Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The 59th New York Film Festival

Alice Tully Hall (c) The Interested Bystander

The 59th New York Film Festival 
Sept 24 – Oct 10, 2021 

After a year sidelined to a virtual option by the pandemic, the NYFF returned to in-person screenings in 2021. And while the movies were still serious and mostly depressing (it says something that the most upbeat movie was “C’mon, C’mon,” the Mike Mills film starring the Joker himself, Joaquin Phoenix), just being in a movie theater with other film fans felt both like a hug and (sometimes) too close for comfort. That danger is usually on the Lincoln Center screens and not in the movie theaters themself, but welcome to the new normal. 

With only eight out of thirty-two movies in the Main Slate of the festival directed by women, I was happy I saw two of them – one was directed by a first-time filmmaker and the other was by one of the best filmmakers of her generation. “Passing” is actress Rebecca Hall’s assured directorial and screenwriting debut from a novel by Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen, about a reunion of childhood friends who are now both doing well in 1920s New York, except one (Tessa Thompson) has stayed in Harlem while the other has rejected her black heritage altogether. 

The Power of the Dog (c) Netflix

“The Power of the Dog” is also adapted from a book, this one by Thomas Savage, which tells the story of two brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jessie Plemons), cattle ranchers in Montana whose lives are turned upside down by the appearance in their lives of a widow (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Codi Smit-McPhee). As directed by Jane Campion, who hasn’t directed a feature in over 10 years, the movie felt like a novel as the point-of-view switches at different points in the story. But then Campion being Campion, the real narrator finally emerges and what felt all over the place finally ties everything together in an astonishing finale. 

Another female director making her directorial and screenplay debut is actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. “The Lost Daughter,” also based on a novel, scheduled under the Spotlight Slate of films stars a charmingly acidic Olivia Colman as a university professor on a working holiday in Greece, who becomes obsessed with a young mother (Dakota Johnson) and her toddler daughter. 

There were five Asian movies in the festival this year. Korean director Hong Sangsoo directed two of them, as did Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, including “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” which just opened commercially (you can read my review here). The fifth Asian film, “Memoria” by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, starring Tilda Swinton, was one of the movies I missed and probably one I will never see now as Neon, the distributor, has decided to release the film one city a week until the end of time, never releasing it for home viewing. I wonder if the film will have deadhead-like following as it crosses the country. 

While there is gay content in some of the movies I saw, the only one with a gay lead character in the festival (as far I know) was in the last movie I saw, which is the animated documentary “Flee.” It a harrowing story of a gay man finally facing his past by describing how he ended up in Sweden as a refugee from Afghanistan. 

Red Rocket (c) A24

Other movies I wish I had seen and now look forward to catching up with when they open this year: Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” and Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” which will have wide releases; Todd Hayne’s documentary about “The Velvet Underground”; “Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s” Céline Sciamma’s follow-up “Petite Maman”; “Parallel Mothers,” Pedro Almodóvar’s reunion with Penélope Cruz who last headlined his “Volver” 15 years ago and “Red Rocket,” directed by Sean Baker (“The Florida Project”), starring former MTV VJ Simon Rex as a porn star returning to his home town. I really hope the title is not a metaphor.

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