Thursday, October 20, 2022

Festival Round-up: World Cinema Shines at The New York Film Festival

(c) The Interested Bystander

New Yorkers love a film festival. With many festival focusing on LGBT+, Latinx, Asian, African American lives, documentaries, French films and so many others, New Yorkers have plenty to occupy their time, but it is the New York Film Festival that gets the most focus. As one of the last prestigious international film festivals before the Oscar season goes into full gear, NYFF has the luxury to curate the best from the many festivals earlier in the year, including Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, et al. The festival, which ended on Friday, also showed two world premieres: “Till,” about the murder of Emmett Till in the 1960s, and “She Said,” about The New York Times investigation of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct and assault charges. 

Because of my schedule, I was only able to catch seven films this year, but luckily, they cross the international waters with, Iran, Turkey, Germany, Korea, Tahiti, Portland, Oregon and Queens New York as backdrops. And even with their diverse themes and genres, two of these films coincidentally had Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as part of their plots. Some have already opened in limited release while others will open soon. Congrats to Eugene Hernandez, the executive director, on his final season before taking over the reins at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as Dennis Lim, the artistic director and Matt Bolish, the producer of the NYFF. 

Here are my thoughts of the films I saw, as well as possible Oscar prospects. 

Armageddon Time (c) Focus Features

Armageddon Time 
In Cinemas on October 28 

Director James Gray, whose two last films, “The Lost City of Z” and “Ad Astra” were intimate stories in big, epic settings, has gone more lowkey with his latest film, “Armageddon Time.” Loosely based on his childhood in Queens in 1980, Gray’s stand-in is Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a sixth grader who has an artistic streak but lacks focus in school. He bonds with the other troublemaker in his class, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a black student who is repeating sixth grade. Paul has a loving if unpredictable relationship with his parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong), but he bonds most with his manic pixie grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), who offers sage advice while spoiling Paul. The events in the film are rather predictable, especially as the boys become more daring in their rebellion. However, there is such an authentic sheen over the film’s look and sound that its time capsule aspect makes the film immensely watchable. I could have done without the portentous title (yes, yes, The Clash song, I get it) as well as members of the Trump family making stomach-churning cameos. With Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” coming later this year and treading the same nostalgic milieu, it will probably overshadow Gray’s modest film. But I have a feeling there may be room in this Oscar season for two artistic-leaning kids and the parents who love them. 

OSCAR POSSIBILITIES: Picture, Supporting Actor (Hopkins), Supporting Actress (Hathaway), Original Screenplay 

Tár (c) Focus Features

In Cinemas now

At the start of film that bears her name, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is being interviewed by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, and we get to hear all the impressive things she has done in her life as both a famous conductor (of the Berlin Philharmonic) and composer. One of her biggest accomplishments is achieving the EGOT, but after watching the film, I can only imagine what kind of severe, humorless musical she would have written for Broadway. Writer and director Todd Field has created a very insular, controlled and muted world for Tár (think Bergman and Kubrick), perfectly inhabited by Blanchett, who seems to be playing an extended version of her character in “Blue Jasmine.” The first half of the movie is so well done I was disappointed when the plot veered toward the possible downfall of Tár’s reputation and life. I enjoyed it more as a sort of elevated ghost story, paralleling a lot of the beats in last year’s equally mysterious “Memoria” with a wonderfully crafted sound design. The best scene in the movie–her guest masterclass at Julliard–is a tour de force of acting and directing, but the ramifications are used in a rather uninteresting way later in film that diminishes its power. I wanted to love “Tár” so much more, but I have a feeling I am in the minority. Blanchett’s virtuosic and committed performance will be too powerful to forget come awards season. 

OSCAR POSSIBILITIES: Picture, Director, Actress (Blanchett), Original Screenplay, Score, Sound, Cinematography 

Aftersun (c) A24

In Cinemas on Friday 

“Aftersun,” Scottish director Charlotte Wells’ feature film debut, is deceptively simple: divorced father Calum (Paul Mescal) takes his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) on a late summer trip to Turkey in the early 1990s. But Wells throws in quick shots of the two in the future about 30 years later, and it seems this vacation may have more significance than what we see. Why one of the characters keeps watching the vacation videos that the two recorded on their camcorder is one of the mysteries that Well brings up but leaves the audience to answer for themselves. This movie reminds me a lot of Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” which dealt with an equally loving and fraught father and teen daughter relationship, even down to both fathers afflicted with the same wrist injury and a cast on their arms. Mescal, who made an impressive debut in the “Normal People” TV adaptation as well as a supporting role in last year’s “The Lost Daughter,” has the difficult role, showing us his personal struggles without ever verbalizing them, especially as a young man with a daughter (people mistake them for siblings). Corio is the real discovery here as Sophie, who sometimes has to be the adult in the relationship while also dealing with her fascination with the older teens at the resort. I was most curious of the queer vibe that Wells only occasionally hints at but feels important. Some viewers will be frustrated with the lack of a traditional plot and the many questions unanswered, but I think if you give into Wells’ mood, you will be rewarded by one of the more intriguing films this year. 

No Bears (c) Sideshow, Janus Films

No Bears 
No U.S. Release Date

I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s latest film if I didn’t know Panahi’s history as well as his current situation. Since 2010, he has been banned by the Iranian government from making films, but Panahi has made many since, including the recent “Taxi” and “Three Faces.” So, it’s fascinating that the initial conceit of his latest film, “No Bears,” is the protagonist is a movie director named Jafar Panahi (played by the director) who is directing a film in neighboring Turkey through his computer, wifi willing. He is in a small, nearb, Iranian border town since he is under house arrest and unable to leave the country. That meta set-up is intriguing enough, especially since the film he’s directing is a pseudo-documentary, following a couple hoping to flee Iran to Paris with fake passports. But Panahi also has a parallel plot in the small town he has taken residence in that involves a couple whose arranged marriage is approaching, and how an innocuous act by Panahi embroils him in the town’s politics and traditions. The most incredible part of this story happened after the film was finished. Right before the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Panahi was arrested for propaganda and is currently in prison, with many artists around the world demanding his release. And then, of course, there’s the current Iranian uprising with women protestingtheir oppression, and “No Bears” (I won’t ruin the meaning of the title as it is so clever) is suddenly the most important and vital film of the year. 

OSCAR POSSIBILITIES: Director, Original Screenplay 

Pacifiction (c) Grasshopper Films

No U.S. Release Date 

Not sure if Catalan director Albert Serra’s latest film, “Pacificition,” has the same title in other languages, but the delicious English portmanteau of Pacific (as in the Pacific islands overseen by the French government) and fiction (as in the lies of the French) is one of the few clever things in this almost three-hour travelogue with political intrigue simmering underneath. I’m sure I didn’t catch the many nuisances of the native inhabitants of Tahiti who work in the hospitality industry and of the sudden appearance of the French Navy that may portend to the resumption of war maneuvers the indigenous people are vehemently against. Overseeing all this is the High Commissioner De Roller (Benoît Magimel), who looks and acts like a French Donald Trump, ruling over Tahiti like his own Mar-a-Lago, trying to play both sides for his own gain. Serra gives us a lot of Tahitian tourist destinations, with the most interesting diversion being a fifteen-minute sequence showing us people surfing on both boards and boats. Was that important to the plot? No, but it certainly perked me up. Also of note is a wonderful performance by Pahoa Mahagafanau as De Roller’s assistant, Shannon. Shannon is māhū, a third gender in his culture, meaning he is born male but accepted as a woman. If only the movie’s focus was on Shannon, but instead we get endless shots of island life that include scenes so absurd and weird that you would think you accidently walked into a David Lynch film. Albert Serra (“The Death of Louis XIV”) never makes an easy movie, but must it be this undecipherable? 

Decision to Leave (c) MUBI

Decision to Leave 
In Cinemas now

Forget Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc of “Knives Out.” I would rather see a series of detective films centered around Hae-joon, the hero of Park Chan-wook’s delightfully loopy “Decision to Leave.” Hae-joon, as played by the wonderful Park Hae-il, is always professional, whether he is trying to track an elusive murder suspect or figure out if the dead guy at the bottom of the mountain accidently slipped or was pushed. But he also has to deal with the slapstick antics of his partner (Go Kyung-pyo) – what’s with the portable massage gun? – and a possibly flirtation from the dead hiker’s wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei so good here as she was in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution”). This is the most relaxed movie director Park Chan-wook has made, as he usually opts for the hyperviolence of “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.” But Park’s interests seemed to shift with his last film, his masterpiece, “The Handmaiden,” which had a sort of Hitchcockian fascination on top of a crazy plot. And while “Decision to Leave” feels in every sense a minor movie in his canon, it is certainly his most accessible and commercial, possibly following in the footsteps of fellow Korean director Bong Joon-ho to Oscar glory. Park’s direction is, as usual, impeccable and controlled, confirming his auteur status, but he also seems more relaxed and playful here. This was certainly the most fun I had at NYFF this year, and while it’s mostly empty calories, I enjoyed every bite. 

OSCAR POSSIBILITIES: Picture, Director, Actress (Tang Wei), Original Screenplay, Score, Cinematography, International Feature 

Showing Up (c) A24

Showing Up* 
In Cinemas in 2023 

Kelly Reichardt is the celebrated American filmmaker most American filmgoers have never heard of. Even with critically acclaimed movies like “Certain Women,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “First Cow” starring actors like Michelle Williams, Jesse Eisenberg, Paul Dano and Kristen Stewart, only followers of indie films have embraced the slow and meticulous worlds of Reichardt’s film. I will say that her latest, “Showing Up” is certainly her most upbeat and is probably her first (dare I say it) comedy. The movie, co-written with Jon Raymond, focuses on Lizzy (Michelle Williams in her fourth Reichardt film), who is a surly clay artist feeling even more stressed over her upcoming gallery show and dealing with her left-of-center family (all artists), including a manic-depressive brother (“First Cow’s” John Magaro), who may be on the verge of a manic episode. She is also in a love-hate relationship with an artist who is also her landlord, Jo (the wonderful Hong Chau), who seems more worried about a wounded pigeon (do I smell metaphor?) than the fact that Lizzie hasn’t had hot water for weeks. But all this is just Reichardt’s excuse to explore the art scene of Portland, Oregon. Lizzy’s figures are by Portland artist Cynthia Lahti, and we spend a lot of time in the film looking at every nook and cranny of these pieces. Side note: You can also hear André Benjamin of Outkast, who plays an art teacher in the film, doing double duty harnessing his inner-Lizzo by playing the flute throughout the score. The film’s title could be a play-on-words of artists and their gallery shows, but I think it might be telling us that showing up is half the battle of living your true life. Credit Williams for making Lizzie totally relatable, even when she’s being spitefully unpleasant. Not sure if this will be Reichardt’s breakthrough when it’s released next year, but it will certainly sate her acolytes, if not add to their growing number. 

*Note, I worked on this film, and while I believe I can be impartial in my assessment, please take my review with that grain of salt.

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