The evolution of movie distribution is starting to affect my behavior at film fests. Tech has all of a sudden gotten personal.
For the first time in the New York Film Festival’s 54-year history, it opened with a documentary, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH, a searing look at the dysfunctional American prison system — and I didn’t lift a finger to attend. (N.B.: I’ve seen it now, it’s quite powerful, but the following comments aren’t about the quality of the work.) This picture is distributed by Netflix and became available for streaming while the fest was still underway. I also knew the docs HAMILTON’S AMERICA and GIMME DANGER were headed for streaming or PBS before the month was out. This choice has arisen before, at Sundance. But Sundance happens to happen in midwinter, a fallow period on the annual movie schedule. The broad-release windows are far enough away that at high altitude it seems worth it to check out stuff like WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? or FREEDOM SUMMER then and there. (I would never want to miss the next SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN by so much as a day.) But in the hipness of time, by NYFF’s autumn I want to know in advance the distributor and the release pattern before I give up a precious festival slot. Lots of previous NYFF entries have debuted theatrically within days of their fest screenings — even streamers still need that public release for notoriety and Oscar qualification — but there’s something more immediate about being able to punch it up at home on your own schedule. You may never ever do that. Most Netflix queues are very long. Later, gater. (A film-sprocket joke.) But if that recent additional option dampens attendance at certain fest screenings, it’ll be interesting to see if/how that affects selection and programming in the future. As always, one never knows, do one?
Here’s my take on the eleven films I saw this year, in order of screening:
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA**** Kenneth Lonergan is becoming more and more surefooted, both at the keyboard and the viewfinder. This is a subtle, confident meditation on grief and loss with frequent brushstrokes of levity, a movie made with such assurance that the story seems inevitable. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a morose handyman in Boston who is so tightly wound that early on, when he thinks two guys in a bar are literally looking at him the wrong way, he clocks them both. The rest of the picture gracefully and patiently shows us why: Lee has barely lived through an almost unutterable tragedy and now faces yet another upending trauma. The hollow look, the way he recoils from other human beings, the barren brokenness is off-putting at first, but as we discover details (shown in unannounced flashbacks, each calmly cut together as if it were the next present-day scene) the character gains dimension and color, served perfectly by Affleck’s trademark laconic mumble. The New England setting looks gorgeous, and a superb supporting cast, led by Lucas Hedges as a nephew whose path intersects with Lee’s, never falters, not even when a well-known star shows up for a cameo. Lonergan has come a long way since YOU CAN COUNT ON ME; his screenplay is sophisticated enough to deliver some redemption while reminding us that not everything in life can be tied up with a neat little bow, not even in the movies.
TONI ERDMANN**** A beauty that marches to its own drummer, Maren Ade’s new film is a screwball comedy about an ingratiating screwball, played by the marvelous (and that’s the word) Peter Simonischek. It’s also an intimate father-daughter story with real resonance, thanks to Sandra Huller’s brave, sensitive performance. Winfried is a lumbering freethinker who is always looking for the next practical joke, while Ines climbs the corporate ladder in her tailored black pantsuits. They seem to be emotional oil and water, and the film is essentially Winfried’s attempt at connection, but that makes it sound far too stuffy. The comic and dramatic tracks unfold simultaneously; we’re never far from the proverbial spoonful of sugar. There are piles of hilarious surprises, so I mustn’t reveal too much more, but let’s just say that the appearance and even identity of the title character gets a huge laugh. This film was the darllng of Cannes this year and the New York audience also ate it up. At one point they were shrieking so loudly that they would have missed a great topping line if not for the subtitle (it’s mostly in German, but there’s enough English to keep us off balance). That came during a bravura five-minute sequence toward the end that just might go down in movie comedy history. At 2:42 I found it a tad indulgent, but patience earns a huge profit.
PATERSON*** (U.S. Premiere) A new Jim Jarmusch flick is always of interest and this year NYFF has two, including GIMME DANGER, a documentary about Iggy & the Stooges. That subject seems an odd fit for Jarmusch’s dialed-back style, but there it is. This one is more in the zone. Adam Driver plays a city bus driver who scribbles poetry in his free moments. His name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey, just as did his idol William Carlos Williams, whose famous epic poem is called—but you guess. We spend a week with Paterson, his loving but ditzy wife (the pixieish Golshifteh Farahani) and their scene-stealing English bulldog Marvin, and the days are essentially the same. He gets up, eats Cheerios, walks to the depot, writes for a few minutes, drives all day (his recreation is eavesdropping: folks, the bus driver can hear you), goes home, has dinner, walks Marvin past a bar where he enjoys one beer, and heads back for bed. Paterson’s patience is inexhaustible: his wife burbles with out-of-reach ideas and is visually fixated on black-and-white designs on everything from shower curtains to cupcakes. He’s more polite than you would be on his first bite of her dinnertime cheddar-and-broccoli pie. The only conflict comes from people around him, until Marvin causes a heartbreaking event. We also hear Paterson narrate some of his poetry — it’s good, written for the movie by a ringer — and none of this would work if we didn’t buy that. Jarmusch specializes in finding the strangeness in normalcy, and there’s so much going on just to one side of the principals, barely in frame: for example, the offhand appearances of different sets of twins seems somehow foreboding, but it’s played as nothing more than a pattern recognizable to a poet. This is not for the antsy viewer, but it encourages us to keep our eyes and ears open to the wonders around us, because they are definitely there.
CERTAIN WOMEN*** A soft, sensitive melding of Maile Meloy stories, faintly connecting in the screenplay of director Kelly Reichardt. We are in Nowhere, Montana; the most urban place we see is Livingston, population high four figures. Three dramatic tracks follow a lawyer (Laura Dern) dogged by a disgruntled client (Jared Harris), a woman (Michelle Williams) whose family is building its own home, and another attorney (Kristen Stewart) who endures an eight-hour round trip from Livingston into the country to teach a weekly class in school law and infatuates an introverted ranch hand (Lily Gladstone, the movie’s real find). All the women are in different emotional places and want different things, but they each have to reach down and summon determination, even the quiet horsewoman who can barely look her idol in the face. There are thin threads beyond setting which join the tales: for example, at one point a character from another story walks through in the background, out of focus and casually ignored. The acting is fine all around, but whenever she appears you can’t take your eyes off Ms. Gladstone, even though she barely speaks and only changes expression very subtly; her attraction isn’t played as overtly sexual but you can definitely feel the heat. This performance is a career-maker.
JULIETA**** Another adaptation of short stories, this time from Alice Munro — realized by none other than Pedro Almodovar. It depicts the tumultuous events in a Madrid woman’s life extending some thirty years, and the title role is taken by two different actresses. We meet Julieta at age 50, played by Emma Suarez as a middle-aged beauty whose face is weary and drawn with emotional pain. After a chance meeting with an old friend, she abruptly disappoints her lover by changing their long-standing plans and sits down to write to her estranged daughter, beginning with the fateful night she met the girl’s father 25 years ago. Julieta at 25 is played by the glorious Adriana Ugarte, and gradually we learn the reasons for her torment and the split with the daughter. Almodovar manages to make the ladies appear to be the same person through gradual aging and a beautiful handoff some years later, in a defining visual moment that the French call a coup de cinema: Ugarte’s hair is being toweled off after a bath, but when the towel is removed, it’s Suarez once again in a near-perfect fit. Wow. There is some humor (notably from Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma as a Miss-Gulchian housekeeper), but much less of the wit and wackiness we’ve come to expect from the maestro, replaced here by portent and more drama, less melo. It’s seamless filmmaking that respects its audience by allowing loose ends to dangle until the moment their joining is needed. I’m not familiar with the source material, so I can’t speak to Almodovar’s merging of three Munro stories or shifting the setting from Canada to Spain, but it looks like it was meant just for him.
PERSONAL SHOPPER** (U.S. Premiere) Olivier Assayas follows up CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA by bringing back Kristen Stewart as yet another assistant, who desultorily selects and buys haute couture for a wealthy Parisian woman. She has just lost her beloved twin brother to a congenital heart condition which she shares. She also believes herself to be a medium. These three premises get jingle-jangled together, none too neatly, as Assayas attempts a modern-day ghost story. The arm’s-length attitude of Stewart’s one-note performance, while suitably intense, prevents us from getting inside her head or caring about what happens to her. There’s enough arty murkiness to cause post-screening arguments over what we’ve just seen. Assayas is certainly talented: things go bump in the night with style and tension, and believe it or not, a suspenseful, eerie scene is composed almost entirely of text messages on a smartphone. But while I admired the attempt to keep so many dramatic balls in the air at once, I couldn’t buy the end result. Too bad: I loved Assayas’s version of DAY FOR NIGHT, 1996’s IRMA VEP.
20th CENTURY WOMEN**** (Festival Centerpiece, World Premiere) A near-perfect invocation of a little-regarded time and place: Santa Barbara, 1979. The last vestiges of the counterculture have morphed into New Wave posing, and Ronald Reagan waits in the wings. No cell phones, no Internet, no MTV. Everybody still smokes. But life goes on in the rambling house of an unusual extended family, encompassing room renters and hangers-on. Mike Mills’s attention to period detail sets the stage wonderfully for a career performance by Annette Bening as the crash pad’s single-mother matriarch: still beautiful but cosmetically mature, she shines with life-force. The other two 20th-century women are fire-haired punk tenant Greta Gerwig and too-experienced teen Elle Fanning, who sneaks over from her own house to sleep — just snooze, no sex — with Bening’s hormonal son (a sensational Lucas Jade Zumann). A freelance carpenter (Billy Crudup) is also in the house and the story mix. I loved the amount of attention paid to the son’s dramatic arc: he’s a good boy who is nevertheless kicking at his stall, and his rebellious yet devoted relationship to his mom feels genuine. For fogeys like me, it’s painful to accept that 1979 is far enough gone to actually inspire nostalgia, but it is and does. A real crowd-pleaser that ought to have a nice commercial life.
SIERANEVADA**** (U.S. Premiere) A pitch-black comedy about a dysfunctional family which gathers in its deceased patriarch’s Bucharest apartment to send off the old man with rituals, food and wine. The range of (mostly) comic clashes and conspiracy is so broad that at one point the camera rests in the middle of a hall and simply pans left and right as one or another door opens with the latest crisis. Other times the camera is locked down for ten minutes or so as the actors, I assume, improvise. The net effect is that it all appears to be happening in real time in front of us as if we’re another guest, even when we briefly leave the apartment at one point. The feast, which looks delicious, is delayed and delayed because a ritual must first be performed, and the priest is late. When he finally arrives, his chants and prayers are interminable and some guests are dying from hunger before he issues his laugh-out-loud exit line: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I’m partial to movies like this because we can all recognize aspects of our own families, whether we’re related by blood or by lot: humanity is international. Cristi Puiu (THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU) has a twinkle in his eye, unlike several quarrelsome family members. At 2:53 it’s way too long (that trip outside isn’t really necessary; the crucial monologue could have been staged indoors), but I loved it anyway. We never find out the meaning of the title.
SON OF JOSEPH*** (U.S. Premiere) Bent spirituality and baroque satire from Eugene Green, a drama about a disillusioned, rebellious Parisian kid’s search for his, later just a, father. Satisfyingly skewered is the French publishing industry (“nothing is invented,” M. Green insisted afterward), as the kid discovers a high-rolling caddish book man is his long-deserted biological pop. Then he meets someone better, unaware that he’s the big shot’s brother. The director has a distinctive way of staging what would normally be intimate, personal scenes with austerity of language and motion; at times it’s anti-natural, almost as if we’re watching animatronics. (This oddly stilted effect is evidently even more pronounced to French speakers.) He also winkingly overlays the story with a Biblical subtext expressed in “chapters,” down to the ass which accompanies “Joseph” and “Marie” on a fateful journey toward the end. It’s too mannered to be a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable, pleasantly perverse in its own sweet way.
ELLE*** (U.S. Premiere) Paul Verhoeven’s first feature in ten years, and first ever in French (it’s France’s submission for next year’s foreign-language Academy Award), is a genre-bender that really coaxes the gamut of emotions from its audience. It’s either a comedy with a very dark subtext or (my take) a very dark movie with some funny stuff in it. It also shares DNA with whodunits and thrillers, but it’s not really that either. As Verhoeven warned us before the screening, this film can be painful to watch at times. Before we’ve even caught our breath, the very first sequence depicts a violent rape. We are left completely at sea, unable to understand the victim’s oddly muted reaction. She is played incandescently by Isabelle Huppert, whose character is a video-game executive and the daughter of a reviled mass murderer: whew! I don’t mean any criticism when I say this story is populated by outrageous and awful human beings — that’s on purpose — but afterward we struggled to think of one “good guy” at all. (I think there’s only one in the entire flick. After you see it, I’ll tell you who.) While the credits were rolling I was thinking about this dramatic miasma and I would have given only two stars, which I consider a negative evaluation, because I was sinking under so much funk at that point. But we kept talking about it while waiting for our last movie (I heart film fests), and I realized that Verhoeven’s deliberate untidiness — he’d said afterward that he left some story threads unresolved so the audience could fill them in on their own — was actually a great strength. The more I thought about ELLE afterward, the more I auto-revised my opinion. (Shades of the French New Wave!) By the time the Oscars roll around, I may even wish another star upon it in hindsight. Be warned: this movie plays rough. But look how it affected me.
THE LOST CITY OF Z*** (Festival Closing Night, World Premiere) An old-fashioned widescreen epic, a “movie movie” like they used to make, this is the story of Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett and his nearly lifelong obsession with a lost city in the Amazon rain forest. We pick him up as a young turn-of-the-century British officer who is sent on a mapmaking mission to ward off a looming dispute between Bolivia and Brazil. The jungle scenes are raw and exciting, and after some real scares Fawcett, whose noble chin belongs to a very capable Charlie Hunnam, comes to respect and admire the native people, especially when he finds evidence of a superior technology that was evidently developed in antiquity and in isolation. His expeditions back to “Amazonia” span nearly thirty years and are interleaved with stretches of life at home and some harrowing duty in the trenches of World War I; both Hunnam and wife Sienna Miller age very well, assisted by convincing makeup. It’s meant to be a grand adventure in the wild combined with gentlemen’s discourse by the stuffed shirts in England, sort of the PBS version of Indiana Jones. One can quibble with the balance because the movie really comes alive when we return to the jungle, again and again. In the tradition of such spectacles, the job of the director is to stay out of the way, and James Gray lets us concentrate on the story and forget about the production, except for one aspect, and here I must make a filmlover’s confession. This piece was shot on 35mm film and proudly projected that way for the Alice Tully Hall audience, but I have to say it: whether I’ve been desensitized or simply aging, I prefer digital projection. Celluloid looks great for brightly lit exteriors, and Darius Khondji’s landscapes earn oohs and aahs throughout. But for low-light scenes, especially interiors, the image is softer and it’s easy to be distracted by reel-change cue dots and other degradation on the film stock, even though it should have been the first time through the projector for this print. Some people like the look, just as some prefer to hear music from a needle vibrating on vinyl (and they may have a point). I don’t mind any perceived “harshness,” and at my age I want the image razor-sharp. It may be unhip of me but it matters for real: we wanted to check a musical piece and we couldn’t make out the teensy type as the end credits rolled by. It was slightly out of focus and thus illegible at the world premiere. This film is a nice diversion, a respectful and capable throwback of a production with great support by Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson (hey, Kristen Stewart’s not the only teen vampire turning into a real actor!), but sue me: I bet it’ll look even better on Blu-Ray.
WISH I’D SEEN: BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, MOONLIGHT, MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA, ONE-EYED JACKS (on the big screen)
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