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Kristen Stewart in 'Personal Shopper.' | © IFC Films
Kristen Stewart in 'Personal Shopper.' | © IFC Films
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A Thematic Guide To The 2016 New York Film Festival

Picture of Graham Fuller
Film Editor
Updated: 28 September 2016
Actors Kristen Stewart, Isabelle Huppert, and Michelle Williams and directors Jim Jarmusch, Ava DuVernay, and Ang Lee are among the top names at this year’s New York Film Festival, but what kinds of issues and subjects do the movies deal with?

As committed as ever to showing the highest quality films and fulfilling a strong liberal-humanist agenda, the festival offers a typically diverse selection. Yet it’s not difficult to detect themes and strains in the movies that forge a series of links between them.

This connectivity goes beyond Kristen Stewart appearing in three of the films, Isabelle Huppert and Michelle Williams appearing in two apiece, Jim Jarmusch directing two (including Paterson, above), and there being two from major auteurs of the decade-old Romanian new wave and two about Cuba, one being the revival Memories of Underdevelopment.

Both Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta and Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, for example, show trace marks of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. Eugène Green’s Son of Joseph and Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical are modern nativity tales. Films about refugees and exiles include Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea and Pablo Larrain’s Neruda. War raises its ugly head in Ang Lee’s technically innovative Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1956 masterpiece The Battle of Algiers (a new 4K restoration).

Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (see also ‘Bureaucracy Is Hell’ below), the Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius (which stars the great Sônia Braga), and Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail  are films about making a stand. Father surrogates link I, Daniel Blake, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, and the first strand of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which makes the practical-joker dad of Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann almost anomalous.

In addition, there are four films set in the theater world (one of them about Hamilton, naturally) and five about films or film folk, among them I Had Nowhere to Go – Douglas Gordon’s portrait of the avant-garde pioneer Jonas Mekas – and Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens’ Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Errol Morris’ latest documentary The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography and Bill Morrison’s found-footage opus Dawson City: Frozen Time both deploy astonishing images in their meditations on the rapidly receding past.

What follows is an informal survey of these and other festival films – some old, most new – arranged in eight categories.

TO BE AN AFRICAN AMERICAN

  • Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th is her follow-up to Selma – and it’s even more momentous. Combining archival footage with testimony, it shows that antebellum bondage effectively persists in the mass-criminalization and imprisonment of black people, which exploits a loophole in the the 13th Amendment to the Constitution permitting slavery and involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
  • James Baldwin died before he could finish writing his memoir about his assassinated friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The director Raoul Peck has breathed new life into its 30 completed pages by having Samuel L. Jackson read from them in I Am Not Your Negro
  • Barry Jenkins’ haunting Moonlight depicts, in three life stages, the journey from childhood to maturity of a gay African-American man raised by a drug-addicted single mother in Miami. Virtually every characterization in the film refutes the kinds of clichés that solidify into stereotypes – of black males particularly. It couldn’t be more timely.

A WOMAN’S WORLD

  • Like Lars von Trier, Paul Verhoeven provokes outrage when he makes films about women. Elle, his cryptic latest, centers on a formidable performance by Isabelle Huppert as a serial killer’s daughter who draws her rapist into an unexpected relationship. Her character demands to be compared with Huppert’s masochist in Michael Haneke’s The Pianist.
  • In Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, Huppert is in full throttle as a philosophy professor discovering that theories are insufficient to sustain her when she’s forced to contend with her husband’s infidelity, her mother’s crack-up, her cat’s obesity, a love affair with a young man, and grandmotherhood.
  • Kelly Reichardt’s sublime Certain Women, which she adapted from stories by Maile Meloy and shot in 16mm, extends the “slow cinema” style she personalized on her 2010 revisionist Western Meek’s Cutoff. Her long takes allow viewers to fill in the thoughts of four modern Montana woman whose lives intersect: a lawyer (Laura Dern) coping with a self-destructive client; an unhappy wife (Michelle Williams) who selfishly pressures an old man (René Auberjonois) to part with some rocks; and a night-school teacher (Kristen Stewart) perplexed by the attentions of a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone).
  • Mike Mills’ comedy  20th Century Woman time-travels to 1979 Santa Barbara for a story about a youth (Lucas Jade Zumann) being emotionally educated by his liberal single mom (Annette Bening), a Bowie-clone photographer (Greta Gerwig), and a minx his own age (Elle Fanning).
  • Deadlier Than the Male, one of the festival’s revivals, probably wasn’t Simone de Beauvoir’s favorite film of 1956. Julien Duvivier directed his old star Jean Gabin as a gullible Les Halles restaurateur seduced by his ex-wife’s vicious daughter (Danièle Delorme).

BUREAUCRACY IS HELL

  • With I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach once again salutes working-class solidarity in the face of the British government’s callousness. Unable to work because of his heart condition, widowed skilled laborer Daniel (Dave Johns) bonds chastely with Katie (Hayley Squires), a poor single mother, after they meet in an unemployment office that erects bureaucratic barriers to prevent them claiming benefits. A near-farce that turns into a tragedy, the film won the newly unretired Loach his second Palme d’Or. 
  • Everything Else, the first fiction film directed by the Mexican-American documentarist Natalia Almada, is rooted in Hannah Arendt’s idea that bureaucratic dehumanization is a source of evil. It focuses on the plight of a granite-hearted government clerk (the great Adriana Barraza), who after nearly forty years at her desk is forced to reassess herself. Her long-buried grief links the film to Julieta and Personal Shopper.

ODYSSEYS

  • Director James Gray abandons his familiar New York City locales for an epic journey into the Amazon. His film of David Grann’s book The Lost City of Z follows the search of the British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) for the mythical city of El Dorado in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, and Tom Holland co-star – and perhaps there’s a hint of Aguirre, Wrath of God, too?
  • Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas is a visually ravishing travelogue with elements of the Western but not a film that gives up its spiritual and philosophical meanings easily. Shakib Ben Omar plays a mechanic and preacher hired to guide a caravan transporting a dying sheikh to Sijilmasa on the edge of the Sahara.
  • João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist is a subversive homoerotic update on the spiritual awakening of Saint Anthony of Padua. Paul Hamy plays a birdwatcher lost in the wilds of Portugal whose encounters with Chinese women, a deaf-mute shepherd called Jesus, and armed Amazons bring him to a state of transcendence. Shot in Cinemascope, it’s dedicated to the American stars Gary Cooper and James Stewart, indicating Rodrigues’ affinity for Anthony Mann’s Westerns.

THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE GODARD!

  • Louis XIV, the Bourbon “Sun King,” ruled France for 72 years and 110 days, finally succumbing to gangrene at Versailles at the age of 76 in 1715. The story of his demise – and the meaning of mortality – is the subject of Albert Serra’s candlelit costume-drama The Death of Louis XIV. Veteran new wave star Jean-Pierre Léaud gives what may prove his most elegiac performance.
  • A rare revival of Jean Renoir’s 1938 La Marseillaise, which depicts the start of the French Revolution from a cross-section of social perspectives. The director’s most carefully researched film, shot in a realist style, was intended as a call to the French people to rediscover their unity as the Popular Front collapsed and war with Germany loomed.
  • The critic and director Bertrand Tavernier – whose films include The Clockmaker (1974) and Coup de Torchon (1981) – passionately hosts the 190-minute My Journey Through French Cinema. He talks about the acknowledged greats like Renoir and Jean-Luc Godard, of course, but also celebrates less revered directors, such as Jacques Becker and Claude Sautet, as well as composers Maurice Jaubert and Joseph Kosma and actor Eddie Constantine.

GHOSTS

  • Of Kristen Stewart’s three festival entries, Olivier Assayas’ supernatural drama Personal Shopper is the closest to a star vehicle. As in Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart plays an assistant enslaved, in a superficially glamorous profession, to a diva. When not collecting couture clothes for her boss, she attempts to communicate with her dead brother. His ghost has a disturbing digital presence, cyberspace being the logical environment for a millenial’s unconscious projections. Stewart’s presence is the magnet here, and not because she twice appears topless.
  • Ghost-hunters should also seek out the restored Ugetsu Monogatari. Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 masterpiece is a misty fable about 16th century potters lured from their wives by ambition and lust. Machiko Kyō (who is now 92) is indelible as the phantom who seduces one of them.

POETS

  • In Pablo Lorrain’s fantastical  “anti-biopic” Neruda, a fictional detective (Gael Garcia Bernal) searches for the person and soul of the Chilean poet-senator (Luis Gnecco) after he goes underground as a Communist enemy of the state.
  • Terence Davies follows his Scottish agrarian drama Sunset Song with A Quiet Passion, a portrait  of Emily Dickinson, played at different ages by Emma Bell and Cynthia Nixon. Expect it to be equally waspish and lyrical.
  • Paterson is named for the epic poem by William Carlos Williams, the New Jersey town in which Jim Jarmusch’s existential mood piece is set, and Adam Driver’s protagonist – a bus driver who secretly writes poetry and seems like a ghost from the 1950s. 
  • Douglas Gordon’s I Had Nowhere to Go is an idiosyncratic portrait of Jonas Mekas, who is now in his 93rd year. In the 1950s, the  Lithuanian-born poet, writer, and filmmaker altered the landscape for the study, consumption, and preservation of non-commercial cinema in downtown New York.  

THEY MADE THE MUSIC

  • Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger chronicles the career of a legendary pre-punk group with a lust for life so intense that self-endangerment was integral to their existence. The magnificent Iggy Pop came through it all, not so all his Stooges bandmates.
  • Sam Pollard’s documentary Two Trains Runnin’ traces the simultaneous journeys to Mississippi of the three civil rights activists murdered in Neshoba County in June 1964 and the white blues fans (including John Fahey) who went in search of legendary singer-musicians Skip James and Son House.
  • I Called Him Morgan is about the hard bop trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot dead in a New York jazz club by his common-law wife Helen Morgan in February 1972. She had nursed him through heroin addiction. Kasper Collin’s documentary centers on taped interviews with Helen, who was paroled after serving time.

The 54th New York Film Festival runs from September 30 through October 16. Go to flmlinc.org/NYFF for information.