New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center kicks off the fiftieth (that’s right, 5-0) New York Film Festival tomorrow, with (as expected) a terrific selection of domestic indies, foreign films, documentaries, and big fall movies on tap. Many of our most anticipated pictures (like David Chase’s Not Fade Away, Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, Leox Carax’s Holy Motors, Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, and the opening night selection, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi) have not yet screened for critics, but many have, so hit the jump to see some of our favorites of the NYFF.
HYDE PARK ON HUDSON
As the somewhat irreverent casting of Bill Murray as FDR would indicate, Roger Michell’s new film is not some staid, dull period drama. It’s a funny, lively picture, chronicle of Roosevelt’s affair with a fifth cousin (Laura Linney), mostly told through a visit from the King and Queen of England to the president’s country home. It’s a remarkably human film, not just in Murray’s warm and gentle performance, but also in its overall attentiveness and sensitivity to the flaws and insecurities of those in power.
Noah Baumbach’s latest was written in collaboration with Greta Gerwig, whose honest-to-goodness movie star performance was one of the many virtues of his last picture Greenberg. That film was the culmination of rather a sour streak in his post-Wes Anderson filmography — not a complaint (his work wears ennui well), just an observation made clear by the rather cheerier exterior of this new work. Its bittersweet nature is further from the surface, buried in the charming hopelessness of his heroine (Gerwig), and the luminescence of its black and white photography. But it’s there, and it keeps the film from becoming the throwaway piffle that some will surely dismiss it as anyway.
THE ROLLING STONES: CHARLIE IS MY DARLING- IRELAND 1965
“We’ll probably be around a year, a year and a half, and that’s it,” shrugs Mick Jagger, near the beginning of this long-lost (and long-fabled) snapshot of the Stones circa ’65, and while it’s fun to chuckle at his low expectations on this, the band’s fiftieth anniversary, this reconstructed documentary’s primary virtue is its ability to capture the seemingly moment-to-moment nature of their whirlwind existence. Shot over two days in Dublin and Belfast, and filled with enough train rides, car shuttles, and screaming girls to betray its obvious Hard Day’s Night influence, Charlie Is My Darling has an offhand intimacy, from the disarmingly casual dressing room footage to the laid-back writing/brainstorming sessions that quickly morph into jams of Elvis, Beatles, and Fats Domino tunes. The concert scenes are electrifying, terrific and unvarnished slabs of one of their best periods (heavy on juicy covers and R&B-influenced originals); they sound so good that when fans storm the stage and generate something akin to an impromptu riot, you can hardly blame them.
The idea of director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Diner) returning to narrative filmmaking after a four-year absence to do a found-footage horror picture sure seemed baffling; his only previous film to even tinker with supernatural elements was Sphere, not exactly a career highlight. So the fact that he’s made a genre films as taut and effective as The Bay is a pleasant surprise — this is a genuinely unnerving piece of craftsmanship that gets (almost literally) under your skin. Contrary to popular opinion, this kind of thing is not easy to do well. Maybe it took a director of Levinson’s skill to slum so successfully.
HERE AND THERE
Antonio Mendez Esparza’s drama is a bit of a bait and switch; told in four chapters, it begins on a note of muted hope, as Pedro (Pedro de Los Santos) returns to Mexico after a period of living, working, and earning in America. He has plans to reintegrate with his family, and dreams of starting a band and making it as a musician, and for a time, that’s where the movie seems to be going — a kind of rags-to-riches tale. And then there is a crisis, out of nowhere, as is so often the case, and the story pivots; it goes from a story of hope to one of quiet desperation, with mounting complications and a steadily more certain outcome. The story it tells is a sad one, but it’s not a depressing movie; Esparza is a filmmaker of great warmth (the family scenes are wonderfully unaffected) who finds a workable neo-Realist vibe, and de Los Santos thankfully resists the urge to overplay his despair.
Noemie Lvovsky’s light French film begins as a tragicomic character study — Camille (played by director/co-writer Lvovsky) is a struggling actress and recent divorcee on the wrong side of 40 — before throwing in a monkey wrench: our heroine has a bit too much on New Year’s Eve, and wakes up as her 16-year-old self, but with full knowledge of the life ahead of her. Yep, it’s a French Peggy Sue Got Married, but it’s a premise at continues to work (who among us wouldn’t take that opportunity?), and though Lvovsky plays for the expected laughs, she takes the accordant conflicts and emotions with the right degree of seriousness. Goofy, droll, and rather delightful.
“If she were six, you’d say she’s sulky.” We hear that description before we meet the title character of Christian Petzold’s character drama, but it’s apt; as played (magnificently) by Nina Hoss, she’s distant and aloof, a doctor recently released from prison and assigned to a provincial hospital. The time is 1980 and the place is East Germany, and Barbara’s old (presumably criminal) lover can get her out of the country, but she soon finds herself in a moral and ethical dilemma that generates urgency and genuine suspense. It does so quietly — this is a picture that never raises its voice, yet holds the viewer rapt through its understated action, satisfying resolution, and perfect, wordless closing scene.
BEYOND THE HILLS
Writer/director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) dramatizes the true story of a young woman whose attempted exorcism (though the word is never uttered in the film’s entire 150 minutes) at a Romanian monastery became a national scandal. Mungui is less interested in the sensationalistic aspects of the story than he is in the motivation for it — why was this woman there, and why did she subject herself to this? As a writer, he has a real gift for discerning what to articulate in dialogue and what to leave unsaid, for undercutting expectation, and for making his themes clear without smashing us over the head with them. Simply put, it is a story of faith, friendship, and responsibility — and the difficulty of choosing between them. Leisurely but involving, and given tremendous weight by the deeply felt (and keenly contrasted) performances of lead actresses Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur.
This documentary history and appreciation of motion picture casting directors (the “unsung heroes of filmmaking,” per USA Today) may sound too inside baseball for casual moviegoers, but it’s got a hero (Marion Dougherty, the casting director who revolutionized the profession), a villain (DGA president, maker of mediocre films, and general smug prick Taylor Hackford), a compelling story of a trailblazing original, and delicious footage of countless stars when they were impossibly young up and comers. It’s educational and surprisingly persuasive, but more than that, it’s a lot of fun.
JOHN CASSAVETES/ LANG & GODARD: THE BABY AND THE DINOSAUR
Filmmakers of Our Time was a series created for French television in the 1960s by André S. Labarthe and Janine Bazin, in which contemporary and legendary filmmakers were interviewed at length about their work (often by other filmmakers); NYFF is presenting several of these rarely seen documentaries. This double-bill begins in Hollywood, 1965, as Cassavetes is in the early stages of editing Faces (a process that would ultimately take years). He drives, he snaps along to the Beach Boys on his car radio (“I love all music. Music makes you feel like living. Silence is deafening”), and he shows the French crew around his home, which is also his studio and production house — they’re syncing up the film and sound in his garage. He’s a gregarious figure, his charisma and cheery enthusiasm going a long way to explain how so many people worked so hard for him, often for little reward. The filmmakers allow long takes to just let him talk, both in these scenes and a later interview after the film’s completion, and in doing so, they convey a real sense of the man, the artist, and the businessman (and how they all intertwined). The second film is a “dialogue in eight parts” between legendary Lang and Godard, who’d just directed him in Contempt. Long scenes (too long, really) of that film and Lang’s M are intercut with their verbose and remarkable chat, the filmed equivalent of the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews, and they reveal a fascinating dynamic: the wise man at the end of his career and the young upstart at the beginning of his, discussing both their similarities and the artistic points at which they part company.