Film Journal International | Highlights (and low lights) of the 55th New York Film Festival

The Film Society of Lincoln Center just wrapped the 55th session of its beloved New York Film Festival (NYFF), with new features from around the globe stretching across a broad spectrum of sublime audience-pleasers, solid conventional entertainments, indulgences and the Festival’s usual curiosities.

The Fest again relied on its tried-and-true formula (occasionally idiosyncratic and always reflecting favorite filmmakers) to delight local quality-seeking film fans while promoting the Film Society’s many worthy enterprises. (A number of the NYFF selections served as previews for their imminent Lincoln Center commercial theatre runs.)

In addition to live talks, special events, shorts and experimental films, retrospectives honoring film’s past (including a big tribute to Robert Mitchum) and explorations of storytelling’s digitally powered future, most eyes—when they weren’t on the latest Weinstein scandal scoops—were focused on the NYFF’s Main Slate of domestic and foreign narrative features and the always strong “Spotlight on Documentary” screenings.

Again proving that film festivals are at their most thrilling when they spring surprises, NYFF had tucked within its cinematic plenitude at least two proverbial “revelations” in the 25-film Main Slate lineup. Netflix’s Mudbound, Dee Rees’ brilliantly cast, performed and photographed post-World War II Mississippi-set segregation drama. involves a white farm family and the African-American family who work the property. On the heels of life-changing battles overseas, one of their sons returns home to fight the prejudice and poverty that infest the rural South.

The other stunner was Agnès Varda’s surprising and delightful documentary Faces Places, which Cohen Media Group is releasing. It’s an unexpectedly charming, wise and entertaining record of the veteran filmmaker’s (a NYFF favorite) and her younger visual artist friend JR’s road trip through little-known corners of France where they encounter and maybe immortalize (via oversized photographic portraits of locals pasted on buildings) some genial, unassuming people who remind that dignity and decency are still alive.

Also attracting audiences and awards heat was Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, an Amazon Studios release with Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne perfectly cast as three Vietnam vets reuniting to bury one of their soldier sons, an Iraq War casualty. They accompany the coffin on a road trip that leads to laughs, tears, reminiscences, revelations and poignant reminders that life and people are full of complexities. No punches are pulled in this brutally honest drama with its far-from-perfect heroes.

The Orchard’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a provocative, energetic but often horrifying account of Paris’ young ACT UP citizen soldiers’ efforts in the early ’90s to hasten pharma and government action to find and distribute medications to stanch the ongoing AIDS plague that was killing so many. This fierce piece of cinema (that will especially chill certain New York viewers of a certain age and certain neighborhoods) is notable for its evocation of a terrible era and its exceptional performances, especially that of Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (a star is born) as the film’s tireless 26-year-old AIDS-afflicted activist hero.

Another young actor getting her role just right but in a film so very different is the U.K.’s Juno Temple, as an abused runaway wife chased by the mob and seeking shelter with her estranged Brooklyn father (Jim Belushi) in Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel. This NYFF world premiere arguably aroused the most curiosity (Will this be good, so-so or blah Woody?), especially as it marks Amazon Studios’ first solo foray into theatrical distribution.

It’s not a good sign, as happens here, when gorgeous, highly stylized visuals (thanks to Allen regulars cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Santo Loquasto) trump the drama. With story and intention clearly influenced by American drama playwrights like O’Neill, Odets and Miller, Wonder Wheel, as spun by an overreaching Allen,is a glossy but claustrophobic look at mostly sad lives lived around a 1950s Coney Island boardwalk cluster (clam bar, carousel, shabby apartment, nearby pizza joints and, yes, the inevitable beach and eponymous Ferris wheel). Kate Winslet convinces as the tormented Brooklynite and former low-end actress stuck with and married to Belushi as a slob who dresses in undershirts for dinner and toils as the carousel operator.

The unhappy wife begins an affair with the nearby lifeguard—a young Jewish NYU student and wannabe playwright nicely played by Justin Timberlake—who, with some Allenesque mannerisms and convincing New York accent, is yet another Allen stand-in (as signature but less obvious than Hitchcock’s pop-ups). Belushi too does a nice job with his crude character, except his distinct Chicago accent is not at home in deep Brooklyn. Story matters get more dramatic when Temple’s character too gets cozy with the lifeguard, but the film remains middling Woody Allen.

Also sparking curiosity, if not that much wonder, was Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck (also Amazon), an odd homage to cinema in its tale that unfolds several decades apart and involves two deaf kids who venture to New York and uncover family secrets (and maybe each other) in, among several places, the city’s treasured Museum of Natural History. This concoction is a hairpin turn away from Haynes’ prior dramatic high points (Carol,Mildred PierceFar from Heaven, etc.) and may miss the earning curve.

Curious filmgoers will also take notice of Luca Guadagnino’s gay-themed Call Me By Your Name, which has The Social Network’s breakout star Armie Hammer as a bisexual research assistant to a scholar (Michael Stuhlbarg, convincing as the Jewish head of a broad-minded, culture-imbued European family) who gets involved with his employer’s 18-year-old son (Timothée Chalamet, again proving he’s an actor to watch). The story of their relationship is gently told, with enough sexiness and humor to add spark and credibility. The romance lullingly unfolds amidst beautiful northern Italian locales in the early 1980s until an ending that provides an unexpected emotional wallop. After his disappointing A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino is back on I Am Love land.

Among the other highlights of NYFF’s foreign offerings were Ruben Östlund’s remarkable, dark and nasty satire The Square, a Magnolia Pictures release that skewers chunks of the contemporary art world and its museum and PR enablers and civilian oglers. Also strong was Janus Films’ The Other Side of Hope from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (Le Havre), who returns to yet another European port (this time Helsinki) and concocts another fanciful mix of serious political commentary with folky/funky music and kooky humor and characters.

As is a NYFF tradition, a good bunch of overseas selections, in addition to Faces Places, came from France, including a possible art-house winner in fest favorite Claire Denis’ intriguing Sundance Selects release Let the Sun Shine In. For those who hang on, the film works as a protracted joke (with a surprise punch line of a denouement delivered at the end by one of France’s major film stars) about a middle-aged, depressed Parisian artist (the ever-wonderful Juliette Binoche) who is desperate to find a mate but makes a lot of poor choices.

Co-produced in France but shot and set mainly in the slums of Kinshasa, French filmmaker Alain Gomis’ Félicité, from Strand Releasing, is an intense, propulsive drama affording a close-up look at a storm-tossed, hard-boiled local club singer. She struggles to raise money for her teenage son about to lose an infected leg and rejects a repairman who courts her. Alternating between the pulsating local sounds and those of hope emanating from the local symphony orchestra’s music, Gomis conveys life’s extremes as he goes deep into his struggling characters and the equally stricken city that envelops them.

Continuing Gallic, the Fest had another Arnaud Desplechin film this year, his heavily autobiographical indulgenceIsmael’s Ghosts: Director’s Cut, the recent Cannes opener about a fretting filmmaker and the two women haunting his life (as relief, viewers have Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg on this choppy journey). And what’s a New York Film Festival without the seemingly tireless Isabelle Huppert onscreen? Her latest, Mrs. Hyde, which as a modern retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story of two divergent creatures in one body, must have looked perfect on paper (or more likely as a pitch) to be a vehicle for the versatile Huppert but misses the mark.

Also from overseas came Neon’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa-directed Before We Vanish, a sci-fi hybrid of arty-scary with its tale of crafty invading aliens who aren’t much different from those they are invading. More successful with this odd brew of arty-scary was the Norway/Sweden/France co-production from The Orchard, Thelma, whose title character at a Scandinavian university is possessed of paranormal gifts. Performances are fine, but additives to this already awkward brew (elements of lesbian attraction, acute family drama, mystery, etc.) are not easily digested.

Oddly, the Fest’s Main Slate double-dipped into South Korea with two Hong Sang-soo films, both starring Kim Min-hee. The stronger of these was the Cinema Guild release On the Beach at Night Alone, a Korean and Berlin-lensed, apparently autobiographical piece about an actress’ messy relationship with a director. Both films convey Hong’s affection for stationary shots of people gathered around a dining table for more chatter than food, mixed with jarring pans and zooms.

The most memorable film in the American indie arena was Sony Pictures Classics’ rodeo-themed release The Rider, an impressive doc/fiction hybrid featuring nonprofessionals and written and directed by a Chinese-American woman, Chloé Zhao, who superbly wrangles the pervasive machismo and hardscrabble Dakota Plains lives depicted. Lead player Brady Jandreau (a true discovery if he wants to kick off his spurs for an acting career) is superb as the young rider who loses his livelihood following a debilitating accident.

Prior to its Netflix debut, NYFF screened Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), anotherlook inside a Jewish New York family beset by tsuris. A starry cast including Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Emma Thompson and Candice Bergen adds interest to this story of a distraught patriarch saddled with health problems, ex-wives, a sinking reputation as a sculptor and sons who never seem to please.     

Actor/writer Greta Gerwig, Baumbach’s significant other off-screen, made an impressive directorial debut with her autobiographical Lady Bird, an A24 release about a rebellious (lower) middle-class Sacramento Catholic school senior (a sensational Saoirse Ronan) with dreams of going to an Eastern university and a nagging mother (Laurie Metcalf in an award-worthy performance) who thwarts those dreams. The strong supporting cast includes Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet.

Again, NYFF docs were well-chosen, including close-ups of playwright Arthur Miller (Arthur Miller: Writer), from his daughter Rebecca Miller, and writer/journalist Joan Didion (Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold), with nephew Griffin Dunne directing, and both reminding how valuable great access to subjects is. Voyeur takesa look at sartorially savvy veteran journalist Gay Talese and the pickle he sidestepped after his questionable decision to spend so much time and energy on the decades-long pursuit of a subject—more nerdy than perverse and maybe more dishonest than honest—who was a Peeping Tom Oklahoma motel owner. The doc is a timely look at how to chase a story and avoid the inherent perils.

Remarkably prolific in both Europe and Hollywood and in narrative fiction and docs, filmmaker Barbet Schroeder had his latest nonfiction effort, The Vulnerable W., at NYFF. Another film indicative of the importance of good access, this exploration of hatred gets up close with the Buddhist monk Wirathu—responsible, with his fiery, inciting rhetoric, for much of the persecution in Myanmar of Muslims that has sent them fleeing into Bangladesh. Another important NYFF doc was award-winning documentarian Nancy Buirski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor, about the World War II-era gang rape of a young African-American mother who bravely took on a fight for justice that became a key event early in the Civil Rights movement.

While the NYFF wisely and satisfyingly hewed to maintaining its very serviceable programming formula, this year raised a few questions. Are the “indies” pouring out of the growing Netflix-Amazon movie industry complex (Netflix reportedly spent many billions producing original filmed content last year) really indies? Or could this thrust of off-Hollywood invasion mean the movie industry in general is ripe for a much bigger change?