It’s appreciated why this year’s New York Film Festival (September 25–October 11) would open with an epic bout of human exceptionalism on hallowed local ground, but there ain’t no way this deeply acrophobic writer will be partaking of The Walk — an adapted biopic starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Frenchman who took a law- and death-defying tightrope stroll between the twin towers in 1974, realistically screened in 3-D for maximum anxiety. Like the film’s co-writer/director Robert Zemeckis (who inexplicably fails to get enough credit either as a populist hero like Steven Spielberg or as a technical innovator like James Cameron or George Lucas), this noncompetitive, curatorially streamlined fest itself deserves more respect for not playing the braggart’s game of who’s packing the most world premieres.
NYFF 53 has exactly four, including Spielberg’s Cold War operative-swap saga Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks, Amy Ryan, and Mark Rylance; closing night presents another Seventies-NYC bookend with Miles Ahead, directed by and starring Don Cheadle as Miles Davis as he ruminates on his life and career during his funkiest, most misunderstood, most out-there era. The fourth fresh squeeze is the intimate, impressionistic, and irascibly entertaining Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, about the revolutionary Swiss-born photographer (most notably, 1958’s The Americans) and less successful filmmaker (most notoriously, 1972’s unreleasable Cocksucker Blues, the Exhibit A incrimination of the Rolling Stones’ debauchery). Unlike too many doc portraits that feel disconnected from their subjects due to forced or chilly acquaintedness, this life-spanning collage of creative passions, heartfelt memories, and curmudgeonly wisdom (the reclusive man-of-the-hour himself is our begrudging yet riotously no-bullshit guide, now entering his tenth decade) might not exist if it weren’t for director Laura Israel — a longtime friend and trusted collaborator of Frank’s.
All those films look to the past, but NYFF continues to seek the next horizon of storytelling platforms and interactive technologies in its most curious and unrestricted sidebar, dubbed “Convergence.” Among these panels, performances, and immersive experiences, some of which are free to the public, there will be a faux–motivational speaker singing songs about quitting (a project led by The American Astronaut‘s Cory McAbee, to be used in his next feature); an app-based hybrid of video game, literature, and Gulf War trauma; and a virtual-reality plunge into…a dinner-table drama for five? If the future is here, it’s more terrifying than an actual night spent with your family.
Back in the Main Slate, 26 features deep, the riches come to Lincoln Center after premiering as far away as Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, and Locarno. Earthy, serene, and magically cryptic, like many of his wondrous meditations, Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor witnesses a rural school-turned-clinic full of military soldiers traumatized by sleeping sickness, yet it’s perhaps our melancholic, surprisingly bawdy dream to wake from. Similarly mysterious and lovely (albeit in a more aggressive, fragmented tenor) is Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, a hilariously demented, intellectually rigorous invocation of early cinema’s esoteric tropes and aesthetics that seems to have been pulled through another dimension — a style the Canadian mainstay, here co-directing with Evan Johnson, is wont to work in.
Linear only by non-Euclidean terms, Maddin’s near-unclassifiable pleasure (is it post-silent comedy? Romantic phantasmagoria? Pre-apocalyptic revisionism?) features flapjacks on submarines and direct-address bathing lessons, a beautiful amnesiac kidnapped by cave people, and an unorthodox treatment for Udo Kier’s debilitating addiction to derrieres. For the trifecta, dig the semi-dystopian satire The Lobster — the English-language debut from Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) — in which a normcore Colin Farrell and other sad sacks must, by law, find mates in 45 days or be transformed into an animal and let loose in the wild. It only gets odder, funnier, and more achingly tragic from there.
Considering international art cinema’s unfair reputation for being pretentiously glum, let’s keep laughing through the hits. In the boisterously witty and unpredictable rom-com Maggie’s Plan, an excitable New School employee with control-freak tendencies (Greta Gerwig) falls in love with an adjunct prof of “ficto-critical anthropology” (Ethan Hawke), who himself is in a failing marriage with a professionally overshadowing Danish academic (Julianne Moore, relishing her accent). Writer-director Rebecca Miller’s decisively shambolic setup takes a flying three-year leap early on, and the results play like a second love triangle: between Woody Allen’s neurotic punchlines, Noah Baumbach’s idiosyncratic intelligence, and Paul Mazursky’s modern social dilemmas. The zingy voice is all Miller’s, of course, but it helps that she’s working with a brilliant ensemble cast — including Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, and Travis Fimmel as a pickle entrepreneur who epitomizes everything lovably farcical about Brooklyn culture.
There’s one feature billed among the “Special Events” that deserves to have been programmed in the Main Slate. Chevalier, from Greek Weird Wave filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg, and this year’s NYFF Filmmaker in Residence), is an inspired, gorgeously photographed work of deadpan lunacy that asserts itself as a spit-take on masculine rivalries. Six sort-of buddies, for some reason on a yacht in the Aegean Sea, spontaneously create a competition with fluid rules over which of them is “The Best in General.” Each has surface strengths and flaws, but that doesn’t matter in this absurdist game of one-upmanship: Who has the best posture? Who has the best cellular ringtone? Who can assemble Ikea furniture the fastest? Yes, it’ll eventually become a dick-measuring contest of vain insecurities — all the better scripted by a woman — but as the comedy of manners devolves, it also evolves into a thought-provoking critique on how the personal affects the political, and the utter ridiculousness of all human subjectivity. (Other Special Events to note: Laurie Anderson’s autobiographical cine-poem Heart of a Dog, Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s filmmaker portrait De Palma, the divisive Holocaust p.o.v. horror Son of Saul, and Junun — Paul Thomas Anderson’s doc collaboration with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and northern-Indian musicians.)
In honor of Martin Scorsese’s preservation organization the Film Foundation turning 25, NYFF will screen seven new restorations (not including four other revivals, like King Hu’s A Touch of Zen), such as Luchino Visconti’s 1960 masterpiece Rocco and His Brothers and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1983 Taiwanese New Wave breakout, The Boys From Fengkuei. Hou is also the star speaker in the HBO-sponsored “On Cinema” chat (with NYFF director Kent Jones), representing his new wuxia extravaganza, The Assassin. Don’t miss that screening, because you remember that bit before about subjectivity? The eye of the beholder be damned; it’s inarguably the most visually sumptuous film of the entire festival.
The New York Film Festival
September 25–October 11, Lincoln Center