NYFF 2014: Highs and lows thus far

ScreenerBlog

With a little over a week remaining of The 52nd New York Film Festival, two of the event's most anticipated movies have yet to screen: The new Paul Thomas Anderson film and the first adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice; and the latest from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film that has many crying "Oscar!" and hailing as a comeback vehicle (what awards season would be complete without such a story?) for Michael Keaton.

Yet even without these titles, NYFF has already offered a strong, eclectic, and occasionally polarizing slate of films. From documentaries to modern thrillers and period pieces, here's a brief overview of some of the festival highs and lows thus far:

One can never glean much of use from breathlessly laudatory reviews, so in the interests of understatement, there is little to be said concerning Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence beyond the following: It is a documentary that first justifies then elevates the format, that affectingly proves why documentaries should be filmed. Silence is the companion piece to Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing. Whereas Killing focused on the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide, men who are still in power and (perhaps therefore) are more than happy to reenact their homicidal deeds before the camera, Silence turns about the brother of a young man who suffered one of the era's most gruesome deaths. Throughout the film, we watch as this man, who never knew his sibling, confronts those responsible for his brother's murder and the deaths of countless others. Using his trade as an eyeglass salesman as well as his affiliation with Oppenheimer, who many of the perps know from their involvement in Killing, as his "in," the documentary's subject quietly yet insistently engages these men of power and Earthly consequence in conversation about their pasts. It is a display of the baldest courage. The Look of Silence is important as historical record, as human testimonial, as a testament to documentary achievement. Oppenheimer should be nominated for his second Academy Award, of course, but that is the lesser of the necessities facing the filmmaker; he should simply continue to film.

The documentary Red Army likewise tells the story of a foreign nation in the modern era, though it lacks the incisiveness of Silence. The movie from Gabe Polsky is a nonetheless entertaining look at the former Soviet Union's Red Army hockey team in its heyday. Team captain Slava Fetisov recounts his rise to national than international fame as one of the top Soviet players, describing as well the Spartan and harsh conditions under which the squad lived, and the deceit, corruption and cruelty that characterized the government's close involvement. Fetisov is engaging and oh-so Russian in the bluntness of his delivery. What he is not is always forthcoming, and while Polsky displays an enjoyable sense of humor, choosing to include several unguarded moments with Fetisov and others (notably a former KGB agent, whose outdoor interview is twice interrupted by a local girl), the filmmaker fails to  crack his interviewees' carefully buttressed, or naturally calloused, exteriors. Granted, these are imposing figures with whom he's speaking, but one does wish he had prodded a bit harder.

One likewise wishes Bruce Wagner, the screenwriter of Maps to the Stars, displayed the tiniest fraction of Polsky's  levity. The latest film from David Cronenberg is a satire of Hollywood in the vein of The Player, although it isn't particularly funny, nor, more importantly, does it have much to say: many in the film industry are superficial, narcissistic, unfulfilled, spiritually bereft, adrift, unhinged...etc. Julianne Moore is wonderful at playing a terrible person, Mia Wasikowska is, as always, greatly watchable, and Evan Bird ("The Killing") is very, very convincing as a bratty child star and walking warning against the procreative habits of greedy people. But the film is all performance, little substance. Much like the Bret Easton Ellis works it appears to ape, it makes its satiric point right away. Everything that follows continues to hammer away at this single locale, until the wall against which the film's Hollywood "types" (that they are) are being pinned crumbles beneath the weight of blows aimed at the same darn spot. Melodrama can be great fun. This is not that.

Gone Girl, on the other hand, is quite fun. David Fincher's most recent work also follows several unlikable people, but their story has enough twists to distract from the film's dearth of character insight. You may not like the men and women of Gone Girl, but, unlike the titular stars of Maps, there's pleasure to be had in the tracking.

Of the festival's selection of characters who pose a challenge to viewer sympathy, the most interesting, featured in one of the event's best entries, are the two leads of Whiplash. The second feature from Harvard grad Damien Chazelle chronicles the relationship between an ambitious college drummer and his hard-ass, drill sergeant of a conductor. The film can prompt physical reactions: shrinking in one's seat, covering one's eyes, wincing. It is not a thriller, but it plays like one. Both the film and J.K. Simmons, the conductor, have been receiving Oscar buzz; let's hope such noise only continues to mount.

Mike Leigh's's Mr. Turner is a fine alternative to the aforementioned films. Its titular painter isn't so much unlikable as irascible. Not much happens in Mr. Turner, but the costume and set designs are so lovely many may not mind its distinctly un-Gone-Girl lack of plot at all.