Monday, December 5, 2016

2016 New York Film Festival Roundup

54th New York Film Festival
Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, NY
September 30-October 16, 2016

The two best films at the recent 54th New York Film Festival were made by a playwright becoming a major director in his own right and a long-time festival veteran.

Casey Affleck and director Kenneth Lonergan on the set of Manchester by the Sea

With Manchester by the Sea (now playing), his third film in 16 years, playwright Kenneth Lonergan has made a searing, emotionally devastating (but often hilarious) study of Lee, a divorced man—harboring memories of a horrific tragedy that ended his marriage and destroyed his family—who, when he returns to his hometown after his beloved older brother dies, is made guardian of his 16-year-old nephew. Lonergan’s marvelous script is crammed with his usual brilliantly realistic dialogue spoken by many compellingly realized characters; his extraordinary directing comprises his effortless handling of a jumbled chronology and his uncanny way of knowing when to allow silence or to use music—Lonergan even gets away with Albinoni’s by now overexposed “Adagio” to carry one of the film’s most pivotal sequences. The sublime acting starts with Casey Affleck (who, as Lee,  carries the film on his shoulders without giving away his emotions), and includes Lucas Hedges as Lee’s caustic nephew, Michelle Williams as his ex-wife and partner in misery, Kyle Chandler as his brother, Gretchen Mol as his brother’s ex (and nephew’s estranged mom), and priceless appearances in small roles by veteran stage performers like Stephen McKinley Henderson, Missy Yager, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Heather Burns and even Matthew Broderick. To cap things off, Lonergan provides himself with one of the best (and funniest) director cameos since Hitchcock.

Dave Johns (left) and director Ken Loach (right) on the set of I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach never shies from wearing his heart on his sleeve, and even when he becomes didactic, his filmmaking is filled with so much fury and justified anger that even something like I, Daniel Blake (opens Dec. 23)—in which a middle-aged man is put through an emotional and physical ringer by a horribly inefficient British welfare bureaucracy—threatens to, but never does, become a melodramatic soap opera, thanks to the forceful honesty, hurt and humanity in every frame. Paul Laverty’s curt script is bluntly effective, as is Loach’s unsentimental, understated direction; and the acting by Dave Johns—a dead ringer for Phil Collins—is devastatingly truthful in its depiction of the dignity retained by someone caught in grinding government machinery.

Always a major part of the festival, documentaries this year made a huge leap: Ava Duvernay’s 13th (on Netflix) was the first non-fiction film to be selected for Opening Night. Duvernay’s exhaustive subject—how the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, has incarcerated more Americans than ever (mostly non-whites)—begat an intelligent, impassioned documentary that thoughtfully shows how blacks have been treated since the Civil War, with dozens of talking heads discussing those sundry racial issues that are still at stake.

Other documentaries tackled subjects from bank chicanery to Broadway. Anyone outraged that no big bank execs were punished for actions that led to the 2008 financial meltdown—except for mere billions of dollars in fines, but far more in bailouts and bonuses—will be enraged anew by Abacus—Small Enough to Jail, director Steve James’ probing look at how tiny Abacus Bank in New York’s Chinatown was the only financial institution hauled into court. (And, as James shows, overreach by New York’s attorney general was the bigger story.) Best Worst Thing To Ever Have Happened (now playing) engagingly charts the difficult birth of Merrily We Roll Along, composer Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince’s biggest flop, as director Lonny Price—one of the leads in the original 1981 Broadway production—looks back affectionately at its original failure and its second life of worldwide revivals. And in Hamilton’s America (on PBS), the biggest Broadway smash in decades is dissected to death: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s flawed but entertaining hip-hop founding-fathers musical doesn’t deserve such hagiographic treatment, like Public Theater head Oskar Eustis ludicrously equating Miranda with Shakespeare or noted theater critics Jimmy Fallon and Michelle Obama calling it the greatest piece of art ever. Sigh—don’t these people see classic films, read serious literature or look at great sculpture and paintings?

But the festival’s best documentary was My Journey Through French Cinema (opens spring 2017):
Bertrand Tavernier, director of
My Journey Through French Cinema
 even at a staggering 190 minutes, Bertrand Tavernier’s personal chronicle of what most moved him onscreen since he became besotted with movies in his youth is done so beautifully, so charmingly, so admirably, that you wish it would go on for several more hours (at least the end credits hint at a Part 2!). As always with Tavernier, there are marvelous anecdotes, brilliant insights, treasured observations: when discussing composer Maurice Jaubert among the greats of ‘30s and ‘40s cinema, Tavernier’s passion comes through so forcefully that you feel his warmth, his embrace, his marvelously attuned personality to all things cinematic.

With Duvernay, there were other notable female directors at the festival. New Zealand’s Allison MacLean returned home for The Rehearsal, a sharp look at a young man from the sticks who arrives in the city to attend acting school, where he learns responsibility and maturity. MacLean’s fresh group of actors is led by James Rolleston as the young man and Alice Englert as the underage girl he falls for; there’s also the always watchable Kerry Fox as head acting instructor. I may be the lone dissenter when it comes to Maden Ade’s Toni Erdmann (opens Dec. 25), an overlong, occasionally funny but stretched-beyond-its-slender-means portrait of a practical-jokester father who surprises his successful daughter in Bucharest—only to bug her mercilessly. The problem is that dear old dad is nothing more than a plot device instead of a living, breathing character; indeed, when Ade drops him into his daughter’s life, the director seems to be trolling her own movie. Despite impressive performances by Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller, it ends up as frustrating and irritating as her previous film, Everything Else. (New drinking game: every time the father pops his false teeth in—or takes them out—take a drink. You’ll be blotto in no time.)

After an auspicious start to her career (debut All is Forgiven and more accomplished follow-ups, The Father of My Children and Goodbye First Love), French director Mia Hansen- Løve has regressed: her shallow 2014 feature, Eden, gives way to Things to Come (now playing), starring a somnambulistic Isabelle Huppert as a philosophy professor with a long-term marriage, two teenage children and a psychosomatic mother who suddenly finds herself freed, as she says: “I got divorced, my children have moved out, and my mom died. I’m free.” What could have been an insightful portrait of a middle-aged woman beginning several new chapters is instead turned by Hansen-Love into a meandering soap opera that not even the redoubtable Huppert can save.

Huppert is also front and center in Elle (now playing), a slick, exciting and stylish thriller that does little to counter the charge that Paul Verhoeven makes provocative but empty thrillers. Huppert plays a video-game design executive whose rape by a masked intruder sets her on an increasingly dangerous course of revenge, at the same time she’s juggling difficult relationships with her best friend (with whose husband she’s carrying on an affair), her ex-husband, her barely-adult son and the memory of her murderous father. The amazing Huppert nearly makes this contradictory character real; even if she’s boxed in by Verhoeven and writer David Birke’s conceits, she gleefully takes over Elle.

For his new film-buff’s film Julieta (opens Dec. 21), Pedro Almodovar tries his hand at aping Hitchcock, but although there’s style galore, there’s little of the rigorous craft Hitchcock poured into even his most outrageous creations. Almodovar bases his film on a trio of short stories by Alice Munro, but there’s a curious lack of feeling; not helping matters is Alberto Iglesias’s insistent and misleadingly portentous score (not to mention tossed-in music by Grieg and Debussy). Although leavened by the presence of Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte as the title character at ages 50 and 25, Julieta finds Almodovar, despite typical juicy roles for his actresses, coming up with ever diminishing returns. Similarly, Olivier Assayas—who made Personal Shopper (opens Mar. 10) with Kristen Stewart in mind—has made an almost total failure in which he forgets his strengths: namely empathy and artistry. Stewart’s title character is also a medium who attempts to contact her recently deceased twin brother—also, naturally, a medium—while getting involved in what turns out to be a brutal murder. Not helped by a bogus script, Stewart sleepwalks (or Vespa-rides) through it all, coming to life only when she’s stalked by a stranger on her phone.

Graduation (opens Feb. 10), Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s latest slow-building study, follows a small-town bureaucrat looking for a way—legally or illegally—to have his daughter pass her all-important exams, the difference between getting a needed scholarship to a British college or staying in their crumbling burg. As always with Mungiu, the moral dilemma isn’t entirely clear until, finally, the film explodes in a series of sequences from which the conflicted protagonist can no longer hang on to his own moral stance but grasps at straws to stay above water. The performances are unerringly true, though parts of Mungiu’s narrative—like the father’s fairly open relationship with a woman at his daughter’s school—beggar belief.

Another Romanian director, Cristi Puiu, demands equal patience from viewers: Sieranevada is his third consecutive film of at least 2-1/2 hours’ duration, after his masterpiece The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and its tepid follow-up, Aurora. The nearly three-hour Sieranevada (its title is never explained) follows a doctor and his wife as they arrive at his parents’ apartment for his father’s memorial service. Puiu chronicles, alternately amusedly and bemusedly, interactions among family members that run from the mundane to the profane to the ridiculous: an inordinate amount of time is spent among brothers-in-law over whether the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job. Puiu specializes in extraordinarily long takes in the close quarters of the apartment, while his cast’s familial camaraderie transcends the film’s ultimate flimsiness. 

With Neruda (opens Dec. 16), Chilean director Pablo Lorrain has made a fascinatingly free-form hybrid of the biopic and fiction about poet Pablo Neruda, the beloved Chilean Communist and thorn in the side of the authorities: by adding a made-up character of a police detective (Gael Garcia Bernal) who tracks the anti-government rebel, Lorrain turns Neruda’s life into an analytic mélange of fiction, politics, the cult of personality and biographical facts, with the brilliant actor Luis Gnecco a dead ringer for Neruda.

As a retired music critic living in a Rio apartment she refuses to sell to the building’s developers in Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Aquarius (now playing), Sonia Braga gives a fiercely committed performance that lets us inside the world of a widowed 68-year-old breast cancer survivor in all her complexity, whether it’s ambivalent relationships with her grown children and women friends, still-aroused sexuality, and deep loathing for those trying to get her to move out. Braga’s sensual appearance—that long mass of black hair still puts one in mind of her breakthrough nearly 40 years ago in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands—outclasses Filho’s unsubtlety: his three-part film begins with a long flashback to our heroine as a young woman, includes two—count ‘em, two—blasts of Queen on the soundtrack (since Braga’s character wrote a book on the great Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, it’s surprising we don’t hear his music until the final scenes), and culminates with a colony of termites becoming an outsized plot development and hoary metaphor.

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