Frederick Wiseman has always been an observational filmmaker, and his latest does not break that mold; he rambles through a small town in Indiana, giving us a series of wide shots (buildings, streets, homes), occasionally settling on one and peeking in for a bit. He sees Bible studies, school lessons, and city planning meetings; he watches a concert (where the orchestra class plays a pokey version of The Simpsons theme) in a high school gym, then returns there several weeks later for a mattress sale, somehow. He’s always resisted making grand statements, at least explicitly — there are no talking head interviews or voice-over narrators to tell us what it all means — but the amount of time he spends at a funeral near the film’s conclusion says all he needs to say.
After two runs around the dance floor with Kristen Stewart, director Olivier Assayas is back with perhaps the Frenchest of his films to date, a chatty, smart movie about intelligent yet self-sabotaging people. Its subjects are all in entertainment, publishing, or politics, and the clever script explores the ways in which the lines between those three fields have blurred; they have affairs and disappoint each other, and in between there are heady conversations about algorithms, criticism, targeted marketing, and binge-watching. It’s a rare movie that gets how these kind of people really talk, how theorizing and proclamation masquerades as conversation, and (as ever) Assayas has a keen ear for the way people who care about each other are uniquely equipped to cut each other to ribbons.
Ash Is Purest White
Jia Zhangke and his frequent collaborator (and wife) Zhao Tao reteam for this story of a gentleman gangster’s moll who ends up doing five years for him, and finds herself reentering the world on very different terms. Zhangke experiments energetically with tone and tempo, stretching her story across a decade and a half, with flavors of gangster movie, prison drama, and romantic melodrama. Ultimately, it’s a story of forgiveness — of finding the strength to be your own person, and using that strength for good.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Bi Gan’s half-3D drama is a Mobius loop of past and present, in which, as one character puts it, “Memories mix truth and lies, they appear and vanish before our eyes.” A young man attempts to track down his recently deceased father’s great lost love, his quest intermingling with her past in unexpected, dreamlike ways. It’s moody as hell — the voice-over is hushed and enigmatic, the musical score is languid, and it’s always raining — but never forced or derivative, a journey picture played out in impeccably controlled long takes and images that live in a space between daydream and hallucination.
This character-driven drama from director Lee Chang-Dong is one of those films that genuinely benefits from going in cold — I knew nothing whatsoever about it going in, and thus its pivot from a melancholy romance to unnerving mystery was genuinely surprising and undeniably affecting. Chang-Dong works in a meandering style, in which you’re not really certain where he’s going until he gets there, but you’re also never really worried, so striking are the images and compelling are the relationships. All three of these fine Asian features are pointedly unpredictable, all but gear-shifting into different films throughout their expansive running times, and this is a trend American cinema would be wise to emulate.
In My Room
One of the best bait-and-switches in recent memory comes about 30 minutes into this effort from German writer/director Ulrich Köhler, who sets up what looks very much like a cringe comedy about a daft screw-up (Hans Löw) tanking his job while alienating his friends and family. And then, one morning he wakes up and… everyone’s gone. There’s no power, no water, and no other people; the highways are littered with abandoned cars and free-range wild animals. And it turns out, he’s a much better, happier person when no one else is around. Köhler nimbly shifts from observation to nihilism to optimism, and works through the particulars of his predicament without ever really explaining it. (Rapture? Vanishing? Who knows!) A warped yet funny piece of work, with some turns that really catch you unawares.
The New York Film Festival runs September 28 through October 14; more information here, and more reviews to come.