From colonial Paraguay and rural Mississippi to Tanzania and Hollywood’s Macao, the 55th New York Film Festival spans the globe.
Whereas John Logan adapted Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret for Martin Scorsese; Selznick himself adapted Wonderstruck, his subsequent illustrated novel, for Todd Haynes’s nostalgic children’s movie for adults. It’s a heart-rending tale of two deaf, neglected kids and one inspirational city.
In 1927, unhappy Rose (Millicent Simmonds) heads from Hoboken to New York City to find her favorite silent movie star (Julianne Moore), currently appearing in an adventure romance inspired by D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920). Fifty years later, Ben (Oakes Fegley), whose single mom (Michelle Williams) has been killed in a car accident, leaves Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, to find the father he’s never known, in the Big Apple. Instead, he finds Rose…
Spiritually connected, Rose and Ben are devotees of the spectacularly preserved—The American Museum of Natural History, Queens Museum—and investigators and archivists of the past, whose passion for legendary stars (in Rose’s case) and cabinets of wonder (in Ben’s case) allows Haynes to make the film itself a repository of cinematic arcana. Ed Lachman’s camerawork bathes their separate worlds and the one they find together in familiarly vintage auras. Haynes also dynamically incorporates David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Screening: October 7
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Director Robin Campillo infuses his depiction of ACT UP-Paris’s war against France’s Big Pharma, which habitually sold out AIDS and HIV-positive patients, with humor and melodrama.
The most vigorous sequences show the heated debates between ACT UP members of both sexes. The most romantic and erotic scenes depict the love affair of the guarded new member Nathan (Arnaud Valois), the film’s observant protagonist, and the vehement revolutionary activist Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who are HIV negative and positive respectively.
Campillo flinches from neither the Kaposi’s sarcoma that appear on Sean’s back and feet, nor the harrowing sight or effect of his protracted death. Timely in this era of political repression, Campillo’s movie feels less mawkish than empowering. October 8 and 9.
The Day After & On the Beach at Night Alone
A moody, confrontational double dose of autobiography from the South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, whose relationship with his leading lady, Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden), caused a media uproar in Seoul. In On the Beach at Night Alone (October 8 and 9), set in Germany and Korea, Kim plays an actress, Young Hee, who makes a melancholy retreat from the public eye when it’s disclosed she’s having an affair with her married director.
Hong mordantly plays further self-reflexive games with The Day After (October 7 and 8). Kwon Hae-hyo plays the successful critic and publisher Bongwan, who is depressed over the end of his love affair with his former assistant (Kim Sae-byuk). On the day her educated, enthusiastic, and attractive replacement Areum (Kim Min-hee) starts work, his enraged wife (Jo Yun-hee) assumes Areum is the woman who was involved with her husband—and she attacks the innocent newcomer verbally and physically. Then Bongwan callously seeks to replace Areum with his ex-mistress.
A sense of ennui and disconnection pervades this comedy of manners and mistaken identity, which is reminiscent of—though more troubling than—Eric Rohmer’s Contes Moraux. The long boozy lunches and dinners at which Bongwan entertains his PAs are very funny, but Kwae leaves an impression of a selfish, jaded solipsist, which may be Hong’s fiercely ironic self-portrait.
The British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall is the subject of this National Geographic documentary, as she was in the organization’s first film, Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees (1965). It features priceless material culled from 100 hours of footage rediscovered from Hugo van Lawick’s original shoot of Goodall’s interaction with the chimp population of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. At the time of writing, this remarkable woman is 83. October 5 and 6.
The Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s first movie since the cryptic psychological thriller The Headless Woman (2008) is another literary masterpiece that doesn’t spoon-feed exposition to the audience. Adapted from Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel, it unfolds a tale of hubris, wasted potential, and colonial futility as if it were an amalgam of Aguirre, Wrath of God and Waiting for Godot.
In a coastal town in Paraguay in the 18th century, Don Diego de Zama (stoically portrayed by Daniel Giménez Cacho, pictured at top) labors fruitlessly for the local magistrate on behalf of the Spanish crown, his yearning to be promoted and transferred to an urban center thwarted over the passing decades because he isn’t a Spaniard.
A slave to lust and corruption, Zama is eventually sent out into the swamps on a fool’s errand, where he encounters (perhaps) the vicious brigand, long thought dead, who plagues the region. Martel’s tightly framed compositions have a disorienting effect that borders on the hallucinatory, while the anachronistic flamenco-tinged guitar score lends the movie a sardonic contemporaneity. October 2.
Let the Sunshine In
Romantic love is an ongoing catastrophe for Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a divorced Parisian artist whose desperate need for a man to call her own is reducing her to an emotional wreck. Claire Denis’ spare, extremely witty drama is as psychologically incisive as one might expect from the director of 35 Shots of Rum and Friday Night. Of the mostly awful men Isabelle dates, two are married, strongly indicating she herself is unconsciously commitment-phobic.
Binoche is spellbinding as a woman who’s both existential seeker and open wound. Nicolas Duvauchelle impresses as the neurotic actor who smites Isabelle with his charm but constantly runs from her. An amazing last-scene-only portrayal of a self-seeking fortune teller by a famous French actor suggests the structural influence of Mike Leigh’s Home Sweet Home. October 7 and 8.
No actor has more doggedly supported human rights than Vanessa Redgrave. Her documentary feature debut as a director is a personal reflection on the global refugee crisis. Interviewees include former refugee children and campaigners, including the Labour Party politician Alfred, Baron Dubs, who was delivered from Nazi-occupied Prague on the Kindertransport when he was six. October 7 and 8.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Laid out in chapters, Noah Baumbach‘s latest serio-comic ode to family dysfunction centers on an egocentric Manhattan sculptor in his seventies (Dustin Hoffman), who roundly failed to nurture his unemployed (and seemingly unemployable) eldest son (Adam Sandler); his middle son (Ben Stiller), a type-A financial adviser; or their barely socialized sister (Elizabeth Marvel).
The luminous Grace Van Patten is a major discovery as the teenage film-student daughter with whom Sandler’s character has a perfect relationship, and Rebecca Miller and Candice Bergen are outstanding in small roles; alas, Emma Thompson has little to do as the sculptor’s seldom sober fourth wife. The writer-director’s sharpest work since The Squid and the Whale—with which it shares a parking-is-hell sequence—Meyerowitz is also his most handsomely crafted movie. A joy. October 2 and 3.
Claude Lanzmann’s Four Sisters
When Lanzmann was conducting the interviews for his monumental Shoah in the 1970s, he recorded the testimony of four female Holocaust survivors that didn’t make it into the final cut. He now presents in the separate films The Hippocratic Oath, Baluty, Noah’s Ark, and The Merry Flea the unadorned accounts of Ruth Elias from Ostravia, Czechoslovakia; Paula Biren from Lodz, Poland; Ada Lichtman from Krakow, Poland; and Hanna Marton, from Cluj-Napoca (or Kolozsvár) in Transylvania.
For example, in The Hippocratic Oath, Ms. Elias, whom Lanzmann met in her Israeli home, reports in detail the deporting and murder of her extended family in the camps; how she was shunted between Theresienstadt and Auschwitz; and how the Nazi physician Josef Mengele personally ordered her to give a lethal injection to her newborn baby.
That she was able to sing on soul-destroying work details—and for Lanzmann, sings and plays on her accordion a long-remembered song of hope—seems like a miracle. October 7, 8, and 10.
The Rape of Recy Taylor
Nancy Buirski’s documentary examines the case of Recy Taylor, a law-abiding African-American mother and churchgoer of Abbeville, Alabama, who, on September 3, 1944, was abducted by seven white men and raped by six of them.
Taylor was subsequently threatened and vilified for pressing charges. Though two Grand Juries acquitted her assailants, her fight for justice, aided by Rosa Parks, contributed to the Civil Rights movement and eventually brought her an apology from the Alabama Court of Representatives. Now a 97-year-old resident of Florida, Taylor appears as herself in the film. October 3.
African-American director Dee Rees and her co-writer Virgil Williams adapted Mudbound from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. Spanning the World War II era and the painful aftermath, it’s an ambitious, multi-character-narrated period epic about the racial tensions between two Mississippi farming families: the white McAllans and their black sharecroppers, the Jacksons.
Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige play the mothers who try to forge a bond despite the racist malevolence of the Mulligan character’s father-in-law. Rob Morgan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, and Garrett Hedlund are also in the cast of a movie that is certain to compete for Oscars—assuming Netflix gives it a big enough theatrical window. October 12 and 13.
Ismael’s Ghosts: The Director’s Cut
French auteur Arnaud Desplechin has come up with another idiosyncratic, quasi-autobiographical tale. This time, his frequent collaborator Mathieu Amalric plays the passionate, sexy, and decidedly unkempt filmmaker Ismael, who is writing a thriller-cum-fantasy about the adventures of his younger brother (Louis Garrel), a far from plausible spy.
Ismael’s relationship with his serene girlfriend Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) keeps him on the straight and narrow, but all hell threatens to break loose when his wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) shows up. Twenty-one years absent and long presumed dead, this beautiful phantom still casts a spell over the emotionally fragile director and her traumatized father (played by the Hungarian filmmaker László Szabó), who is Ismael’s beloved mentor.
The director’s cut screening at the festival is overlong and a bit of a mess, but it isn’t short of Desplechin’s wild epiphanies. You can’t take your eyes off Amalric’s demon of a director or Cotillard’s enigmatic seductress. October 13 and 14.
Amalric directed three music films screening at the festival. C’est Presque au Bout du Monde (2015), Zorn (2010-2017) (2017), and Music Is Music (2017) comprise a lovely, intimate trilogy. October 13 and 14.
Beijing-born Chloé Zhao, maker of the compelling Songs My Brothers Taught Me, returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to make a drama about a champion Native American rodeo rider and horse trainer (Brady Jandreau) whose head injury forces him to quit the only vocation he has.
Zhao met Jandreau before she had the idea for the film. It came to her after he sustained a deep head gash from a horse’s hoof while working as a cowboy; Jandreau narrowly escaped with his life. He and his relatives are all non-actors who play versions of themselves. The lyrical cinematography is by Joshua James Richards.
The Rider should one day be paired with Nicholas Ray’s rodeo classic The Lusty Men, one of the Robert Mitchum movies also screening at the festival (see below). Zhao’s film screens on October 12 and 14.
Lover for a Day
Newly heartbroken Jeanne (Esther Garrel) and hedonistic Ariane (newcomer Louise Chevillotte) are 23-year-old Parisians, living under the same roof, who are competing for the attentions of the same older man.
Veteran director Philippe Garrel’s latest Freudian drama of triangulated love and jealousy isn’t as straightforward as it sound: Gilles (Éric Caravaca), the man in the middle, is Jeanne’s father and Ariane’s professor and lover.
Ariane also regularly sleeps with men her own age and, when the two women bond, encourages Jeanne to do the same. Satisfying desire and finding happiness, Garrel implies, may not be reconcilable goals. October 10 and 11.
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut was mined from her experiences growing up in Sacramento. Saoirse Ronan plays an arty young woman who aspires to living in New York City and escaping the shadow of her strong-minded mother (Laurie Metcalf).
Were Lady Bird to be played alongside Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Mistress America, a reasonably full portrait of Gerwig’s pre-mumblecore life would emerge. October 8 and 9
Here’s the story of Gay Talese’s encounters with the motel owner Gerald Foos, whose untrustworthy accounts of his years of bedroom peeping inspired the author’s controversial book The Voyeur’s Motel. Myles Kane and Josh Koury directed this juicy slice of off-center Americana for Netflix. October 4 and 5
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
Novelist and essayist Joan Didion—like Talese, a star of New Journalism—is the subject of her nephew Griffin Dunne’s candid portrait. It traces the cultural upheavals Didion chronicled in her work, and the successive losses of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. October 11, 12, and 14
Chinese visual artist Xu Bing builds a fictitious drama about a doomed romance from actual CCTV surveillance footage. Playing in the festival’s experimental Projections section, Xu’s debut asks pertinent questions about the nature of identity and desire in the digi-sphere many of us are locked into. October 8 and 9
Word is strong on Woody Allen’s latest film, which is set in 1950s Coney Island. Justin Timberlake plays a lifeguard who tells—and embellishes, or possibly fantasizes—the story of a poor carousel operator (James Belushi) and his wife (Kate Winslet) whose lives are disturbed when his long absent daughter (Juno Temple) shows up.
Winslet’s persona these days espouses many of the struggles embodied by the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford in the so-called women’s pictures of the 1940s and 1950s. Given Allen’s astute direction of women, don’t bet against Winslet earning an Oscar nomination for her latest foray into melodrama. Wonder Wheel closes the festival on October 14.
Retrospective: Robert Mitchum Centenary
In the 20 years since Robert Mitchum’s death, it’s gradually been acknowledged that the sleepy, taciturn hunk was one of the greatest of all Hollywood actors. The festival’s celebration of his centenary showcases 24 of his films and Bruce Weber’s still unfinished Mitchum profile Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast.
Among the gems are Out of the Past, The Night of the Hunter, The Lusty Men, Angel Face, Thunder Road, Crossfire, Macao, Track of the Cat, The Yakuza, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, both versions of Cape Fear, and Dead Man. October 2–14