October), and Junun is currently available for streaming on MUBI—but only until 8 November, so act quickly, as you won’t want to miss it; and Immigration Battle/Reasons to Believe.will be aired on Frontline on PBS on 20 October, and thereafter be available to stream on that website
Due to time pressures this year, I am going to do briefer assessments this year of the 24 films we saw—including, along with my personal reactions and evaluations, the Film Society’s descriptions of the basic information about each film to save time.
THE MAIN SLATE of FILMS IN THE FESTIVAL
This latest film from our friend Arnaud Desplechin is a true masterpiece. My first reaction to seeing it was to feel extraordinarily satisfied and thrilled by its depth, complexity, beauty, and the profound emotional experience of watching it; the second—after the joy of the first subsided a bit—was to want to see it again as soon as I possibly can. Arnaud explores human psychology and the meaning of life and experience in a way that is as profound as it is engaging, and it invites thinking about, re-watching, and thinking more about. His entire body or work seems to be an ever expanding, ever deepening journey into themes and characters that move in and out of his films in various forms and versions. But all this contained in totally satisfying, dramatic presentations, beautifully filmed and excellently acted (and directed). Short story: don’t miss this one!
Arnaud Desplechin’s alternately hilarious and heartrending latest work is intimate yet expansive, a true autobiographical epic. Mathieu Amalric—Jean-Pierre Léaud to Desplechin’s François Truffaut—reprises the character of Paul Dédalus from the director’s groundbreaking My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument (NYFF, 1996), now looking back on the mystery of his own identity from the lofty vantage point of middle age. Desplechin visits three varied but interlocking episodes in his hero’s life, each more surprising and richly textured than the next, and at the core of his film is the romance between the adolescent Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) and Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). Most directors trivialize young love by slotting it into a clichéd category, but here it is ennobled and alive in all of its heartbreak, terror, and beauty. Le Monde recently referred to Desplechin as “the most Shakespearean of filmmakers,” and boy, did they ever get that right. My Golden Days is a wonder to behold. A Magnolia Pictures release.
What an amazing must-see film from Nanni Manetti! It presents the complicated, emotionally complex and intense story of a director’s dealing with her mother’s impending death while directing a film. Contraposed to this is the entrance onto the scene of her extremely-flawed star, played brilliantly by John Turturro—already inexcusably late to the filming—who provides both another dimension to the drama, and a fair amount of comic relief. It is an extraordinary a performance by a great actor. It is also an amazing film as a whole. I can’t wait for it to be released…which it will be.
Margherita (Margherita Buy) is a middle-aged filmmaker who has to contend with an international co-production starring a mercurial American actor (John Turturro) and with the realization that her beloved mother (Giulia Lazzarini) is mortally ill. Underrated as an actor, director Nanni Moretti offers a fascinating portrayal as Margherita’s brother, a quietly abrasive, intelligent man with a wonderfully tamped-down generosity and warmth. The construction of the film is as simple as it is beautiful: the chaos of the movie within the movie merges with the fear of disorder and feelings of pain and loss brought about by impending death. Mia Madre is a sharp and continually surprising work about the fragility of existence that is by turns moving, hilarious, and subtly disquieting. An Alchemy release.
I came out of this magnificent film thinking it was the best thing I had ever seen by Hong, who is a director whose work Nancy and I have come to love as a result of seeing many of his films in NYFFs over the years. (Hong somehow manages to do what seems to be one film a year, and they are almost always great enough to be included in this very selective event.) In fact, talking to Kent Jones that evening (who also adored it, BTW), I was reminded that most of his works are similarly wonderful and I tend always to think the current one is his best; and that it may be just that the intensity of the wonderful experience of just seeing it makes it feel like it must be the best, when there is actually a lot of competition for that in his oeuvre. In some ways, all of his films are similar—almost all of them about a director (sometimes successful, sometimes a failed one who has become an academic), all about romantic relationships (often ones he shouldn’t be in; sometimes ones that occurred before the current moment, sometimes during, and sometimes being contemplated for the future); and often feeling like the extension of the same story (although usually not). Yet each is unique, different in ways that make each a novel experience that is totally satisfying on its own. In a way, Right Now, Wrong Then feels much that way within itself: it is divided into two equal stories, each starting with the same title screen, and each nearly recreating the same story line, with the same characters, and the same visuals—nearly, but not completely; in fact, each version is SO subtly but importantly different that they are totally different experiences, with totally different emotional feels and meanings. For a while I wondered at the beginning of the second story whether he was reusing some of the same footage, only to realize in one long, continuous take, that while virtually the same, it was not—the key being that the male lead, while leaning against the same pillar in the same courtyard, in the first instance was looking down (in a way that made enough of an impact that I remembered that detail later), while in the second his face was turned upward toward the sun. It is an incredibly wonderful juxtaposition, and a totally fabulous film—poignant, funny, and completely riveting. I can’t wait to watch this one again.
Ham Chunsu (Jung Jaeyoung) is an art-film director who has come to Suwon for a screening of one of his movies. He meets Yoon Heejung (Kim Minhee), a fledgling artist. She’s never seen any of his films but knows he’s famous; he’d like to see her paintings and then go for sushi and soju. Every word, every pause, every facial expression and every movement, is a negotiation between revelation and concealment: too far over the line for Chunsu and he’s suddenly a middle-aged man on the prowl who uses insights as tools of seduction; too far for Heejung and she’s suddenly acquiescing to a man who’s leaving the next day. So they walk the fine line all the way to a tough and mordantly funny end point, at which time… we begin again, but now with different emotional dynamics. Hong Sangsoo, represented many times in the NYFF, achieves a maximum of layered nuance with a minimum of people, places, and incidents. He is, truly, a master.
Taken literally, this film would have given me fits; but, in fact, I believe it is a magnificent metaphoric exploration of the realities of loss and mourning—and therefore of living. It is beautiful, poignant, and entertaining. And, as always in the films of Kurosawa (not to be confused with Akira), the film is subtle, meaningful, elegant, emotional, and gorgeous. In short, a terrific film.
Based on Kazumi Yumoto’s 2010 novel, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest film begins with a young widow named Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu), who has been emotionally flattened and muted by the disappearance of her husband Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano). One day, from out of the blue or the black, Yusuke’s ghost drops in, more like an exhausted and unexpected guest than a wandering spirit. And then Journey to the Shore becomes a road movie: Mizuki and Yusuke pack their bags, leave Tokyo, and travel by train through parts of Japan that we rarely see in movies, acclimating themselves to their new circumstances and stopping for extended stays with friends and fellow pilgrims that Yusuke has met on his way through the afterworld, some living and some dead. The particular beauty of Journey to the Shore lies in its flowing sense of life as balance between work and love, existence and nonexistence, you and me.
· The Assassin. Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015, Taiwan/China/Hong Kong, DCP, 105 minutes Mandarin with English subtitles. Screening beginning 16 October Friday at the Film Society’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.
This is without a doubt the most beautiful, most slow-paced “action film” ever made. Of course, it really is not an action film, but rather a gorgeous, languorous, visual symphony, punctuated with occasional brief moments of action. It has a quiet beauty that feels very much like gazing at traditional Chinese landscape painting. There is a plot, although three of the four of us watching it together were so involved in relishing the visual richness that we were only vaguely aware of it. Even the action scenes take place in breathtakingly beautiful settings. It is an enormously successful work of art on so many levels. It is an exquisite film.
A wuxia like no other, The Assassin is set in the waning years of the Tang Dynasty when provincial rulers are challenging the power of the royal court. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who was exiled as a child so that her betrothed could make a more politically advantageous match, has been trained as an assassin for hire. Her mission is to destroy her former fiancé (Chang Chen). But worry not about the plot, which is as old as the jagged mountains and deep forests that bear witness to the cycles of power and as elusive as the mists that surround them. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s art is in the telling. The film is immersive and ephemeral, sensuous and spare, and as gloriously beautiful in its candle-lit sumptuous red and gold decor as Hou’s 1998 masterpiece, Flowers of Shanghai. As for the fight scenes, they’re over almost before you realize they’ve happened, but they will stay in your mind’s eye forever. A Well Go USA release.
OK…I was not looking forward to this one (I don’t like most of Spielberg’s work since Jaws; and I haven’t much liked Tom Hanks in serious roles); but I really enjoyed it! Hanks gives a fantastic performance in this film—overshadowed only by the fabulous performance by Mark Rylance; and the film itself is a gripping, well-made movie that practically flies by despite its 2 ¼ hour length. (Hmm…the Coen Brothers did have a big hand in writing this one...) It gets a bit cheesy in spots, especially toward the end (Spielberg can’t help himself); but it is a good and very entertaining film.
The “bridge of spies” of the title refers to Glienicke Bridge, which crosses what was once the borderline between the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR. In the time from the building of the Berlin Wall to its destruction in 1989, there were three prisoner exchanges between East and West. The first and most famous spy swap occurred on February 10, 1962, when Soviet agent Rudolph Abel was traded for American pilot Francis Gary Powers, captured by the Soviets when his U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Sverdlovsk. The exchange was negotiated by Abel’s lawyer, James B. Donovan, who also arranged for the simultaneous release of American student Frederic Pryor at Checkpoint Charlie. Working from a script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, Steven Spielberg has brought every strange turn in this complex Cold War story to vividly tactile life. With a brilliant cast, headed by Tom Hanks as Donovan and Mark Rylance as Abel—two men who strike up an improbable friendship based on a shared belief in public service. A Touchstone Pictures release.
This was a completely lovely film! Funny, clever, touching—and much with a much lighter, more subtle touch than I expected from Michel Gondry. It is an adolescent voyage of growth, discovery, and developing self-expression well-worth going along for the ride with.
The new handmade-SFX comedy from Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind) is set in an autobiographical key. Teenage misfits Microbe (Ange Dargent) and Gasoline (Théophile Baquet), one nicknamed for his size and the other for his love of all things mechanical and fuel-powered, become fast friends. Unloved in school and misunderstood at home—Microbe is overprotected, Gasoline is by turns ignored and abused—they decide to build a house on wheels (complete with a collapsible flower window box) and sputter, push, and coast their way to the camp where Gasoline went as a child, with a stop along the way to visit Microbe’s crush (Diane Besnier). Gondry’s visual imagination is prodigious, and so is his cultivation of spontaneously generated fun and off-angled lyricism, his absolute irreverence, and his emotional frankness. This is one of his freshest and loveliest films. With Audrey Tatou as Microbe’s mom.
I did not expect to like this one, but I did. I don’t know anything about Steve Jobs as a person, and I don’t really want to know anything about him as a person. But Aaron Sorkin threw me a curve ball, and it got me: the film is structured in three parts, each centered on one of three major product launches Jobs did, each shot in progressively high-tech techniques (16mm for the Macintosh launch in 1984, 35mm for his NeXT in 1988, and high-definition digital for the iMac launch in 1998); and throughout it essentially focuses on his relationship with his out-of-wedlock daughter—with all the stuff that people usually focus on about Jobs happening instead around the edges (not insignificantly, of course, but off-center). Wonderfully directed by Danny Boyle, great performance by Michael Fassbender in the title role, and a great supporting cast (including Kate Winslet, Katherine Waterston, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg). I don’t buy the emotional growth that is suggested, but a nice place to end with it being a possibility—although the implied likelihood I suspect is more imaginary than realistic.
Anyone going to this provocative and wildly entertaining film expecting a straight biopic of Steve Jobs is in for a shock. Working from Walter Isaacson’s biography, writer Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War) and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) joined forces to create this dynamically character-driven portrait of the brilliant man at the epicenter of the digital revolution, weaving the multiple threads of their protagonist’s life into three daringly extended backstage scenes, as he prepares to launch the first Macintosh, the NeXT work station and the iMac. We get a dazzlingly executed cross-hatched portrait of a complex and contradictory man, set against the changing fortunes and circumstances of the home-computer industry and the ascendancy of branding, of products, and of oneself. The stellar cast includes Michael Fassbender in the title role, Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan and Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld. A Universal Pictures release.
I have not liked Michael Moore’s films. It has something to do with someone having vaguely similar positions that are not presented in a way I like or find completely reasonable. But I liked this one! Don’t misunderstand: it contains all of the worst of the purposeful (I think) naiveté and even deceptive misrepresentation he is prone to. But the film is funny and entertaining! It also serves as an appropriately powerful (albeit not always accurate) critique of some of the worst problems in the US—even if it simplifies and distorts some of them to the point of absurdity. The Joint Chiefs of Staff—bereft because they have lost every war since the big ones (WWI & WWII), and not knowing what else to try—invite Moore’s help to deal with the problems of the world. (Fun, absurdist comic premise!) He “invades” various countries, primarily in Europe, “conquers” them, and brings back the “spoils of war” in the form of ideas he feels it would be good to adopt. Be forewarned: the observations he makes about the good things in these other countries are unrealistically distorted, and some downright wrong (to the point of being deceptive). Nevertheless, they do shine a spotlight on real problems in the US (although the observations upon which they are based will be easily dismissed by anyone moved to object, since they are so flawed); and even here, his conspiracy theories are just wrong in a disturbing way. His deepest insight (SPOILER ALERT): the things we need are values we invented but have lost sight of.
Where are we, as Americans? Where are we going as a country? And is it where we want to go, or where we think we have to go? Since Roger & Me in 1989, Michael Moore has been examining these questions and coming up with answers that are several worlds away from the ones we are used to seeing and hearing and reading in mainstream media, or from our elected officials. In his previous films, Moore has taken on one issue at a time, from the hemorrhaging of American jobs to the response to 9/11 to the precariousness of our healthcare system. In his new film, he shifts his focus to the whole shebang and ponders the current state of the nation from a very different perspective: that is, from the outside looking in. Where To Invade Next is provocative, very funny, and impassioned—just like all of Moore’s work. But it’s also pretty surprising.
This is a good film, from a great director; but it is flawed: some bad casting; some awkward discontinuities of style—which are partly due to the fact that part of it really was filmed decades earlier, but still function awkwardly; and something quite dated about the whole thing—feeling slightly like an old Soviet propaganda-tainted drama. Nevertheless, Jia Zhangke’s brilliance shows through in enough of the film to make it mostly entrancing
The plot of Jia Zhangke’s new film is simplicity itself. Fenyang 1999, on the cusp of the capitalist explosion in China. Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) has two suitors—Zhang (Zhang Yi), an entrepreneur-to-be, and his best friend Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), who makes his living in the local coal mine. Shen Tao decides, with a note of regret, to marry Zhang, a man with a future. Flash-forward 15 years: the couple’s son Dollar is paying a visit to his now-estranged mother, and everyone and everything seems to have grown more distant in time and space… and then further ahead in time, to even greater distances. Jia is modern cinema’s greatest poet of drift and the uncanny, slow-motion feeling of massive and inexorable change. Like his 2013 A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart is an epically scaled canvas. But where the former was angry and quietly terrifying, the latter is a heartbreaking prayer for the restoration of what has been lost in the name of progress. A Kino Lorber release.
The visual montage of the opening credits is one of the best things I’ve seen in years—and it is without a doubt the most amazing set of opening credits ever. Hard to describe this film (and the Film Society’s description won’t begin to give you a hint about anything other than the fabulous actors that play roles in it—and their list is only a tiny fragment): it is an early 20th century submarine thriller meets The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Bergman meets Brecht, Dali meets Monty Python (and especially Terry Gilliam). It is insane and it is wonderful. The problem is that it should have been a short. Although every piece of this mad film is wonderfully worth seeing, trying to watch two hours of it simply doesn’t work—for me it was at least three times as long as it should have been, and that turned something terrific into something unsustainably tedious.
The four-man crew of a submarine are trapped underwater, running out of air. A classic scenario of claustrophobic suspense—at least until a hatch opens and out steps… a lumberjack? As this newcomer’s backstory unfolds (and unfolds and unfolds in over a dozen outlandish tales), Guy Maddin, cinema’s reigning master of feverish filmic fetishism, embarks on a phantasmagoric narrative adventure of stories within stories within dreams within flashbacks in a delirious globe-trotting mise en abyme the equals of any by the late Raúl Ruiz. Collaborating with poet John Ashbery and featuring sublime contributions from the likes of Jacques Nolot, Charlotte Rampling, Mathieu Amalric, legendary cult electro-pop duo Sparks, and not forgetting muses Louis Negin and Udo Kier, Maddin dives deeper than ever: only the lovechild of Josef von Sternberg and Jack Smith could be responsible for this insane magnum opus. A Kino Lorber release.
I went into this with trepidation, and I came out unfortunately feeling my fears were confirmed. I am devoted to the music Miles created—particularly from the late 40s through the early 60s, and this film is centered in the late 70s—a period when I actually did not like his music. Although the film attempts to move back and forth in time over various eras of his career, it gives extremely short shrift to the end I love. Don Cheadle did an excellent job acting the role of Miles, a far less good job directing the film, and, to me, an extremely disappointing job of conceiving and writing the film. It asserts the genius of Miles’s music—and attempts to use some of it to convey that genius—but it does nothing to explore it. (It is also annoying to me to watch a film about a great musician where the actors are not actually playing the music you are hearing. It is somewhat unavoidable, particularly with jazz, where virtuosity is a prerequisite for performing it.) It is far more an exploration of his sickness than of his creativity; and Miles was, indeed, a sick, twisted character—and not only in his later years, although then it got particularly crazy. [I also have another prejudice here that I should make explicit: perhaps oddly for a psychoanalyst (who is totally mesmerized and riveted by the exploration of personal history and how it shapes a person’s personality and creative expression), I am not interested in the psychobiography of artists or theorist; I want to learn about them through their creative expression, letting that stand on its own in my understanding of them. I’m sure it has to do with my sense of the difference between knowing someone directly, first hand in an actual relationship, and the inferential knowledge one learns from their biographical facts. At least when I know someone through his or her creative expression (whether it be painting, music, literature, or even theoretical writings), I feel the relationship is more first hand and personal, albeit only implicit.] The beginning of the film was pretty gripping, but it progressively lost me…and I felt it was a bit all over the place. Would I have liked it if it were more about the period I love in Miles’s work? Perhaps; but even then I know I would have resented the focus on the aspects of his life around his music rather than on the music itself. So, once again, here is one you may enjoy, although it was not particularly enjoyable for me.
Miles Davis was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. And how do you make a movie about him? You get to know the man inside and out and then you reveal him in full, which is exactly what Don Cheadle does as a director, a writer, and an actor with this remarkable portrait of Davis, refracted through his crazy days in the late-70s. Holed up in his Manhattan apartment, wracked with pain from a variety of ailments and sweating for the next check from his record company, dodging sycophants and industry executives, he is haunted by memories of old glories and humiliations and of his years with his great love Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Every second of Cheadle’s cinematic mosaic is passionately engaged with its subject: this is, truly, one of the finest films ever made about the life of an artist. With Ewan McGregor as Dave Brill, the “reporter” who cons his way into Miles’ apartment. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Todd Haynes has directed a well-done, beautifully realized adaptation of a novel by Patricia Highsmith about a Lesbian relationship in mid-20th century America between two very different women (played wonderfully by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara). It was gorgeously filmed by Ed Lachman. Most of the people I know who viewed it completely loved it. I wanted to—and expected to—both because of its thematic importance and my admiration for Cate Blanchett; but, unfortunately, I did not. It was paced too slowly for me (I find it interesting that I have no problem with the far more slowly paced The Assassin [q.v., above], but very much did with this; I hypothesize it is something about the difference of the aesthetic and my sense of the meaningfulness of the pacing, but IDK); and I also just couldn’t fully believe some aspects of it. The amazingly expressive Blanchett clearly chose—or was directed to choose—to play her role with an extremely restricted range of emotional expression, her face and posture almost frozen throughout all but certain crucial moments. I imagine the decision was to convey the contrast between her usually repressed—albeit hardly constrained—mode and the emotionality she experienced at key moments. That makes sense to me in theory, but did not work for me in the actual experience of the film. This film did not work for me, although clearly it has great merit.
Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel stars Cate Blanchett as the titular Carol, a wealthy suburban wife and mother, and Rooney Mara as an aspiring photographer who meet by chance, fall in love almost at first sight, and defy the closet of the early 1950s to be together. Working with his longtime cinematographer Ed Lachman and shooting on the Super-16 film he favors for the way it echoes the movie history of 20th-century America, Haynes charts subtle shifts of power and desire in images that are alternately luminous and oppressive. Blanchett and Mara are both splendid; the erotic connection between their characters is palpable from beginning to end, as much in its repression as in eagerly claimed moments of expressive freedom. Originally published under a pseudonym, Carol is Highsmith’s most affirmative work; Haynes has more than done justice to the multilayered emotions evoked by it source material. A Weinstein Company release.
This movie started out to be terrific: a rather gripping presentation of the famous research done by Stanley Milgram, in which subjects were willing to administer what they believed were painful, damaging, and potentially fatal levels of electric shocks to what they thought were other subjects (actually a staff member on the experiment), simply because they were directed to do so by a staff member—even though it had been made clear to them at the outset that they could stop anytime they wanted. The film was done cleverly, and effectively: Milgram (portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard) at times narrates the film, looking at the audience while speaking to us; some of the scenes, particularly the flashbacks, are filmed against static, grainy photographic backgrounds—often in black and white, in contrast to the actors being in color. Nevertheless, it took an unfortunate turn and ended up going somewhere very strange—and unsuccessful for me—in its last half hour: moving into the making of a cheesy television dramatization of Milgram’s work (the actual TV show having starred William Shatner and Ossie Davis!) and the sudden, somehow related decline of Milgram’s marriage, and the film then became melodramatic and shallow—in sharp contrast to how powerful and deep it had seemed at the beginning.
Michael Almereyda’s brilliant portrait of Stanley Milgram, the social scientist whose 1961, Yale-based “obedience study” reflected back on the Holocaust and anticipated Abu Ghraib and other atrocities carried out by ordinary people who were just following orders, places its subject in an appropriately experimental cinema framework. The proverbial elephant in the room materializes on screen; Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) sometimes addresses the camera directly as if to implicate us in his studies and the unpleasant truths they reveal. Remarkably, the film evokes great compassion for this uncompromising, difficult man, in part because we often see him through the eyes of his wife (Winona Ryder, in a wonderfully grounded performance), who fully believed in his work and its profoundly moral purpose. Almereyda creates the bohemian-tinged academic world of the 1960s through the 1980s with an economy that Stanley Kubrick might have envied. A Magnolia Pictures release.
I love Robert Frank’s photography: The Americans is a treasured and beloved volume on my bookshelf. I enjoyed and appreciated his film about The Rolling Stones’, Cocksucker Blues, although its aesthetic was nowhere as dear to me as that of his photography. But I did not really appreciate this documentary about him and his work. I felt it didn’t present the early photography adequately (a series of fleeting images, rather than lingering on their power and beauty); and it felt disjointed and frenetic to me. I was surprised, because Laura Israel was his long-time editor and collaborator. I spoke with a couple of knowledgeable friends after the screening, and it was separately the opinion of both of them (who really liked the film, BTW), that it was probably because I loved his early work and, they both suspected—correctly, it turns out—I am not really a fan of his later work. They both felt this documentary rather beautifully was done in a way that captured his later style—and that it virtually was an extension of it. So I present you with both takes.
The life and work of Robert Frank—as a photographer and a filmmaker—are so intertwined that they’re one in the same, and the vast amount of territory he’s covered, from The Americans in 1958 up to the present, is intimately registered in his now-formidable body of artistic gestures. From the early ’90s on, Frank has been making his films and videos with the brilliant editor Laura Israel, who has helped him to keep things homemade and preserve the illuminating spark of first contact between camera and people/places. Don’t Blink is Israel’s like-minded portrait of her friend and collaborator, a lively rummage sale of images and sounds and recollected passages and unfathomable losses and friendships that leaves us a fast and fleeting imprint of the life of the Swiss-born man who reinvented himself the American way, and is still standing on ground of his own making at the age of 90.
The conceit of this film, while totally far-fetched, was clever in a comic way—and the first segments of the film used it to create some wonderfully funny moments. But it does not have the substance to support the layering it attempts or the darkness it goes to periodically; and I fear it ends up taking itself too seriously for what it is. Colin Farrell is quite good, but the film has trouble supporting the flat affect he maintains through most of it. Just too heavy-handed.
In the very near future, society demands that we live as couples. Single people are rounded up and sent to a seaside compound—part resort and part minimum-security prison—where they are given a finite number of days to find a match. If they don’t succeed, they will be “altered” and turned into an animal. The recently divorced David (Colin Farrell) arrives at The Hotel with his brother, now a dog; in the event of failure, David has chosen to become a lobster… because they live so long. When David falls in love, he’s up against a new set of rules established by another, rebellious order: for romantics, there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Welcome to the latest dark, dark comedy from Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), creator of absurdist societies not so very different from our own. With Léa Seydoux as the leader of the Loners, Rachel Weisz as David’s true love, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw. An Alchemy release.
This is one of those times a film probably suffered from my going in with high expectations: I came out very much not liking it. There was something in its humor that I felt uncomfortable about; and it was only in talking to a friend after the screening who said she found it “mean,” that I understood my discomfort—there was a kind of meanness to the humor and unpleasantness in the naiveté of its world view. But please understand this in the context of my preferences and prejudices: it is connected to the fact that, while I found Seinfeld at times hilariously funny, I never got into watching it, because I so disliked the characters; and I cannot tolerate the humor of Larry David, although, similarly (of course), he can be very funny. I point that out, because I want to let you know you may really like it. (Some I went with did.) I always have some problems, too, with what Greta Gerwig conveys in her performances in most of the films I’ve seen her in. I sometimes like Julianne Moore very much, sometimes not at all; and this performance unfortunately fell into the second category.
Rebecca Miller’s new film is as wise, funny, and suspenseful as a Jane Austen novel. Greta Gerwig shines brightly in the role of Maggie, a New School administrator on the verge of completing her life plan with a donor-fathered baby when she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a soulful but unfulfilled adjunct professor. John is unhappily married to a Columbia-tenured academic superstar wound tighter than a coiled spring (Julianne Moore). Maggie and the professor commiserate, share confidences, and fall in love. And where most contemporary romantic comedies end, Miller’s film is just getting started. In the tradition of Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky, Miller approaches the genre of the New York romantic comedy with relish and loving energy. With Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s married-with-children friends, drawn to defensive sarcasm like moths to a flame, and Travis Fimmel as Maggie’s donor-in-waiting.
I was dreading this. It turned out that it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting; it was actually mildly entertaining. Zemeckis is the master of action and special effects…and 3-D adds to this. There were 20 minutes or so of terrific action—and he does that better than anyone. But the hour leading up to it was slow, and nothing special at all—and when I learned that Philippe Petit is revered by street performers as having been, in his early years, the consummate practitioner of their art, I felt that this hours was particularly wasted, as there was no sense of what could have been in it. And the several final minutes were filled with the mindless, maudlin, sentimentality that ruins a Zemeckis film if it is allowed to enter in. If you watch it, however, make sure to do it in 3-D, and on the biggest screen you can find (perfect for IMAX); but, I’d suggest instead that you watch the wonderful documentary, James Marsh’s 2008 documentary, Man on Wire.
Robert Zemeckis’s magical and enthralling new film, the story of Philippe Petit (winningly played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, plays like a heist movie in the grand tradition of Rififi and Bob le flambeur. Zemeckis takes us through every detail—the stakeouts, the acquisition of equipment, the elaborate planning and rehearsing that it took to get Petit, his crew of raucous cohorts, and hundreds of pounds of rigging to the top of what was then the world’s tallest building. When Petit steps out on his wire, The Walk, a technical marvel and perfect 3-D re-creation of Lower Manhattan in the 1970s, shifts into another heart-stopping gear, and Zemeckis and his hero transport us into pure sublimity. With Ben Kingsley as Petit’s mentor. A Sony Pictures release.
This is a beautifully filmed movie, and many really liked it. It was just far, far too romantic for my taste; and it was not helped by the fact that I saw it telegraphing exactly what its (to me) predictable ending was going to be very early in the story. It was completely ruined for me, however, by the sappy, romantic hyper-emotionality of the music (the worst kind of mawkish stuff—more strings than ought to have been heard in the whole festival), which turned a beautiful if overly romantic visual film into what for me was a painfully maudlin experience of excess sentimentality. But this is a direction that is, at best, problematic for me; there were those who loved this film.
In the middle of the last century, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) takes the boat from Ireland to America in search of a better life. She endures the loneliness of the exile, boarding with an insular and catty collection of Irish girls in Brooklyn. Gradually, her American dream materializes: she studies bookkeeping and meets a handsome, sweet Italian boy (Emory Cohen). But then bad news brings her back home, where she finds a good job and another handsome boy (Domhnall Gleeson), this time from a prosperous family. On which side of the Atlantic does Eilis’s future live, and with whom? Director John Crowley (Boy A) and writer Nick Hornby haven’t just fashioned a great adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, but a beautiful movie, a sensitively textured re-creation of the look and emotional climate of mid-century America and Ireland, with Ronan, as quietly and vibrantly alive as a silent-screen heroine, at its heart. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release.
This is a very well-made, creative first film by Thomas Bidegain, which I almost liked very much, but ended up disliking. It was just too full of hatred, bigotry, and anger—without anything to make all that worth sitting through the experience of. Moreover, despite the couple of clear attempts to distance from the anti-Muslim prejudice it was portraying, I could not remained convinced that the film itself really was free from it. Of course, there were some ugly realities to present; but I did not feel that point of view of the film had enough distance from the bigoted views and actions of many of its characters—at least, the disowning was not nearly as convincing as the dramatic presentation of it.
Country and Western enthusiast Alain (François Damiens) is enjoying an outdoor gathering of fellow devotees with his wife and teenage children when his daughter abruptly vanishes. Learning that she’s eloped with her Muslim boyfriend, he embarks on increasingly obsessive quest to track her down. As the years pass and the trail grows cold, Alain sacrifices everything, while drafting his son into his efforts. The echoes of The Searchers are unmistakable, but the story departs from John Ford’s film in unexpected ways, escaping its confining European milieu as the pursuit assumes near-epic proportions in post-9/11 Afghanistan. This muscular debut, worthy of director Thomas Bidegain’s screenwriting collaborations with Jacques Audiard, yields a sweeping vision of a world in which the codes of the Old West no longer seem to hold. A Cohen Media Group release.
· O Brother, Where Art Thou. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000, USA, DCP, 107 minutes
15th Anniversary Screening ∙ Coen brothers, cast, and musical guests in person! Presented by New Wave
One of my three Coen Brothers films, it was great to see this great film on the big screen. George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro are fabulous in this masterful spin on the Odyssey. This one is always a pure joy to watch…but, if you’ve seen it, you know that; and if you haven’t, go see it! It was one of those special evenings, with Joel and Ethan Coen there with the cast—on stage to introduce the film and for a fun Q&A after it.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of Joel and Ethan Coen’s beloved roots-musical fantasia, “based upon The Odyssey, by Homer,” about three escaped convicts (George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro) trying to get back home in the rural South of the 1930s. Bigger than life, endlessly surprising, eye-popping (“they wanted it to look like an old hand-tinted picture,” said DP Roger Deakins), and as giddily and defiantly unclassifiable as all other Coen films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is, among many other things, a celebration of American music. With a score curated and produced by T-Bone Burnett, the movie sings with voices and sounds of some of the best musicians in the country, including Ralph Stanley, the Fairfield Four, Alison Krauss, John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch, and the melodies of classics like “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and the film’s touchstone, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Cast members, musical guests, and Joel and Ethan Coen will be on hand. Bring your instrument! A Touchstone Pictures and Universal Pictures release.
· Junun. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2015, USA, DCP, 54 minutes English, Hindi, Hebrew, and Urdu with English subtitles. Available for streaming for the next 30 days on the MUBI streaming service
This intensely wonderful 54 minute film by PT Anderson was shot in February of this year in the Mehrangarh fort (a mere 4 months after I myself visited that magnificent piece of architecture, looming high above the “Blue City” of Jodhpur in Rajasthan in India). Jonny Greenwood, an PT Anderson collaborator, famous from his role in Radiohead, along with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, are recording an album by Israeli composer/guitarist Shye ben Tzur in the fort, with an outstanding group of musicians (listed below)—including a qawalli chorus, some Hindu vocalists, and a brass section. I had no idea what was going on—it was only halfway through the film that I realized much of the singing was in Hebrew! But I was thoroughly absorbed, entranced and thrilled by the music, and totally captivated by the visuals—and particularly by the shots of and from this 15th century fort I so like. This was one of the most intense, wonderful things in the whole festival…I cannot wait to see it again.
Earlier this year, Paul Thomas Anderson joined his close friend and collaborator Jonny Greenwood on a trip to Rajasthan in northwest India, where they were hosted by the Maharaja of Jodhpur, and he brought his camera with him. Their destination was the 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort, where Greenwood (with the help of longtime friend and producer Nigel Godrich) was recording an album by Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and an amazing group of musicians: Aamir Bhiyani, Soheb Bhiyani, Ajaj Damami, Sabir Damami, Hazmat, and Bhanwaru Khan on brass; Ehtisham Khan Ajmeri, Nihal Khan, Nathu Lal Solanki, Narsi Lal Solanki, and Chugge Khan on percussion; Zaki Ali Qawwal, Zakir Ali Qawwal, Afshana Khan, Razia Sultan, Gufran Ali, and Shazib Ali on vocals; and Dara Khan and Asin Khan on strings. The finished film, just under an hour, is pure magic. Junun lives and breathes music, music-making, and the close camaraderie of artistic collaboration. It’s a lovely impressionistic mosaic and a one-of-a-kind sonic experience: the music will blow your mind.
De Palma Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow 2015, USA, DCP, 107 minutes
Oy! This documentary needs work: it is skillfully done in places, except for the fact that it cannot support anywhere near its two hour length, which essentially makes it untenable. Also, I have never liked Brian De Palma. In part, this can be attributable to my dislike for violence in films—and that is a major part of many of what are considered his better films; but there are other problems, as well. His later films all have high production values, but that actually I find a detriment to a mediocre picture. I did feel that I got to know him better through this documentary—but that made me end up liking him even less. To me, the infuriating nadir of the story was De Palma’s incessant comparisons to himself as being like Alfred Hitchcock! Sure, he admires Hitchcock, and certainly he even lifts themes and even scenes straight out of that master’s work; but he has nothing of the elegance, creativity, subtlety, or depth of Hitchcock—and that is probably most evident in the heavy-handed and excessive way he uses violence. (One of our guests actually expressed the fantasy that he’d stay for the Q&A and get up and paraphrase Jack Bentsen’s response to Dan Quayle in the 1988 Vice-presidential debate: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.” Mr. De Palma, you’re no Alfred Hitchcock!) Now being Alfred Hitchcock is too high a criterion to require of a filmmaker; but making that comparison for oneself is still the height of arrogance…and I feel arrogance is one of the problems in De Palma’s filmmaking. I all fairness, however, I should say that—on Kent Jones’s specific urging—I went to a revival screening of De Palma’s Blow-Out, and it was actually quite good! (q.v., below in REVIVALS)
Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s fleet and bountiful portrait covers the career of the number one iconoclast of American cinema, the man who gave us Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Carlito’s Way. Their film moves at the speed of De Palma’s thought (and sometimes works in subtle, witty counterpoint) as he goes title by title, covering his life from science nerd to New Hollywood bad boy to grand old man, and describes his ever-shifting position in this thing we call the movie business. Deceptively simple, De Palma is finally many things at once. It is a film about the craft of filmmaking—how it’s practiced and how it can be so easily distorted and debased. It’s an insightful and often hilarious tour through American moviemaking from the 1960s to the present, and a primer on how movies are made and unmade. And it’s a surprising, lively, and unexpectedly moving portrait of a great, irascible, unapologetic, and uncompromising New York artist. In conjunction with this film, we will also be showing De Palma’s masterpiece Blow Out. An A24 release.
Immigration Battle/Reasons to Believe. Michael Camerini, Shari Robertson, 2015, USA, DCP, 111 minutes. Screening on Frontline on PBS starting 20 October and online thereafter
As with all of Michael and Shari’s films about the legislative politics of immigration, this latest is a totally entertaining, absorbing, informative, and important piece of filmmaking. I learn more from their films about the inner workings of our government and the nuances of immigration politics than I can from all my serious reading on these issues…and I have much more fun doing so. [Side light: the boxed set of 10 DVDs of their early 12 series of feature length documentaries on the movement of the immigration legislation through the Senate is available at the moment on its website (www.howdemocracyworksnow.com) for $20, although it usually sells for $200.] This film, centered on the fight in the House following the passage of a Senate Immigration bill, looks at how partisan politics scuttled the process—and led to Obama’s intervention via Executive Order, still being legally contested. It focuses on the efforts of Illinois Democratic Congressman Luis Gutiérrez; but includes positive inputs from Republicans you might not have expected it from. It is a gripping drama…and a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson have been chronicling the protracted struggle for American immigration reform over the past 16 years, crossing the country numerous times to film politicians and activists on both sides of this great and divisive issue. They gained unprecedented fly-on-the-wall access to the key players in Washington as they rode the momentum toward the passage of a bipartisan bill, only to see it shot down, which meant that they had to begin pushing the boulder back up the hill all over again. Two years ago, NYFF51 screened Camerini and Robertson’s series of immigration films, How Democracy Works, and now we present Immigration Battle, their final film on the subject. The key player this time is Democrat Luis Gutiérrez, the charismatic U.S. Representative for the 4th congressional district of Illinois, who negotiates his way through this political minefield—past an obstructionist majority playing to an anti-immigrant base and a President who has just been dubbed the “Deporter-in-Chief” by the pro-reform community—while keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the prize. A FRONTLINE (PBS) release.
Jia Zangke: A Guy from Fenyang. Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1983, Taiwan, DCP, 101 minutes Mandarin with English subtitles
I love Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I really like Jia Zangke, but in the end we just couldn’t get to see this one.
This “group portrait of four laddish adolescents on the razzle in Kaohsiung as they approach the onset of adult life” (Tony Rayns) is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s fourth film, but he has long considered it to be the real beginning of his career as a moviemaker. “I had very intense feelings at the time,” Hou told Sam Ho, “and I think the film has an intense energy. An artist’s early work might be lacking in craft but, at the same time, be very powerful, very direct. Later, when I wanted to return to that initial intensity, I no longer could.” In the tradition of Fellini’s I Vitelloni, The Boys from Fengkuei is a deeply personal look back at the director’s own adolescence—at the boredom of living in the middle of nowhere and the overwhelming need to get up and move, and get out and away to the big city. A glorious young-man’s film, and the first great work of the Taiwanese New Wave. Restored by the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique in collaboration with Hou Hsiao-hsien and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project.
Blow Out. Brian De Palma, 1981, USA, DCP, 107 minutes
This one was a surprise: I do not like De Palma (q.v., above in SPECIAL EVENTS), and I have never liked any of his films—and I have thoroughly detested some. But this one was good! Not great, and probably benefited from my exceedingly low expectations of it; but we all enjoyed it thoroughly. A good mystery, with major pieces lifted from/and homage to Antonioni’s Blow-Up (a far better film, of course), and a comic direct lifting of a scene ripped out of Hitchcock’s Pyscho; but it worked. And it was undoubtedly the best performance by John Travolta ever.
One of Brian De Palma’s greatest films and one of the great American films of the 1980s, Blow Out is such a hallucinatory, emotionally and visually commanding experience that the term “thriller” seems insufficient. De Palma takes a variety of elements—the Kennedy assassination; Chappaquiddick; Antonioni’s Blow-Up; the slasher genre that was then in full flower; elements of Detective Bob Leuci’s experiences working undercover for the Knapp Commission; the harshness and sadness of American life; and, as ever, Hitchcock’s Vertigo—and swirls and mixes them into a film that builds to a truly shattering conclusion. With John Travolta, in what is undoubtedly his greatest performance, as the sound man for low-budget movies who accidentally records a murder; Nancy Allen, absolutely heartbreaking, as the girl caught in the middle; John Lithgow as the hired killer; and De Palma stalwart Dennis Franz as the world’s biggest sleaze. This was the second of three collaborations between De Palma and the master DP Vilmos Zsigmond. An MGM/Park Circus release.
Ran. Akira Kurosawa, 1985, Japan/France, DCP, 160 minutes Japanese with English subtitles
We also ended up not being able to see this one, one of the masterpieces of this great filmmaker. (Although, to be honest, I know it to be far too violent for my tastes.)
The 1985 New York Film Festival opened with Akira Kurosawa’s astonishing medieval epic, inspired by the life of Mori Motonari, a 16th-century warlord with three sons. It was only after he began writing that the filmmaker started to see parallels with King Lear. It took a decade for Kurosawa to bring his grand conception to the screen—he actually painted storyboards of every shot along the way, and made another great film, Kagemusha, as a dry run. The finished work he eventually gave us is, to put it mildly, a mind-blowing experience. Tatsuya Nakadai is the warlord, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, and Daisuke Ryu are his sons, Mieko Harada is the terrifying Lady Kaede, the score is by Toru Takemitsu, but the dominant force looming over every single element of this film, down to the smallest detail, is Kurosawa himself. The color palette of Ran is unlike that of any other movie made before or since, as you’ll see in this newly restored version. Restoration by StudioCanal with the participation of Kadokawa Pictures. A Rialto Pictures release.