The city’s biggest, most important film festival opens this week with one of its most intimate lineups ever. “Small” would be the wrong word to use for this year’s New York Film Festival: The selection is broad and diverse in origin and style, and often seismic in impact. But as the wounded superheroes of summer limp away and the shiny Oscar hopefuls begin to emerge for their end-of-the-year race to the finish, it’s worth celebrating that the festival is highlighting films that are life-size in scale and human in approach.
The close of the summer season saw a rash of think pieces about the generally sad state of cinema in 2016, much of it to do with disappointing would-be blockbusters. Many of these pieces did offer “yes, but” disclaimers noting that excellent independent and foreign films are still out there. But focusing so much attention on big-budget studio product effectively consigns the “smaller” movies to a sidebar, further propagating the belief that, in the so-called cultural conversation, they somehow matter less. That’s a vicious circle if I’ve ever seen one.
The New York Film Festival, kicking off September 30 and running through October 16 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, arrives just in time to remind those of us who’ve forgotten that size and budget have little bearing on artistic value. Most of the titles being shown at the festival are not premieres; many played earlier this year at Cannes or Sundance. Perhaps that allowed the festival’s programmers to be more purposeful in their selections — to seek common strands and concerns beyond mere gala value or awards-season hype.
Many of this year’s films obsess over the idea of time, and the persistence of memory. Given that the world today is watching as elements of its darkest hidden self re-emerge — from old, simmering hatreds to the simplistic bluster of neo-feudal strongmen — it only makes sense that our movies are now focused on history and trauma (be it political or personal) and our futile attempts to bury, absolve, and forget.
For starters, New York has carried over wholesale from Cannes a tetralogy on women and memory. In Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, the Dardenne brothers’ Unknown Girl, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, four very different women struggle with the unexpected ways in which the past endures. In Almodóvar’s tense, color-coded melodrama — his best in many years — an estranged mother seeks to reconnect with her wayward daughter while examining the tragedies, and the broken men, that came between them. The Dardennes focus on a young doctor who sets off across the Belgian town of Liège to learn more about an unidentified dead immigrant whom she refused to help one fateful night. And in Assayas’s pseudo–ghost story, a celebrity assistant/medium (Kristen Stewart) obsessed with the loss of her twin brother finds herself dealing with a sleazy (and possibly spectral) cellphone stalker. (With its wild tonal shifts and fidgety central performance, Personal Shopper divided Cannes — I’m still not certain it’s all that good, but I am taken with its notion that there’s a pornographic quality to grief that can prevent us from letting go of it.)
The best of these four, Mendonça’s Aquarius, isn’t about trying to forget, but about trying not to be forgotten. It features a stunning performance by Brazilian legend Sônia Braga as a retired music journalist fighting to stay in her beloved apartment while a corrupt developer tries first to buy her out, then to push her out. To Braga’s character, the memories that haunt her home are like the pops and skips on a well-worn vinyl record — signs that she has passed through this world and lived and loved with ferocity. It’s an unusually tactile, even sensuous film, obsessed with worn surfaces, sense memories, and age.
These movies suggest that the past is never done with us. Some characters seek to preserve it, others want to flee it, but it always bubbles up in interesting ways. The return of the repressed threatens to turn Personal Shopper into a horror flick. Painful family memories transform Julieta into a film noir. The intensely gripping Unknown Girl, meanwhile, has all the trappings of a mystery — nothing new for the Dardennes, whose social dramas, such as Two Days, One Night and Lorna’s Silence, often come with genre inflections.
The horrifying resilience of memory also governs Kenneth Lonergan’s masterpiece Manchester by the Sea, in which Boston handyman Casey Affleck returns to his hometown in the wake of his brother’s sudden death and finds himself having to confront the wreckage of his former life. A down-and-outer goes home and faces his demons: That’s not exactly a novel logline, but Lonergan takes the idea and creates something profound from it, slowly revealing, via flashbacks, a tragic past that just about every character is already aware of. That’s usually a cheap trick in narrative filmmaking (if everyone in the movie already knows something, why shouldn’t we?), but here it replicates the protagonist’s failing attempts to forget. This is a film about what happens when you can’t triumph over grief.
Manchester by the Sea isn’t a “big” movie, but it is one of a handful of festival titles with hopes of Oscar glory. There’s also Barry Jenkins’s lovely Moonlight, a three-part drama following the coming of age of a young gay African-American man in Miami, as he moves through childhood awkwardness, teenage discovery, and twentysomething disillusionment. I hope that mainstream audiences will also embrace this intimate, at times almost unnervingly quiet movie, which has exploded among critics and Oscar handicappers on the fall festival circuit — it’s ready-made for an audience of discerning fest-goers. But its questioning, patient tone reflects the relatively understated quality of the awards-season hopefuls in this year’s lineup. Some do appear to be a bit more blustery than others: Consider Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, possibly the biggest-budgeted title here, which promises (it hasn’t screened yet) an eye-popping experience: Lee shot on high-frame-rate cameras that will supposedly give us the realest realness that has ever been realed. But even this film has memory on its mind: Adapted from Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, it concerns a wounded Iraq war vet suffering from PTSD and replaying his experiences of battle during an honor-our-soldiers appearance at an NFL game.
I also haven’t seen the closing-night film, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. Could it also have something to do with memory, and the return of things we wish to bury? Well, it is about an archaeological expedition to discover an ancient city in Brazil; it remains to be seen whether Gray has preserved the time-hopping structure of David Grann’s riveting nonfiction book.
The notion of confronting the past runs through many of the festival’s documentaries as well. Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s Hissèn Habré: A Chadian Tragedy presents interviews with victims of Habré, the brutal U.S.-backed strongman who ruled Chad through the 1980s and who was recently sentenced to life in prison. Haroun doesn’t offer much historical context — rather, he lets these men and women recount the torture they suffered under the regime, preserving historical memory through personal recollection. There are very few broad-strokes textbook lessons to be learned here, and the overall mood is not of empowerment or reconciliation: Haroun tries on occasion to get the victims and their former torturers and captors to come together, with mixed to disastrous results. The film, and the past, resist closure.
Similarly, in Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan, the life and death of the immortal jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan is retold via reminiscences with his colleagues, plus one final mesmerizing interview with his late wife, Helen, who shot Morgan dead in 1972. If Haroun’s film is a clear-eyed, relentless cataloging of brutal facts, Collin’s immersive work luxuriates in mood and texture. He focuses as much on the weather — the blowing snow, the driving rain, the whipping wind — and other experiential details as he does on the stories being told. You walk away from I Called Him Morgan with something just as valuable as historical facts: a sense of what it was like to be in that club, or on that street corner, or in that shabby apartment, in the 1960s and ’70s.
Errol Morris is no stranger to digging up inconvenient and painful memories, but he’s here this year with the significantly more playful The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, in which the photographer recalls her decades of taking portraits using large-format Polaroid cameras. The film has the feel of an engaging doodle, as Dorfman guides us through her archive, rarely dwelling on one picture or figure for too long (though she does discuss her long friendship with Allen Ginsberg, whom she shot in some startling ways). Portrait photography can have a frozen, cast-in-stone quality, but the Dorfman images seen here capture the immediacy of the moment, with an ephemerality to them. The reason might be embedded in the title of the movie: The “B sides” in question are the photos she has kept in her archive, which are often the ones rejected by her clients. These discards, we come to learn, reveal more about the subjects and the circumstances of the photographic instant than more polished portraits ever could.
Perhaps the most dramatic exhumation of the festival comes in Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, an essay film built around the unfinished thirty pages of James Baldwin’s final work, in which the writer recalled the lives of his assassinated friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Through archival footage and whispered narration by Samuel L. Jackson, Peck reimagines Baldwin’s incomplete text, which itself conjures these three men and uses those reminiscences to delve into the history (and future) of race in America. The director doesn’t limit his visuals to the period Baldwin is discussing; he includes contemporary footage of Black Lives Matter protests, of Barack Obama’s election, and of ordinary modern people, defiant and alive. The film eventually becomes an act of provocation, and of prophecy.
Of course, not every movie at the festival is about the past. One of the best is Jim Jarmusch’s masterful Paterson, centering on a New Jersey bus driver and poet played by Adam Driver, which finds beauty in the rhythms of the everyday. But maybe this, too, harks back to the past in subtle ways: The film’s austerity and its pointedly undramatic narrative reminded me of Jarmusch’s early work. And let’s not forget that he himself first came to New York in the 1970s with dreams of becoming a poet. In that sense, Paterson might be the most personal work the director has ever made — a possible alternate history of how life might have turned out had he stuck with poetry and not turned to music and film. Its focus may be narrow, but its ambition is vast; it’s a symphony in miniature.
Meanwhile, Maren Ade’s mesmerizing Toni Erdmann, which was widely beloved at Cannes and seems to win acolytes wherever it plays, appears to have no sense of memory. But could the past be a defining absence in this nearly three-hour behavioralist comedy-drama? Our heroine, a female executive trying to make it in a male-dominated corporate world, has almost no shared family history with her bizarro, prankster father, who wins over her colleagues, offends her friends, and otherwise sows chaos in her life. Toni Erdmann‘s animating spirit is not reflection, but evasion: The title refers to one of Dad’s many identities as he constantly changes shape and affect, discarding anything that smacks of responsibility or roots.
And then there’s what might be the best film I’ve seen at this festival: Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin earlier in the year. Rosi makes unflinchingly patient observational documentaries. In this look at the Italian island of Lampedusa, where the lives of residents go on while boatloads of refugees from Africa turn up on their shores, he has created a film that alternates between timelessness and immediacy, between the elemental and the unnatural. The people living here are set in their routines, while those arriving — starving, suffering, some of them already dead — have had everything taken from them. What emerges is a portrait of a world — for which Lampedusa, in all its specificity, can be seen as a kind of poetic microcosm — hovering between comforting ritual and terrifying upheaval. As such, Fire at Sea is not about history, or the resilience of time, but about a terrible new trauma being born. And in a festival filled with films about forgetting, it might be the most unforgettable.
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