The 54th annual New York Film Festival wrapped up last night, bringing an end to a two-plus week downpour of terrific fiction and nonfiction films from here and abroad. Back on September 30, at the beginning of that festival (it seems years ago now) we ran down the best selections we saw in advance; now that it’s over, here are our picks and passes from what unspooled during the festival proper.
The great thing about a big, prestigious festival like NYFF is that they can attract world premieres of new works from some of our finest filmmakers. The bad thing is that sometimes those films don’t live up to their expectations.
Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk
Ang Lee’s decision to shoot his adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel at five times the frame rate of a normal movie will go down as one of the most baffling artistic decisions in modern moviemaking. It’s not just an eyesore that gives this star-packed prestige picture the look of an amateurish 1998 shot-on-DV erotic thriller; the aesthetic failure becomes a dramatic one, because the ugly video captures ostensibly natural, realistic scenes in a way that only increases our awareness of the artificiality of it all. Maybe this would’ve worked if shot conventionally – though the script is clumsy and the acting is spotty – but the miscalculation of the medium is so overwhelming, it’s impossible to guess.
The Lost City of Z
James Gray’s masterful The Immigrant was a stunning mix of period piece and character drama, and his new film isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination (a caveat unavailable for Billy Lynn). In many ways, it’s textbook great: handsomely mounted, (mostly) well acted, boldly audacious, gorgeously photographed. Yet for all of its admirable ambition, there’s something missing; Gray never quite manages to couple the beauty of his images with a matching emotional resonance, a balance magnificently achieved by his last picture. And part of the problem may lie in the casting of Charlie Hunnam in the leading role, an actor who never quite inhabits the character convincingly, and thus never makes the human connection this adventure epic so badly needs.
THE MIXED BAGS
One animated comedy, one theatrical documentary – neither of them terrible, yet never quite managing to pull their commendable elements together into a memorable package.
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened…
“35 years ago, in this theater, I got everything I ever wanted. And I never quite got over it.” So says Lonny Price, one of the three leads of Steven Sondheim and Hal Prince’s famously misbegotten 1981 production of Merrily We Roll Along, a surprise flop (it closed after 16 performances) for the seemingly bulletproof team, sunk mostly my its own hefty ambitions – including the idea of casting the roles entirely with young actors, ranging from 16 to 25 years old. Looking back on their past from middle age – an notion not unconnected to the themes of the show – Price rounds up most of the rest of the cast and draws upon a treasure trove of archival materials (much of it shot by ABC for an abandoned behind-the-scenes documentary) to put together a fairly interesting postmortem of a failure. But Price’s participation in the production ultimately does the film more harm than good; he’s too close to see the flaws of this chronicle, to determine which stories are worth telling and which are only of interest to those on the inside. It’s a diligent and detailed film, and a sweet one, but so, so slight.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea
This tale of an earthquake that capsizes a typical high school is the feature filmmaking debut of graphic novelist Dash Shaw, so it’s not surprising that it’s so visually striking – it’s got an eye-catching hand-drawn style (some of it strangely beautiful, some of it weird and surreal, some of it distractingly muddy), is filled with memorable images, has a not-inconsiderable amount of bloodshed, and makes clever use of the frame (particularly in a split-screen sequence during the big catastrophe that explicitly recalls Carrie). And it’s got a very good voice cast, including Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, and Susan Sarandon as the intense lunch lady. It’s just a shame, especially considering that cast, that it’s not just a little funnier, and a little less intoxicated by its own cleverness.
VERY GOOD DOCS
Two very different non-fiction works, one an investigation and one an entertainment, both expertly executed and endlessly fascinating.
ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail
In 2012, New York officials handed down the only indictments to date on a U.S. bank for mortgage fraud in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. Their target: Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a tiny, family-owned institution catering to Chinatown’s immigrant community. The latest documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) is dealing with sticky moral issues – there’s no question some fraud was committed, but it was certainly confined to a couple of bad actors. Yet this small bank was investigated with a force and meticulousness that authorities somehow couldn’t muster for institutions that did exponentially more damage. The question of why – and how Abacus fought back – is explored by James with fairness, insight, and attentiveness, resulting in a fascinating story of exactly who the system really works for.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
Let’s make this plain from the jump: your correspondent is pretty much the target audience for this HBO documentary from directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, thanks to my affection for classic Hollywood and belief that Carrie Fisher is a goddamn national treasure. These days, she and mom Debbie Reynolds live right next door to each other, and spend much of their time together, performing a double-act they’ve spent a lifetime perfecting. In those scenes, it’s something akin to a cheerier, self-aware Grey Gardens, but the filmmakers slyly work in serious themes here and there, tracking Carrie’s attempts to understand her addictions and depression and to make sense of her relationship with her mother, and Debbie coming to terms with aging as an icon (when your youth is immortalized in all those movies) and with her own mortality. There’s pain in it, and struggle, and laughs, but most of all, it’s 96 quality minutes hanging out with Carrie and Debbie, and that is a high compliment indeed.
Some festivals end up being mini-tributes to actors of note, and this year’s NYFF not only gave us three Kristen Stewart movies (Certain Women, Billy Lynn, and Personal Shopper) but two new films from the unmatchable French queen Isabelle Huppert.
Things to Come
Mia Hansen-Løve’s films are uncommonly rich and full of life, dynamic and divine, even when nothing of ostensible consequence is “happening.” Her latest pushes this notion even further, spending a great deal of its first hour simply observing the life of Nathalie (Huppert, flawless), a schoolteacher and writer with a thoughtless husband, a sick and aging mother, and a career in flux. She doesn’t set out to alter her life significantly, but it is altered, and Hansen-Løve doesn’t push for effect; she knows she’s got one of our finest actors at the center of her frame, and just watching her react (or choose not to) is all the narrative movement she needs.
Paul Verhoeven’s latest is, to put it mildly, risky. He crosses a contemporary European character drama (not unlike Toni Erdmann, below) with something like a rape-sploitation picture, and throws in generous dabs of pitch-black comedy just to knock us further off-balance. This is obviously a tricky tone to navigate, and the filmmaker knows it – plays on it, in fact, making a movie that’s deliberately unsettling and often downright disturbing. Many will loathe it (many already have, in fact), and it’s hard to fault them. But he’s doing something genuinely provocative here, and he couldn’t have a better accomplice than Huppert, who puts little spins on her already scalding dialogue, all the while hinting at the heady brew of trauma and bitterness that steers her actions. Tough, but sort of tremendous.
BEST OF THE FEST (DOCUMENTARY)
NYFF’s documentary slate was, as per usual, filled with important and powerful works. But these two, tied thematically and stylistically, stood tall among even that remarkable group.
The new documentary from Ava DuVernay is ostensibly about what Angela Davis dubbed the “prison industrial complex” (and the pressing questions of prison privatization and profiteering), but DuVernay is more concerned with the entire mindset that’s made our “land of the free” so disproportionately imprisoned, and that’s made that imprisoned population so disproportionately black and male. In doing so, she shines the entire American story through the prism of institutionalized white supremacy, tracing its reconfiguration and rebranding through the decades, from slavery to Jim Crow to “the war on drugs” to “tough on crime.” And with those code words – and worse – echoing through presidential rallies all year, this is not only essential but timely viewing. (Read more here.)
I Am Not Your Negro
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” writes James Baldwin. “It is not a pretty story.” In some ways, that’s the thesis statement of both 13th and this free-flowing essay film from director Raoul Peck, who focuses on the 30 pages of notes Baldwin left behind for a book that told the story of America through the lives and deaths of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. But Peck does not consign their lives, nor Baldwin’s, to history; he traverses decades, even centuries, in his cuts and juxtapositions, and everything he finds (old film clips, modern news footage, advertisements, educational shorts, contemporary music) is relevant. Like 13th, this staggering and weighty film is about context – about understanding the current conflicts within a long history of struggle. Or, as Baldwin puts it, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
BEST OF THE FEST (NARRATIVE, RUNNERS-UP)
And the fiction slate was no less impressive – so much so that I came up with six movies worth at least mentioning as the best of the fest. What an embarrassment of riches.
“Deliberate comedy” should be an oxymoron (most comedies wind up and spin out at the fastest pace they can muster) but it’s an apt description of this jubilant comedy/drama from Maren Ade, which is darkly funny, uncomfortably candid — and unexpectedly tender. An aging, jokester father (Peter Simonischek) spontaneously visits his high-powered daughter (Sandra Hüller), and their reunion goes really poorly — until he adopts a patently ridiculous alter ego, a vague “life coach” in a Tommy Wiseau wig, whom she finds easier to get along with than the real thing. Ade’s script gives their relationship credible strains without veering into cliché, and that goes double for the characters; Hüller make the old chestnut of the too-driven career woman new again, and Simonischek wonderfully captures the kind of grinning prankster whose bits are initially amusing, and wear out their welcome quickly. It’s the kind of movie where you don’t really know where you’re going until you get there — and then find yourself marveling at the slyness of the navigation.
Pedro Almodóvar based his latest feature on a trio of short stories by Alice Munro — a bizarre fusion that results in a picture that is more restrained than we’ve come to expect from the Spanish master. But it’s done with no less energy and honesty, and the dialed-down tone allows us to better appreciate the efficiency of Almodóvar’s storytelling. He’s covering decades here, with familial bonds made and broken across shifting actors and stories, and yet he breezes right through, creating moments of comic kindness and tableaux of tragedy with equal weight. (Read more here.)
BEST OF THE FEST (NARRATIVE, RUNNERS-UP)
20th Century Women
Turns out Mike Mills’ sweet and witty Beginners was just a warm up for this lovely and wise coming-of-age story, in which a young man’s mother, aware that she’s losing touch with him, asks the younger members of their makeshift family to help him become a better man. But those are just the broad outlines of a movie that’s not really about plot. It’s about the emotional fears all of these people share: of being alone, of being uncool, of growing old, of being a disappointment. The ensemble cast comes bearing endless gifts, but the MVP is Annette Bening, who can do more with a slow exhale or a sly glance than most actors can do with reams of dialogue.
Olivier Assayas re-teams with his Clouds of Sils Maria co-star Kristen Stewart to create something like a mash-up of that film and The Conjuring, a combination that goes down far more smoothly than you’d think. Much of that is thanks to Stewart, who carries the weight of the picture almost entirely on her shoulders, spending much of its running time alone, working through her grief, trying to figure out her life, and being haunted by ghosts metaphorical and literal. Her square-jawed, matter-of-fact approach to the material is ultimately her greatest skill; even when she’s not really doing anything, we’re riveted. Same goes for the picture – a puzzle movie that’s a pleasure to piece together. (Read more here.)
BEST OF THE FEST (NARRATIVE)
The whirling camerawork and jubilant music in the opening scene of Barry Jenkins’s forceful character study might make you think you’re in for a showier movie than he delivers. Which is not to say that it isn’t stylish — just that every lyrical touch, every breathtaking composition, every aural flourish is at the service of a simple yet glaringly untold story. In the end, what’s astonishing about the picture isn’t its vibrancy, or its aesthetic; it’s its warmth, the love Jenkins has for his characters, and the patience with which he tells their story. Simply breathtaking.
Manchester By the Sea
I’m an easy mark for tearjerkers, so I’d heard that Kenneth Lonergan’s latest would destroy me – which it did, but not in the traditional hanky-weepy ways, because it’s entirely concerned with people who suffer in silence and solitude, and you get the feeling the writer/director wants to give them their privacy. It’s the story of two tragedies, separated by a decade or so, told concurrently and yet not as inevitabilities; it’s a drama, and a heart-wrenching one, but Lonergan keeps throwing curveballs, because it’s funny when you least expect it to be (i.e., when it’s not supposed to be). Restraint and grace make Manchester so impactful – that, and the taciturn lead performance of Casey Affleck, who has quietly become one of our finest actors, full stop.