The 55th New York Film Festival boasts eight films in its main slate made by women. Progress is relative, in this case, considering that this year’s Cannes Film Festival featured just three female-helmed features in competition, while Venice fared even worse, with only China’s Vivian Qu offered a chance to compete for the Golden Lion. Perhaps the most notable of these inclusions is Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, which was controversially excluded from the Venice lineup. An adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel set in 18th-century Paraguay, the fourth feature from one of global cinema’s most revered auteurs leads the group of main-slate films from a variety of old- and new-guard female filmmakers, ranging from the latest by Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In) to the much anticipated directorial debut of Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird).
Two international genre films directed by women will make their U.S. debuts as well at the festival, among them Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor, a murder mystery set in Poland’s Kłodzko Valley with imagery that echoes the Holocaust, and Valeska Grisebach’s Western, which, per our own Carson Lund, explores “the dichotomy between civility and savagery at the heart of the genre referenced by the film’s title.” Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, which is set on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, looks at the contemporary landscape of the American West by taking a hybrid approach to documentary and fiction.
If these works look to variously chart the dark night of the human soul, Faces Places is more optimistically driven. The documentary follows Agnès Varda and JR as they meet—and produce building-sized art of—citizens throughout France. The directorial collaboration bridges a generation gap between Varda and JR that compels them to also consider how their difference in age and gender can become a source of communication, not restriction. Other films in this year’s main slate, including some directed by men, also examine the intersection of social life and art. Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) follows members of ACT UP Paris during the 1990s from protests to the dance floor, while Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope, the second entry in a planned “refugee trilogy,” utilizes local Finnish musicians to punctuate its deadpan portraiture of Europe’s inhumane immigration system.
A pair of Amazon Studios films from two of American cinema’s most prolific filmmakers will open and close the festival. Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, the opening-night selection, follows three Vietnam veterans as they gather to mourn the death of one of their sons, and is being touted as a spiritual sequel to Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail. And closing the festival is Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, which as of yet doesn’t even have a theatrical trailer. Set in Coney Island during the 1950s, Allen’s film carries a typically star-studded cast and marks the second consecutive collaboration between the filmmaker and renowned cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
Among the noteworthy programs programmed alongside the main slate are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Abel Ferrara (Piazza Vittorio) and Alex Gibney (No Stone Unturned); the sidebar also includes the Vanessa Redgrave’s directorial debut, Sea Sorrow, “a plea for a compassionate Western response to the refugee crisis and a condemnation of the vitriolic inhumanity of current right wing and conservative politicians.” Revivals offers several new restorations of important classics, including a newly scored refurbishing of G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. Projections, sponsored by MUBI, will feature some 50 experimental films, including retrospectives of pioneering filmmakers Barbara Hammer and Mike Henderson.
Starting today, check back daily for a review of each title in the festival’s main slate. The 55th New York Film Festival will run from September 29 to October 15. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.
Before We Vanish
In Pulse, an apocalypse prevails as people plummet from buildings and degrade like old photos. In Tokyo Sonata, people bring about their own demise, without aid or interference from the supernatural, but through the capitalist system they’ve devised, which leaves the unemployed worthless and hopeless and families in shambles. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s characters exist in the quietus of modernity. A sense of the end looms. With Before We Vanish, an alien-invasion film that sends up his auteurist obsessions while addressing some of the criticisms leveled against him, the filmmaker seems to have finally found hope. He’s finally having some fun at the dawn of the apocalypse. >>
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
The U.S. title, BPM (Beats Per Minute), of Robin Campillo’s latest effort stresses the film’s main thematic track involving the sense of movement that ACT UP Paris’s members feel they need to sustain in order to see another day. This energy is political, taking the form of protests against pharmaceutical companies whose research, drug trials, even words—assurances that they’re willing to negotiate with the sick—move at a speed that’s a slap in the face to those who have only months, maybe days, to live. But it’s also sexual, a resistance to the ugliness of a disease’s assault on the body, as in a singularly and simultaneously heartbreaking and erotic scene that sees Nathan (Arnaud Valois) beating off his hospitalized lover, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who’s in the final stages of AIDS. For a moment after, as Nathan wipes the ejaculate from Sean’s body and then kisses him, it’s as if Sean will live forever. >>
Call Me by Your Name
The three films that make up Luca Guadagnino’s self-described “Desire” trilogy all in some way organize their narratives around music. The Italian filmmaker relied on borrowed works from modern classical composer John Adams to determine the ebbing dramatic tension of 2009’s I Am Love, while 2015’s A Bigger Splash, which centers on the relationship between a fictional rock singer and her mercurial former lover and record producer, climaxes with an electric, lip-syncing performance of the Rolling Stones’s “Emotional Rescue.” But it’s the trilogy-capping romance Call Me by Your Name that most deeply connects this filmmaker’s abiding interest in music to a broader theme of the salvation found in the meditative power of the arts. >>
The Day After
Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After homes in on the similarities between job interviews and dates, mining them for a comedy of romantic alienation and autobiographical rumination. In the tradition of many of Hong’s protagonists, Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo) is an acclaimed creative at a crossroads with the women in his life, implicitly feeling that his professional success grants him a right to his self-absorption. Bong-wan, a married book publisher, has three attractive women circling him throughout the film, which is a dream that becomes a castrating nightmare. Over the course of coffee and soju-drenched meals, these women demand that Bong-wan account for himself, as The Day After is a study of his increasingly inadequate deflections. >>
Collaboration between filmmakers remains a controversial notion in cinema, primarily because viewers (and often critics) feel more comfortable attributing intent to a singular mind. The refutation of such artistic credit, however, occupies a fundamental role in Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places, in which the pair traverse the French countryside seeking memorable encounters with working-class people. The film’s French title, Visages Villages, provides a more accurate summation of their destinations and how locations help create the people who inhabit them. JR’s large prints of human faces and, sometimes, three-story printouts of faces and full-body shots, become art pieces plastered on buildings, trains, and other objects. More so than any film of Varda’s career, Faces Places testifies to the necessity of contact with the unknown as a form of collaboration unto itself and how such endeavors can, and should, encompass the spectrum of one’s mortal experiences. >>
About halfway through its running time, Alain Gomis’s Félicité breaks away from its realist trappings toward a reckoning with the sensory world of its main character. There are conceivably valid narrative explanations for this shift, as Félicité (Véro Tshanda Beya), having spent the first part of the film travelling around Kinshasa asking friends and acquaintances to fund her son’s leg operation, falls into silence and depression over not having succeeded at her task. But the film’s sudden devotion to symbolism, as in repeated visions of Félicité descending into bodies of water amid darkness, never transcends stylish posturing to ever give a concrete sense of Félicité’s trauma. >>
The Florida Project
Sean Baker spends much of The Florida Project charging in vigorously nimble fashion up and down the stairs of the Magic Castle, in and out of its rooms, investing the minutia of the down-and-out lives within this little ecosystem with a bittersweet energy and significance. For much of the film, calamity is never harsher than a father packing up to move to New Orleans and forcing his son to leave his toys, relics of memories, behind with the friends he’ll never see again. And almost always the camera is yoked to Moonee’s (Brooklynn Prince) present-tense point of view, which explains why the forces battering these lives from all sides remain largely outside the film’s purview: They’re not only too big for this little girl to both completely imagine and understand, but it’s outside her field of vision where the film’s adults are content to keep these forces. >>