Monday, November 2, 2015

2015 New York Film Festival Roundup

New York Film Festival 
September 25-October 11, 2015
Film Society of Lincoln Center
New York, NY

Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next
The recent 53rd edition of the New York Film Festival had, in addition to the usual blend of local premieres and classic revivals (comprising everything from John Ford and Ernst Lubitsch to Akira Kurosawa and Marcel Ophuls), sidebars that featured documentaries and so-called special events. Out of dozens of titles—many of which are already showing or will be shown commercially—I managed to catch a handful; here they are, in alphabetical order.

The Assassin (now playing in New York)
Forget about trying to decipher the almost inscrutable storyline in Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien's first foray into martial-arts filmmaking. Although his best films—1989's A City of Sadness and 1993's The Puppetmaster—are long behind him, Hou still creates some of the most ravishing cinematic images around, and The Assassin thrives on its luminous the expense of everything else. 

Bridge of Spies (now playing)
Steven Spielberg's well-crafted but curiously uninvolving exploration of America's complicity in the harsh treatment of our enemies stars a barely-there Tom Hanks, who is outclassed in every scene by both Mark Rylance as a Russian spy and Amy Ryan as Hanks' long-suffering wife. Spielberg's too blatant parallels between the Cold War and the War on Terror are a far cry from the far more subtle explorations of his far superior Munich.

Cemetery of Splendour 
Diminishing returns are on display in Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest, which is hampered by extremely glacial pacing throughout; even if the film's central metaphor—a comatose group of soldiers in a hospital are said, by a local mystic, to be battling while asleep for long-dead kings from times past—never coheres despite its possibilities, there are haunting images of people, both sleeping and awake, who are weighed down by their country's (and their own) possible pasts.

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (opens Nov. 13) 
Stig Bjorkman's thoroughly engaging documentary, which uses the legendary international star's own words (read by new Swedish bombshell Alicia Vikander) and excerpts from her own home movies, alongside interviews with daughters Isabella Rossellini and Pia Lindstrom, son Robert Rossellini, Jr., and colleagues like Liv Ullmann and Sigourney Weaver, to peek behind the curtain of a life that, despite scandal, was filled with awards, artistic success and even personal fulfillment. 

Maggie's Plan (no release date yet)
Greta Gerwig—who began as an offbeat charmer in the Chloe Sevigny mold—has become nearly unwatchable since becoming the muse of insufferable director Noah Baumbach. But Rebecca Miller's cloyingly cutesy film is nearly as obnoxious, trying (but failing) to transform the spoiled lives of a bunch of Manhattan dilettantes and elitists into something interesting, irresistible and insightful. Miller unabashedly apes Woody Allen, but in the process loses her way, stranding good performers like Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore along with the increasingly mannered Gerwig.

Vincent Lindon (left) in The Measure of a Man
The Measure of a Man (opens spring 2016)
The festival's most socially relevant film is Stephane Brize's haunting exploration of the exploitation of regular people in the new economy, which is still a post-recession disaster for anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck: Thierry is a hard-working husband and father to a mentally disabled teenage son, who must degrade himself again and again trying to keep his family afloat economically. In a dazzlingly understated performance, Vincent Lindon catches the full measure of this ordinary man, and the final closeups of Lindon's face as it registers various shades of moral distress and suffering at his latest job, where he may have to throw away all he believes to keep it, are unforgettable.

Margherita Buy and John Turturro in Mia Madre
Mia Madre (opens Nov. 13)
Italian director Nanni Moretti's sentimental but affecting evocation of loss and pain concerns a movie director (the always radiant Margherita Buy) who's juggling her new shoot with a hotheaded American actor (a typecast John Turturro) with the ailments of her sickly mother. Moretti, who plays Margherita's gently nagging brother, is unafraid to explore the nuances of family life—the scenes of Margherita's teenage daughter and the girl's grandmother bonding over Latin lessons are priceless—but too much wan moviemaking satire and sappy family sequences undercut this heartfelt film at every turn.

My Golden Days
My Golden Days (opens in early 2016)
The films of French director Arnaud Desplechin are as close to immersing oneself in a great long novel as those of any filmmaker working today. That also goes for his captivating and complex new comic drama, even if this two-hour memory piece about the main character of his 1996 masterpiece My Sex Life (or How I Got into an Argument) and his adventures as a young man seems, if anything, too short: to breathe more, it needs another 30 minutes (or even more) to flesh out every characterization, every relationship, every storyline. Still, this wonderfully and generously Dickensian view of life in all its permutations has energy, insight, and the unbeatable Mathieu Amalric at his harried best. 

Son of Saul (opens Dec. 18)
This at times almost unwatchable drama is told exclusively through the point of view of Saul, a Jewish inmate at a Nazi concentration camp who finds the body of a teenage boy in the crematorium; convinced it's his son, he desperately searches for a rabbi in the camp who can help say Kaddish and bury him. The narrow focus is both virtuosic and wearying, as director László Nemes has choreographed his constantly moving cameras to always look over Saul's shoulder, follow him or even anticipate his every movement. It's intermittently powerful, even if it becomes repetitive; too bad the ending—although inevitable—seems like a cop-out. 

Where to Invade Next (opens Dec. 23)
What appears a scattershot attempt to provoke and incite is transformed by Michael Moore into his most soul-searching, far-reaching, thought-provoking and—yes—funniest film. What begins as a one-joke "invasion" by the intentionally slovenly filmmaker of Europe and other far-flung places (where Moore's ugly American listens to Italians, French, Germans, Norwegians, and others tell him how great their countries are compared to ours) soon becomes a focused exploration of the American dream being lived out in countries like Tunisia. There might be too much Moore onscreen, and his side trips to Nazism and the Berlin Wall feel like afterthoughts, but those quibbles don't take anything away from his potent portrait of the state of our nation in the second decade of the 21st century, where all of our good ideas have emigrated.

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