12 Must-See Movies at This Year’s New York Film Festival

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Tonight, the New York Film Festival kicks off its 52nd (!) edition with the world premiere of David Fincher’s highly anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. We’ll have more on that film (and that premiere) in this space tomorrow, but in the meantime, we’ve had the chance to check out several other NYFF selections that are well worth your time over the next two weeks (should you happen to be in the area), or in the months to come as they make their way to your theaters and on-demand platforms.

The Wonders

Italian director Alice Rohrwacher crafts this modest but keenly felt chronicle of a poor family of beekeepers and the teenage daughter (Maria Alexandra Lungo) who keeps them together. It’s a coming-of-age movie, but an appropriately miserable one, and Lungo gives the kind of performance that doesn’t really go overboard with the showing and telling, but allows you to project a whole world onto her open face. It’s got the style and unhurried pace of the Italian neo-realist tradition, but there’s a tense urgency to the family’s poverty and desperation, and an inevitability to the characters and their fate that remains thankfully unspoken.

The Look of Silence

Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer returns to the horrifying story of the 1965 Indonesian military coup and subsequent murder of over a million “Communists” — and, if anything, comes up with a work even more direct and devastating. This time, there are no dramatizations to function as alienation devices, and the perspective has shifted: his focus is on the survivors and the families of the dead, which takes form in, at times, a literal retracing of steps already retraced, for Oppenheimer’s cameras, by the perpetrators. The bulk of the film consists of uncomfortable interviews, conducted by Adi, a middle-aged man whose brother was killed, brutally, at Snake River (its name a specter that keeps rising). The conversations are sometimes emotional (“Please forgive my father”), sometimes tense (“Your questions are too deep!”) and sometimes chilling (“If you keep making an issue of the past, it will definitely happen again.”) But like Claude Lanzmann in Shoah, Oppenheimer and his subject aren’t scared away, and they keep asking questions, because soon no one will be left to answer them. “Let’s all get along,” one man says, “like the military dictatorship taught us.” Indeed.

Whiplash

J.K. Simmons is a revelation and Miles Teller continues to cultivate a distinctive, almost roughneck charm in this visceral, harrowing, and frequently powerful story of a student musician and the tyrannical instructor who drives him to perfection — at a bit of a cost. It’s a decidedly thoughtful take on a moldy old trope, questioning with great emotional force the kind of conclusions we usually draw from these stories. It’s nerve-wracking but ultimately rewarding viewing that leaves as much blood on the skins as its protagonist.

Two Days, One Night

This intense and frequently uncomfortable drama from the Dardenne brothers concerns a wife and mother (Marion Cotillard, full throttle) who attempts to go back to her factory job after a depression-related absence, and finds that her scumbag employers have told her co-workers that the cost of bringing her back will void their bonuses. They’ll vote on it Monday; thus, she has the weekend to visit all of them and ask for their vote. “I’ll look like a beggar,” she protests to her husband, and she’s right — these are uncomfortable conversations, given no relief by the Dardennes’ long, unforgiving takes. The set-up seems monotonous, but there’s poetry in its repetition; we’re seeing the same scene, except it’s not, since each encounter is at least slightly different, charged with its own specific emotional intensity. It works as either personal drama or as metaphor (an indictment of the prevalent and unfortunate “I gotta look out for me” mindset, perhaps), but it’s surprisingly absorbing–thanks in no small part to Cotillard’s bravura performance, which is intensely sympathetic while never playing the cheap, obvious beats.

Heaven Knows What

Josh and Benny Safdie’s breakthrough film Daddy Long-Legs was legitimately reminiscent of Cassavetes; their latest, the story of desperate junkies hustling on the streets of New York, has a pronounced Panic in Needle Park influence, reiterating how some stories just stay the same. Tracking a few days in the life of a homeless heroin addict, the Safdies shoot in tight, up close, almost uncomfortably so. The brothers aim less to tell a story than to capture the day-to-day, minute-to-minute realities of this life: hustling, “spanging,” begging for Metrocard swipes, mail-lifting, shoplifting and reselling. But beyond immersion, they’re looking at routines, patterns, and cycles that repeat themselves, over and over. And their attitude towards their protagonist is refreshing: they’re not gonna make you like her, they’re not going to fix her, and they’re not going to redeem her. It’s rather a hopeless movie, but a refreshingly honest one.

Time Out of Mind

It’s just kinda rotten luck that Oren Moverman’s latest is playing alongside Heaven Only Knows, a similar story told more from the ground level and without the baggage of recognizable faces. That said, Richard Gere is very good as a homeless wanderer, years lost to booze and self-destructiveness. His circumstance is only hinted in passing; the best explanation is his own, “I’m no good right now,” he explains, not with self-pity, but as a statement of fact. Writer/director Moverman (The Messenger) employs a loose, freewheeling structure that is (as with Heaven) less about plot than about the particulars of this man’s routines. Most impressively, he captures the textures and sounds of his New York City locations; there’s an observed and overheard quality, the soundtrack dominated by unrelated phone calls and conversations, the compositions framed by windows and doorways. The style underscores the idea that lives like this are unfolding all the time, all around us, all but unnoticed.

Stray Dog

Debra Granik’s documentary follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone opens with a pack of aging, grizzled bikers hanging out in parking lots, roaring down highways, and drinking moonshine out of jelly jars. But within minutes, we’re watching one of them learning Spanish on his computer and painting figurines with his Mexican wife. You think you know people, and you might think you know Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall, but Granik’s quietly observational movie (no interviews, no voice-over, just moments) takes in a man who seems like a type, living a very average Midwestern trailer park life, and discovers the real guy: a likable old salty dog whose warm exterior conceals a lot of sadness and a lot of pain. But it’s not a sad film, and it’s not “poverty porn” — it’s filled with earthy humor and love, both for this man and what he represents.

Last Hijack

Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting direct this compelling and quietly powerful look at Somali pirates, then and now. It’s equal parts procedural and exploration, looking at how these crews of self-proclaimed “warriors” operate, the realities and practicalities of their lives, the appeal of this dangerous gig (aside from the obvious, economic one), and how that lifestyle impacts not just those who choose it, but everyone around them. The interviews are candid and the observational scenes are remarkable, and the duo’s use of animated sequences as both flashback and metaphor is ingenious.

Jauja

Viggo Mortensen stars in and produces this Spanish-language existential Western dreamscape from co-writer/director Lisandro Alonso. Immersing itself in a kind of silent visual poetry, its 4×3 framing and period setting prompts memories of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff — as does the verrrrrrrrry deliberate pacing, which requires a bit more patience than most moviegoers are willing to spare. But those who are will be rewarded; by turns lyrical, bizarre, and defiantly dull, it reminds us that there is real freedom in filmmaking that’s willing to float this far adrift from convention.

Seymour: An Introduction

Ethan Hawke directs this warm, likable, and modest (in the best sense of the word) documentary portrait of concert pianist, music teacher, and wise Buddha Seymour Bernstein. Hawke has a good eye for composition, a crisp style, and solid instincts (he chooses archival footage carefully and uses it sparingly), and he navigates between scenes and ideas with ease. But he also manages to get close to his subject, capturing both his wisdom and his solitude. He’s just a lovely guy, and this is an appropriately lovely film. (Read more here.)

Maps To The Stars

David Cronenberg — working from a savagely witty screenplay by Bruce Wagner — constructs his most blatantly comic effort to date, although we’re not exactly talking Will Ferrell territory here. Circling an ensemble of Hollywood stars and star-fuckers, Cronenberg tosses in homages by the handful to create a picture that’s part Tinseltown in-joke satire, part portraiture of familial dysfunction, part Greek myth, and full-on bugfuck insanity. Julianne Moore is magnificent (and magnificently funny) as a monstrous almost has-been, but the rediscovery here is John Cusack, who finally has another opportunity to do his fast- talking, fast-thinking smart guy in a real movie. He’s wickedly witty and a little dangerous; same goes for the picture. (Read more here.)

Pasolini

And finally, a recommendation from Flavorwire Editor-In-Chief Judy Berman, who writes, “If you’re looking for a mystery or a thriller or a shocking revelation about how its protagonist died, Pasolini is going to disappoint you. It may not be the film we were promised, but it turns out to be something better: a thought-provoking — if not quite masterful — cinematic portrait of an artist whose visionary oeuvre remains poorly understood.” (Read more here.)

The New York Film Festival runs today through October 12. For more information on the festival, visit their website.