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FILM REVIEW: 54th annual New York Film Festival

I am grateful to report that this year not a single big slick manipulative commercial blockbuster movie was included.

New York — The New York Film Festival is again in process at Lincoln Center, running from September 30 to October 16. Many of the films included will show up at movie houses in Manhattan and elsewhere in the coming months, and hopefully some of the best will also make their way up to the Berkshires. Given how bad the Triplex summer schedule was in Great Barrington, there’s been joy for me immersing myself in this year’s NYFF offerings. First, I am grateful to report that this year not a single big slick manipulative commercial blockbuster movie was included. Instead, only a rich, diverse, remarkably human collection of very good films by very good directors, and some that were more than good, really marvelous. The directors’ names alone were an exciting promise of excellence: Jim Jarmusch, Kenneth Lonergan, Kelly Reichart, Assayas, Almodovar –(also Terrence Davies, Ken Loach, the Dardennes brothers, etc.) — and by and large they kept that promise.

Adam Driver in Jim Jarmusch's 'Paterson.'
Adam Driver in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson.’

“Paterson,” by Jim Jarmusch, is a sweetly idiosyncratic film starring Adam Driver (made famous by his role as the Lena Dunham character’s boyfriend in “Girls”) playing a bus driver-poet living with his wife in working class Paterson, N.J., the place itself figuring importantly in the film. The hero, too, is named Paterson, as the actor’s name is actually Driver — jokey Jarmusch. The town is renowned both as the birthplace of poet Allan Ginsburg and especially as the home of the great William Carlos Williams, who spent his life working as a doctor there, wrote a long poem entitled Paterson, and made poetry out of the most ordinary daily realities — plums, a wheelbarrow. So does this hero, when he’s not driving his bus, and giving us a feel of the streets of Paterson through seemingly casual tracking shots — the camera work a pleasure; or eavesdropping on his passengers’ conversations; or returning to the wife he loves with a tenderness films don’t show any more; or walking his dog to the pub every night.
In Jarmusch’s usual shaggy-dog kind of meandering narration, there’s a string of funny, seemingly random encounters with people who turn out to be fellow poets, from a 10-year-old girl to a Japanese visitor who can’t — but can — speak his language. The film sometimes seems a little too quirky for its own good, with the hero’s wife painting designs on everything in their house including her own dress while she’s wearing it — but mostly the light touch is charming and a little fable-like. And as we follow the Paterson character through his days, with the dignity, the serious presentness, the full being with which he lives his life and meets the world outside, the film grows into a low-keyed celebration of dailyness, of the beauty of the quotidian, a celebration of love and of life itself. I highly recommend it.

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea,” too, is quite simply a beauty. I have been following Lonergan’s work since his terrific play, “This Is Our Youth” (so wise about the young) and later “The Waverly Gallery” (so wise about the old). When he moved into filmmaking, his second film, “Margaret,” seemed to me remarkable, in all the complexity with which it looked at our lives, and I watched with chagrin as that film got entangled and mutilated by the Hollywood money powerbroker naysayers who coerced cuts and barely distributed it. And for all that, the film is brilliant.

So I came to his latest, “Manchester,” with no small interest, and it was as masterly as one could wish. Set in wintry Massachusetts, told with a fluid movement between present and past (a haunting past), the central character, Lee, played with utter authenticity and deep emotion by Casey Affleck, is called back from Boston, more precisely Quincy, where he works as a dead-end handyman, to where his family is located in Manchester, because of the death of his older brother Joe. It becomes clear that he has distanced himself, we gradually discover why, but Joe’s will names him as guardian for his 16-year-old son, Patrick.

Loss and inconsolable grief are at the heart of the film, but it performs the miracle of being very funny at the same time, with the super-sane young Patrick — a delicious creation — as an important life-affirming contributor to that.

Lonergan is a master of great dialogue and the intelligence and subtlety of how people talk to one another, and how they relate to one another even without words — as in a shattering scene between Lee and his ex-wife, the great Michelle Williams (not on the screen much but what she does do is unforgettable), and the depth of all the performances Lonergan elicits from his actors, add up to an extraordinary experience. I think it’s about time that he gets the recognition he deserves as one of our very best working today.

A scene from 'Graduation,' by the Romanian director Christian Mungiu.
A scene from ‘Graduation,’ by the Romanian director Christian Mungiu.

Among other films well worth seeing and very well done is “Graduation,” by the Romanian director Christian Mungiu, which concerns a surgeon who urgently wants his young daughter to pass an exam that will allow her to leave the country — which glimpses reveal as grim and corrupt — and study/live in England. In short, he wants what no parent wants, for his beloved child to leave and go far away from him. The film is beautifully shot, very intimate, watches human interaction with great sensitivity. It’s largely focused on the surgeon and his wife, in their mutual concern for the girl though they differ, and on the tenderness and tension between the father and the girl, who struggles for her own independence, doesn’t want to be protected, doesn’t want to do anything that involves pulling strings (though the whole society seems rife with buying favors) — and who appears to be falling for a boy “unworthy” of her, who will keep her there. Though the world of Romania is very far away from us, the world of these people will, I think, feel very familiar to anyone who has a family. If there is a way to see this film, unlikely to arrive at the Triplex — not because it isn’t totally accessible, it IS — but because of the language, and the quiet, seemingly uneventful human drama of it — I think it would be well worth an effort to get to see it wherever it shows up.

There were also distinctive films from more or less unknown directors, like “Moonlight,” by Barry Jenkins, about the boyhood into adulthood of a gay Black man, a really strong film done with unexpected and poignant reticence. Its hero starts out as a strange, large-eyed solemn boy without words, struggling in inner city Miami, who finds unexpected wisdom and kindness in a drug dealer. We watch the druggy collapse of his mother, the vicious bullying of macho peers, and most movingly his discovery of sex/love for another boy. The film is imperfect, a bit sanitized — it’s hard to believe in a young man’s 10-year celibacy or the total gentleness of the muscular drug dealer, a kind of criminal saint, but nonetheless the film is full of the feeling of truth, and very moving.

Director Ava Duvernay, whose documentary 'The 13th' opened the film festival.
Director Ava Duvernay, whose documentary ‘The 13th’ opened the film festival.

It looks like this will turn out to be a special year for Black filmmaking. Ava DuVernay’s “The 13th,” which is the only documentary ever chosen to have the honor of opening the Festival, is a very skillful and effective piece of work in its use of archival footage, articulate and sometimes eloquent talking heads, clever graphics, to note the vast expansion of imprisonment in this country over the decades. She points out the far larger numbers here than anywhere else in the world, the far larger proportion of black men incarcerated, the unequal punishments meted out for black crack versus white cocaine. She builds to an argument that the black criminal, rapist, dangerous black man is a mythical figure created by whites to justify the use of jails to replace slavery, as a way to control the black population and to steal the profits of its labor.

The reality that we see in Jenkins’ Moonlight (the least violent of films), of Black self-destructive behavior, and Black on Black violence, is never dealt with, never even raised, here. But DuVernay is sweeping through a massive history, over a broad period of time, and whatever questions one might have, the sense of a stirring and huge achievement is what one is left with after seeing this film. I think “The 13th,” as well as “Moonlight,” will gain much merited attention and admiration, and go a long way to righting the racial imbalance so bitterly complained about at the recent Oscars.

Two socially conscious feature films deserve mention. Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” — with its own language problems due to regional and working class British speech — concerns a man who has been a hardworking carpenter and good citizen all his years, now a 60-plus widower who has had a bad heart attack, and all the ugly bureaucratic roadblocks he encounters as he tries, since the doctor says he must not go back to work yet, to get state support. His pride, his sense of humiliation, gets doubled by the fate of a young woman with two children, newly moved to the area, who also is treated heartlessly in the offices that are supposed to help. Though it’s overdetermined, too much piled on, the film is engaging, its heart in the right place.

A scene from 'The Unknown Girl.'
A scene from ‘The Unknown Girl.’

Another social-critique film worth attention is “The Unknown Girl” by the Dardenne brothers, in French, about a young woman doctor who feels in some way responsible for the death of an African girl who came ringing her bell just after clinic hours, and was not responded to. The drama turns into a policier, which — not to give too much away — concludes that everyone bears some guilt and responsibility for what befalls this immigrant. The doctor, incidentally, chooses in her practice to serve the most difficult population — the very poor, immigrants, drug addicts, the elderly, so even such a virtuous person can be guilty of a transgression. Again, heart in the right place, engaging to watch, but too neat — especially with racial balancing — and for me, too little internal life.

Among others that were interesting, though unlikely to be available, there is “Neruda,” directed by Pablo Larrain, a riff on the great Chilean poet Neruda, a political hero to his people for his outspokenness in denouncing his government and for his support of the working people, who all know and repeat his ringing words of protest. Not a deep picture of the man himself, but it creates a detective in supposed pursuit of the poet as he is driven into hiding and moving from place to place — and the film is smart, literate, lively, inventive.

There is also a very long sprawling amiable personal film by the director Bertrand Tavernier called “My Journey Through French Cinema,” which is just that. Given the importance of French films in shaping cinema, and in shaping anyone serious about film, much is of interest here, with Tavernier talking to us about his experience with the giants and the unknowns (so many of them), as well as lengthy takes from the many films mentioned. Not much in the way of gossip, however, and favorite actors –like Michel Piccoli — get short shrift, but Tavernier’s discussion of the huge impact of American film on all the major French directors – well known as that influence is — is fascinating as he shows how differently directors from each country approach everything, like film noir, for instance.

This concludes the first two weeks of the 3-week 2016 NYFF press screenings. The final week has an even more impressive concentration of exciting films, which will be reported on in Part 2.

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