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. >>