Fourteen years ago, the New York Film Festival kicked off a little over two weeks after the September 11 attacks. Grief hung heavy over the festival’s early press screenings, and at times the rawness of the emotions unveiled on screen seemed indistinguishable from our own. Flash-forward to the present and, less than a year after the opening of One World Trade Center, the festival unveils its 53rd edition, almost triumphantly, with a screening of Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, a dramatization of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974.
In recent years, the festival has become an important stop on the road toward the Academy Awards. In addition to The Walk, other films from this year’s lineup with obvious awards-season ambitions include the centerpiece selection, Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle’s character-driven, Aaron Sorkin-penned portrait of the titular Apple visionary; Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a Cold War-era thriller starring Tom Hanks, Amy Ryan, and Mark Rylance; Todd Haynes’s Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt that, earlier this year, won Rooney Mara the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival; John Crowley’s Brooklyn, an adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel about a young Irish immigrant (played by Saoirse Ronan) living in the titular New York City borough; and the closing-night selection, Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s portrait of Miles Davis, “refracted through his crazy days in the late ’70s.”
This year’s main slate features 26 films, 28 if you count the three parts of Miguel Gomes’s heady homage to the Arabian Nights, rooted in the “facts that occurred in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014,” as separate entities. Other auteurs returning to the festival include Hou Hsiao-hsien with his elegiac wuxia film The Assassin; Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Cemetery of Splendour rhythmically traces a series of strange happenings in and around an improvised hospital in Khon Kaen, Thailand; Jia Zhang-ke, whose decade-spanning Mountains May Depart promises a pointed look at communist China’s capitalist explosion; and Hong Sang-soo, whose Right Now, Wrong Then may be his most emotion-rich, bifurcated narrative to date.
And in addition to new works by Michael Almereyda (Experimenter), Guy Maddin (The Forbidden Room), Philippe Garrel (In the Shadow of Women), Arnaud Desplechin (My Golden Days), Chantal Akerman (No Home Movie), Michael Moore (Where to Invade Next), among others, the festival is once again rich in sidebars and special events that aren’t to be missed. Of special note are screenings of Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, a 190-minute immersion into the titular Queens neighborhood’s very being; Junun, Paul Thomas Anderson’s portrait of a recording session by his frequent collaborator (and Radiohead member) Jonny Greenwood at the 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort; and De Palma, a loving portrait of Brian De Palma (whose Blow Out will also screen in the Revivals sidebar) by Noah Baumbach.
Starting September 22, check back daily for a review of each main-slate title. The 53rd New York Film Festival will run from September 25 to October 11. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site. Ed Gonzalez
Arabian Nights: The Restless One
Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights trilogy is a sprawling, shoot-for-the-moon patchwork of virtually every genre and film convention one can imagine, fusing documentary, comedy, fantasy, vérité, parable, and first-person confessional together under the ambition of mounting a non-traditional, free-form adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights. Gomes derives his creative energy from contrast, from startling juxtaposition of tones, and the comingling of genres mirrors the unlikely union between the source material and the filmmaker’s real subject: Portugal, and the austerity measures imposed on it by the European Central Bank and others during the present financial crisis. Gomes isn’t subtle on this point, as text appears on the screen in each of the three volumes to remind us that the stories included are real tales of Portugal in the face of the government’s social cost-cutting measures, which has spectacularly failed to rejuvenate its economy, leaving more and more people literally and spiritually stranded. >>
Arabian Nights: The Desolate One
Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One, like the chapters that precede and follow it, is the equivalent of director Miguel Gomes taking his creative hubris onto the art-film playground, locating the sandbox, and suggesting the sand be removed and replaced with feces, for no greater reason other than jolting the decorum for recess procedure. Gomes says in an interview with CinemaScope that he finds the Arabian Nights folktales to be “completely scatological,” but these segments, in their proclivities for distended muckraking and obtuse meaning, border on coprophilia. This is Gomes’s most abstruse film yet, even though its foundation is rooted in “facts that occurred in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014.” However, those facts remain entirely off screen, sans a general assertion (via on screen text) that the nation’s people were “held hostage to a program of economic austerity,” resulting in widespread poverty amongst large portions of the population. >>
Arabian Nights: The Enchanted One
As shapeless and occasionally sublime as its predecessors, the third segment of Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights trilogy begins in the “Antiquity of Time” of the “Baghdad archipelago,” where actors in lavishly designed Arabic clothing laze and dance around a rocky seashore, with an undisguised, modern Portugal as a backdrop. Here, the bewitching storyteller Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate) takes part in a narrative rather similar to the one she’s been weaving. Instead of regaling a bloodthirsty king with folk and fairy tales in order to save the skin of her country people, Scheherazade is tempted by a series of tempters, bandits, and magical genies. They offer her experience rather than stories: a genial thief named Elvis break-dances for her; a prolifically reproductive charmer, Paddleman (Carloto Cotta), tries to seduce her; and a hipster guitarist plays in the backdrop as a windblown Scheherazade sings a multilingual pop song, the scene’s cuts and compositions redolent of Wilson Phillips’s 1990 music video for “Hold On.” >>
Set amid the distant reaches of China’s expansive past, wuxia films are first and foremost fantasy stories, replacing the mystical vagueness of storybook nowherelands with hazy historical allegories. Focused on communicating the transportive heroic purity of traditional values, their plots and settings are fundamentally set dressing, used to enhance the verisimilitude and overall beauty of the fable. This makes it a seemingly strange choice of genre for a meticulous director like Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose films are both remarkably modest in terms of emotion, and specifically attuned to the concrete details of very specific points in history. Yet just as he mined lavish, muted melodrama from 19th-century opulence in Flowers of Shanghai, or granted piercing tenderness to the near future in Millennium Mambo, the Taiwanese auteur sets down to familiarize Tang dynasty China in The Assassin. Less concerned with eulogizing values than exploring them, the film carves out a rich emotional sphere concomitant to its stunning production design, finding delicate poetry in the dispassionate pursuit of revenge. >>
Bridge of Spies
Rife with lawyer James Donovan’s (Tom Hanks) plainspoken moral authority, Bridge of Spies is a good movie that suffers from a lack of anxiety about its convictions. Steven Spielberg counters the false binaries and nuclear bogeymen of Cold War America with an argument built from equal parts liberal humanism and earnest pleas to Constitutional law. Only rarely does the director observe how queasily at odds our patriotism is with our humanity: A stunning series of cuts segues from an audience rising in a courtroom to a group of schoolchildren reciting the pledge of allegiance, and then watching an educational video about how to defend oneself in the event of a nuclear holocaust. The impact of this sequence is blunt, but stirring. Elsewhere, Donovan’s pleas to due process are broadly phrased to allude to contemporary matters of jurisprudence and war posturing, but these political allusions lack the fraught, pinpoint pungency of Spielberg’s work in Munich, which managed to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center with an urgency that continues to astonish and unsettle. >>
The life Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) might have had if she had stayed in Ireland shadows the film’s first half, as she establishes a new life in Brooklyn and mourns what left behind. Then she goes back for a visit after a family tragedy and the ghost of possibilities past is resurrected. Parallels between her two lives illustrate a bit too neatly the degree to which Eilis is torn between them, as she heads to the beach, goes out with friends, or has dinner and goes dancing with a devoted suitor in Ireland, just as she once did in New York. As that list of activities indicates, it’s hardly all thin gruel and rejection for Eilis. Gracefully balanced on the cusp of young adulthood, she may be as passive as a Dickens orphan, far more acted upon than acting, but nearly everyone she encounters seems drawn to her modest, matter-of-fact self-confidence. But even a world in which people are quick to offer praise, love, or assistance can be a lonely place for a young woman far from everything and everyone she once knew. >>
Can a film about crushing loneliness and isolation still be what critics used to call a “sumptuous” experience? Todd Haynes’s Carol is as prim and curlicued a movie as a Fifth Avenue window display at Christmastime—and ensconced beneath just as much glass. There’s no doubting the film was financed as an awards-season vehicle for the reaffirmation of Cate Blanchett as one of the great doyennes of acting. But beyond the machinations of “how exactly did this downtempo lesbian period piece get made?,” Haynes leaves his audience precious little to figure out for themselves. Carol’s main draw, then, is to luxuriate in the pining shared by the film’s blueblood namesake (Blanchett) and a bashful clerk from Frankenburg’s named Therese (Rooney Mara)—a pining which, in buttoned-down postwar America, can also look and feel an awful lot like being trapped. The connection doesn’t build laterally toward any long date scene, illicit kiss, or even their inevitable first night in bed together. Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy largely refuse such facile signposts, preferring to stretch the narrative along Therese’s gaze, forcing viewers to engage both Carol herself and Therese’s at-times vaporous idea of Carol. >>
Cemetery of Splendour
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s quietly incandescent new feature, Cemetery of Splendour, is so serene, so perfectly meditative, that it puts the viewer in precisely the same hushed reverie to which its characters eventually submit. Moving away from the spatial and temporal bifurcations of much of his previous work, the film fixes its tender gaze on all the myriad things one specific place was, is, and yet may be, gently and often imperceptibly shifting between past and present, legend and modernity, wakefulness and reverie. Regardless of what might lie beneath, there’s a peculiar joy in peeling away the different layers. >>
Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys appears to pride itself on demonstrating both sides of a complex racial divide, only for its messaging to wind up flattering the whitest sensibility imaginable. Heretofore comedic actor François Damiens stars as Alain, a hardheaded father and husband in rural France whose 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, disappears at the end of a long day of country-western-themed roleplaying in the autumn of 1994. A lot hinges on the question of how metaphorically Bidegain, Jacques Audiard’s longtime co-writer, wants his viewers to take this family’s obsession with American iconography. The cheeseburgers, horseback rides, snakeskin boots, square dances, and 10-gallon hats feel borderline satirical, but then the camera hangs back in a kind of halting, reverential handheld, as if characters were the Mennonite broncos from Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light. Speaking of comparisons: Despite the “riff on The Searchers” logline currently making festival-circuit-recap rounds, Bidegain’s directorial debut might be better elevator-pitched as Taken meets Paul Haggis’s Crash, too enamored of its would-be importance to come anywhere remotely near being enjoyed (or enjoying itself) for the meatheaded pulp that it is. >>