The 54th edition of the New York Film Festival will kick off on September 30 not with a studio-backed film with dreams of Oscar, but with a cri de coeur that exists to rebuke the status quo: 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865. The documentary, the first to open the festival in its history, illustrates the trajectory of racial inequality in the U.S. by tracing a line from the passing of the amendment to our present-day reality as the world’s number one incarcerator, with the majority of those being African-American.
DuVernay’s film, though, is only one of many in this year’s lineup to be in conversation with the social issues of our day. Among them are Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, which collages snapshots from a boy’s coming of age on Lampedusa with the realities faced by African refugees traversing the waters surrounding the Italian island; Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake, which tells the story of a disabled man trying to find a shred of happiness while navigating the red tape of his country’s benefits system; and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, which follows a doctor as she seeks to absolve her guilt after refusing to answer an immigrant prostitute’s late-night knock on her clinic door and subsequently learning of the woman’s death.
These studies of human relations are all connected to a soulful sense of consciousness-raising. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, about a retired music critic (played by Sonia Braga) who refuses to accept a buy-out from land developers for her apartment, made a splash earlier this year at Cannes, and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, which chronicles the struggle of a young black man to find himself across three defining, heavily aestheticized chapters in his life, plays at the festival exactly one month after its premiere at Telluride. Which is also to say that the New York Film Festival continues to thrive, and impeccably so, as a showcase that compiles a best-of from the festival circuit.
And in addition to new works by Pedro Almodóvar (Julieta), Paul Verhoeven (Elle), Cristian Mungiu (Graduation), Matías Piñeiro (Hermia & Helena), James Gray (The Lost City of Z, the closing-night film), Mia Hansen-Løve (Things to Come), and Oliver Assayas (Personal Shopper), among others, the festival is once again rich in sidebars and special events that aren’t to be missed.
Among the noteworthy programs are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Steve James (Abacus: Small Enough to Jail), Errol Morris (The B-Side: Elsa Dorman’s Portraight Photography), Bill Morrison (Dawson City: Frozen Time), and Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro); Explorations, which features the latest films from rising auteurs Albert Serra (The Death of Louis XIV) and João Pedro Rodrigues (The Ornithologist); and Projections, sponsored by MUBI, which gathers predominantly short and experimental film and video work from budding filmmakers all over the world.
Starting September 28, check back daily for a review of each main-slate title (additional coverage can be found on The House Next Door. The 54th New York Film Festival will run from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site. Ed Gonzalez
Ava DuVernay’s careers in activism, publicity, and filmmaking have demonstrated a defiant belief that not only can Hollywood change in a short span of time, but also popular opinion. 13th will leave you hoping, at the very least, that she’s right: As with Selma, DuVernay has fashioned a work of pummeling and clear-eyed intelligence, tracing an undeniable disparity between legislative and de facto rights for black Americans from the end of the Civil War to the present. How and why the United States ended up housing 2.5 million prison inmates is a paradox posed by none other than President Obama in the film’s first minutes, and 13th spells it out with the enraged mettle of an extralegal filibuster. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery except as punishment for a convicted crime; “criminal” is thus the noun into which 13th digs its analyses, while an upward ticker sees the number of prison inmates mushrooming over the last few decades. >>
20th Century Women
Is a person—or, for that matter, a film—more than the sum of their influences? Writer-director Mike Mills’s autobiographical coming-of-age tale 20th Century Women hinges on that question, while dominated by Annette Bening’s leading turn as Dorothea Fields—a chain-smoking feminist who had her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), at the age of 40 and decided to raise him alone after his father abandoned them. Mills’s screenplay takes place in Santa Barbara, California, centering on the summer of 1979, when Jamie is 15 and beginning to bask in the freeing energy of punk music, all the while grappling with the pitfalls of romantic infatuation. Dorothea is the kind of woman who nods empathetically while shaking her head at the same time, deftly portrayed by Bening as both proud and apprehensive, the self-image of her motherhood stuck between past and present tenses. >>
Throughout the gorgeous, erotic, seemingly intuitively staged Aquarius, Kleber Mendonça Filho merges two distinct tonalities: inviting, empathetic romanticism and subtly submerged criticality that leaves the slightest copper aftertaste of bitterness. Clara (Sonia Braga) is admirable and desirable in many fashions, but Mendonça Filho never allows us to forget that she, like most of us reading this, exists essentially unquestioningly within a social structure toward which she indulges feelings of superiority. Clara is in a battle with contractors over the Aquarius, as she’s the only person still residing in the complex after everyone else has sold out. But this gesture is strikingly positioned as an act of stubbornness rather than heroism, as Mendonça Filho often allows supporting characters to assume the stage and voice concerns with what they lose due to Clara’s nostalgic death grip on her residence. >>
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt returns to the American frontier with Certain Women, though the bleak, unforgiving plains featured in her 2011 western Meek’s Cutoff are now encrusted with Starbucks and Jiffy Lube and and Pizza Hut, beacons of capitalism peppered across the howling void. But if it’s too easy to toy with the idea that Reichardt’s new film is some kind of a long-distance spiritual sequel to her offbeat wagon-trail epic, a study in what’s changed in the intervening century and a half can be fruitful in understanding the filmmaker’s larger project. >>
Who else but Isabelle Huppert could have played Michèle Leblanc, the eponymous heroine of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle? The exuberant gravitas, the unapologetic condescension, the classily managed aggression that only the most French of faces could ever entertain—Huppert reduces us to our prosaic mortality with a glance, the pursing of her lips, the nearly imperceptible raising of an eyebrow, or the perverse delivery of a syllable. Perhaps a syllable like “oh…,” the title of the Philippe Djian novel on which the film is based. This is the “oh…” of deflating disappointment, but also of the most calculating seductions; the feminine “oh…” of flirtation; the theatrical “oh…” of predators posing as prey; the “oh…” of orgasms authentic and feigned. >>
Fire at Sea
Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi makes documentaries about individuals at different junctures in the process of traumatic recovery. Fire at Sea follows two groups of subjects, one whose past traditions are in question and one whose present geographical placement is unknown. Set on and around Lampedusa, an island 70 miles east from the African coast and 120 miles south from Sicily, the film juxtaposes the islanders’ quotidian lives with those of the African refugees traversing the surrounding, often torrential waters of the Mediterranean Sea. These dual threads constitute parallel trajectories that invite the viewer to ponder their relationship with one another. >>
Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation may not exude the visceral power of 4 Month, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills, but it may be more incisive and powerful as social commentary because of its more subtle observation of the world. Mungiu’s film is more than just a cry of despair toward the hopelessness of life in modern-day Romania, but a close examination of a character whose moral compromises ultimately make him not that much different from the societal forces he believes he’s fighting against. The filmmaker reserves his most potent gut-punch for an ending that leaves one with a sense of the sins of one generation being passed onto the next, however inadvertently. >>