2017 New York Film Festival Roundup

An unusually strong lineup of documentaries was front and center at this year’s New York Film Festival, led by the two-week event’s best film, Faces Places (now playing), which shows that, at age 88, French director Agnes Varda continues to make beautiful, humanistic films that display real people. Varda has been joined by 33-year-old photographer and provocateur JR, who shares her indomitable spirit, and the result is a joyful, lovely valentine to humanity. The movie is funny, thoughtful, touching, and makes viewers yearn for more from these kindred souls.

There were several other notable documentaries, like The Rape of Recy Taylor, about the brutal assault in 1944 Mississippi on a young black mother by several white teenage boys who were never brought to trial. The horrible crime and its aftermath are recounted by director Nancy Buirski in her incisive and non-polemical (but justifiably angry) film that displays an America anything but enlightened, and virulently racist. Stanley Kubrick’s famously obsessive personality dominates Tony Zierra’s Filmworker, an engaging portrait of Leon Vitali, who gave up an acting career—he was in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in 1975—to become the director’s closest and most trusted assistant, famously discovering little Danny Lloyd for The Shining. Vitali comes across as ingratiating and unquestionably loyal to Kubrick’s vision for a quarter century—even after his boss’s death, as Vitali ensures how the films look onscreen, on DVD and Blu-ray.

In Hall of Mirrors, sister directors Ena Talakic and Ines Talakic have a fascinating subject in legendary reporter Edward Jay Epstein, who has intrepidly worked on a half-century of investigations into such subjects as the Warren Commission and Edward Snowden. Epstein comes off as resolutely non-partisan, and although he might go to extremes, the Talakics definitively show that, more than ever, America needs someone of his fearlessness to dig for dirt others won’t.

Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s Voyeur (on Netflix December 1) shows how veteran writer Gay Talese—who wrote a book about a man who spied on his hotel visitors for decades—discovered that his reporting and writing are brought into question when it’s revealed on the eve of the book’s publication that it contains untruths. In recounting the 85-year-old’s storied but checkered career, Voyeur allows Talese to give his side of what’s become an increasingly sordid story.

Cramming the 45-year career of Hollywood’s most successful director into 2-1/2 hours isn’t easy, so credit Susan Lacy—director of Spielberg (on HBO)—for not making a banal overview of the artist who began with Duel and The Sugarland Express and continues today with Bridge of Spies and The BFG. An in-depth interview with the man himself provides pertinent details about how his difficulties growing up informed several of his films. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (on Netflix) is actor Griffin Dunne’s personal and touching portrait of his aunt, writer Joan Didion, tracking her career as essayist and novelist along with her tragic personal life, which saw the premature deaths of her husband and adopted daughter (which begat her most intimate books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights). We hear from literary colleagues like the always amusing Calvin Trillin and family members who discuss her personal and professional legacy.

Too bad the features making up the main slate were, with a few exceptions, disappointments. The Other Side of Hope (opening December 1) by Finnish prankster Aki Kaurismaki is—even by his hit-or-miss standards—forgettable fluff. Riffing on the topical theme of refugees flooding Europe, Kaurismaki’s hero, Syrian refugee Khlaed, deals with Finnish bureaucracy and, through a series of extraordinarily lazy coincidences, finds a good job, thanks to an altruistic gambler turned restaurant owner. The director’s usual deadpan comedy fails here, with clunky performances matching the overarching pointlessness. Even the usually reliable Isabelle Huppert can’t save Serge Bozun’s Mrs. Hyde, a ham-fisted update of Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde with Huppert as a mousy teacher who becomes a brand new, (literally) fiery woman. Huppert maintains her usual flair, but Bozun telegraphs everything—she teaches mainly foreign and minority students, helping a handicapped one reach his potential despite his own insults toward her—and the scenes of Mrs. Hyde’s otherworldly powers soon become risible, infecting the entire film.

Juliette Binoche: that’s all you need to know about Let the Sunshine In, Claire Denis’ thin melodrama masquerading as an incisive character study of a middle-aged woman looking for love in all the wrong places. Denis’ usual cinematographer Agnes Godard shoots with her typical finesse, but the script and characterizations are banal, especially when the camera holds on faces for long, arid stretches. Even so, Binoche holds the screen like the movie star she is. The Square (now playing), Ruben Ostlund’s excruciatingly repetitive and meretricious farrago, somehow won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Ostensibly an assault on political correctness and liberalism’s failure, it’s just a collection of visual, verbal and narrative non-sequiturs piled up as haphazardly as the gravel in one of the film’s trendy modern-art exhibits at a museum which is the film’s main locale. Ludicrous happenings with no rhyme, reason or context are seen and forgotten about as the film stumbles on, single-mindedly trying to be cool and detached simultaneously. The Square is the most obnoxiously self-satisfied film I’ve seen since Toni Erdmann, which is saying a lot.

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature shares a title with Dostoyevsky’s short story but little else in this snail’s-paced, occasionally astonishing but often hellishly tedious account of a young wife—looking for her husband, jailed for a murder he didn’t commit—who finds that corruption taints both government bureaucrats and regular citizens who have become inured to its effects. Nearly 2-1/2 gorgeously directed but meandering hours are climaxed by a colossal miscalculation of a dream sequence that must be seen to be disbelieved. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (on Netflix) is the latest portrait of self-absorbed Manhattan lives from Noah Baumbach, who has parlayed his third-rate Woody Allen forgeries into a career. This is the kind of movie where Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel and Adam Sandler, as members of the same family, recite their dialogue as if they’ve just met for the first time. Only Grace Van Patten as Sandler’s precocious daughter has the presence and vitality of a real person.

Ravishingly shot in the Polish countryside, Spoor—which veteran Agnieszka Holland co-directed with Kasia Adamik—is an allegorical environmental thriller in which heartless hunters are being offed in the local woods, and the culprits might just be the animals themselves. For much of its two-hour length, the movie is cracklingly good, goofy fun, but by the time of the big reveal, it becomes unfortunately mundane. Holland’s eye never wavers, however; even when the drama is sidetracked, there’s continuous visual ravishment. Thelma (opens Nov. 10), the latest from Danish director Joachim Trier, is an often dazzling dramatization of an ultra-religious family’s bizarre history, following a young woman (a transfixing Eili Harboe) whose seizures are a manifestation of her own supernatural powers which come to the fore when she finds herself attracted to another young woman, which horrifies her sense of morality and of God. Trier’s intelligently realized thriller cruises brilliantly for over an hour until cracks begin to show—when it suddenly lurches and drags itself to an inevitable, if predictable, conclusion.

If it wasn’t for Saoirse Ronan, Greta Gerwig’s lumpy writing-directing debut, Lady Bird (now playing) would seem even more like a barely competent vanity project. Based on Gerwig’s own teenage years in central California, Lady Bird follows a high school senior through the usual travails—teachers, boys, family, herself—with navel-gazing and self-absorption typical of millennial studies. It’s the kind of movie whose references to Sept. 11 and the Iraq War appear shoehorned in, as if someone said to Gerwig, “why doesn’t anyone acknowledge what’s happening outside of their little community?” Ronan, unsurprisingly, is magnificent, investing her underwritten character with the false bravado, massive insecurity and empathy that her writer-director forgot to give her.

I’ve saved the festival’s best features for last. Ismael’s Ghosts (opening in 2018) is the latest from French director Arnaud Desplechin, whose films are so crammed with detail, incident, characterization and location that they resemble cinematic versions of long novels. But they’re not simply visualizations of literature; instead, they are gloriously filmic (his two-plus hour-long films fly by faster than anything by most other directors). Ghosts centers on a director making a film about his estranged—and politically shady—brother, and brilliantly and effortlessly moves along separate but equally absorbing paths, both real or fake. The intrigue is especially delicious, especially when it’s served up by a formidable cast headed by Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg—who gives what may be her best screen performance.

Finally, there’s BPM—Beats Per Minute (now playing), a galvanizing, vital docudrama by director Robin Campillo, which explosively re-examines the early days of the French chapter of ACT UP—the AIDS advocacy group whose protests included physical mayhem and disruption—through an unabashedly emotional look at the close relationships among those who made it their life’s work to ensure the future of those suffering from the disease. Sometimes intentionally difficult to watch, BPM is a full-on fuck-off to anyone and any organization that stood in the way. Nearly 2-1/2 hours long, there is not a sequence, line of dialogue or frame that’s superfluous; incendiary performances by a mainly unknown cast contribute to the ultra-realistic atmosphere.

55th New York Film Festival
Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, NY
September 28-October 15, 2017
filmlinc.org/nyff