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New York Film Festival 2016

This year’s festival is chockablock with studies of human relations that are connected to a soulful sense of consciousness-raising.

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New York Film Festival 2016
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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


New York Film Festival 2016

13th

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. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

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. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Aquarius

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. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Certain Women

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. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Elle

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. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

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. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Graduation

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. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Hermia & Helena

Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia & Helena offers an implicit rebuke to the received notion that the American debuts of eccentric international filmmakers are bids for accessibility. The film’s narrative concerns the residency of a young, Bueno Aires-based theater director, Camila (Agustina Muñoz), in New York City, where she’s been invited to translate A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Spanish for a new take on Shakespeare’s canonical comedy. And while her adventures feature rekindled romances and a familial reunion, Piñeiro takes considered measures to steer clear of saccharine self-discovery drama. In utilizing a temporally and geographically jumpy structure, a series of detours and doublings that frustrate Camila’s centrality in the story, and a visual surface that delights in non-narrative distractions, he even goes so far as to obfuscate whatever crowd-pleasing qualities may have existed in the material. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, the story of Irish communist leader James Gralton, was rumored to be the socialist-leaning filmmaker’s swan song. But the following year, Loach watched as the Conservative Party took power and the lifelong Labour supporter went back to work. It should surprise no one, then, that the Palm d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake, which heralds Loach’s return from the briefest of retirements, is a staunch antagonism of bureaucratic institutions that prevent blue-collar Brits from earning the livable wages they deserve. But it should also come as not much of a surprise, sadly, that the filmmaker’s latest is pockmarked by a lot of the same conservative dramatic conventions and overt political gestures that have marred much of his work over the years, but particularly his recent output. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Julieta

Focused on recurrence as a visual and narrative motif, Julieta follows the title character (played alternately by Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez) as she encounters parallel scenarios in progressive dealings with her one true love, her aging parents, and her daughter, recounting these stories from the perspective of lonely middle age. Abandoning a career in academia after being impregnated by a married man, Julieta finds happiness in a quaint Galician fishing village, a state of domestic contentment that sours after a tragedy scars her relationship with her beloved child. Positioned at the center of a variety of romantic and inter-generational junctures, the once-fresh-faced Julieta finds herself battered by one calamity after another, functioning as the unwitting conduit for the film’s maelstrom of transferred trauma. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

The Lost City of Z

One of the quiet triumphs of James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is how it posits artillery officer, archaeologist, and explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam)—who disappeared along with his son, Jack (Tom Holland), in 1925 while searching for a fabled civilization in the Amazon rainforest—as a kindred spirit of The Immigrant’s Ewa Cybulski. If the exact nature of Fawcett’s obsession with Z remains frustratingly ineffable, that’s by design, as Gray understands that the explorer sailed toward a new world, not unlike many immigrants who arrived in America around the same time, in chase of a dream that would remain just that. Fawcett “seemed to approach each journey as if it were a Buddhist rite of purification,” wrote David Grann in the nonfiction bestseller on which this film is based, and indeed, as Gray brings Fawcett’s story to a culmination, the mystery of the man’s demise is exalted as a moment of transcendence: of a mind being freed from the shackles of obsession. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea gradually comes to its sense of exquisitely calibrated, hardened intimacy. Every flashback and uncomfortable reunion draws out another vagary of the mourning process, and the film comes to incorporate a full community of souls, and their attempts to communicate their wounds and regrets to one another. Some reach out, others withdraw, and the rest aren’t sure what to do but crack jokes and conjure better times. And this comprehensive emotional sweep is achieved with minimal exposition: Lee (Casey Affleck) is revealed to be somewhat of a local pariah without any catty scenes of small-town gossip, and details about the dissolution of his marriage are withheld simply because they’re abundantly clear on the alternately desolate and anguished faces of Affleck and Michelle Williams. Lee and Randi’s exchanges, a symphony of agonizingly incomplete thoughts and gestures, serve as the film’s emotional sledgehammer. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Moonlight

The best scene in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is also its longest. It depicts two men who, in their boyhood days, shared both a sexual experience and a violent episode and meet again after years apart at a close-to-empty diner, hesitantly exchanging information about the lives they’ve lived in the interim. Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) grits through his grillz that, after a stint in juvenile detention, he’s “trappin’”; Kevin (André Holland) talks of a marriage, kids, and an amiable divorce. Throughout, Jenkins negotiates a hybrid of the patient, real-time conversational moments recognizable in Andrew Haigh and Richard Linklater’s films, and the aesthetic sensualism favored by Wong Kar-wai and Pedro Almodóvar. It’s the one occasion here that Jenkins gets that balance just right, allowing for both an interpersonal intimacy with his characters and a sensory understanding of their unspoken desires. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

Graphic novelist Dash Shaw’s debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, is an Irwin Allen-style catastrophe parable that doubles as a maturation tale for the artist as a young blowhard (voiced by Jason Schwartzman). With the film, Shaw creates a self-effacing sketch of his adolescent self that’s comparable to Bill Watterson’s Calvin on his most obnoxious days, a worthy upgrade of such teenage man-children as Archie Andrews and Henry Aldrich. The whole thing buzzes with hand-drawn creativity that’s precious in both the pop-cultural and material senses: Schwartzman’s performance is of a piece with his work in Wes Anderson’s films, while Shaw’s animations snap from fearlessly cursory scribbles to seamless, fluid spurts of movement—drawing influence from the aggro-modernist “limited animation” of 1960s and ‘70s animes. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Neruda

Director Pablo Larraín has described Neruda as being more a “Nerudian” film than it is a film about Pablo Neruda, hinting at the postmodern character of this overtly fictionalized biopic of Chile’s greatest poet. In both examining and exemplifying the way facts and legends have a way of conflating around famous figures, Neruda is simultaneously flippant and deadly earnest in its attempt to bring the poet’s protean life to the screen. The screenplay by Guillermo Calderón half-acknowledges its own fictionality while nevertheless maintaining a straight face about the events it depicts. In doing so, it follows in the tradition of similar Latin American literary masterworks that used magical realism, an allusive blend of reality and fantasy, to make sense of the region’s seemingly unceasing history of violence, from the genocidal subjugation of the native population to the various totalitarian governments from both ends of the political spectrum that instilled martial law across the continent during the Cold War. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Paterson

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson represents a skewing of the cool that’s been synonymous with the filmmaker for almost four decades. Jarmusch’s films have always felt like loft spaces, the motion-picture equivalent of a cheap room at the Chelsea Hotel, with icons, starving artists, and aficionados all rubbing elbows while jockeying for the only bathroom on the entire floor. His latest is every bit as informed by the artistic impulses and wandering souls that inform the rest of his oeuvre, but the film concerns the humbler creative expressions of everyday life, where one creates art not for notoriety or superiority, but for the simple pleasure of making it. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Personal Shopper

In some respects, Olivier Assayas has been making ghost stories for years. No other filmmaker has demonstrated so profound an ability to infuse ordinary objects, such as furniture and artwork, with a sense of their own lived past. This is most clearly born out in 2008’s Summer Hours, where family heirlooms seem to contain some essence of their past owners. Personal Shopper actualizes that thematic undercurrent of the filmmaker’s oeuvre: Filled with spirits both malevolent and inscrutable, the film explores the extent to which Assayas’s characters have always found, and lost, their identities through the aid of their surroundings. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

The Rehearsal

Alison Maclean’s The Rehearsal begins as an intriguing study of young actors as emotional parasites who drain experience from others to compensate for their relative greenness in life. Stanley (James Rolleston) is a handsome 18-year-old who’s been accepted into the Institute, a drama school that has a reputation for forging not only actors but actors’ careers. Stanley is painfully shy, unformed, and out of sync with who he is and what he wants—a demeanor which contrasts, not altogether unappealingly, against the seen-it-all pretenses his classmates have already learned to affect. A morality tale, The Rehearsal eventually concerns Stanley’s efforts to discern how far he’s willing to go to become recognized as an actor, and how long he’s willing to play the political game necessary for getting his art seen. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Son of Joseph

If films were measured primarily by the degree to which they hit upon the hippest contemporary trends, those of the French-American Eugène Green might languish in some dustbin of stodgy earnestness. Green tells nakedly archetypal, unabashedly non-ironic tales of personal and spiritual awakening that take on familiar shapes (the midlife-crisis drama, the Oedipal saga) while explicitly conversing with centuries-old texts, and, perhaps least zeitgeist-baiting of all, he’s inescapably preoccupied with the goodness in people. Green’s latest, Son of Joseph, is no cooler than what we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker and dramatist, as it riffs starkly on the Old Testament and utilizes the same highly formal approach to staging and editing employed in his prior La Sapienza. But Green is so committed to his seemingly old-fashioned tics that his work can look positively avant-garde alongside those of more ecstatically welcomed arthouse trailblazers. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Sieranevada

Right from its prologue, which consists of a seemingly interminable unedited long shot of a middle-aged couple navigating a crowded Bucharest street, Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada announces itself as a slow burn. This unknown couple is eventually identified as Lary (Mimi Branescu) and his wife, Laura (Catalina Moga), who are on their way to commemorate the recent death of Lary’s father with the rest of his family. While the prologue doesn’t further the plot and might initially come off as time-consuming filler, it’s firmly in line with Puiu’s vision of contemporary Romania as a kind of purgatory. The characters in this film thrash about in a rage of meaningless sound and fury to mask the spiritual emptiness at the core of their existence. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Staying Vertical

On paper, Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical sounds like a great many relationship dramas. Léo (Damien Bonnard) is a drifting screenwriter who alternatingly resides in hotel rooms and crashes with strangers, becoming involved with Marie (India Hair), a woman living somewhere in the French countryside. They have a child together, and Marie leaves Léo and the baby, which inspires the man to grapple with his selfishness as he struggles to raise his son and come up with a screenplay adequate enough to pay his mounting expenses. But little is ordinary about Staying Vertical, which has more in common with Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake than is initially apparent. Both exhibit a powerfully tactile understanding of sexual relationships as universes onto themselves, both overwhelmingly concern stifled male sexuality, and both pivot on heroes who are essentially and existentially displaced voyeurs. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Things to Come

As Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) walks along the Grand Bé tidal island near Saint-Malo, France while on vacation during the opening of Things to Come, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve locates her mid-conversation with Heinz (André Marcon), her husband, discussing music as a visual medium. After Nathalie says she wouldn’t listen to a certain piece of music at home (the piece in question isn’t clear), Heinz counters, “You’ll have to see it performed…it’s meant to be seen, not just heard.” Heinz’s statement doubles as a covert imperative to the viewer, though its implication should be taken in reverse: If we’re to fully understand Things to Come, we’ll have to listen for its rhythms in addition to perceiving Nathalie’s loosening grip on her environment, and feel its pulsating force to comprehend the totality of its sensorial value. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Toni Erdmann

The ironic thing about self-awareness is that it’s bound up in other people. It’s less about how we understand ourselves than about how we use the perceptions of others to train us to modulate our behavior and tame our impulses. Now three films into an entirely distinctive oeuvre, Maren Ade has become one of cinema’s great sociologists, exploring different shades of self-knowledge and companionship. Her debut, The Forest for the Trees, was about a teacher so desperately lonely that her attempts to make friends only frightened and alienated, while her lacerating sophomore feature, Everyone Else, chronicled the dissolution of a romance after its young couple realize they’re no longer capable of surprising one another. Toni Erdmann is a broader affair, asking what our families are to make of the guises we adopt when we’re trying to succeed, fit in, or achieve some mythical state of self-actualization. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

The Unknown Girl

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been making neorealist morality plays since their first feature, 1996’s La Promesse, yet their formula has continued to yield surprising, effective works that have kept the sibling filmmakers in regular critical conversation. The Unknown Girl, however, represents a rupture in the Dardennes’ ordinarily solid output, a work so left-footed and clumsily insistent that it exposes the worst aspects inherent to their style. The film’s didacticism is evident from the outset. A humble clinic doctor, Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), secures a cushy position at a large medical facility that will set her up for a lucrative career. Almost literally on her way out the door of her old life, however, she ignores a patient who tries to enter the clinic after hours, only to discover the next morning that the young woman seeking care, an immigrant prostitute, has been found dead of a blow to the head. >>


New York Film Festival 2016

Yourself and Yours

Hong Sang-soo has claimed Luis Buñuel’s 1977 swan song That Obscure Object of Desire as an inspiration for Yourself and Yours, but whatever clues that might provide as to his intentions are largely mitigated due to major differences between the two films (the doubled woman in the Buñuel film is played by two separate actresses as opposed to one, and her relationship with her confused lover is complicated by age, class, culture, and political commentary). There should actually be a great deal of suspicion that all the incongruence here leads to no concrete answers at all—that, instead, Hong’s latest is a construct, a work whose only integrity is to the act of confounding any particular interpretation of it. >>

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