The 56th New York Film Festival kicked off this past Friday and continues until Sunday, October 14th. It’s my big film event of the year. There are 30 features in the Main Slate section this year, and dozens more in the various sidebar programs. When I started attending this festival in 1977, the opening and closing night films were shown at Avery Fisher Hall. The rest were shown at Alice Tully Hall, which remains the main venue for Main Slate selections. Back then it was possible to see every film on the schedule if you wanted to. The addition of screens at the Walter Reade Theater and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film center down the block has created venues for inceased programming during the festival. Even if someone was crazy enough to want to see everything, you just couldn’t do it. An embarrassment of riches, as the saying goes. I’m seeing 24 films this year. That’s probably enough.
Here are the six I saw this past weekend. I want to get this in before the end of the day (at midnight my computer turns into a pumpkin), so these brief impressions will be my immediate reactions to the films. (As is now obvious, I did not succeed in finishing this last night, pumpkin or not.)
Friday, September 28
The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, writer/director) This was the opening night film and I loved it. The following description on IMDb is from Fox Searchlight Pictures: “Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.”
The film is quite nasty, and very funny as well. The performances are exceptional. There’s a hilarious dance scene that a friend of mine said “seemed to be a sort of Monty Python spoof of the era’s courtly dances.” The Favourite also reminds me a bit of Richard Lester’s wonderful Three Musketeers films. I’ve had mixed feelings about the previous Yorgos Lanthimos films I’d seen. The Lobster (2015) was off the wall, but I liked its bizarre premise. I had an aggressively negative reaction to The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), so I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Favourite. But like I said, I loved it. It’s steeped in period detail. I don’t know if that detail is totally accurate, but everything looks amazing. You can overdose on the production design, which made me think of Barry Lyndon (1975). Lanthimos also makes extensive use of extreme wide-angle, fisheye lenses. These shots have a surreal, panoramic quality suggestive of dioramas in museums.
Here’s a trailer that gives a good sense of the tone and sensibility of The Favourite. The film opens on November 23rd.
Saturday, September 29
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Morgan Neville, director) This is a documentary about the making (and unmaking) of Orson Welles’ legendary unfinished film, The Other Side of the Wind. Welles began production in 1970, which continued in fits and starts until 1976, after which it was lost in a limbo of legalities and speculation. Efforts to complete it in some fashion over the years invariably stalled out, until things were somehow sorted out, with Netflix providing funds to make it possible. I didn’t like this documentary very much. I found it very chaotic, though I suppose you could say that reflects the chaos of Welles’ film itself. Also, the editing — using many clips from Welles’ films — is too clever by half. Still, it’s interesting to see archival footage of Welles in various interview situations. He’s always fascinating.
The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, director/co-writer) As I said, Welles is always fascinating. I have deep affection for him and love his films, especially Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil. Which makes it all the more disappointing and distressing that when I finally saw The Other Side of the Wind on Saturday afternoon, I didn’t like it at all. It seemed completely chaotic to me, and not in a good way. But in retrospect I have to admit that the style and structure of the film — telling the story via an assemblage of footage shot from many sources in black & white and color and different aspect ratios — was way ahead of the game in predicting the glut of “found-footage” films that followed in the wake of The Blair Witch Project (1999). I’m kind of working this out as I’m writing. There’s no way of knowing what The Other Side of the Wind would be like had Welles been able to actually finish it himself down to the last edit, instead of others trying to second guess what he would have done.
The audience reaction for They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and The Other Side of the Wind was very enthusiastic on Saturday, which made me question my response to the films. I had to rush to see my next film and couldn’t stay for the Q&A. I regret missing this, because I’m sure it would have given me more to work with, especially since it included Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich, Morgan Neville, and Martin Scorsese. Hopefully it will be eventually online and I can see what I missed. Both films will be released by Netflix for streaming on November 2nd. Then you can see for yourself. I probably should take another look as well.
The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, director) and The Cold Blue (Erik Nelson, director) In 1943, William Wyler, filming in 16mm, flew with the crews of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers on combat missions over Germany. He used the footage to tell the story of the 25th and final mission of The Memphis Belle and its crew. Wyler’s film was released in 1944, and is considered to be one of the best WWII documentaries. For years it existed in poor quality prints and videos, but has received a splendid 4K digital restoration. The Cold Blue is a new film by Erik Nelson, who drew from the over 15 hours of footage shot by Wyler. It details the making of The Memphis Belle, and is supplemented by interviews with surviving veterans who talk of their experiences as very young men who flew during the war. I have a particular interest in this subject. My dad was a navigator on a B-17G in 1944 and ’45. I was born while he was stationed in England flying bombing missions. Seeing both films resonated strongly with me.
There were Q&As following the screenings, both of which included Wyler’s daughter, Catherine. The second Q&A was moderated by Mark Harris, author of Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. This excellent book is about five major directors — John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler — and the documentaries they made to promote the war effort.
The Cold Blue will be shown on HBO sometime next year. Release plans for The Memphis Belle have yet to be announced.
Sunday, September 30
Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry, director & writer) Elizabeth Moss stars as Becky Something, the leader of an alt-rock/punk/grunge band called Something She. Becky is destructively out of control, making life impossible for everyone around her, which includes the three women in her band. She made me think of Courtney Love, though in a Q&A after the film, the director and Moss said they’d modeled her on a number of people. The opening act, a sequence lasting 25 minutes, drops us in Becky’s in-your-face world right from the start. The cinematography by Sean Price Williams is frantic and reflects the deliberate chaos of Becky’s life. It’s hard to watch and she’s hard to take, but I couldn’t look away. In a subsequent section, with Becky recovering in a house in the country, the camerawork is completely different, very stable, locked down for long takes. Elizabeth Moss gives a totally committed, kick-out-the-jams performance. I first saw her in Mad Men where her character’s amazing evolution was the spine of the show. This is the third Alex Ross Perry film she’s been in, following Listen Up Philip (2014) and Queen of the Earth (2015).
There was a brief Q&A with Alex Ross Perry and Elizabeth Moss after the screening moderated by Dennis Lim. I wish it had been longer.
I’ve got 18 films to see before NYFF56 ends next Sunday. I’m particularly looking forward to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate (with Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh and Oscar Isaac as Gauguin), a restoration of Edgar Ulmer’s Detour, and Watergate, a 4-hour documentary by Charles Ferguson. I’m also hoping to score a ticket for Frederick Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana, the latest documentary from this 88-year-old master.
That’s all for now. See you at the movies. — Ted Hicks