From True Crime Docs to Pitch-Black Comedy: The Most Fascinating Movies of This Year’s New York Film Festival

By
Share:

Fifteen days after its pontiff-prompted late kickoff, the 53rd annual New York Film Festival drew to a close yesterday. It was a festival of splashy debuts, quiet discoveries, and unexpected mourning, with a slate that ran the gamut from IMAX 3D spectacle to intimate home movie. Your correspondent didn’t see as much as I’d have like to — you rarely do — but here are a few films to keep an eye on in the weeks and months to come.

The Lobster

The latest from Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos was one of the more divisive titles at this year’s festival, and understandably so — its ruthlessly cynical take on the rituals of dating and mating is very easy to read as smug and condescending. I’m not sure the latter criticism isn’t true; I’m also not sure it’s a strike agains the picture, which works best in a decidedly sneery dark comedy mold. A glimpse into a not-too-distant future where “loners” are sent to “the hotel” to find appropriate mates — and turned into animals if they can’t make that happen — Lanthimos builds a world of rules and rituals, and then reminds us that human nature means one must always do what one’s not supposed to. There’s much to admire here, from Rachel Weisz’s wry yet flatly matter-of-fact narration to Colin Farrell’s dryly flustered line readings, but most of all, this viewer appreciated The Lobster‘s willingness to take this premise all the way, without pulling any punches.

Son of Saul

Director László Nemes begins this concentration camp story in a tight close-up, on the face of his protagonist (masterfully portrayed by Géza Röhrig), a Jewish prisoner tasked with herding people into the gas chambers, and cleaning up afterward. Remarkably, Nemes basically keeps the camera there for the next 107 minutes, staying on his face or over his shoulder as he goes about his terrible work, with horrible atrocities carried out either just out of sight, in the background, or on the soundtrack. It’s an extraordinary method of making this unfathomable act personal, a formalist experiment that yields stunning emotional dividends, particularly as Nemes segues from the stomach-churning logistics of how this is done, into the story of Saul seizing on one boy and deciding he must be blessed and buried rather than burned. He claims it’s his son, though of course it can’t be; it ultimately doesn’t matter, because it’s less about the boy than the act. Unflinching in its details, unforgettable in its effect.

The Witness

Director James Solomon begins by approaching his film as a true-crime documentary, investigating the notorious tale of Kitty Genovese, the young woman famously murdered in front of a Queens apartment building while 38 witnesses did nothing. She became, in the words of her younger brother Bill, “the symbol of bystander apathy for decades — the girl no one cared about.” But recent reappraisals have called the initial reporting of the incident into question, so Bill decides to reinvestigate it himself, as best he can, an inquiry that becomes something of an obsession. What begins as a riveting deep dive into a cultural flashpoint becomes, in its later scenes, a difficult, sometimes inappropriate, and always fascinating realization that “it’s hard to let go when you can never know the whole truth.”

Maggie’s Plan

Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is a likable but controlling young New Yorker with a tendency for making plans that seem reasonable in the abstract, but in execution, well… The title initially seems to be an allusion to her impending artificial insemination, but that plan goes awry when she meets and falls for a brilliant but married colleague (Ethan Hawke) — and then writer/director Rebecca Miller takes a leap, fast-forwarding past the idyllic happily-ever-after and wrestling with some oft-overlooked inevitabilities. Miller doesn’t usually dwell in the comic realm, and her scenes and situations sometimes come off a tad stiff (and/or obviously Woody Allen-influenced, hence lines like, “He’s one of the bad boys of Ficto-Critical Anthropology”). So it doesn’t quite come together as tightly as its screwball plotting requires — but there are still long stretches that work, and every performance is a winner.

The Walk

The back half of Robert Zemeckis’ dramatization of Philip Petit’s 1974 wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center is snazzy and expertly crafted; the sequence of the walk itself, done in something like real time, is a dazzling, visceral technical and emotional achievement. Shame about all those parts when people have to talk to each other, though. The filmmaker — whose output is increasingly interested in technical advances to the exclusion of literally every other element of cinema — can’t do much more with his first hour than reenact Man on Wire, the far superior documentary account of this story, subbing in the real story with cardboard characterizations, flat dialogue, stock conflict, and sketchy accents. Maybe the back half is worth suffering through the front; it’s good moviemaking, and lousy storytelling.

Carol

Time will tell where this falls among the quality continuum of Todd Haynes’ films — it’s at least among his best — but it certainly feels like a culmination of his work to date, a compendium of the themes that have preoccupied him, and the visual flourishes that have become his trademark. Telling the story of a romance between two women in Eisenhower-era America, it works on several levels: as a sensitive romance, as an exploration of societal taboo, as a beautiful piece of period melodrama. And the casting is perfection, with both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara doing some of their best work as women who must say more in their pauses and looks than in the words they so carefully form. Every inch of every frame is immaculate, but it’s never a movie that loses its vibrancy; this is a confident filmmaker working at the top of his form, telling an adult story that’s as luminous as it is heart-wrenching.

Where to Invade Next

It’s hard to figure out if Michael Moore’s refusal to correct the issues that even his ideological supporters have identified with his films — selective information, anecdotal data, general reductiveness — is the result of stubbornness or ignorance (or perhaps both). But it does, by this point, cast a pall over his work; it makes it difficult to trust him and, thus, to root for him. And it’s a shame that those questions have to rear up, because there are big chunks of Moore’s latest that are very effective indeed, as he “invades” several foreign countries to “steal” the good ideas that could solve some of the considerable problems here in the good ol’ US of A. Moore’s been preaching to the choir for so long now that it’s a cliche to even turn the phrase, but if you’re in that choir, you’ll probably find yourself moved by the holy spirit. It’s just a shame that he keeps playing so fast and loose with facts that don’t require it.

Steve Jobs

It could’ve gone wrong in a million ways. Noted mansplainer Aaron Sorkin penning a Troubled Genius Biopic of Apple head Steve Jobs could’ve resulted in a shrill hagiography, a snide cliche parade, or a feature-length Apple ad, yet somehow, the hit-and-miss scribe and similarly erratic director Danny Boyle cooked up one of the most intelligent and thrilling pictures of the fall. Unsurprisingly, it’s a symphony of words, as Sorkin’s whip-smart script boils Jobs’ life down to three key scenes, before the three most important product unveilings of his career; his rapid-fire dialogue and Boyle’s fizzy direction captures the musicality and energy of backstage patter, as brilliant people simmer as long as they can in a pressure cooker that will explode any minute. It’s sharp and savvy; it’s also fun, in a way that Sorkin’s work hasn’t been for a good while.

Bridge of Spies

Somewhere around the turn of the century, the film brats who disrupted Hollywood’s golden age and put the old men of the era out of work became old men themselves, and began merging their established sensibilities with a classical style. Scorsese did it in pictures like Gangs of New York and The Aviator; Spielberg’s throwback cinema has included War Horse and now this low-key, well-crafted story of Cold War-era espionage. The filmmaker clearly loves the genre trappings and throwback style, but doesn’t coast on sheer nostalgia; the themes (from honoring the rule of law to practicing political compromise) are as timely as any contemporary narrative.

Junun

There are birds all over Paul Thomas Anderson’s short, rhapsodic chronicle of Shye Ben Tzur and Jonny Greenwood’s album of the same name: up on the roof (where they swoop in to be fed), hovering in the sky above (where they mingle with a drone camera), perched in the studio (where Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich wrangles them away with a microphone stand). They’re an apt visual motif for Anderson’s film, which sits modestly earthbound before soaring to the high heavens, as the director jettisons his customarily intricate aesthetic to adopt an approach which merely aims to capture music, creativity, and magic as it happens. There’s little context and less explanation; he is but an observer, and via his casual camerawork and lived-in vibe, so are we.

Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle proves, beyond question, that he’s the right actor to play Miles Davis (particularly in his late period): he’s got his distinctive rasp, his no-fucks-to-give disposition, his utter confidence in his own genius. What his feature debut leaves some doubt about is whether he was the right director to bring Davis’ story to the screen. Like Jobs, he jettisons the traditional A-to-B-to-C biopic structure, and thank goodness for that, but your mileage will vary as to whether the bizarre, highly fictionalized hodgepodge he lands on — which seems to aim for I’m Not There-style experimentation yet veers dangerously close to fan fiction — works.