At 52, the New York Film Festival Hits a Crucial Balance


Seventeen days might seem like ample breathing room to take in all the tidily curated bounty of the 52nd New York Film Festival, but the sidebars alone are a bit overwhelming. Old Hollywood iconoclast Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) will be celebrated with a 21-feature tribute, and the forward-thinking “Convergence” series of films and
panels explores bold innovations in multi-platform interactivity. One captivating standout is Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting’s Somali pirate experience Last Hijack, which blends documentary footage and otherworldly animation with a transmedia supplement. (Thank god the future isn’t video games.)

Among the repertory revivals are a 30th-anniversary screening of the everlastingly quotable mock-rock-doc This
Is Spinal Tap
and a restoration of Alain Resnais’s 1959 debut, Hiroshima Mon Amour, the perfect bookending complement to the late French master’s final NYFF selection, Life of Riley. Fifteen nonfiction gems get their own section, as do the 13 blocks of groundbreaking short, medium-, and feature-length experiments in “Projections,” and all that’s just the icing on top of a Thomas Pynchon stoner comedy directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice), or Jean-Luc Godard unveiling to New York the most important 3-D film in decades (Goodbye to Language).

Without fail, every year NYFF announces its main lineup (31 features plus two blocks of shorts this go-round, opening with David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s suspenseful bestseller Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck as a suspected spouse killer), someone bitches about the program being overstuffed with old masters — or being that dreaded arthouse pejorative, “safe.” Sure, there are familiar auteur faces in the fold, like Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner), Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), his partner Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden), and David Cronenberg (Maps to the Stars), but how could those naysayers be disappointed with the local premieres of titles they didn’t have to go to Toronto or Cannes to seek out?

Their strongest case is a film like Two Days, One Night, the latest barebones,
socially aware portrait of working-class Belgian life from two-time Palme d’Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Recuperating from depression, factory worker and young mother Sandra (Marion Cotillard, marvelously expressive and convincingly beaten down) discovers that her co-workers have voted away her job for the contextually low price of a thousand-euro incentive, a choice forced upon them by a coldly pragmatic (read: villainous) foreman. Capitalism equals survival-mode Darwinism in this suspenseful tale of doing the right thing, as Sandra spends an exhausting weekend tracking down 16 of her colleagues, hoping she can persuade them to change their minds when the
second-round vote is cast. It’s an anxious watch, as the Dardenne brothers’ trademark style of extended, handheld tracking shots is keenly attuned to the intentional repetition of each Hail-Mary encounter, whether the reactions to Sandra’s lobbying are nasty, compassionate, or somewhere in the frustrating middle. As she fights against self-doubt and panic, the rhythms and emotions of the storytelling, at their best, can become devastating.

So how is it possible that a film this tremendously well-acted and admirably directed never quite managed to thrill or inspire me? The morality at play may be on the nose compared to the more universal implications of its political microcosm, but otherwise, it’s just as sensitive and fine — unsurprisingly so — as any other Dardennes work. I prefer that cinema catapult outside of comfort zones, which is why I much preferred Heaven Knows What, an incongruously sunny-day tale of one woman’s socioeconomic desperation, also co-directed by brothers. The greatest trick of Josh and Benny Safdie’s aggressive, exhilarating update to the NYC junkie-love classic The Panic in Needle Park is that it feels like it was made with unsafe hands, as if every piercing note of atonal electronica and jittery, frame-filling close-up were executed while fiending for the next fix. Though written by Benny and Frownland director Ronald Bronstein (who previously collaborated with the Safdies as the lead in Daddy Longlegs), this bleak and lovely film is tethered to the true-life
experiences of star Arielle Holmes.

Homeless heroin addicts Harley (Holmes, a deeply soulful screen presence) and Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones, looking like a young Nick Zedd) are madly in love, though it’s hard to tell through all the public screaming and fighting and
Ilya’s cruelly sociopathic behavior. When he tells her the only way she can prove her love is by slicing her wrists and dying, she agrees and winds up in the hospital — where a violent encounter between patients and staff detonates in uninterrupted silence, all before the opening title credit. It’s a credibly dangerous milieu where street kids bargain, trade, support,
and turn against one another; the grim streets, filthy squats, and fast-food restrooms where Harley ekes out her fractured-reality existence get jolted with unexpected joy and humor — including a jarring bit of magic realism that’s literally explosive. Though her ritualistic panhandling mirrors Sandra’s petitioning in the Dardennes’ film, Harley’s misadventures always have the potential to become tragic, surprising, and viscerally stimulating.

Also on the NYFF slate: Be sure not to miss actor-director Mathieu Amalric’s elegantly seductive drama The Blue Room, a coiled infidelity thriller based on a Georges Simenon novel. And Pedro Costa continues to poignantly chronicle the lives and hopes of Cape Verdean immigrants in Horse Money — but hands down the documentary of the year (or maybe 2015, when it gets an official theatrical release) is The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s less formally audacious but no less significant follow-up to his Indonesian death squad epic The Act of Killing. This time, a communist-purge victim’s brother challenges unconvicted mass murderers on-camera to face their moral responsibilities.