Saturday, August 11, 2018

The 54th New York Film Festival (2016) had been so spectacular, filled with so many films which were revelations, that anticipation was high for the 55th New York Film Festival (2017). In 2016, the festival had been so well organized. Some of the distributors arranged for press screenings for Main Slate selections at the end of August; the last one had been for Mia Hansen-Love's "Things to Come", with its ruminative investigation into the life of a middle-aged woman faced with many challenges, both professional and personal, and containing one of the two major performances by Isabelle Huppert (the other was in Paul Verhoeven's "Elle", which was also in the festival). Armed with the knowledge of how strong many of the films were, the first official press screening of the 54th New York Film Festival was for Barry Jenkin's "Moonlight", and the astounding impression of that film cannot be underestimated. From there, the festival seemed to go from strength to strength; by the end, there was no denying (certainly not among the people i talked to) that the 54th New York Film Festival had been one of the best in many years, and was a showcase of the intelligence of Kent Jones' programming skills.

But you can only program what is available, and that was true of the 55th New York Film Festival. On paper, it seemed to be a perfect festival, with many tried-and-true filmmakers included in the mix. Three examples: the opening night film ("Last Flag Flying") and the centerpiece ("Wonderstruck") and the closing night film ("Wonder Wheel"). Richard Linklater had been on a career high since his 2014 "Boyhood", and the idea of a collaboration with the writer Darryl Ponicsan seemed enticing, so it was hard not to look forward to "Last Flag Flying". Though the idea of the film as a "loose" sequel to "The Last Detail" was quickly dealt with, the film turned out to be a solid drama about the effects of the "endless war" now engaged by the US in the Middle East on military families. It was good, with sterling performances by Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne; what it wasn't was somehow transcendent. The film never reached beyond the confines of its story to suggest some other dimension which would provide some deeper meaning to the narrative.

In the case of "Wonderstruck", Todd Haynes had reached a plateau with his last three films: the cubist "biopic" of Bob Dylan's life, "I'm Not There", the exquisitely faithful adaptation of James M. Cain's novel "Mildred Pierce", and the stunning romance of "Carol" (based on Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt"), so anticipation for "Wonderstruck" was keen. Once again, the film turned out to be a solid achievement, but it seemed rather flat-footed; it never quite took flight, it never became magical. The commingling of the two time frames (with black-and-white imagery for the 1920s and color for the 1970s) proceeded diligently, without any sense of a vital connection, so that when the revelations of the ways the stories were intertwined came, there was more a sense of coincidence rather than inevitability.

Of course, Woody Allen's "Wonder Wheel" was met with a great deal of skepticism. The Tennessee Williams derivations which had worked in "Blue Jasmine" seemed to be warmed over and threadbare in this new incarnation. And the period stylings in the Coney Island setting has been done before in Allen's work, so the sense of deja vu became the most prominent aspect of "Wonder Wheel".

And the sense of mild disappointment began to seep into many of the films. Two of the most celebrated of French directors, Arnaud Desplechin and Claire Denis, were represented with works that proved wildly uneven, Desplechin with "Ismael's Ghosts" and Denis with "Let the Sun Shine In". There were two films by the Korean director Hong Sangsoo, "The Day After" and "On the Beach at Night Alone", which proved to have some charm but did not provide any major new dramatic insights. Enough of these films, and sometimes it seemed as if the 55th New York Film Festival was a chore.

Yet it proved that the programming committee was taking seriously the need to diversify the Main Slate, and the number of women directors represented was impressive, more so because these films provided some of the best of the festival. Having already discussed Lucretia Martel's "Zama", i'll now discuss two of the films which really impressed me, Valeska Griesbach's "Western" and Chloe Zhao's "The Rider".

In "Western", a group of German workers are sent to a remote region of Bulgaria, to construct a hydroelectric plant which will provide electricity for the region (that's how remote this place is). Yet the interactions between the workers and the townspeople are fraught with misunderstandings. One of the workers begins to try to find ways to get to know the townspeople; his actions are met with suspicion from the townspeople and hostility from his fellow Germans. The title "Western" is purposefully ironic, stressing the idea of invading settlers confronting a native population. The film's narrative is understated, and in keeping with the neo-realist aesthetic, Griesbach does not resort to melodrama, so that the tentative reconciliation which ends the film is a signal of optimism.

Chloe Zhao's "The Rider" shows the process of rehabilitation undergone by Brady, a young rodeo rider who has suffered a catastrophic head injury after being thrown from a horse. The film is methodical and detailed, yet visually suffused with the incredible beauty of the American West. The backstory of the film is as fascinating as the film itself: Chloe Zhao met Brady Jandreau when she made her first feature film, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me", another study of Native American life; Jandreau, a young bronco rider, had helped Zhao learn how to ride a horse. She had wanted to make her next movie with Jandreau, but during the editing of "Songs", Jandreau met with an accident during one of his rodeo appearances; Zhao then decided to make a film about his rehabilitation, and she worked closely with Jandreau and his family to create the narrative. "The Rider" is an astonishing work, a genuinely empathetic work which presents an unsentimental look at the current lives of Native Americans.

Add to these Agnes Varda and JR's "Faces Places", Agnieszka Holland's "Spoor", Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" and Dee Rees' "Mudbound", and there was no denying the mastery shown by these women directors.

So there are always discoveries to be made at the New York Film Festival, and that's why it's central to the filmgoing experience now.


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