As the New York Film Festival comes to a close, so marks the end of the 2017 festival season: a year-long tsunami that began with Sundance, gathered force in Berlin, crested in Cannes and kept rolling through Venice, Telluride, Toronto and, until this past Sunday, NYFF 55. Emphasis on the “55.” Most of these festivals date back to the 60’s and 70’s, and with them comes an economy of prestige. The buzz they create determines how titles will be positioned for the coming year’s Oscar race. Which in turn, regardless of whether they spark excitement or a massive ‘who cares,’ determines the types of films that will be made and seen in years to come. As Indiewire’s David Ehrlich points out, the awards season does help some smaller films get attention – but once the hype starts to gather momentum, other worthy films are often forgotten. It’s a double-edged sword.
So back to NYFF. As one of the last major festivals of the annual circuit, NYFF acts as a best-of-fests with a few tasty newcomers to balance the mix. This year we saw premieres by some big-name auteurs: Woody Allen, Alex Gibney, Richard Linklater. We also saw films that had premiered at other fests, films with hype already in place. All of them were original, all of them had qualities that made them worth watching … but not all were great.
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. This semi-autobiographical dramedy establishes Gerwig as a promising new writer/director, and is thematically powerful; unfortunately, the narrative is bogged down by high school clichés and too diffuse to reach greatness.
Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck. Highly anticipated as NYFF’s ‘festival centerpiece,’ this film has shades of Haynes’ spellbinding touch, but fails to overcome the flaws of the children’s tale it adapted. Its two parallel timelines clash – and the result requires too much exposition.
Dee Rees’s Mudbound. This 132-minute tale of race and resilience in 1940’s Mississippi is well-executed – strong direction, cinematography, acting – but the pacing feels off. Maybe shorter would have been better? A shame, because some parts are transcendent.
Sadly for these films, each one of them might have surprised, even thrilled, had they not born the weight of unrealistic expectations – the inevitable by-product of past festival kudos. Another problem they face is auteur worship: ‘brilliant’ directors are expected to turn out hit after hit. If they dare to try new approaches, to experiment, they risk crucifixion. For example:
Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel. While by no means a great film, its most intriguing elements have been dismissed by critics who are sick of Allen. In a perfect world, this film might have been judged more kindly if none of us knew the director’s name. (Review).
But enough of the bad news. Even with all the pre-festival baggage, NYFF highlights were plentiful. Among those worthy of note:
Lucrecia Martel’s challenging Zama.
Brett Morgen’s Jane. An exploration of Jane Goodall’s early interactions with chimps in Africa, this film is an absorbing trove of unseen footage, and a welcome tribute. It is also an important reminder of the repressive gender politics that she was forced to overcome. Additional pluses: the surprisingly intimate images captured by Goodall’s ex-husband, the late Hugo van Lawick; the film’s fluid editing; the wistful, whirling score by Philip Glass.
Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute). Half docu-drama, half personal close-up, BPM is a powerful portrait of French activists during the 90’s AIDS-epidemic. Despite occasionally awkward pacing and an unworthy score, its understated production and excellent non-actor ensemble deliver gut-wrenching truth. It’s also the French Oscar entry for this year.
And last but not least, Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying (review). A surprisingly hilarious anti-war film, Last Flag has suffered from mixed reviews – first, because critics see it as a sequel to Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail; second, because Linklater has become too famous for mercy. In my view, however, Last Flag is an excellent film: tender, well-told, deeply human.
All these films deserve praise – but within the context of NYFF 55, there are five films that stand out above all the rest. Each one stays with you long after the screening; each one is impressive for vastly different reasons. The top three, in particular, are almost interchangeable in ranking. I review all five below, but beware: don’t let the hype cloud your viewing experience.
#5. Faces Places (Visages Villages)
88-year old Agnès Varda has still got it. Her latest opus – a lyrical exploration of blue-collar France – is both funny and moving. Made in collaboration with 33-year old French ‘photo-graffitist’ JR, Faces Places is part-road movie, part-buddy comedy, at once down-to-earth and transcendent. Rich with real-life portraits of chemical workers, postmen and goat farmers, this film is a genre-bending refresher, a subversion of more serious, hyper-journalistic docs.
The collaboration behind it is brilliant: Varda seems to have met her match in JR, in terms of inventive storytelling, photography and installation. The two make a charming odd couple – physically disproportionate, prone to teasing each other– and an in-sync artistic duo.
Furthermore, in a twist of onscreen poésie, their film happens to focus on the same Normandy beach that is featured in BPM (mentioned earlier in this article), where a discarded Nazi-era bunker protrudes from the shore like a Kubrick-ian monolith. While this beach plays a considerably more prominent role in Faces Places, its grey-blue austerity underscores the spiritual transience evoked by both films. As Varda and JR remind us so eloquently, films can approach topicality with emotion and imagination, telling us more about ourselves than we’ll ever learn from the news. Varda is a treasure; their film is a gift.
#4. Call Me By Your Name
Adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, Luca Guadagnino’s translation from page-to-screen is both lyrical and evocative. An arthouse mainstay, Guadagnino brings an appropriately delicate touch: just as this sultry Italian summer leaves a mark on its characters, the film evokes a mood that is hard to shake.
It’s an age-old story, but it’s told on fresh terms. Prose from the book is converted seamlessly into believable dialogue. And despite the fact that neither of the leads are LGBTQ in real life, their performances feel authentic; their characters are given room to breathe. Their romance is portrayed in a satisfyingly slow burn. In one haunting shot, Elio and Oliver circle one another around a fountain; they’ve been circling each other romantically for weeks, and their unspoken bond is about to reach fever pitch.
Also worthy of note is the classical soundtrack. A key element in the book as well, the Bach score (performed convincingly onscreen by Timothée Chalamet, who took piano lessons just before filming) adds a quality of wonderment, a soaring parallel to the unfolding drama. Less effective are the indie folk songs by Sufjan Stevens. Perhaps intended as romantic talismans – a way to associate a particular person, time or place with a particular song – their presence felt jarring. The Bach score was so mesmerizingly perfect that the sudden insertion of contemporary tunes with vocals destroyed the moment.
One other issue: the movie-only decision to make Elio’s dad gay felt too on-the-nose. Dad could have given Elio the same rousing speech about love without being gay, and it wouldn’t have lost its power. But these are quibbles, minor cracks in a film that will surely receive its share of acclaim. As a whole, Call Me By Your Name is a tour-de-force: visually assured and emotionally challenging. Like the Hellenistic sculptures that Guadagnino uses as a recurring motif – evoking an unrealistically perfect canon for beauty – this film captures the fleeting, godly perfection of an unexpected first love. The audience is left spellbound.
#3. The Rider
Chloe Zhao’s The Rider will make you feel. In a story parallel to the perils of modern NFL gladiators, The Rider sheds light on the toxic masculinity that shapes today’s cowboy culture in South Dakota. After suffering a near-fatal head injury, horse-trainer and rodeo-king Brady (Brady Jandreau) considers his identity – or lack thereof – in the face of a reality where he may never ride again.
Jandreau’s story is told in a hauntingly effective form of ‘docu-fiction.’ Both he and his cohorts offer onscreen performances that are slightly-dramatized takes on their own real lives. Jandreau astounds with an understated projection of his vulnerable inner psyche. Particularly moving are scenes of palpable affection between Brady and his sweet, learning-challenged sister Lilly Jandreau, and with his best bud Lane Scott, severely disabled after a riding accident. Both brave and tender, they play themselves with heart-rending honesty.
The Rider is a quiet, sensitive exploration of manhood, another genre-bending film that occupies a space more profound than most works of fiction. It’s a story about manning-up, where the female perspective is mostly absent. Even so, the audience feels so much for these guys, understands them, and likes them – even when they’re in the wrong – that The Rider appeals to all genders.
Zhao’s secret? Assisted by breathtaking cinematography, powerful characters and organic editing, she focused on specific, and found universal. As a result, we’re the outsiders drawn in, entrusted with stories that feel both far away, and immediately tangible. Despite contrasting cultures, we share the same pain: regrets over lost dreams, setbacks outside of our control, the struggle to rise above and move beyond our worst selves. The urge to rewrite our own history. I urge you to watch Chloe Zhao and her collaborators rewrite their own stories in this deeply-moving, impressionistic, refreshingly authentic film.
#2. The Florida Project
With this film, the prolific Sean Baker – Take Out, Prince of Broadway, Starlet, Tangerine – solidifies his reputation as one of the most humanistic filmmakers today. Gut-wrenchingly honest, unexpectedly moving, Baker’s fifth feature is the bittersweet story of six-year-old Moonee, her single mother and the manager of their budget motel – ironically called The Magic Castle.
Co-written with NYU classmate and three-time writing partner Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project is based on the oft-overlooked reality of the destitute population on the outskirts of Disney World. Its focus is childhood. Comedic adventures play against a backdrop of poverty; but despite echoes of The Little Rascals, this film is far from reductive.
The performances are lightning in a bottle. Willem Dafoe is an affable but friendless motel manager; six-year-old Brooklyn Prince holds desperately onto childhood. “Do you know why this is my favorite tree,” she asks a friend in one scene. “Because it’s tipped over, and it’s still growing.” Layered with detail and specificity, the acting is so devoid of falsehood, the whole film feels like ‘hidden camera.’ Todd Haynes – whose odyssey Wonderstruck, adapted from a children’s book, is described briefly above – should take note.
According to Baker, improvisation informed much of the film’s content. “We were re-writing all the way up to post production,” he laughed. The result is profound, heartbreaking, and at times hard to watch. It’s also immensely funny. Even after the hype, The Florida Project lives up to expectations. One of the year’s best.
#1. The Square
The Square is Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund’s most ambitious attack on humanity yet … with a compellingly affectionate touch. Awarded the Palme d’Or by this year’s Cannes Jury – a notably ballsy selection – this is a film that inspires discussion.
Here’s why: over the course of an ungainly two-and-a-half hours, The Square manages to entertain, confound and subvert. A fitting follow-up to Östlund’s exceptional Force Majeure, this is an intellectual’s film: a thought-provoking critique of human instincts and behavior, a deft exploration of our attempts and failures to reach higher moral ground, and a big middle finger in the face of the contemporary art world. Even more impressive, The Square extends itself as far and wide as possible without losing focus. It pokes fun at the very culture that supports it; it turns respectable social norms into farcical satire; it cajoles us into laughing at our own worst frailties.
The laughter is key. Like the favorite high school teacher who never forgot what it was like to be a kid, Östlund knows how to relate to his audience. His observational skills are unsurpassed, his characters are laughably real, and his dialogue is razor-sharp. The film is a feast of performances, including scrumptious supporting roles by American players: Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West and, most unforgettably, Terry Notary. With this latest addition to an already-impressive body of work – even more so than his contemporaries Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann, 2016) and Yorgos Lathhimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, 2017) – Östlund blends arthouse with entertainment. A gem.