The New York Film Festival is a major fest in historical importance if not ballyhoo. NYFF was crucial in introducing American audiences to revolutions in world filmmaking that were themselves often inspired by Hollywood history. NYFF has never bestowed any awards. For 56 years it has chosen no more than thirty films for its annual “Main Slate,” with other goodies scattered about. It doesn’t really compete with Cannes, Venice, Telluride or Toronto for world premieres, though each year there are a few. Nearly all screenings are held on the close-knit Lincoln Center campus; at most other festivals you have to factor travel into your daily plan. But here, if you have the time, you can theoretically see everything on the Main Slate. “North American Premiere” means the film probably played at Cannes or Venice. “U.S. Premiere” means it probably played in Toronto. Here are the ones I saw this year:
THE FAVOURITE**** (Festival Opening Night) I expected something a little more bizarre from Yorgos Lanthimos, who brought us DOGTOOTH, THE LOBSTER, and even THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. But as the film spooled, I realized the transgressive director was allowing 18th-century England to be its own dramatic geek. Courtly dances turn lewd and anachronistic. The foppish male fashion that BARRY LYNDON tut-tuts becomes leering, even menacing. And the three females who control the piece are each iconoclastic and riveting. There’s Rachel Weisz as the scheming Duchess of Marlborough and Emma Stone as a former lady turned servant, each competing for the favor of the triumphant Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. Things are just a little “off” throughout, aided by the repeated use of an extreme wide-angle (“fisheye”) lens to make squared turns appear curved. This picture won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice this year, and Colman won a well-deserved Best Actress award. The relative restraint might be Lanthimos’s ticket to serious award consideration; he’s long been one of the most exciting directors on the planet, but here he plays nicer than usual.
HER SMELL*** (U.S. Premiere) Elisabeth Moss abases herself a la Charlize Theron as the demon-battling 90s-era front for a female alt-rock band: Amy Winehouse? Courtney Love? She’s past her creative prime and so zonked out that she’s near insane. (That’s GLOW’s “She-Wolf,” Gayle Rankin, as her drummer.) We meet her band at a club date, and I actually thought I’d never make it through two whole hours: the segment is all short hand-held shots, as if Michael Bay had done a whole gram of cocaine before taking a camera into CBGB. But that’s only the first of Alex Ross Perry’s five acts, each shot in its own distinct cinematic style. Moss is the main reason to watch, and although it may be hard to believe while enduring the first gonzo hour, there is a narrative arc. Bad: I thought it was a tad too long — the lead character isn’t the only one guilty of self-indulgence. Good: the actors are actually performing the musical numbers; no fakery here.
MONROVIA, INDIANA**** (U.S. Premiere) Frederick Wiseman is one of the most influential film documentarians in history. He invented — ok, maybe just refined — the fly-on-the-wall style of cinema verite: no narration, nothing to guide you through the “truth” he stitches together in what he concedes is a subjective process, which is only realized in post-production. For this one, the TITICUT FOLLIES and EX LIBRIS maestro spent ten weeks in a small Indiana town. Tribal viewers might be expecting scorn or defense, but no. The most profound takeaway is that aside from references to local high schools and universities, this could have taken place most anywhere. We go to the barber shop, Lions Club, hog farm, combine auction, tattoo parlor, grain elevator, gun store, etc etc etc. The only politics we see are at the Monrovia Festival, sort of a mini-state fair where the county Republicans have a booth, but Wiseman himself strives to remain above it all. The 88-year-old director introduced the film and stayed for a q&a afterward. It was thrilling to be in the same room with him.
WILDLIFE*** The directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, who adapted the Richard Ford novel with his partner, actor-playwright Zoe Kazan. In Montana in the late Fifties, a peripatetic young family finds its life upended when the father loses his job and, after a desperate search, leaves home to join an ad-hoc group of men hired to fight fierce mountain wildfires for a dollar an hour. The mother grows restless before the son’s distraut eyes. Carey Mulligan (whose film this basically is) and Jake Gyllenhaal are superb as the parents, as is Bill Camp as a car dealer who gets into the mix, but the real find is a sensational 14-year-old Aussie named Ed Oxenbould, meaning two of the three family members are faking their Yank accents. Dano (and/or Kazan; it’s often hard to tell whether a movie’s directorial moment was already there on the page) make assured and interesting cinematic choices throughout. I’ll be in line for their next one.
NON-FICTION**** Olivier Assayas’s new film is a dialogue-driven, actor-centered story in and about the world of book publishing, a realm of which I have some personally acquired knowledge. Turns out book people in Paris are talking about the same things we are here: the encroachment of the digital revolution on the printed word, e-books vs. physical books, the rise of the audiobook, and the very future of reading for pleasure. There’s an old-fashioned noble publisher, a tiresome author whose “auto-fiction” is a thinly veiled recital of his own life, a cyber-savvy publicist, a political operative, a cop-show actress — the movie is chiefly about how people deal with fundamental change, but since it’s also a French sex comedy, everybody’s sleeping with everybody else. A really fine cast is led by the radiant Juliette Binoche (who is name-checked in the fictional story for the movie’s biggest howling laugh). Tons of serious and vital conversation pass rat-a-tat, but the tone remains light and breezy enough to entertain without in-group pedantry.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES*** In my book, Newt Gingrich and Roger Ailes are modern America’s two biggest scoundrels: they are more responsible than anyone else for the sorry state of political discourse we suffer through today. (Before his “service” is done, Mitch McConnell will likely join this sleazy pantheon.) Alexis Bloom’s documentary has one advantage journalist Gabriel Sherman didn’t when he published his bio THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM in 2014: Roger Ailes’s world came tumbling down soon afterward, and his final ignominies are all here on screen. “I’m glad it happened while he was still alive,” muses one wronged woman. Using clips from Ailes’s storied history and strategic talking heads (including actor-director Austin Pendleton, an old friend from grade school in Ohio), Bloom pieces together the career of one of the most darkly influential media figures of our age. Not only did Ailes enable Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Donald Trump, he will forever be remembered as the creator and show runner of the Fox News Channel, an enterprise which utterly transformed America. He was first an entertainment tv producer, then a political media consultant, then he founded a cable channel — but it wasn’t Fox News. “America’s Talking” was his first love, a 24-hour all-talk network featuring many future Fox stars. Ailes even hosted a show himself; we see him awkwardly dancing with Cyndi Lauper. But when Bill Gates bought the channel and turned it into MSNBC, Ailes flew into a permanent rage and vowed revenge. Then he joined forces with Rupert Murdoch, and the rest is sordid history. This story has been told before, but it’s interesting to see it on a screen, Ailes’s lifelong medium. We also get the best look at his bullying takeover of a sleepy little community in Putnam County, New York; the locals’ relief when Fox News’s Playboy-Club atmosphere finally brought Ailes down is palpable, though they’re too nice to gloat on camera. Roger Ailes turned “firing up the crazies,” as one former Fox News employee puts it, into the billions in profit which insulated him from justice for nearly two decades. He’s gone now, but his creation is still serving red meat to red states, causing permanent high blood pressure in the body politic.
HIGH LIFE*** (U.S. Premiere) Claire Denis’s first English-language feature (while Olivier Assayas goes back to French-speaking) is not a science fiction film, she told us after the screening, even though it’s set in deep space. (Why English? “Nobody speaks French in space.”) The cold dark reaches surround a metallic-blue environment (it looks, sounds and feels reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS) in which a group of criminals have been enlisted to head toward a black hole to harness its energy for use back on Earth. That’s it with the science fiction. We start with a man (Robert Pattinson) alone in the void with a baby. Through shock-cut flashbacks, placed out of sequence so as to be impenetrable at first, we piece together the history of this voyage and peek at the planet-bound lifetime that once was. Denis cuts through the ennui with startling bursts of passion and violence, while the spacefaring vessel attains its metaphorical purpose as sole bulwark against the vast uncaring void. As with SOLARIS, this will be far too slow and imprecise for some viewers to embrace, but there’s so much to think about, plus you have a great layered Pattinson performance — he’s really quite the actor — and some more Juliette Binoche, as a, um, spirited scientist.
ROMA***** (Festival Centerpiece) This year’s Golden Lion winner at Cannes is sensational. It’s a semi-autobiographical remembrance from Alfonso Cuarón, a year in the life of a Mexico City middle-class family circa 1970. A key figure helping to bind the family together is the beloved live-in nanny and housekeeper, played incandescently by Yalitza Aparicio. The story is confident, cadenced and unforced, calling forth a host of heart-tugging moments. You tend to forget that the director was a witness and participant (you cannot in RAY & LIZ, below), but with all the normal difficulties, this is still the kind of solidly nurtured childhood which produced a talented and observant artist. Interestingly, the main focus is not really on the children until the last act, when they become protagonists. It’s more of an eventful year for the adults, often beyond the youngsters’ knowledge. Cuarón’s black-and-white cinemascape is superb, as is an innovative sound design that focuses our hearing on what we can see: off-screen audio registers off-ear. Though there are many surprises, nothing feels artificial or out of place, despite the fact that the camerawork is executed with Kubrickian precision; as it should, the art overpowers the craft. Before the screening, the director brought out key crew and cast, then introduced the real-life person who inspired Aparicio’s character. From the balcony of Alice Tully Hall, we could still tell that this tiny woman onstage was a bundle of grit, spunk and heart, and the picture hadn’t even rolled yet.
ASAKO I AND II**** (U.S. Premiere) If I only had 15 seconds to oversimplify Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new one, I’d tell you it’s a love story that issues forth from a bent Japanese take on VERTIGO, only this time the identicals are the males. Cute earnest Asako falls for hip foxy DJ Baku in Osaka, but he vanishes abruptly, breaking her heart. Two years later, in Tokyo, she meets Ryohei, a dead ringer for Baku, a buttoned-down executive for a sake brewer who is Baku’s emotional opposite in warmth and devotion. At first she’s interested because of the resemblance (she understandably mistakes him for a cleaned-up Baku at first meeting), but gradually Ryohei wins her over. Still, how can she forget her bad-boy lover (who has gone on to become a famous supermodel) when she’s reminded of him at home every day? And then Baku returns. There are delicious unexpected emotional beats as this story works its way forward and the ensemble is delightful, but I must note the superb work of male lead Masahiro Higashide as both Baku and Ryohei. Talk about inhabiting your role(s): his work distinguishing the two men is so subtle that he actually makes you suspect the casting office found identical twins. Even when they “both” appear in the same scene, the effect is gorgeous.
RAY & LIZ** (U.S. Premiere) A grueling 1:47 spent with some loathsome lower-class British yobbos whom I never want to meet again. However, I did meet one just after the screening, for this is photographer and first-time film director Richard Billingham’s dramatic memory of his own family, hyper-dysfunctional but not in an amusing way. I give the man huge props just for surviving. But that doesn’t make this film any easier to digest, opening as it does with a sadistic act of cruelty visited on a defenseless victim and giving us no room to breathe thereafter. The most heartbreaking line comes from the actor who represents Mr. Billingham himself: as his younger brother is mercifully taken away from their rank existence into the state’s care, he asks the case worker, “Can I go to a foster home too?” Anyone who doesn’t understand the searingly personal nature of this film — that is, most everyone — will find it an almost prohibitively tough watch.
COLD WAR**** In 1949, a musician goes around to spots in rural Poland to find authentic ethnic songs and performers, Alan Lomax-style. He’s putting together a troupe that will bring Polish music and dance to popular audiences. It’s all smiles during the audition and training process, but then he falls for a talented blonde beauty ten years his junior, and life gets even more complicated when the Stalinist authorities badger him into featuring party-friendly content. We follow the maturation of this troupe, the girl, and the troubled but genuine love affair through the Fifties as they play the capitals of Europe and battle the political forces behind the Iron Curtain. The music is fantastic and actually becomes part of the story. Authentic Polish folk tunes, introduced at the top, reappear under different guises; one of the first ones we hear is skillfully morphed later into a sultry Julie London-type jazz piece. Writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski’s sure hand propels the narrative with a series of blackouts, so the passage of time is instantaneous, and he gets knockout work from stars Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (it seems b&w is the new color this year: besides, as the director noted, “Cold War Poland was not a colorful place”) is breathtaking. This is an Amazon Studios release; put it on your watch list.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS**** (North American Premiere) If you liked the Coen brothers’ last one, HAIL, CAESAR!, then this is a similar romp, but it’ll help if you also liked FARGO, because in all its warped hilarity this movie is likewise suffused with sudden violent death. It’s an anthology of six short films, each set in the old West but each inhabiting its own milieu. The curtain-raiser is the wildest, with a perfect Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, a fourth-wall-breaking, white-hatted singing cowboy who also happens to be one of the most vicious gunmen you’ve ever seen. We also watch James Franco hilariously botch a bank robbery, and there’s Liam Neeson as the impresario of a traveling-show oratorical wonder, Tom Waits as a preternaturally determined prospector, Zoe Kravitz as part of a wagon train to Oregon, and a stagecoach full of character actors headed to a spooky destination. The humor is barbed and the picture is stuffed with surprises. A couple of the endings are even heartbreaking, but you’ll never be able to see them coming. What this film is actually about is not the West itself, but Western movies. It deliberately plays with the Hollywood conventions that we’ve all become accustomed to. This movie is wildly entertaining, the writing and acting are superb, and it looks beautiful. It’s uneven by definition — remember, it’s six disparate 20-odd-minute films and I had distinct preferences — but the two hours fly by. It’s still weird to see the Netflix logo on something as A-listy as this, but filmmakers are getting adequate budgets and a wider day-and-date release than they could ever have otherwise.
WISH I’D SEEN: AMERICAN DHARMA, ASH IS PUREST WHITE, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, CARMINE STREET GUITARS, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (on a big screen; I only know it from home video), THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (I trust I’ll get the chance somehow), WATERGATE (too long to fit in)
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