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

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The 55th New York Film Festival kicks off tonight at Lincoln Center, launching more than two weeks of fabulous foreign films, thoughtful documentaries, and fall prestige pictures. Year in and year out, it’s one of the most reliable slates on the festival circuit, combining premieres with the best of Cannes, Venice, Toronto, and Sundance (last year’s selection included Moonlight, 20th Century Women, 13th, Paterson, Manchester by the Sea, Personal Shopper, Things to Come, Elle, Fire at Sea, and Toni Erdmann). We were lucky enough to get an early peek at some of this year’s films; here are a few worth checking out, either here at NYFF or at your local theaters and home screens in the weeks and months to come.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Harold Meyerowitz, the sculptor and father (played by Dustin Hoffman) at the center of Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy/drama, bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the patriarch of his 2005 Oscar nominee The Squid and the Whale, from his unsolicited cultural critiques (“I find Maugham to be skillful without being an artist…”) to his questionable parenting techniques to the manner in which both can be traced to his own status as an also-ran (and the resentments that breeds). But Meyerowitz doesn’t just find Baumbach retracing his steps; he moves beyond dramatization of familial passive-aggression and into maturity and analysis, telling a story about getting older, coming to terms with who these people are, and figuring out how to be your own person anyway. It’s an uproariously funny movie, and a genuinely tender and moving one as well.

The Florida Project

“What are you playing?” the grown-up asks. “We’re just playing!” the kids respond. And director Sean Baker’s follow-up to Tangerine is intoxicated with the sight and sound of kids playing – running and yelling and goofing off, and for much of its running time, the movie seems to be doing the same thing. But Baker is up to something sly here, building a little world within the confines of this Disney World rip-off motel, and crafting scenes of fraying tensions, shared histories, and complicated emotions that linger long after its quietly perfect closing images. This is a deeply humanist filmmaker, and he’s sympathetic to these characters, flaws and all; that humanity, and its coexistence with awareness of those flaws, renders this remarkable picture all the more heartbreaking.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Joan Didion has a fascinating way of speaking in the contemporary interviews of this new biographical documentary – the pauses she takes and gestures she makes, some of it presumably brought on by age, some out of well-practiced dramatic effect. Sometimes she seems to search for the words, in a way we don’t expect from one of the single finest wordsmiths of our time, but then she zonks you; it was just a well-placed beat, or the ramp-up to a laugh line that she’s clearly thought out in advance, and it couldn’t matter less (“I wasn’t surprised that it was turned into a movie. I wish they’d turned it into a better movie”). The decades she’s spent defining that persona make The Center Will Not Hold all the more valuable; this is a very personal portrait, hand-crafted by her nephew, the actor/producer/director Griffin Dunne, and what begins is a tribute to a singular voice and enduring literary legacy becomes a snapshot not only of unimaginable grief, but coping with that grief. Raw, open, and witty – and it’ll make you want to run right out and read everything she’s ever written.

Voyeur

Sometimes making a great documentary is just a matter of luck (Pennebaker and Hegedus chose the Clinton campaign in the ’92 primary, Barbara Koppel just happened to be touring with the Dixie Chicks in 2003, that kind of thing), and Myles Kane and Josh Koury got a generous helping of that luck when they wound up following legendary journalist Gay Talese into the story of Gerald Foos, who retrofitted his Colorado motel so he could spy on his guests – a story that ended up going right off the rails, on the eve of its book publication. It’s a fascinating accounting of a journalist’s process, detailing the push-pull of patience, resistance, and resilience in his decades-long attempt to get Foos on the record, and how that exhaustion may have led his famous instincts to fail him. But the filmmakers also resist the urge to tsk-tsk, acknowledging the structure and artifice in their own work, while following this bizarre and often riveting story down its many blind alleys.

Faces Places

In the playful set-up sequence for this charming documentary from filmmaker Agnes Varda and photographer JR, they walk through all the places they didn’t meet, before, as the younger man puts it, “I made the first move.” He’s using the language of romance, deliberately – because collaboration is a kind of romance. “It’ll be fun making a film together,” she grins, and it seems to be; they roll through the French countryside in his combination of van and photo booth, where they take oversized pictures of everyday people, which JR then turns into genuinely cool side-of-building photo installations. He puts up the photos; she talks to people (from subjects to passerby) about them. But it’s not just about their project – it’s about seeing, sometimes literally (her eye troubles become a running subject), old men recalling their years in the mines, a woman tearing up at the portrait on her home, Varda herself saying, of an old friend, “I may remember my pictures of him better than a remember him.” It ends up speaking to the power of the still image, while working as a good-natured, free-wheeling, and gentle late-period work from one of our honest-to-goodness living legends.

Let the Sun Shine In

“It feels so good to stop all that talking,” notes Isabelle (Juliette Binoche, great as ever), in between kisses with her new lover – but even then, as they’re talking about not talking, they’re still talking, which is its own kind of funny. In the new Claire Denis, the characters never really stop talking; they’re constantly second-guessing, trapping, and bluffing, and though Isabelle is alternately talking to former lovers, current lovers, would-be lovers, and won’t-be lovers, Denis is fascinated by both the differences in these interactions and the subtle similarities, the hostilities and half-truths that seem universal. There’s not much of a narrative here, a point driven home by the way Denis just runs the credits under the last dialogue scene, because it’s not really a story with an “end” in any traditional sense. And there doesn’t need to be; this is character sketch, in the best possible sense of the phrase.

Before We Vanish

This giddily enjoyable stew of absurdist gore from Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa begins with an Invasion of the Body Snatchers set-up, in which a handful of normal people seem just a little… off. A blowhard journalist stumbles onto the story, when a new source confides, “Can you keep a secret? We’re invading Earth.” He conveys it just that simply, and much of Kurosawa’s humor comes from the bone-dry humor of the interactions; before the invasion, the aliens go about “collecting conceptions” of everyday concepts, so they’ll ask people “What is (family, school, love)?” and after it’s explained, they simply point at their forehead and announce “I’ll take that.” Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka’s script cleverly works out all the possibilities of the premise (“I took his conception of work,” an alien announces, as his wife’s boss runs around her office wreaking havov), while Kurosawa mines deadpan comedy out of the straight-faced compositions and slick style. It’s so quiet, this movie – deceptively so.

Ismael’s Ghosts (Director’s Cut)

The latest from director Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale, My Golden Days) debuted at Cannes earlier this year to a mixed reception. The version he’s premiering at NYFF reportedly adds about 20 minutes to the running time, and while I can’t properly judge it against the earlier cut, I will say that this one needs to be at least 20 minutes shorter. There’s much in it to like, particularly Marion Cotillard’s performance as the long-long-long lost wife of the title character (Mathieu Amalric); she spends entire scenes looking at herself in a mirror, like she’s staring at an enigma, and her answers and explanations to his perfectly reasonable questions are elliptical and indecisive. If Desplechin had stuck to their relationship, and the tricky triangle it forms with Ismael’s current love (Charlotte Gainsbourg), he might’ve really had something; as is, it’s just too messy, an abundance of ideas and explorations that don’t all fit, within a structure that’s ultimately tripped up by all its flashbacks and side stories. But there is a scene of Cotillard dancing to Bob Dylan records, so it’s at least got that.