It Portrait is a story of love’s birth, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story details its agonizingly long and emotionally merciless death. It’s Baumbach’s most emotionally open picture to date, and his best, clearly inspired by his own separation from Jennifer Jason Leigh and thus pulsing with the pain and bleak comedy of lived experience. It’s the closest thing he’s done to vintage Paul Mazursky, turning from gutting truth to screwball comedy without losing a step, and the filmmaking, while subtle, is effective – he knows when to let as scene play out in wides, and how to go in for close-ups when his protagonists go for the jugular. In taking his specific experience and addressing it so honestly, Baumbach has performed a tiny miracle: he’s made the confessional universal.
“History isn’t here yet,” King-Lu (Orion Lee) tells Cookie (John Magaro). “Maybe this time we can be ready for it. We can take it on its own terms.” That sense of a wide-open, limitless future isn’t just part of the narrative of Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow; it’s part of her aesthetic, which plunges us into these period-dress stories of American frontier history, but anchors them in spontaneity and timeless concerns. The creature of the title is the first such animal in the area, point of pride for a rich landowner (Toby Jones); its milk becomes a stand-in for the simple pleasures and other extravagancies that seem just barely out of everyone else’s reach. Deliberate, methodical, yet warm and funny, First Cow is a deeply humanist piece of work – it’s worth noting the insight and demystification this female director brings to her story of primitive, grizzled men, glowering and growling at each other, then scrapping messily at the drop of a hat. She sees things they don’t, and after sitting with her for a while, so do we.
The idea of history – of not just observing it, but seizing it and forming it – also looms large over Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. And it’s meant, again, in human terms; it’s a movie that knows that, at the end of the day, the ones who shape history are often those who just happen to be around. Robert De Niro is terrific as one of those men, a mob enforcer whose lifetime of casual crimes and unapologetic tough stuff lead him to a job he does not want, a trigger he cannot pull, but must. Al Pacino is just ferocious as Jimmy Hoffa, chewing up these big speeches but turning into a big pussycat around the people he cares about, perhaps to his detriment. And Joe Pesci is stunning as a boss of quiet power, a man who never raises his voice – in other words, the kind of character we’ve rarely seen him play. Scorsese is, simply, a modern master, and this is one of his finest works.
Another master of the mob movie was accounted for at NYFF this year, not with a new work, but an old work made new. Robert Evans recruited Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola to make The Cotton Club in 1983 in a rather transparent attempt at another Godfather-size success, and Coppola (still bruised from the fiasco of One from the Heart) needed one as well. But bad press and shady financing tanked this one before it opened, and the mediocre reviews didn’t help. Mr. Coppola, ever the revisionist, has gone back to recut the movie (this version is called The Cotton Club Encore in press materials, though not onscreen), restoring the balance of the narrative to favor both his white and black leads (Richard Gere and Diane Lane, and Gregory Hines and Lonette McKee, all doing stellar work), and the balance of the picture to equal parts period gangster story and razzle-dazzle musical. It works best as the latter; the electricity of the floor shows is palpable, and Hines may have never danced better. And in an incredible closing sequence, in which Coppola intercuts a mob hit with a show-stopping stage number, the machine gun fire dueting with Hines’ taps, The Cotton Club is, thrillingly, both movies at once.
It’s easy to imagine a similar fate for Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network – a lesser work by a great filmmaker disappearing into our collective memory hole. And it’s not hard to understand the knocks it’s encountered thus far on the festival circuit; his screenplay tries to cover so much ground, on such an important topic, that the storytelling can feel glancing at best and shallow at worst. But his cast (which includes Edgar Ramirez, Penélope Cruz, Gael García Bernal, and Ana de Armas) is phenomenal, the story is fascinating, and it’s filled with thrilling little set pieces that keep the picture taut. It’s no Carlos or Personal Shopper, to be sure. But it’s a quiet, contemplative, thought-provoking picture, and well worth a look.
Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn has been similarly slagged at previous festivals, and I guess I get why; it’s long and unruly and occasionally messy, and Norton’s decision to move the narrative from the ‘90s to the ‘50s, and mate it with real stories of New York City’s “master builder” Robert Moses (known to most through Robert Caro’s essential book The Power Broker) has baffled some. I thought it was a masterstroke, allowing Norton to adapt two books at once, and underscore the idea that throughout its history, this city has been fueled by the whims of a handful of powerful men. It moves the picture into Chinatown territory, and Alec Baldwin’s turn as the Moses figure is a far more successful personification of Donald Trump – echoing not the mannerisms, but the moral rot. Again, the film has its problems (chief among them Norton’s own twitchy, show-off performance), but it’s gorgeously mounted and sharply directed, and let’s be honest, this Warner Brothers release is exactly the kind of adult-oriented drama that studios have basically abandoned. There is life in them yet.
“Even if they look the other way, we’re still here.” Those words come early in Endless Night (Longa Noite), the strange and mysterious new film from director Eloy Enciso Cachafeiro, a meditation on his country’s traumatic history as told in a series of vignettes, duets, letters, and memories. Many of them are chance encounters and strange conversations, consumed with dialogue that’s direct and poignant, dominated by the long shadow cast by war and fascism; the remnants remain in these characters, and it’s a film filled with sorrow (and some nihilistic humor). This is a very still movie - it sometimes slows to a crawl, and the relationships between what we’re seeing and hearing aren’t always clear. But it’s never less than fascinating.
New York was the ninth state to require that health insurance providers cover trans-affirmative care, and Mount Sinai’s Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery is the focus of Born to Be – particularly the work being done there by Dr. Jess Ting, the center’s charismatic and innovative chief surgeon. Tania Cypriano’s documentary paints an attractive picture of the good-hearted doctor, while peeking in on the lives of a few key patients, letting them tell their own stories, wisely seeing them not just as patients but as complex people. Those stories are often moving and sometimes tricky; nothing comes easy, and Cypriano is thankfully attentive to not only the success stories, but the emotional complications of this work. Moving, thoughtful, and important.
Not all of the festival’s documentaries fare as well. American Trial tackles an important subject – the murder of Eric Garner by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo – but does so in a tacky, exploitative fashion, staging the “trial” for Pantaleo that a Staten Island grand jury declined to instigate. Pantaleo is played by an actor, but the rest of the film is populated by real lawyers and experts, and people involved in the case, which means director Roee Messinger holds on Garner’s widow, in tears, as the details of the crime are recited, and puts her on the stand for not only testimony but a rigorous cross-examination by the “defense.” For what? It’s not like there’s an outcome of justice for her; it’s a show trial, all pretend, so the filmmakers are asking this woman to relive her trauma for nothing but cheap “true crime” thrills. (In the closing credits, she’s seen weeping and wailing after “testifying,” as if the filmmakers are somehow proud of this response, rather than properly ashamed). This is an important story, but all American Trial does is surround it in unnecessary artifice, plugging a horrible crime into a clumsy, amateurish indie flick.
I overheard someone dismissing Varda by Agnès as “her TED talk” and don’t get me wrong, I get the classification; in this, her final film, the great Belgian-French filmmaker Agnès Varda talks at length about her life and career, sharing her buzzwords (inspiration, creation, sharing), and showing some clips. But that logline ignores much of what makes the film special – aside from the inherently compelling nature of the subject – and that’s its playfulness. Combining footage from classroom lectures, public talks, Q&As, archival interviews, and new direct-to-camera explainers, she’s funny about the format (“I’ll continue my chat here. And I’ll invite birds and children”), candid about her station (“I just passed 90 and I don’t care”), and enlightening about her craft, particularly the ways in which her fiction work informed her documentaries, and vice versa. It’s a wonderful overview of her career, and informative primer on a special artist who is already missed.