New York Film Festival at 56: Celebrating the new, cherishing the old

Movies Features

The 56th New York Film Festival (NYFF), a presentation of The Film Society of Lincoln Center running now through Oct. 14 in Manhattan, is sticking to its long-cherished regimen of brand-new, venerable and curiosity films that invariably draw the area’s hordes of adventurous cinephiles. Subtitles always welcome here!

The harvest is especially rich this year and begs the question of whether the worldwide explosion of movies produced and their higher quality might be heightening viewer passions for discovery of cinema in its many variations.

This year’s lineup provides plenty of clues, along with some good old-fashioned movie entertainment. To cite but a few, highlights include Roma from Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) and At Eternity’s Gate, co-written by screenwriting legend Jean-Claude Carrière, both plucked like a number of other NYFF selections from previous heat-generating fests (Cannes, Telluride, Venice, Toronto). Films tending to go for awards gold also go for the bold with bold-faced stars; this year’s lineup has Elisabeth Moss and Dan Stevens in Her Smell, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite, Paul Giamatti in Private Life and Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal in Wildlfe. (Note that only a handful of films were caught before deadline.)

As for something old at the NYFF, could a festival do any better than offering new works from legendary masters like Orson Welles, who died in 1985, and Jean-Luc Godard? Welles is on view with his once-lost and final film The Other Side of the Wind, begun in 1970 and just reconstructed and restored. (In quite a spring/fall relationship, newcomer Netflix provided much of the financing for the effort.) The Fest also offers, again through Netflix, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a fascinating doc from Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville that gets close up, not just with Welles and his struggle to get Wind made, but with the master’s seesaw career and the new late-’60s and ’70s era that rocked Hollywood and beyond

New Wave co-founder/survivor Jean-Luc Godard, at 87, has landed his 2018 The Image Book from Kino Lorber in the Fest’s premium Main Slate lineup of 30 features. As the program notes put it, “all barriers between the artist, his art and his audience have dissolved” in this latest. Good news, as this is something that needed mending.

Other Main Slate picks that will spark immediate attention are Yorgos Lanthimos’ Opening Night selection The Favourite, Cuarón’s Centerpiece Roma and Schnabel’s Closing Night At Eternity’s Gate, the three to be released, respectively, by Fox Searchlight, Netflix and CBS Films.

The Favourite, from the director of The Lobster, may raise alarms for viewers who take their history seriously à la Darkest Hour. ButLanthimos goes light and loony in this original take on the British past, maybe comedic to many but indisputably frothy. It’s a pile-up of wild and wacky shenanigans, an original spin on history of as carnival show. Featured are late-17th/early-18th-century court combatants Weisz as the Duchess of Marlborough and court servant girl Stone doing battle for the favors of royal blob Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who has her own conflict dealing with the ongoing War of Spanish Succession. Many will have fun and dig the snazzy camerawork capturing a cast (also including Britain’s amazing Joe Alwyn) going all-out eccentric.

Buzzed very favorably from at least one previous major fest as a work of “breathtakingly beautiful” black-and-white art, Cuarón’s neo-realistic Roma, from Netflix, is a strong, semi-autobiographical family drama set in Mexico City, where everyday life unfolds in impressive cinematic terms.

Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe playing Vincent Van Gogh in his final tortured days. Co-stars are Oscar Isaac as the painter’s friend Gauguin, Rupert Friend as Vincent’s younger brother Theo and European film luminaries Mathieu Amalric, Mads Mikkelsen and Emmanuelle Seigner (Roman Polanski’s wife) in other important roles. In addition to Carrière’s participation as co-writer, famed cinematographer Benoît Delhomme is onboard.

A number of other Main Slate entries, notably mostly American indies, stand out. Indie star Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, etc.) makes a terrific bow as director with Wildlife, which he adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel. Stars Mulligan and Gyllenhaal play a working-class couple whose marriage struggles on shaky ground with the husband’s problems finding work in their small 1960 Montana town. A nearby wildfire needing fighters beckons, the husband leaves, and his wife becomes increasingly restless. Matters both deteriorate and heat up as 15-year son Joe (a remarkable Ed Oxenbould) painfully observes what may be the end of a marriage. Art and craft triumphantly converge to cinematic perfection in this masterful evocation of time, place and authentic characters in this IFC Films release.

Elisabeth Moss, with her grungy tour de force Her Smell, is both producer and the falling ’90s punk star at its center, filling every frame. It’s a meaty role (she’s a lot Courtney Love, maybe a little Joan Jett, a Nancy Spungen who sings) with a whiff of vanity, as Moss sinks her teeth into a very violent, unruly bull of a movie. But she’s terrific and has a strong supporting cast behind her: Eric Stoltz as her nervous label head, Dan Stevens as her estranged hubby who cares for their baby, Cara Delevingne as a younger, potential-rival band screamer whom Moss mentors, and especially Virginia Madsen as her patient ma. Even as most of the action takes place in grubby quarters offstage, the film (like its main character) is exhausting (close-ups, nervous cuts, doc intensity, etc.) until a calm, suspenseful ending wraps it nicely. As an acquisition title deserving a home, Her Smell is a NYFF rarity.

Also in the strong American indie corner is Tamara Jenkins’ dramedy Private Life, her first film in ten years since Savages. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti star in this Netflix release as a middle-aged Manhattan couple struggling to make a baby until a third party comes along to solve fertility issues.

Barry Jenkins, who had last year’s Oscar winner Moonlight, has returned with If Beale Street Could Talk, another effective drama about black America but quite different and more conventional. Based on James Baldwin’s story set in early-‘70s Harlem and starring Stephan James and KiKi Layne as a young couple who romance early and too successfully (Layne’s character, at 19 and from a modest family, gets pregnant). The drama is intensified by the fact that James, gifted as a sculptor, is wrongfully put behind bars, leaving both families burdened with tasks they don’t deserve. The Annapurna Pictures film, a painful reminder of the black struggle that shouldn’t have been in a white America that didn’t care, is beautifully played and photographed.

Still on the indie trail, the Coen Brothers, with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, go West again (Raising Arizona, No Country For Old Men, etc.) in this anthology film based on the brothers’ spin on “western tales.” Quite a wild bunch of film luminaries ride these ranges, including James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson and Brendan Gleeson, among others, who all no doubt brighten this package of what are described as “wildly entertaining” mortality-themed tales. Again a NYFF entry lassoed by Netflix.

Indie as heck and rightfully selected for NYFF’s Special Events section is the very special but messy early-‘70s The Other Side of the Wind, grand master Orson Welles’ last but aborted attempt at a comeback. Quite autobiographical and certainly personal, it scrambles around an aging, dirty-old-man film director (played by Hollywood luminary John Huston) struggling to finish his last great movie. Like so many indies of the time, it was guerrilla-style, loose filmmaking (no script but plenty of smoke and booze, little discipline or cash, and a dependence on the kindness of others). Shooting mainly in the L.A. area, Welles amassed an impressively loyal support team of pals—actors, film people, hangers-on (Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Claude Chabrol, Paul Mazursky, Dennis Hopper, Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien and on and on; clearly Welles was beloved). But most visible in this work is his young, real-life partner Oja Kodar, who, providing a significant early-’70s skin-flick vibe, bares all throughout the film’s many oddball nude scenes. After Welles lost his financing, the production languished until rescuers recently stepped in and applied some cinematic band-aids, stitches, patches and prosthetics to give Wind some semblance of a complete movie. But the film, which could never lose Welles his Citizen Kane-ship, is a revelation of a changing, rakish Hollywood where the kids are taking over and loyalty endures.

Far better than Wind and really required viewing prior to seeing it is the fascinating doc They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a truly special event in NYFF’s Special Events sidebar alongside the Welles feature it so richly contextualizes. Packed with Wind production footage and interviews focusing on the crazy shoot are many industry personalities past and present (including John Huston’s son Danny). There’s footage of Welles in his early and late years, clips from his films, and much more. The doc is also a close-up look at narcissism and loyalties and, more importantly, a portrait of the late-’60s/early-’70s era of seismic change in Hollywood as rebellion, social conscience, plenty of weed and free love zapped the old guard. Maybe intended, the doc crystalizes a view of Hollywood in an anthropomorphic way with its predominance of egos, passions, hit-and-miss artistry, unpredictability and excesses as a summation of Hollywood rogue Welles.

Other docs of important note include veteran Frederick Wiseman’s Main Slate entryMonrovia, Indiana, a quiet, uncritical peek into many corners of small-town America today. At 88 and not slowing down, Wiseman takes viewers into this farming community of 1,000 or so folk and captures the locals working, relaxing and celebrating as he lets them go about their business or chat their heads off about matters light, relevant and even personal, almost as if Wiseman’s camera wasn’t there. The doc drops into such places as a supermarket’s meat-packaging area, the local diner, a veterinary office, farms, planning commission meetings, fairs, and churches for weddings or funerals as it evokes an America that, these days especially, is missed. The “T” word isn’t uttered, nor do crime, drugs or social media intrude. Although it’s “a wonderful town,” the question lingers: How do these good citizens vote and why?

The NYFF also has a sub-genre of docs of disgraced/disgraceful men. Among these is Errol Morris’ American Dharma, up close with right-wing/libertarian rabble rouser Steve Bannon, a hyper-opinionated media and political theorist never at a loss for words and oozing a preternatural self-confidence. It’s an interesting pile-up (Bannon is a skilled yakker) of babble and clips from his favorite films (Twelve O’Clock High, The Bridge on the River Kwai, etc.). Of special note: the promotional still for this doc showing Bannon with hands folded on a desk and forcing the expression of an innocent schoolboy who just unleashed mice in the classroom. Bannon displays considerable smarts with, among other things, his views on filmmaker Morris’ doc masterpiece The Fog of War and, especially in light of current unprecedented events surrounding the fiery Supreme Court nomination, a prognosis for the future of the American system of government that is near-brilliant.

The doc lineup of reprobates also includes the works Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, about the late Fox News and Fox TV executive; The Waldheim Waltz, a fascinating rehash about the Austrian diplomat Kurt Waldheim, who became the ten-year Secretary-General of the UN and went on to be elected Austria’s President despite the emergence of his Nazi past and close proximity to Nazi crimes, if not actual participation. The doc provides considerable DNA evidence helping explain Europe’s tilt historically and now today to the extreme right.

Also in this rogues’ gallery is Charles Ferguson’s (the exceptional Oscar winner Inside Job) Watergate and its look at Nixon, his White House and parallels in today’s beleaguered presidency. Other docs spotlight the more celebrated and include The Times of Bill Cunningham, a profile of the beloved New York Times fashion photographer who roamed the city’s streets and helped set fashion trends, and Maria by Callas, a dispassionate but dishy look at the media-scavenged career of the legendary American opera star who famously conquered Europe and Aristotle Onassis before advancing further.

Again, NYFF, offering a bountiful crop of foreign fare, continues its long amour fou with French cinema. But this year brings a winner in Sundance Selects’ Non-Fiction, a charming and very contemporary dramedy directed by the dependable Olivier Assayas (the art-house hit Clouds of Sils Maria) about two Parisian couples facing changes. Guillaume Canet, as an old-school book editor, and Juliette Binoche play husband and wife; Vincent Macaigne, a struggling novelist, and Nora Hamzawi are life partners. Their worlds co-mingle, further complicating their lives and work as secret affairs and the impact of digital innovation and technology in publishing intrude. The busy Macaigne, long relegated to schnook roles, shines here as a character to be taken more seriously.

Strand Releasing’s gay-themed Sorry Angel, fromChristophe Honoré, is a drama set in the early ’90s about the complications that AIDS brings to the growing relationship between a successful writer (Pierre Deladonchamps) and his younger paramour (Vincent Lacoste, who will be appreciated by French film fans stateside for playing a different kind of role here).

Francophiles will also welcome the return of actor/director Louis Garrel, who stars in his A Faithful Man, described as a “beguiling bedroom farce,” and be intrigued with the attachment of the legendary Jean-Claude Carrière, showing up with yet another NYFF film as Garrel’s co-writer.

Claire Denis returns to the Fest with High Life and ventures for the first time into sci-fi with a film set aboard a spacecraft. Among those onboard to assure a safer trip (to the Moon or box office) are Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche.

Among the Fest’s most highly anticipated offerings is Academy Award winner Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, a Soviet-era love story that got a big thumbs-up at previous fests like Cannes and Toronto. The Polish director’s Oscar-winning Ida was a black-and-white World War II stunner and similar chromatics grace this story of love set in Poland and Paris. Amazon Studios delivers this one.

Italy again squeezed into the NYFF (the likes of Pasolini, Olmi, Visconti beat the path) with actor/director Alice Rohrwacher’s Netflix release Happy as Lazzaro, a drama about class struggle.

From Germany and via Grasshopper Film comes Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room, which springboards from the high concept of a regular guy who discovers he’s the last man on Earth. It’s not so bad until an Eve enters the picture.

For whatever reason, the Fest has an unusually large bunch of Asian films this year (NYFF chair and director Kent Jones, asked to elaborate, offered, “We simply watch a lot of movies and choose the ones that we thought were the best”). Jia Zhangke’s strong entry Ash is Purest White is an expansive and engrossing melodrama that follows a provincial Chinese criminal couple and their travails as they, like their country over the past few decades, experience the ups and downs of a radically changing economy. Bets will be on the pair grabbing the brass ring that has brought crazy riches to China and other Asians. But, with one arrested and taking the rap for the other, they are separated and endure different fates. A grander fate has the last word in this Cohen Media Group release.

Also highly anticipated is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, the recent Cannes Palme d’Or winner about those struggling in Japan amidst crushing poverty. Magnolia Pictures has this one about how important love is to sustain a family.

In addition to Cuarón’s Roma, films from other Latin American countries will be on view. At a whopping 807 minutes and not quite sinking the Main Slate, Argentina’s La Flor is best described by the festival itself, which states in its program that “overflowing with nested subplots and whiplash digressions, La Flor shape-shifts from a B-movie to a musical to a spy thriller to a category-defying meta-fiction—all of them without endings—to a remake of a very well-known French classic and, finally, to an enigmatic period piece that lacks a beginning…” And so on.

Beyond the Main Slate, Spotlight on Documentary and Special Events come other sidebars. NYFF’s Revivals has Detour, just one must-see gem resurrected. The Retrospective section celebrates the late film-industry insiders Dan Talbot and Pierre Rissient, and Projections has more experimental, arcane works, long and short. (There’s also a separate Shorts sidebar.) The Convergence sidebar arrives more truncated than in previous years, perhaps a reflection of the fading furor for now over a VR and cinema convergence. And NYFF’s Talks section again presents participating directors in conversation. (A full lineup for the Festival is available here.)

Since launching in 1963, the Fest—defying the dramatic flood of change—has maintained a remarkable consistency that, especially today, says less about the coming awards season or the ever-shifting industry in which it chastely co-habits than it does about New Yorkers’ undying embrace of quality cinema. The Fest continues as a familiar refrain, but it’s a very hummable and welcome one for diehard and inquisitive film fans.