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. >>
As in the later films of Alain Resnais and Raúl Ruiz (especially You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet and Night Across the Street), Ismael’s Ghosts finds French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin simultaneously collapsing and expanding his body of work, reflexively revealing its many layers, like a pop-up book. Desplechin liberally borrows character names and plot points from many of his previous films, playing fast and loose with the narrative connections that exist between many of them, resulting in a nesting-doll narrative that’s far removed from 2013’s formally and dramatically disciplined Jimmy P. Desplechin builds instead from 2015’s My Golden Days, which positioned itself as a loose prequel to 1996’s My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument. >>
Lady Bird’s broader shift in perspective is its most impressive, as its sympathies gradually tilt from Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), a teen desperate to transcend her upbringing, to Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a mother who sacrifices her time and her body for her family without reward. Ronan, who seems to grow into her lanky frame over the course of the film, nails the sense that the life of a teenager is a tendentious war between one’s ego and their increasing sense of the world around them, while Metcalf masters Marion’s inability to erase her frustration at her inability to be selfish or impulsive. Both performances are remarkable, brittle and diffident in wholly original ways that distinguish Gerwg’s film from The Edge of Seventeen, Pretty in Pink, and other canonical coming-of-age works that attempt to honestly reckon with issues of privilege. A uniquely American comedy, Lady Bird is testy, humane, and firmly rooted in its time and place. >>
Last Flag Flying
Last Flag Flying, co-written by Linklater and Ponicsan, is colored by how time reshapes our sense of self, embracing some memories while occluding others, and it ingeniously folds us into a similar state of reflection and uncertainty about previous eras of false optimism about national values. It takes place in 2003, nearly two years into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a nebulous war on terrorism; the fog of 9/11 has cleared, and many Americans and most other Western democracies are increasingly rattled by domestic surveillance and military bellicosity. One long, hilarious scene of cellphone humor conjures the major cultural shift of the era, but the enduring historical markers of the moment pass by on televisions in the background of many scenes: Saddam Hussein, filthy and just snatched out of an underground bunker; George W. Bush, smirking through consolations and expansionist bravado. Within the film’s intricate generational schema, these images become almost painfully mundane, just a few notes in a lifetime’s steady drumbeat of disillusionments. Like Before Midnight, Last Flag Flying is both gimlet-eyed and philosophical enough to question the lasting worth of youthful romanticism. >>
Let the Sunshine In
Claire Denis’s latest film, Let the Sunshine In, is, as its name suggests, less despondent than Bastards, concerned as it is with the fragility, and perseverance, of the heart. Its modesty and intimacy runs the risk of being erroneously labelled slight. It’s a 95-minute reconciliation with love, which has always been something of an unmitigable poison for Denis’s characters. The self-destructive nature of searching for meaning, for a partner, has long fascinated the filmmaker, and here she strips bare that hopeless pursuit. In those diurnal moments, the mundane, unexceptional motions that make up a relationship, Denis disinters the pleasures (however brief) and pain of love. >>
Lover for a Day
Like In the Shadow of Women, Lover for a Day is shot in widescreen black and white by Renato Berta, staged in a prosaic suite of bedrooms, cafés, and side streets, and narrated in a terse short-form prose style. But in contrast to Garrel’s last film, which diligently plucked away at the morose self-importance of its male lead, the wise French dramatist’s latest foregrounds the malleable spirits of its young female characters, leaving Gilles something of an implicit gravitational force rather than a subject of sustained consideration. In doing so, the film adopts an unbiased lucidity. Instead of the wry, pitch-perfect assessments of human behavior contained within In the Shadow of Women, we get a hushed sense of awe and empathy as Garrel ruminates on the burgeoning womanhood of his daughter, here cast for the first time in a lead role under his direction, by way of the character she inhabits. >>
The Meyerowitz Stories
Noah Baumbach has always been a writer-director of no formal distinction, but he’s possessed with a keen eye and ear for the intricacies of pettiness, humiliation, and schadenfreude. His new film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected), concerning a family of neurotic middle-aged New Yorkers attempting to come to grips with the imminent demise of their sculptor father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), duly feels like a retread of past works (and not just Baumbach’s), if better structured and finer-grained than most. It appreciates life’s vastness and maddening repetition; its screenplay is emotionally sprawling but peripatetic in the telling. Baumbach makes a lived-in milieu feel instantly familiar as Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler) and his teenage daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), pause in the middle of their search for a parking spot to enjoy Fine Young Cannibals’s “She Drives Me Crazy” on the radio, before the inevitable New York City honking and screaming resumes. >>
Serge Bozon’s monster story is imbued with his idiosyncratic visual and comedic style. Shot by his longtime collaborator and sister, Céline Bozon, Mrs. Hyde is tinged even in daylight with crepuscular tones, and the quick-cutting, lean editing gives the film a peculiarly frenetic energy, putting the audience in a position of feeling like they’re chasing after the constantly evolving narrative. But as Mrs. Géquil (Isabelle Huppert), a science teacher who goes about her daily life with a spastic nervousness, transforms into a competent instructor, and her alter-ego grows in strength in the wake of a freak lab accident, Mrs. Hyde becomes increasingly more sinister—a tone that rubs jarringly against the madcap satire of the film’s first half. >>
The patch of worn Mississippi farmland where much of Dee Rees’s Mudbound is set connotes an atmosphere of literal and economic devastation. The fertile properties of Mississippi Delta soil are scarcely visible in the modest plant growth that adorns the flat landscapes, which are occasionally dotted with shacks that look as if they were designed with the express purpose of falling apart. This is the sort of place barely fit for human habitation, which in the Jim Crow South inevitably means it’s been set aside for black citizens who continue to work as sharecroppers, saved from redundancy only by the remoteness of their location, a place where tractors and other mechanized farm equipment have yet to reach. >>
On the Beach at Night Alone
On the Beach at Night Alone’s two parts are united by repetitions that signal the recurring habits of our lives and the emotionally mathematical fastidiousness of Hong’s imagination. In both halves, Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) says that she should move to the city in question, suggesting her desperation to rejoin a fixed society. In each half, Young-hee is told that her romantic grief over her lover has caused her to look more mature and “womanly”—an observation that’s never not creepy. Correspondingly, Young-hee tells her buddy, Myung-soo (Jung Jae-young), that he looks older, commenting on his face in a manner that’s repeated almost verbatim in a similar context in The Day After. Beaches, which give the film its title along with a famous Walt Whitman poem, figure in each half as the ultimate realm of Young-hee’s solitude, which is breached, however, by unseen males who attempt to put the woman back on course—white-knight gestures that are facetiously staged to epitomize the ego of patriarchy. >>
The Other Side of Hope
Over the past 35 years and more than a dozen feature films, Aki Kaurismäki has maintained, along with cinematographer Timo Salminen, a distinctive aesthetic that uses high-contrast lighting, close-ups, and stoic faces to achieve a deadpan style perched somewhere between the sardonic and the severe. The Other Side of Hope upholds that standard, and follows on the heels of Le Havre, the writer-director’s 2011 film about a young Gabonian refugee on the run in the titular port city, with the tale of Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Finland. Kaurismäki has spoken of this film as being the second in a planned “refugee trilogy,” with the third shooting location as yet undetermined. Based on the dip in quality from Le Havre to The Other Side of Hope, though, one may wonder if Kaurismäki hasn’t already exhausted the material, especially since this new film hits comparable narrative beats without the same specificity as its predecessor. >>
The proximity of fiction to actual fact adds an inherent layer of interest to Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, especially in scenes between family members, which resemble the kinds of conversations they must have, or have had, about the real Brady’s accident and his high-risk life choices. But those opportunities aren’t seized on as directly as they could be; the writing instead emphasizes the universality of the family’s struggles, turning a potentially very personalized narrative into more of an archetypal one. An exception to this is a scene in which Brady (Brady Jandreau) is woken up by a group of his cowboy buddies and dragged out to the middle of nowhere for a night of drinking and guitar playing around a campfire. As the friends work in unison to raise Brady’s spirits and take his mind off his injury, each reveals a bit about themselves, their own cultural ideas, ethnic backgrounds, and individual feelings on the American West. >>
Spoor’s driven by a striking tonal contrast. On one hand, it’s an atmospheric and surreally comic character study that follows Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka), an eccentric retiree who teaches English to children part-time, as she learns to come out of her isolation and depend on humans as well as animals, fashioning a new social life in vignettes that emphasize gentility and connectivity, most memorably in a series of montages that suggest Duszejko’s visions of new acquaintances’ pasts. On the other, it’s a veiled call for revolution, excusing murder as a necessary step toward taking back our planet. The final scene, reveling in the birth of a new community that’s built on a bedrock of murder, is chilling for its persuasive sweetness. This tree-hugging, animal-loving film has a stinger in its tail. >>
After scrupulously analyzing the rippling effects of a man’s moment of human weakness in Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund has adopted a more panoramic view for The Square, edging his latest film closer to the vignette-driven narrative terrain of 2008’s Involuntary. Juggling the handful of interconnected tribulations that overwhelm Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of a reputable Stockholm contemporary art museum, in the run-up to the opening of a new relational art exhibition called The Square, the film grabs at a pinwheel of hot-button social topics including class privilege, liberal guilt, urban poverty, viral marketing, and mutually reinforced passivity in the face of mounting inhumanity, winding up with something simultaneously overstuffed and undercooked. While Östlund’s mastery of visually amplifying social unease is still very much intact, he’s partially undone here by his own thematic ambition, which, in scene after exquisitely staged scene, threatens to put too fine a point on otherwise thrillingly indeterminate situational comedy. >>
Joachim Trier’s Thelma opens with an unnerving father-daughter hunting trip on a frozen lake. As the pair cautiously progresses across the ice, the camera occasionally points down, catching fish darting around just below the surface of the dark but clear water. The ominous atmosphere of the moment escalates swiftly when, stalking a deer, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) gets into position, only to turn his rifle on his unaware child, Thelma (Grethe Eltervåg). The father holds the gun to her head for an excruciatingly long time before reconsidering his plan and lowering the weapon. Few scenes in the rest of Joachim Trier’s film match the sharp tension of this sequence, its cold precision masking a compelling mystery that’s all too quickly explained. >>
“War is war. Life is life. You can’t lump them together,” says a burly construction worker early on in Valeska Grisebach’s Western, immediately invoking the dichotomy between civility and savagery at the heart of the genre referenced by the film’s title. The seasoned audience member will recognize the hollowness in such a statement, as the most ageless westerns have proven time and again that violence—physical and otherwise—is the engine of civilizing progress. And though blood is scarcely spilled in Western, the film nevertheless teems with nervous tension as a German construction crew descends on a modest Bulgarian village to conduct work on a hydroelectric power plant in the hills nearby. In a supremely understated style, Grisebach sets this all-too-modern scenario in motion and charts the ways in which power and privilege unconsciously manifest themselves, turning a boilerplate engineering initiative into a loaded culture clash. >>
What the photographs of Ruth Orkin and Saul Leiter were to the painstaking tableaux of Carol, the work of Roy DeCarava might be to these 1920s-set sequences. Todd Haynes’s eye for detail is astringent as ever, and he boldly opts to make Rose’s (Millicent Simmonds) scenes “deaf” as well: completely silent beyond Carter Burwell’s punctuating music, itself an exercise in Aaron Copland-esque affect that suggests the music accompanying remastered versions of silent films whose original scores have been lost to the ages. Ben’s (Oakes Fegley) crossing into Manhattan depicts a vibrantly seedy city, throbbing with summer heat, ratcheting up tension by dwarfing a newly deaf child in a vast crowd’s anonymizing bustle. Ben makes friends with a kid named Jamie (Jaden Michael), whose father works at the Museum of Natural History; Rose makes a similar trip and Haynes juxtaposes scenes from both storylines, centering on specific exhibits. Eventually, the characters of the 1927 narrative are reintroduced in their late-adult iterations, and the connection between Ben and Rose is made explicit. >>
Though he’s directed some of the finest performances in American cinema, and his gift for rambling, navel-gazing dialogue was, at one point, eminently quotable, Woody Allen manages to coax painfully unnatural performances from almost everyone in Wonder Wheel. The tone throughout vacillates wildly from silly comedy to classic Hollywood melodrama, and all of it feels as artificial and unsatisfying as the cotton candy twirling in a vending cart. Kate Winslet in particular plays her role with unabashed histrionics, all fury and forced emotions. It’s her most misguided performance since Sam Mendes’s voluptuously idiotic adaptation of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. Jim Belushi fares better, spewing out vitriol and love with equal amounts of conviction, but all the shouting and scenery-chewing going on around him saps the poignancy from his performance. >>
Zama’s uncanny visual humor is reminiscent of Miguel Gomes’s Tabu and João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist, which are also shot by Poças and approach the legacy of colonialism from a strange angle. What distinguishes Lucrecia Martel’s film from those others is how bluntly its comedy informs its politics. The narrative takes place just before a revolution that united South American Creoles, slaves, and natives against their Spanish oppressors. At once oblique and straightforward, the film uses image and sound to posit this revolt as an inevitability without ever speaking a word about it. Zama’s (Daniel Giménez Cacho) size is diminished by natural rock formations, and shadowy heads and limbs always seem to be wandering by the camera in front of him. To the back of the frame, slaves and natives regard Zama quizzically or merely go about their business. Sometimes llamas, horses, giant dogs, and ostriches pop into view, similarly indifferent to his plight and his gradually waning sense of authority. >>
Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China
Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.
Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.
Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.
In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.
The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with “Y.M.C.A.”?
Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didn’t have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].
The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.
Another song that is particularly important in the film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Woo’s The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.
The third song in this film is “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.
Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.
Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.
You’ve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?
Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.
The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.
It’s so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So you’re performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.
I think that’s also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What I’m interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.
You’ve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?
When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.
I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.
Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,
And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.
Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.
Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the government’s response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?
I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I don’t really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.
I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. That’s the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.
Translation by Vincent Cheng
Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.
You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.
19. The Son’s Room (2001)
Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez
18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)
A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez
17. Amour (2012)
There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh
16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)
English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac
15. The Class (2008)
When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps
Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
On the eve of Captain Marvel’s release, we ranked the 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
20. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
19. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith Uhlich
17. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
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