The Best and Worst Movies of the 2017 New York Film Festival

Ruben Östlund, Todd Haynes, Dee Rees’s adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel, and more must-see movies.

Okay, time for a confession: the “best and worst” construction makes for a catchy headline, but there wasn’t much of the latter at the 55th annual New York Film Festival  (which ended yesterday), a two-plus week gathering of east coast cineastes that’s known more these days for its curation than its debuts. Sure, there are always a couple of big, splashy premieres, but for the most part the draw is the skill with which NYFF’s impeccable programmers pluck out the best of Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto, and present it as a lengthy, full-course meal, rather than the all-you-can-eat buffet of shorter fests with bigger slates. So this year, it wasn’t so much a case of “best and worst” as two disappointments, and then all the rest which were very good. (And if you’d like our full NYFF experience, catch up with the mini-reviews in our festival preview here.)

THE TWO DISAPPOINTMENTS

Last Flag Flying

Well, this one’s a puzzler – a first-rate cast teams with an A+ director for a pseudo-sequel to a ‘70s classic, and it somehow just falls flat. Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne play modern variations (names and backstories changed slightly, presumably due to rights issues) on the characters of Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, once hell-raising young Marines, now middle-aged men – older, if not wiser. As a performance piece, it’s undeniably noteworthy; Carell is quietly powerful, Cranston is playfully engaging, Fishburne is a good foil, and all of them excel at capturing the rhythms of everyday chit-chat. But the dialogue rarely aspires to be more; there’s a fair amount of lifeless conversation (not the expectation, considering director Richard Linklater’s CV), and quite a bit of sloganeering and generalizing. Some of the individual moments and one-liners land, and it’s intelligent and well-acted. It’s just not terribly dynamic.

Wonder Wheel

Maybe “disappointment” isn’t quite accurate – Woody Allen hasn’t made a genuinely good film since 2013’s Blue Jasmine, and the apparent root causes of his subsequent works’ failures seem to be systemic. Still, there were reasons to hope this one would land, particularly the gorgeous cinematography and first-rate cast, and they all land gracefully. But as with much of his recent output, it too often plays like a filmed outline, marching from one plot point to another without much else happening (jokes, tension, unexpected conflict) along the way. Early on, Justin Timberlake’s writer/lifeguard explains, “I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters.” He seems to be speaking for his creator, but the stilted artificiality he ends up with here is straight-up deadly.

ALL THE REST THAT WERE GOOD

The Square

Force Majeure director Ruben Östlund returns with another quietly uncomfortable pitch-black comedy, a series of escalating and increasingly harrowing confrontations, set this time in the somewhat fish-in-a-barrel setting of the contemporary art world. But he doesn’t go about this work in any of the expected ways; he’s less interested in satirizing artists than administrators, the sensible people who are supposed to marshal the madness, yet are themselves just as petty and egomaniacal (if not more so). Östlund’s approach is deliberately confrontational, and bless him for that; in his framings, juxtapositions, and structure, he’s often deliberately fucking with us, but without positioning himself above the fray.

Wonderstruck

“I need you to be patient with this story, and read it slowly.” So begins the sequence that reveals the connection between the closely parallel stories – one set in 1927, the other fifty years later – in Todd Haynes’s marvelous adaptation of the novel by Brian Seltzer (Hugo). That reveal is emotionally overwhelming, but the instructions hold for the entire movie, a delicate mood piece about being a child, feeling lost and alone, and then finding the kind of companionship and support that feels like home. This is such a light, nimble movie, dancing back and forth between these two threads, displaying the mastery of craft and openness of emotion found in Haynes’s best films.

The Rape of Recy Taylor

The justice system failing women, and especially women of color, is not (to put it mildly) solely a historical concern, so there’s a particular urgency to this tough but essential documentary by Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story), about the assault, trial, and fallout of the 1944 rape of a 24-year-old African-American wife and mother in Abbeville, Alabama. “They felt that the black woman’s body didn’t belong to her,” we’re told, and Buirski places those attitudes in context – from slave rape to Jim Crow laws. And she also details how this one attack (among many) became a flashpoint in the black community, with race films and black press sharing the story without the interference of the usual gatekeepers, and how the anger it stirred prompted organization and protest. The result is an informative and bracing pre-history of the Civil Rights movement – and a valuable reminder of the role of women within it.

Mudbound

There’s a scene, about two-thirds of the way through Dee Rees’s adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel, in which a character gets out of bed. That’s all he’s doing, but it’s something he shouldn’t do – and any viewer watching knows he shouldn’t, and sits in their seat quietly pleading for him not to do it, to stay put for God’s sake. That kind of urgency, attached to the simplest of action, is what you get from a master filmmaker like Rees. She’s telling a big, sprawling, period tale, far larger in scope and ambition than her debut feature, the modest character study Pariah. But she tells it with the same attention to detail and sympathy for her characters. This is a powerful, provocative piece of work.

Call Me By Your Name

Luca Guadagnino’s movies (which also include I Am Love and A Bigger Splash) are sun-soaked treats, in which beautiful people while away their days swimming and eating and fucking; you just want to walk into the screen, Purple Rose of Cairo-style, and hang out there. But they’re never merely about sensuous pleasures, a fact that holds firm in his latest – an adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel, in which a 17-year-old son of an American professor experiences first resentment, then lust, then love for a visiting grad student. Guadagnino beautifully captures the potent mix of desire and idealism that defines such an affair; he also, unexpectedly, portrays the heartache at such a relationship’s end with both maturity and sensitivity. It’s rare to find a film that’s both a sexy frolic and a melancholy weeper, but we have one here, so let’s treasure it.

Lady Bird

If you’d like a bit of inter-festival synchronicity, Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut begins with a quote from NYFF documentary subject Joan Didion: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” It’s not just some high-culture needle drop; Lady Bird beautifully captures the love/hate spirit of West Coast living and does about seventeen other things really well too. It’s a film that’s busy on reflection but free-flowing in the moment, full of little undercurrents that would be major subplots in other movies, yet just become part of the tapestry of this one: parental tension, student/teacher crushes, the aimlessness of youth, longing for a higher station (the protagonist’s mother, on reading magazines in bed: “That’s something that rich people do. We’re not rich people”). It’s a film that spends a fair amount of time in fancy houses and rundown thrift stores, and seems just as comfortable in both; any filmmaker who can pull off that duality is worth watching. I’m not sure if it’s the best film of the festival – but it’s the one I most eagerly anticipate seeing again.