NYFF54: “The Cinema Is So Many Things at Once”

nyff54-main-slate1robinhollandThe Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 54th New York Film Festival, opening today and running through October 16, includes a main slate of 25 films from North and South America, Europe, Asia and New Zealand, several of which picked up Bears and Palmes earlier this year. The opening and closing night films (“13th” and “The Lost City of Z,” respectively), and the centerpiece (“20th Century Women”) are world premieres.

Kent Jones, the Festival’s Director and Selection Committee Chair, says, “When I look at the films in this year’s selection, I’m aware of the fact that (cinema) is a form of response. The Dardenne Brothers, Ken Loach, Cristian Mungiu, Gianfranco Rosi, Kleber Mendonça Filho, and Ava DuVernay are sounding alarms, while Jim Jarmusch, Kenneth Lonergan, Barry Jenkins, Maren Ade, Olivier Assayas, James Gray, and Mike Mills are fixed on internal landscapes, proclaiming the urgency of self-realization. ”

Opening night, Ava DuVernay’s “13th” (which Jones calls “an act of true patriotism”), is the first documentary to be programmed in that slot  in NYFF’s history. The extraordinary film explores the ramifications of 13th Amendment to the Constitution (“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States”) in our shameful time of mass incarceration of black men. DuVernay mixes archival footage and testimony from formerly incarcerated men and women, politicians, activists and historians. Included are lawyer and professor Michelle Alexander, author of the remarkable “The New Jim Crow” (2010), Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Angela Davis, Cory Booker, Grover Norquist, Khalil Muhammad and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (“13th” will be in theaters and on Netflix on Friday, October 7.)

Barry Jenkins’s NYFF debut, the exquisite “Moonlight,” a three-part narrative, focusing on the childhood, adolescence and adulthood of a gay African-American man, is suffused with visual and emotional beauty, some of it rough, some sublime.  And while it seems nearly impossible that Little/Charon (the character’s name in the first two sections) could transform to become Black, physically and temperamentally, the film has given so much, that it would be churlish (and foolish) not to grant it a small suspension of disbelief. The third section is deeply moving. The ensemble cast includes André Holland, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe and Mahershala Ali, each delivering a riveting performance.

Other celebrated filmmakers will make their NYFF debuts: Kenneth Lonergan with his third feature “Manchester by the Sea;” Kleber Mendonça Filho, presenting “Aquarius,” starring the legendary Sônia Braga; and Alison Maclean. In her coming-of-age film, “The Rehearsal,” she foregrounds and backgrounds her actual actors and their performances as young acting students in their first year at a prestigious arts academy in New Zealand.

Festival veteran Ken Loach returns with “I, Daniel Blake” (which won the 2016 Palme d’Or). The eponymous character (Dave Johns), a widowed construction worker recovering from a heart attack, tries, with increasing desperation, to navigate a Kafkaesque bureaucracy and claim his deserved disability benefits. But Blake’s frustration doesn’t prevent him from befriending and aiding a struggling single mother (Hayley Squires) and her two young children. That the film is a bit predictable doesn’t prevent it from also being profoundly moving.

Also returning to NYFF with their latest films are Pedro Almodóvar, Kelly Reichardt, Jim Jarmusch, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Mia Hansen-Løve, Cristian Mungiu, Paul Verhoeven, Olivier Assayas, Cristi Puiu, and Eugène Green.

“Paterson,” Jim Jarmusch’s sweet (!) story of a New Jersey city and a bus driver sharing a name (which is also the name of William Carlos Williams’s great epic poem). Paterson (Adam Driver) is also poet, and shares the basic need for a creative life with his beloved and beautiful Persian girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a fabric painter, cupcake baker, aspiring country western star and black and white aficionado. Jarmusch’s Iggy Pop doc, “Gimme Danger,” will screen in the Festival’s special events section.

Another NYFF regular, the incomparable French actress Isabelle Huppert stars in two main slate features. In Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” his first film in a decade (and his first in French), Huppert plays Michèle, the CEO of a video game company and the daughter of a notorious mass murderer, who has a sui generis response to being brutally raped in her well-appointed house in Paris. Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Things to Come” is constructed around Huppert’s great performance as Natalie, a middle-aged Parisian philosophy professor being propelled by her changing relationships into an unfamiliar life. (Sorry for any repetition–many posts ago, I ran out of adjectives to describe the brilliant Isabelle Huppert.)

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Upper panel, clockwise from top left: Barry Jenkins, Annette Bening, Ken Loach, Isabelle Huppert, Michelle Alexander, Mia Hansen-Løve.  All images © Robin Holland.

Lower panel, clockwise from top left: Natacha Régnier, Olivier Assayas, Eugène Green, Sônia Braga, Jim Jarmusch, Cristian Mungiu. All images © Robin Holland.

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