Late in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (see below), the title character and his partner Laura splurge on a Saturday night movie. “This is so much fun,” she says, as they meander into the multiplex. “It’s like we’re living in the 20th century!” It’s true — in these smart-phone-streaming, peak-TV-watching, “cinema is dead”-pronouncing times, going to the movies can feel like an artisanal activity, a throwback. But if it is, the New York Film Festival is one of the best farmer’s markets, rolling out two-and-a-half weeks of exciting premieres and carefully curated selections from Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance. The feast starts tonight, with the world premiere of Ava DuVernay’s new documentary The 13th; we’ll have coverage of that one tomorrow, and many more of this year’s selections.
To whet your appetite, here are ten titles we recommend seeking out if you’re heading in for the fest – or keeping an eye out for at your local art house in the months to come.
The latest character drama from Jim Jarmusch radiates with the comfort of watching a filmmaker who knows exactly how to achieve his effects, and willing to take all the time he needs to do so. Here, he’s telling the story of a New Jersey bus driver (Adam Driver, unsurprisingly an ideal Jarmusch protagonist) who spends most of his spare moments writing evocative poetry; it’s an absolutely modest narrative, a week or so of his life that (spoiler?) doesn’t culminate in his discovery by a super-agent or publication in a giant magazine or any such payoff. Instead, it’s a low-key snapshot of a day-job creative, but by its conclusion, even the simplest gestures are bottomless in their resonance.
The Unknown Girl
It’s always fascinating to watch socially conscious filmmakers bring their themes and preoccupations to a genre narrative, and that’s what happens in the latest from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Two Days, One Night) – this is a story of responsibility and obligation, moving within Belgium’s lower- and lower-middle class, but within the framework of a mystery thriller. The Dardennes fascinatingly fuse those seemingly disparate concerns, creating a compelling mystery, but one filled with moments of high stakes and, particularly in its overwhelming closing scenes, unrestrained humanity.
I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach’s up-close character study, winner of this year’s Palme d’or at Cannes, concerns a recently widowed man with a heart condition attempting to navigate the red tape, nonsense rules, and circle-jerk “procedures” of British social services. But it’s not the downer it could’ve easily been; in fact, it finds moments of levity in his quest, and its frustrations. But it’s a portrait of desperation and fear, told in quietly affecting moments of truth and snapshots that play with documentary verisimilitude. There’s an offhand quality to Loach’s writing, and the playing of it — you can’t catch these people acting — but the accumulation is devastating.
Christian Mungiu’s latest finds him working in something of an Asghar Farhadi mode, telling a domestic drama — a father wants his daughter to do well in school so she can leave Ceausescu-era Romania for university abroad — in which the tiniest act is met with devastating consequences. And like Farhadi, he’s a complicated moralist; his characters are presented with conflicts and choices that cause them to examine their very beings and self-perception. “All that counts is getting to a normal world,” insists the father at its center, to which his wife responds, “How you get there matters too,” and that’s the fundamental question at the heart of this thoughtful work. And he takes no shortcuts as a director – his visual M.O. is the long scene played in an unbroken medium-wide shot, in which neither the audience nor the characters are offered escape, and our flawed protagonist must watch his tenuous existence spin further out of his grasp. Intelligent, angry, and, in its own quiet way, hopeful.
There are many ways to tell true stories, and no doubt director Pablo Larraín could’ve given us a straight-forward account of the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda, and his period of exile and escape in the late 1940s. Instead, he puts this story in the hands of Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal, in a great hat and a better mustache), who fancies himself the hero of it, filling his voice-over with hardboiled tough talk and fantasy scenes of women falling at his feet. And then he breaks that device into pieces. It’s a robust bit of deconstruction, rendering the entire movie wild and unpredictable without diluting its questions or its quest.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
A portrait of a friend clocking in at a slender 76 minutes, Errol Morris’s The B-Side is a decidedly minor work for a filmmaker who’s saved a man from the electric chair, investigated Abu Gharib, and gone toe-to-toe with two former Secretaries of Defense. In fact, it doesn’t really look of feel all that much like a Morris film – it’s formally looser and less urgent. But those modifications are appropriate to the subject at hand, and it’s got a warmth and intimacy that’s often missing from his major works. And when he gets to the meat and potatoes, he’s dealing with familiar topics here: the shifting tides of technology, the relationship between the surface and the soul, the ability of the camera to tell the truth. And when his subject says, of an old photo of her parents, “They never looked young, but now they look young,” it’s as casually poetic as anything in Gates of Heaven.
Director Alison Maclean (Jesus’ Son) immerses us in a year-long intensive acting conservatory program (the kind of school where students tell people who live nearby that they’re studying at “The Institute,” and don’t have to say more), telling most of her story through the eyes of Stanley (James Rolleston), a sweet, naïve country kid who learns quick. He finds a girlfriend outside the program, whose family is embroiled in a local controversy, and the way Maclean intersects these storylines is surprising, and surprisingly effective. It falls apart a bit in the third act and it’s got one of those endings that plays better in theory than execution, but it gets a lot right about these programs – the particular discomfort of those acting exercises, the dysfunctional family dynamics that can take root in these small cohorts, and the way little romances not only happen, but seem inevitable. And she gets many of the details of young romance just right as well, resulting in a keenly observed and sensitively acted little drama.
I Called Him Morgan
The teacher recalls that when his student told him that she’d been married to a jazz musician named Lee Morgan, his face gave him away. “You know the story too,” she observed. “The story” was how, one chilly night in February 1972, the wife of the acclaimed jazz trumpeter approached him after a gig in a New York City club and shot him dead – but that’s only part of the story, as revealed in this riveting documentary from director Kasper Collin. Drawing on interviews (beautifully shot by cinematographers Bradford Young and Erik Vallsten), archival footage, and an interview with Mrs. Morgan recorded a month before her death – an interview that’s more like a last testament – Collin tells a fascinating story of music and crime, but also asks difficult questions about debt, faith, and responsibility.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
This cinematic excavation story from writer/director/editor Bill Morrison pulls a clever bait and switch right off the bat: it begins as a conventional documentary, explaining how a treasure trove of long-thought-lost silent movies were unearthed in the title city (up in Yukon territory, in Canada), with dramatic discovery footage and talking-head interviews. And then that style is abandoned altogether, in favor of dreamlike music, on-screen text, and films of both newsreel and narrative stripes. Most surprisingly, Morrison decides to tell not just the story of the films (though there’s plenty of that – and not just of film as an art, but film as a substance), but of the place they were found, and the people who inhabited it. In other words, the three hundred-plus movies rescued from the ground are just the hook; this is the story of a modern city, and beyond that, a microcosm of contemporary urban life.
Karl Marx City
When the wall came down separating East and West Germany in 1989, a people’s way of life was inalterably changed – and suddenly questions sprang forth anew. This documentary by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker shines those questions, of reconstruction, recovery, and secrecy, through a personal prism: Epperlein’s father committed suicide years later, and in investigating and exploring his death, she found herself asking questions about his life, his past, and his rumored involvement in the German Stasi. Combining her own new interviews (in crisp, striking black and white) with declassified surveillance tapes and German propaganda films and state TV broadcasts, the filmmakers construct a meticulous inquiry into not only the logistics of this surveillance state, but the mindset that motivated it.