NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
2016 – 54th Festival
The 2017 NYFF ended on 16 October. This Festival—the 54th edition—again under the brilliant leadership of Kent Jones (Director of the NYFF) and Lesli Klainberg (Executor Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center) was a particularly enjoyable one.
The Selection Committee (chaired by Kent Jones, and including Dennis Lim, FSLC Director of Programming; Florence Almozini, Associate Director of Programming for the FSLC ; and Amy Taubin, Contributing Editor, Art Forum and Film Comment) put together an incredible Festival, with a Main Slate of 25 wonderful selections, whih including our very favorite of the 27 films we saw, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. Jim’s film was closely followed in our personal preference by one that was not even in the Main Slate: Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. We also loved Hong Sangsoo’s Yourself and Yours, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, and Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper…closely followed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl , and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle; and the next seven films on my list were also quite wonderful—so, with 15 “wonderful” films, this was an excellent Festival, indeed! (We actually saw 28 screenings, as we ended up seeing two screenings of I Am Not Your Negro, because it was so incredible.)
This year’s Spotlight on Documentary was particularly fabulous (including our second favorite film in the Festival, I Am Not Your Negro): we were able to see four, even though there were several others we wished there had been time to schedule. There were some great Special Events, including a great screening of Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, a documentary about Iggy Pop, and two special dinner conversations (that were a bit rich for our blood) with Adam Driver and Kristen Stewart (the former of which I really wish we could have seen). There were so many wonderful things we did not have time to avail ourselves of, because there simply wasn’t enough time in our days: a series of Revivals , a Retrospective, Convergence (“a variety of interactive experiences, panels, and presentations”), Projections (“a broad range of innovative modes and techniques, including experimental narratives, avant-garde poetics, crossovers into documentary and ethnographic realms, and contemporary art practices”), and Talks. It was a fabulous, fun 17 days—during which time Nancy and I saw 28 screenings (we were supposed to see 29, but we ended up just not being to schedule one of the documentaries we had very much wanted to see, Two Trains Runnin’, (the FS’s description of which I am including anyway).
As always, the range of films in the NYFF was extremely wide. Given that range, is rather impossible for a person to like everything in the NYFF. The only thing that unites this diversity, however, is that all the films are great examples of what they are—they are all excellent, even though some of them I actually did not like.
Following the convenient format I developed last year, I am going to do briefer assessments this year of the 27 films we saw—including, along with my personal reactions and evaluations, the Film Society’s descriptions of the basic information about each film to save time.
Here is the list of MAIN SLATE films, in descending order of how much we liked them (each title contains an embedded link that will take you to its review; you can hit “back” to return to the list):
Jim Jarmusch 2016 USA 118 minutes
Paterson is an amazing film. It is pure Jarmusch…and to me that means it is perfection. Even the intertwining intricacies of the set of it are wonderful: a bus driver (played by Adam Driver, no less) named Paterson, in Paterson, NJ, who writes poetry…in an homage to the book-length poem, Paterson, by William Carlos Williams (who lived in Paterson, naturally). But the most elegant intricacy is that this film about writing poetry is in itself so poetic. As almost every one of Jim’s films, Paterson is gorgeously filmed—this time by DP Frederick Elmes. It is about poetry and creation, and it is a poetic creation…and it was hands-down our favorite film this year.
Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver who writes poetry drawn from the world around him. Paterson is also the name of the New Jersey city where he works and lives with his effervescent and energetic girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani). And Paterson is the title of the great epic poem by William Carlos Williams, whose spirit animates Jim Jarmusch’s exquisite new film. This is a rare movie experience, set to the rhythm of an individual consciousness absorbing the beauties and mysteries and paradoxes and joys and surprises of everyday life, at home and at work, and making them into art. An Amazon Studios Release.
Hong Sangsoo 2016 South Korea 86 minutes
We adore the films of Hong Songsoo. This writer/director creates these masterpieces at the rate of ~1 film per year, and they are all about approximately the same characters and themes; and they are all so terrific that they are almost always in the Main Slate of the NYFF. In his introduction of Yourself and Yours, Dennis Lim (The Director of Programming for the Film Society) actually quoted a conversation I had had with him earlier that day, when I said that Hong keeps making the same film over and over again each year, but that it is an incredibly wonderful film—and that it grows and evolves in the most profoundly rewarding way in each of its new iterations. We never miss one of his films, and he has never disappointed us! This film centers on the tortured relationship between a painter and his girlfriend, whose excessive drinking and flirting (and fighting) with other men exasperate and infuriate him—and yet whom he loves in a powerful, albeit infantile dependent, way. But don’t be misled by this description: the film is lighthearted and tender! And that such content can have such a feel to it is very much part of Hong’s genius. If you do not know his work, you really should discover it. His oeuvre is a joy awaiting you. (And he can pull off such a wondrous experience in an 86 minute run time…something I consider an enormous added talent and benefit.)
Prolific NYFF favorite Hong Sangsoo boldly and wittily continues his ongoing exploration of the painful caprices of modern romance. Painter Youngsoo (Kim Joo-hyuk) hears secondhand that his girlfriend, Minjung (Lee Yoo-young), has recently had (many) drinks with an unknown man. This leads to a quarrel that seems to end their relationship. The next day, Youngsoo sets out in search of her, at the same time that Minjung—or a woman who looks exactly like her and may or may not be her twin—has a series of encounters with strange men, some of whom claim to have met her before . . . Yourself and Yours is a break-up/make-up comedy unlike any other, suffused with sophisticated modernist mystery.
Barry Jenkins USA 2016 110m
This is a wonderfully complex, layered, sophisticated film—on subject matter that easily could have been dealt with in a heavy-handed, clumsy way. It is totally absorbing, grippingly emotional, and satisfyingly intelligent. Alex Hibbert, Aston Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes each do an incredible job of portraying the film’s main character at three stages of his life; and the others in the cast are also wonderful. Barry Jenkins has written and directed a great film.
Barry Jenkins more than fulfills the promise of his 2008 romantic two-hander Medicine for Melancholy in this three-part narrative spanning the childhood, adolescence, and adulthood of a gay African-American man who survives Miami’s drug-plagued inner city, finding love in unexpected places and the possibility of change within himself. Moonlight offers a powerful sense of place and a wealth of unpredictable characters, featuring a fantastic ensemble cast including André Holland, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali—delivering performances filled with inner conflict and aching desires that cut straight to the heart. An A24 release
Maren Ade 2016 Germany 162 minutes.
I like films to be two hours or less, and this was closer to three hours; but the fact that it kept my rapt attention—and that I thoroughly enjoyed it—speaks to how wonderful this film is. It is funny; it is clever; it is entertaining. It works. It easily could have been a full hour shorter, and it would have been much better had it been—in fact, heavy editing would have made this an incredible film. Nevertheless, even as it stands, it is an extremely good film, and well worth watching—and many moments in it are truly fabulous. The fact that Ade has chosen to make it so long hints at its other flaw: it takes itself a bit too seriously; but the flaw is a minor one. The film, works best on it outlandish, comic level…and on that level it is a joyful experience.
An audacious twist on the screwball comedy—here, the twosome is an aging-hippie prankster father and his corporate-ladder-climbing daughter—Toni Erdmann delivers art and entertainment in equal measure and charmed just about everyone who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Maren Ade’s dazzling script has just enough of a classical comedic structure to support 162 minutes of surprises big and small. Meanwhile, her direction is designed to liberate the actors as much as possible while the camera rolls, resulting in sublime performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, who leave the audience suspended between laughter and tears. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Olivier Assayas 2016 France 105 minutes
This is one of those films about which my opinion changed profoundly as I became more distant from it. I have generally loved all of Olivier Assayas’s films, and I consider him of one of the great directors of our day. Although it was a beautifully filmed, exquisitely executed work, my first reaction to Personal Shopper was not to like it all that much. It had two major strikes against it for me: first, Kristen Stewart, whom I had liked in his fabulous Clouds of Sils Maria last year, is actually not an actor I generally like, and she is in almost every frame of this film—very much being the flat, pouty, discontented Millennial she seems usually to be onscreen; second, the film seems very much about mediums and “spiritual” experiences with ghosts and the paranormal—all of which is an immediate turnoff to me. With every passing hours from having seen the film, and for days afterwards, my appreciation for the film continued to grow and my liking for it, increased. I began to feel the subtlety that Olivier had generated in the tension not only of the plot, but in the meaning of the character’s experience itself. I should have known that he would not—even as a thriller—simply buy in to the paranormal as an accepted reality; he is someone acutely and sophisticatedly attuned to the nuances of how people create their experience in the world, and we are witnessing in this film his exploration of certain people’s experience—and, in particular, that of the main character. Silly me to have made any assumptions that we should be taking her experience at face value! In this light, all my objections—even my dislike of her acting persona—take on new meaning; and, in this light, the film transformed for me into an elegant and wonderful exploration of the human psyche and of personal experience of the sort I have come to love and expect from this great director. It would be too much of a spoiler to describe and discuss some of the details of what was directly in the film which I had ignored before my view began pleasantly to mutate; but let me risk it enough to tell you to reflect upon and think about (after you have watched the film) the aspects of the experience different from and/or omitted from her account to the police. In the end, I consider Personal Shopper a great film.
Kristen Stewart is the medium, in more ways than one, for this sophisticated genre exploration from director Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria). As a fashion assistant whose twin brother has died, leaving her bereft and longing for messages from the other side, Stewart is fragile and enigmatic—and nearly always on-screen. From an opening sequence in a haunted house with an intricately constructed soundtrack to a high-tension, cat-and-mouse game on a trip from Paris to London and back set entirely to text messaging, Personal Shopper brings the psychological and supernatural thriller into the digital age. An IFC Films release.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne 2016 Belgium 106 minutes
The Unknown Girl is an exploration of guilt—perhaps even an elegy to guilt—and possibly of redemption, as well. It is a gripping and suspenseful, yet subtle and complex human drama. Made with all the skill and expertise customary for these two fabulous filmmakers, the film goes in directions somewhat new to them.
It’s a few minutes after closing time in a medical clinic in Seraing, Belgium. The buzzer rings. Doctor Jenny (Adèle Haenel) tells her assistant (Olivier Bonnaud) to ignore it. She is later informed that the girl she turned away was soon found dead on the riverside. From that moment, Jenny becomes a different kind of doctor, diagnosing not just her dispossessed patients’ illnesses but also the greater malady afflicting her community. And this is a different kind of movie for Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, in which the urgency pulses beneath the seemingly placid surface, and it is all keyed to Haenel’s extraordinary performance. A Sundance Selects release.
Paul Verhoeven 2016 France/Germany/Belgium 131 minutes
Elle is an incredibly intense, difficult, provocative film. To illustrate, it is enough to say that it alternates between scenes of Michèle, played in a bravura performance by the incomparably talented and beautiful Isabelle Huppert, being violently raped and being amusingly droll and and funny. One is emotionally whipsawed about in the vacillation in this film, a feeling intensified by the tension and danger that pervades its story. Nevertheless, it it an intelligent and deep exploration of the badness and feared inner badness that underlies the psychological phenomenon of victimization that leads people to abuse and to open themselves to be abused—an exploration that is integrally embedded in the narrative of the action, and never as a separate intellectualization. On this count, I found this to be a marvelous film. Unfortunately, my low tolerance for violence made it an extremely hard film for me to watch, and actually lessened my ability fully to appreciate it.
Paul Verhoeven’s first feature in a decade—and his first in French—ranks among his most incendiary, improbable concoctions: a wry, almost-screwball comedy of manners about a woman who responds to a rape by refusing the mantle of victimhood. As the film opens, Parisian heroine Michèle (a brilliant Isabelle Huppert) is brutally violated in her kitchen by a hooded intruder. Rather than report the crime, Michèle, the CEO of a video game company and daughter of a notorious mass murderer, calmly sweeps up the mess and proceeds to engage her assailant in a dangerous game of domination and submission in which her motivations remain a constant source of mystery, humor, and tension. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
20th Century Women Centerpiece
Mike Mills 2016 USA. 118 minutes
20th Century Women features magnificent performances by virtually every member of its outstanding cast: Annette Bening is fabulous, as is Elle Fanning, and Lucas Jade Zumann (who plays Bening’s teenage son); and even Greta Gerwig, whose usual flighty, adolescent performances I have come not to like, turns in a great performance, quite different from her usual roles. The film is witty and clever, and full of extraordinarily funny moments, making it quite enjoyable. It suffers, however, from two—probably related—problems: it is too long by at least 15 or 20 minutes, detracting from its dramatic and comic movement; and it takes itself too seriously, in a way that detracts from its far more successful light hearted mood. It still remains well worth seeing.
Mike Mills’s texturally and behaviorally rich new comedy seems to keep redefining itself as it goes along, creating a moving group portrait of particular people in a particular place (Santa Barbara) at a particular moment in the 20th century (1979), one lovingly attended detail at a time. The great Annette Bening, in one of her very best performances, is Dorothea, a single mother raising her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), in a sprawling bohemian house, which is shared by an itinerant carpenter (Billy Crudup) and a punk artist with a Bowie haircut (Greta Gerwig) and frequented by Jamie’s rebellious friend Julie (Elle Fanning). 20th Century Women is warm, funny, and a work of passionate artistry. An A24 release.
Pedro Almodóvar 2016 Spain 99 minutes
I adore Pedro Almodóvar, and my reaction to almost all of his films has been somewhere between rapture and just adoration. I very much liked Julieta, but it did not rise to the level of greatness for me that most of his films have. Don’t get me wrong: I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is beautiful, it is engaging, it is well made, and it is well acted and directed. The problem for me is that I do not feel that Pedro “got” the main character in a critical way. What was particularly upsetting about this is that he “gets” his female characters more profoundly and more wonderfully—and more lovingly and clearly—than almost any director around; and the title role (played in her younger incarnation by Emma Suárez, and in her older one by Adriana Ugarte; both actresses are beautiful and talented, and I think were successfully portraying their roles as directed—but therein I suspect lies the problem) bothered me and detracted from my appreciation of this film. This is a serious film, not a comedy; and it is about an upsetting subject, that involves the narcissism of its main character. The irony is that Pedro usually understands and successfully and lovingly appreciates the narcissism of his female roles in the deepest and most penetratingly accurate of ways; but, in Julieta, I am afraid he misses it,and/or seriously misunderstands it. Perhaps it is this particular “North American” brand of narcissism (the film takes place here, and actually was originally intended to be made here in English [an undertaking that did not work out]), and perhaps it was exacerbated by the film being based on three stories by Alice Munro (which I do not know, BTW), but the film doesn’t seem to grasp how destructively selfish and self-centered Julieta is. The fact that it so seriously misses how terrible this is—especially for her son—made it very hard for me to like the film as much as I very much wanted to.
Pedro Almodóvar explores his favorite themes of love, sexuality, guilt, and destiny through the poignant story of Julieta, played to perfection by Emma Suárez (younger) and Adriana Ugarte (middle-aged), over the course of a 30-year timespan. Just as she is about to leave Madrid forever, the seemingly content Julieta has a chance encounter that stirs up sorrowful memories of the daughter who brutally abandoned her when she turned eighteen. Drawing on numerous film historical references, from Hitchcock to the director’s own earlier Movida era work, Almodóvar’s twentieth feature, adapted from three short stories by Alice Munro (“Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence”), is a haunting drama that oscillates between disenchanted darkness and visual opulence. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Mia Hansen-Løve 2016 France/Germany 100 minutes
I am not a fan of Hansen-Love, and I rather disliked her last two films. I really enjoyed Things to Come, however. (I suspect that with this film she done something rather different, as some friends who have loved her last films rather disliked this one.) The film is aided by the amazing performance of the wonderful Isabelle Huppert, who plays a radically different role in this film than she does in Elle—similar only in how wonderful her acting is. The film has a beautifully successful texture to it, and it is engaging and entertaining—albeit not as profound as I suspect it takes itself to be.
In the new film from Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden), Huppert is Nathalie, a Parisian professor of philosophy who comes to realize that the tectonic plates of her existence are slowly but inexorably shifting: her husband (André Marcon) leaves her, her mother (Edith Scob) comes apart, her favorite student decides to live off the grid, and her first grandchild is born. Hansen-Løve carefully builds Things to Come around her extraordinary star: her verve and energy, her beauty, her perpetual motion. Huppert’s remarkable performance is counterpointed by the quietly accumulating force of the action, and the result is an exquisite expression of time’s passing. A Sundance Selects release.
Pablo Larraín 2016 Chile/Argentina/France/Spain 107 minutes
This film was not at all what I was expecting: it was far more a fantasy spun out from the feel of Pablo Neruda’s life than a story about his life. I’m not sure I like the portrayal of Neruda; but I am sure I enjoyed it. Neruda creates an adventure fantasy, in which Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco, who, at very least physically, recreates the great Chilean poet marvelously) is pursued by a fictional detective (played wonderfully by Gael Garcia Bernal): it becomes a kind of poetic detective story in which the pursued leaves the pursuer copies of detective novels as he narrowly avoids being captured by him. Although it is “messing” with a figure I hold in enormously high esteem, the film manages somehow to be a thoroughly enjoyable romp along the edge of an important piece of history.
Pablo Larraín’s exciting, surprising, and colorful new film is not a biopic but, as the director himself puts it, a “Nerudean” portrait of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s years of flight and exile after his 1948 denunciation of his government’s leadership. Larraín’s heady blend of fact and fancy (the latter embodied in an invented character, straight out of detective fiction, played by Gael García Bernal) is many things at once: a loving, kaleidoscopic recreation of a particular historical moment; a comical cat-and-mouse game; and a pocket epic. Featuring Luis Gnecco, a dead ringer for the poet and a formidable actor, alongside a terrific cast. Released by The Orchard.
Kenneth Lonergan 2016 USA 137 minutes
This is a film I expected to dislike completely: I had thoroughly disliked Lonergan’s earlier film, You Can Count on Me; and the description of Manchester by the Sea made it sound like it was going to be the most maudlin of soap opera-ish melodramas, and, at a run time of 137, I expected to be in severe pain from it—and I was not expecting at all to like the acting of Casey Affleck. I was completely surprised to find that I enjoyed this film! With the exception of the music—and, while I shall not dignify the person who did it by looking to see what his or her name was, I think the person should be drawn and quartered—which was absolutely embarrassingly and disgustingly terrible (even more maudlin and melodramatic than my worst fears about what the film was going to be: choral sighing and wailing, more soupy even than strings playing emotionally drenched muck), Surprisingly, the film actually took a rather high dramatic road through this potentially sappy material. Even at 137 minutes, it was quite watch-able. Casey Affleck was quite good. And the story held my attention quite well. Nevertheless, this is a film which, as I moved further from the immediate experience of it, progressively diminished in my estimation with the passage of time. Perhaps it was because my expectations had been so extremely low and had been so significantly exceeded, but I ended up thinking that it was only “OK”—not particularly good. I will say, though, that—with the notable exception of the music—it is a watchable and enjoyable film.
In Kenneth Lonergan’s intimate yet grandly scaled new film, Casey Affleck is formidable as the volatile, deeply troubled Lee Chandler, a Boston-based handyman called back to his hometown on the Massachusetts North Shore after the sudden death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), who has left behind a teenage son (Lucas Hedges). This loss and the return to his old stomping grounds summon Lee’s memories of an earlier, even more devastating tragedy. In his third film as a director, following You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret (2011), Kenneth Lonergan, with the help of a remarkable cast, unflinchingly explores grief, hope, and love, giving us a film that is funny, sharply observed, intimately detailed yet grand in emotional scale. An Amazon Studios Release.
Eugène Green 2016 France/Belgium 113 minutes
From its description as a “nativity story reboot,” I had no idea what to expect of this film. We decided to see it because it had Mathieu Amalric in it…and, of course, because the very fact of being in the NYFF means that a film is likely to have great merit! We were very glad we did, as this is a beautiful and interesting film. Had I looked carefully at the description and thought about its description of director Eugène Green’s cherishing of Baroque architecture (which I abhor, BTW), I might have recognize him as the director behind La Sapienza, his last film which I deeply disliked. Green looked familiar when he spoke to introduce Son of Joseph; but mercifully, I couldn’t place him. I say “mercifully,” as I suspect the association with his last film might have made it impossible for me to have enjoyed this one—and enjoy it I did. It treads on the edge of corny-ness and religiosity; but, with the exception of the music in one scene, it successfully avoids all that. Son of Joseph is the story of a teenager, Vincent, whose mother (Marie, no less) tells him he has no father. The boy discovers his actual father (Mathieu Amalric), who is every bit the cad his mother had thought him to be (in deciding not to tell Vincent about him). Vincent connects with his father’s estranged brother, Joseph (of course), and makes a father out of him for himself. There is even a scene in which Joseph is leading Vincent and Marie (who he is leading seated on an ass, no less) out of danger. Sounds hokey, right? It actually isn’t! It is a lovely, warm, human drama that does not require one do anything with The Biblical references and parallels except to enjoy them. What an unexpected treat!
The American-born expatriate filmmaker Eugène Green exists in his own special artistic orbit. All Green’s films share a formal rigor and an increasingly refined modulation between the playfully comic, the urgently human, and the transcendent, and they are each as exquisitely balanced as the baroque music and architecture that he cherishes. His latest movie, Son of Joseph, is perhaps his most buoyant. A nativity story reboot that gently skewers French cultural pretensions, it features newcomer Victor Ezenfis as a discontented Parisian teenager in search of a father, Mathieu Amalric and Fabrizio Rongione as his, respectively, callous and gentle alternative paternal options, and Natacha Régnier as his single mother. A Kino Lorber Films release.
Kelly Reichardt 2016 USA 107 minutes.
Kelly Reichardt is a bit of an acquired taste: her films are slow, languorous, visually lush, and extremely mutedly emotional. Certain Women is no exception. It is beautifully filmed and brilliantly acted. It presents three apparently unrelated stories of everyday life in a small Montana town—subtly intertwined by character overlaps via visual and verbal references (in a way ever-so-slightly reminiscent of what Jim Jarmusch does far more extensively in Midnight Train). Very little actually happens, although there is much going on. (One of our friends who saw it with us—and who is not someone who wants to acquire this taste—said that, “Well. It’s sort of a Western: horses, cowboys, guns, a train…”) It is suffused with sad sense of unrequited longing, verging on resignation. In parts, it is quite brilliant; throughout it is quite beautiful; but it does not make it as a great film.
The seventh feature by Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff), a lean triptych of subtly intersecting lives in Montana, is a work of no-nonsense eloquence. Adapting short stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women follows a lawyer (Laura Dern) navigating an increasingly volatile relationship with a disgruntled client; a couple (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros), in a marriage laden with micro-aggression and doubt, trying to persuade an old man (Rene Auberjonois) to sell his unused sandstone; and a young ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) fixated on a new-in-town night school teacher (Kristen Stewart). Shooting on 16mm, Reichardt creates understated, uncannily intimate dramas nestled within a clear-eyed depiction of the modern American West. An IFC Films release.
The 13th Opening Night
Ava DuVernay 2016 USA 100 minutes
I was told this one would be amazing; I was it afraid would be terrible; it wasn’t—I basically enjoyed it. But it was definitely not wonderful; and the further I got away from it and the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. The first time ever that a documentary opened the NYFF, this was a very timely choice, given the subject matter, but not a great choice given the film—especially when another documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, not even in the Main Slate, was orders of magnitude better in every way. The 13th was cinematographically clever and well-done (unless you are bothered by intense rapid-fire graphics which often resolve into animation, as was Nancy and some of our friends); but it was sloppy and flawed about its extremely important subject matter—the mass incarcerations in the US and the fact that it so disproportionately is directed against Black men. It confuses and conflates Nixon’s Southern strategy with the law and order movement, rolls them together with the war on drugs, sees it all as part of the mass incarcerations that make the US (with 5% of the world’s population, have 25% of those in the world who are in in jail), and attributes it all to the clause in the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States.”) that excludes those who are incarcerated (“except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”); and it sees it all as a deliberate attempt to keep Blacks—and particularly Black men—in chains. It does little or nothing to document or elucidate that claim; but that is the basis for the thesis—and title—of this documentary. It does offer the tantalizing fact that after Reconstruction, apparently indiscriminate arrest was used in the South against Black people; but it does nothing to establish that was the intent of the clause—something I would be most interested in knowing more about, even though I doubt the film’s hypothesis. I do know, however, from having been very involved at the time, that Nixon’s Southern strategy (which, of course, is exactly responsible for why the racists and bigots of our country make up such a big part of the Republican party—and are the ones openly being courted by Donald Trump, in a way they have been consistently been covertly courted by the Republican Party since the Democrats [whose party previously had been home to these folks—particularly in the South] passed Civil Rights legislation under Johnson in the 60s), was not the same as the law and order strategy; and that while the effects of these two strategies eventually did have a terrible impact on the Black community—and the Civil Rights movement—it was not their conscious intent, as naively asserted by The 13th. The film makes a nod to the fact that it knows that the Congressional Black Caucus actually supported the law and order legislation (without actually mentioning that—just parading Charlie Rangel as a buffoonish legislator who supported it and only later realized his folly in doing so), but never treats the fact seriously. There are many, many problematic historical issues in this film, and it glosses over the differences of the 60s and 70s, and then proceeds to merge them with the 80s and 90s. It dumps together every currently important issue of race and injustice and inequality facing the US right up to the current day. So, while it raised numerous crucially important issues, I was extremely dissatisfied with the lack of sophistication in its presentation and handling of these issues.
The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis. To quote Woodrow Wilson on another movie, it’s like writing history with lightning. A Netflix original documentary.
Matías Piñeiro 2016 Argentina/USA 87 minutes
This is a pleasant enough film, engaging at moments, clever in its overlapping of narrative threads. But its forward movement via the use of progressive flashbacks, each of which itself moves forward in the time sequence of the past action lends a sense of sophistication that is contrived, artificial, and ultimately very shallow. It is more “clever” than it is smart; it is more catching of attention than it is of meaningfully sustaining of it. There is clearly directorial ability shown by Matias Piñeiro in this film, but he has a lot to learn about creating meaningful story line.
Shooting outside his native Argentina for the first time, New York–based Matias Piñeiro fashions a bittersweet comedy of coupling and uncoupling that doubles as a love letter to his adopted city. Working on a Spanish translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on an artist residency, Camila (Agustina Muñoz) finds herself within a constellation of shifting relationships (an old flame, a new one, a long-lost relative). Mingling actors from the director’s Buenos Aires repertory with stalwarts of New York’s independent film scene (Keith Poulson, Dustin Guy Defa, Dan Sallitt), Hermia and Helena offers the precise gestures, mercurial moods, and youthful energies of all Piñeiro’s cinema, with an emotional depth and directness that make this his most mature work yet.
Alison Maclean 2016 New Zealand 75 minutes
This is a well-acted, well-done film…and I started out really liking it. But it takes a turn that made me rather totally dislike it: it becomes as adolescent and shallow as some of its characters, and this deeply bothered me. The fact that Alison Maclean can do such a technically good film makes it even worse that her vision is ultimately so puerile. I suppose we are to think that there is redemption for the miscreant behavior in the ending’s turn around; but long before that the film turned sour on me. I did not buy there being anything redemptive at all; and the fact that the characters—and the filmmaker—seemed to feel differently put the nail in the coffin of this film for me.
Alison Maclean (Jesus’ Son) returns to her New Zealand filmmaking roots with a multilayered coming-of-age story about a young actor (James Rolleston) searching for the truth of a character he’s playing onstage and the resulting moral dilemma in his personal life. Set largely in a drama school, featuring Kerry Fox as a diva-like teacher who tries to shape her student’s raw talent, The Rehearsal, adapted from the novel by Eleanor Catton, demystifies actors and acting in order to reveal the moments where craft becomes art. The same happens with Maclean’s understated but penetrating filmmaking. Her concentration on the quotidian yields a finale that borders on the sublime.
Gianfranco Rosi 2016 Italy/Franc 108 minutes
This is one that almost worked: the idea of embedding the extreme immigration crisis of North Africa into the extremely mundane everyday life of the Italian island of Lampedusa is a clever one…and it does almost work. Immersing the viewer in the quotidian existence of a pre-adolescent boy and his family, and only having the horror and pain of the refugees to the island community in which he lives emerge slowly in the interstices of our view of his life on the island actually could have created an even higher level of contrast. Unfortunately, I think Gianfranco Rosi goes too far in the amount of time he spends focusing on the quotidian—and in the end it provides a distraction rather than a contrast. Politically the film is well-meaning and on target. Cinematically it misses the mark.
Winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary observes Europe’s migrant crisis from the vantage point of of Lampedusa, a Mediterranean island where hundreds of thousands of refugees, fleeing war and poverty, have landed in recent decades. Rosi shows the harrowing work of rescue operations but devotes most of the film to the daily rhythms of Lampedusa, seen through the eyes of a doctor who treats casualties and performs autopsies, and a feisty but anxious pre-teen from a family of fishermen for whom it is simply a peripheral fact of life. With its emphasis on the quotidian, the film reclaims an ongoing tragedy from the abstract sensationalism of media headlines. A Kino Lorber release.
James Gray 2016 USA 140 minutes
I had wanted to like this film. We had even brought with us to see it two Peruvian architects, one of whom actually did a masters thesis that involved the civilization in question in that part of the Bolivian Amazon. Some hour or so into this film, however, I began to ask myself, “Why am I supposed to care about this?” By two hours into the film I was angrily convinced that I absolutely did not, and that there was no conceivable reason why I should. The glorification of the main character’s obsessive pursuit of this exploration in no way seemed to justify the toll it took on his family—nor on me as the viewer. It was pitched as “visually resplendent”; but, aside from the visual excitement of the initial hunting scene (totally ripped off from the almost identical—but far better—sequence in Tony Richardson’s academy award winning Tom Jones), we did not find it particularly wonderful visually. The grandiosity of thinking this mess of a story merited a two hour and twenty minute film is very much involved in what was so dreadfully wrong with it: it took itself incredibly seriously without any earthly justification for doing so. It did have high production values; but, as always, that only intensifies my disliking a film when its story and dramatic meaning are so bad. It indeed is a film of epic size; but is a work of tiny value or import,
James Gray’s emotionally and visually resplendent epic tells the story of Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett (a remarkable Charlie Hunnam), the British military-man-turned-explorer whose search for a lost city deep in the Amazon grows into an increasingly feverish, decades-long magnificent obsession that takes a toll on his reputation, his home life with his wife (Sienna Miller) and children, and his very existence. Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji cast quite a spell, exquisitely pitched between rapture and dizzying terror. Also starring Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland, The Lost City of Z represents a form of epic storytelling that has all but vanished from the landscape of modern cinema, and a rare level of artistry.
Dash Shaw 2016 USA 75 minutes
I have no idea what this was doing in the NYFF: it seemed much more like a high school art project than a professional film. It certainly is not for children: it is dark and violent in a deeply disturbing way; but I did not find it suitable for adults, either: it is puerile and vacuous in an unpleasant and unfulfilling way. We and our guests all felt it had been a total waste of time to have gone to see it.
No matter your age, part of you never outgrows high school, for better or worse. Dash Shaw, known for such celebrated graphic novels as Bottomless Belly Button and New School, brings his subjective, dreamlike sense of narrative; his empathy for outsiders and their desire to connect; and his rich, expressive drawing style to his first animated feature. Packed with action but seen from the inside out, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is about friends overcoming their differences and having each other’s backs in times of crisis, and its marvelously complex characters are voiced by Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, and John Cameron Mitchell.
The documentaries in this year’s NYFF were fabulous! I have already included our favorite, I Am Not Your Negro, above among the films of the Main Slate, as it was our second favorite film in the Festival—and we saw it twice! But many of the documentaries below would rank among our favorite films in the NYFF this year, far above many in the Main Slate.
This absolutely incredible documentary should have been in the Main Slate of the NYFF, and I included it above with the Main Slate because it not only deserved to be there, in my opinion it should have been the Opening Night film. It was our second favorite film in the NYFF, and we saw it twice! (See the review above)
Linda Saffire, Adam Schlesinger 2016 USA 90 minutes
We would not have missed this documentary, even if only to support our friend Adam Schlesinger, who co-directed it with Linda Saffire; but, in actuality, it is a terrific film that would be a must-see for us under any circumstances! It is an excellent piece of cinema, engaging, entertaining, and quite moving. Although Wendy Whelan is a world renowned ballerina, known to all who over the years have followed the NY City Ballet, she is not someone I have been particularly interested in; nor am I particularly interested in dance in general. It does not matter: the story of her hip injury and her incredible drive to overcome it and to reclaim her decades-long extraordinary career is so riveting—and the filmmaking about it is so spectacular—that it is virtually impossible not to be thoroughly drawn in and entranced by this film. What a treat! And, if you do love dance, it is an absolute must.
Q&As with Wendy Whelan, Linda Saffire, Adam Schlesinger and additional crew members*
In 1984, Wendy Whelan joined the New York City Ballet as an apprentice; by 1991, she had been promoted to Principal Dancer. She quickly became a revered and beloved figure throughout the dance world. Wrote Roslyn Sulcas, “her sinewy physicality, her kinetic clarity, and her dramatic, otherworldly intensity have created a quite distinct and unusual identity.” Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s film follows this extraordinary artist throughout a passage of life that all dancers must face, when she must confront the limitations of her own body and adapt to a different relationship with the art form she loves so madly.
Errol Morris 2016 USA 76 minutes
Ten years ago, Elsa Dorfman took one of her signature 20 x 24 inch Polaroid photographs of Alex, Nancy, my parents, and me. Two years later, my Dad died, and four years after that my Mom died—so this portrait has become a family heirloom. It is also a totally amazing photograph! (At the reception in her honor before the premiere of the film, I was telling Elsa how special that photograph, taken as a present for my 60th birthday had become; and she said, “Oh! You’re the psychoanalyst!”How she remembered is beyond me…but not beyond her.) Elsa has always been able to capture something enormously special in her work; and there is something technically special visually rich about these extremely large format Polaroid photographs. The esteemed documentarian Errol Morris has made a deeply personal, beautiful, touching, and totally wonderful film about her. It is set as an interview in her Cambridge studio, and consists mostly of her going through photographs she has taken over the years. (The title, The B-Side derives from the fact that the copies she has are the ones her clients did not choose. These Polaroids are one-offs, unique originals; so there are no copies of a photograph, only the actual originals themselves.). In the course of her reminiscing, however, she recounts her personal and professional history, the story of her family and friends (often, like Allen Ginsberg, her subjects as well), and the many years she has been creating this art. Morris, who is a loving friend of Elsa, has created a film that captures the marvels of this fantastic woman and her incredible work. You will be captivated and thrilled to watch it.
Errol Morris’s surprising new film is simplicity itself: a visit to the Cambridge, Massachusetts studio of his friend, the 20×24 Polaroid portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, who specifies on her website that she likes her subjects “to wear clothes (and to bring toys, skis, books, tennis racquets, musical instruments, and particularly pets…).” As this charming, articulate, and calmly uncompromising woman takes us through her fifty-plus years of remarkable but fragile images of paying customers, commissioned subjects, family, and close friends (including the poet Allen Ginsberg), the sense of time passing grows more and more acute. This is a masterful film.
Mohamed Siam 2016 Egypt/USA/France 60 minutes
Co-Produced by our friend Bruni Burres, Whose Country? is enormously powerful, partly because it is so personal and understated. Mostly an interview with a former policeman under the Mubarak regime, the film outlines the corruption and brutality of the police and their devastating effects on the lives of innocent Egyptian citizens. It moves through the period of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (when the main figure re-enters the police department), with its failed hope that more fairness will enter the system; and it continues into the military coup that ended that failed project. The only constants seem to be corruption and brutality. It is a personal tale of a politically crucial swath of Egypt’s modern history—made even more complex by the obvious distortions of the main character’s biased telling of the story…and perhaps even by the filmmaker Mohamed Siam’s own personally related history. It is a completely fascinating piece of documentary cinema that should be seen.
A remarkable, one-of-a-kind film from Egypt, Whose Country? has a point of view that grows in complexity as it proceeds, alongside the shifting fortunes and affiliations of the Cairo policeman who is the film’s subject and guide. By his side, we witness the fall of Mubarak, the rise and fall of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rise of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The level of craft in this film is extraordinary, and so is the close attention that the director pays to his difficult task: illuminating the compromised lives of the protagonist and his friends and the convulsive nation they call home.
Mohammed and Bapu are itinerant film showmen who travel through the Western Indian state of Maharashtra and show 35mm film prints on makeshift screens at village fairs. All the while, they struggle with both the growing possibility of obsolescence and the increasing fragility of their enormous rusty, clanking projectors, kept in barely working order by a repairman named Prakash (who has a beautiful invention: an “oil bath” projector). This colorful, five-years-in-the-making documentary is a real Last Picture Show, but its melancholy is leavened with joy and delight, and the wonder of still images coming to life at 24 frames per second.
Jim Jarmusch 2016 USA 108 minutes
Jim Jarmusch is a musician and a music lover, and music always plays an integral and wonderful role in all his films. As in his 1997 documentary about Neil Young and Crazy Horse's 1996 concert tour, Year of the Horse, in Gimme Danger Jim has created a very personal, beautiful portrait of a musician and his work—this time Iggy Pop and the musicians he worked with, especially the members of his band, The Stooges. This is an intimate, funny, historically important, humanly insightful piece of work. I loved it, even though I am not at all familiar with the music involved.
Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch in person!
“Music is life and life is not a business,” said Iggy Pop when he and his surviving bandmates from The Stooges were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. Jim Jarmusch’s cinematic offering to the punk gods of Ann Arbor traces the always raucous and frequently calamitous history of the Stooges from inception to the present. With the help of animator James Kerr, plus glimpses of Lucille Ball and a shirtless Yul Brynner amidst a bonanza of archival performance footage, photos, and interviews, Gimme Danger has the feeling of a night at Max’s Kansas City. An Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures release.
Pablo Larraín 2016 USA/Chile/France 99 minutes
As much as I had liked Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, I totally disliked his Jackie. I found it an empty, exploitative, self-important and self-indulgent aimless wandering through a painful moment in American history, the assassination of Jack Kennedy. Natalie Portman, whom I usually very much like, was either dreadful in the title role of this film, or she was very successfully acting the flat, empty-headed portrayal of Jackie Kennedy that the director was going for. Either way, it was horrid. One can react many ways to that First Lady’s preoccupation with style and appearance; and, while it is possible to conclude that it did reflect an actual shallowness and self-centeredness, it hardly justifies making a film around that—particularly utilizing the extremely graphic representations of the assassination itself to punctuate this view point. I was not a fan of JFK, nor was I particularly an admirer of his First Lady; but I feel that this pointless and pretentious film is an exploitative and empty taking of this moment in our country’s history. The music was every bit as maudlin and melodramatic as the direction-pperhaps even more disgustingly so. Yuck. (The feel of Jackie was so totally different from anything I can imagine from Pablo Larrain, I actually wonder how much may be attributable to Darren Aronofsky, who was one of the producers, and whose project this originally was, and whose work I have thoroughly disliked.) I am only glad that this was only a last minute addition to the Festival as a Special Event, and not deemed to be worthy to be part of the Main Slate.
Pablo Larraín’s first English-language film is a bolt from the blue, a fugue-like study of Jackie Kennedy, brilliantly acted by Natalie Portman. Dramatizing events from just before, during, and after JFK’s assassination, this carefully reconstructed, beautifully visualized film is grounded in Jackie’s interactions with her children, her social secretary (Greta Gerwig), LBJ’s special assistant Jack Valenti (Max Casella), her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), a priest (John Hurt), a journalist (Billy Crudup), and others. In this emotionally urgent film, from a script by Noah Oppenheim, we feel not only Jackie’s tragic solitude but also her precise awareness that every move she makes carries historical ramifications. A Fox Searchlight release.
In the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, hundreds of young people—including James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were drawn to the deep South to take part in the Civil Rights movement. At the same moment, two groups of young men (including guitarist John Fahey and Dick Waterman, the great champion of the Blues) made the same trip in search of Blues legends Skip James and Son House. That these two quests ended in the volatile state of Mississippi, whose governor famously referred to integration as “genocide,” is the starting point for Sam Pollard’s inventive, musically and historically rich film.