New York Film Festival 2021 – What I’ve Seen So Far, Part 1

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I skipped last year’s New York Film Festival entirely because I couldn’t get my head around seeing the films virtually, which might seem odd since I’d been watching everything — new and old movies — on my computer screen since the previous March when theaters shut down. I didn’t even bother to check the lineup (head in the sand approach). Last year there were no in-theater screenings, and consequently no in-theater filmmaker introductions or Q&As after. I wanted to be present for all this, in the same space, which I think makes a difference.

This year there are no virtual screenings; everything is being seen in one of the four venues at Lincoln Center. Of course, things aren’t totally back to normal. Theaters can be filled to capacity, but wearing a mask throughout is required. From what I’ve observed, everyone is cooperating with that restriction. Though two nights ago, before the film began I mentioned to a woman sitting two seats away that her mask needed to cover her nose, which it did not. She looked at me as though I’d just sprouted a second head. I decided to leave it at that.

By my count, there are fifty-one feature films in the Main Slate, Spotlight, and revival categories this year. And that’s not all. I’m seeing fourteen features, ten with my wife and four on my own. That leaves thirty-seven films I’m not seeing, but I’ll live. I’m happy with what we selected. There are others I wish we could have fit in, such as two new films by the great (and prolific) South Korean director Hong Sangsoo, but I’m confident these will be released at some point. In the 1980s and into the ’90s, Alice Tully Hall was the only venue and the lineup was such that if a person was crazy enough to want to see all the films, it was possible. Not that I’m complaining. With additional screening spaces, sidebar programs and revivals, it’s an embarrassment of riches.

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The opening night film was The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed and written by Joel Coen (with an assist from William Shakespeare). We weren’t able to get tickets (even though they ended up having eight separate screenings over the course of that night, with a ninth screening added for Saturday, October 9). So I haven’t  seen it yet, but wanted to mention it here anyway. Reviews I’ve seen have been excellent. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Lord and Lady Macbeth seem like a dream team. And speaking of teams, this is the first time Joel Coen has made a film without his brother, Ethan. It will be interesting to see if that makes any difference. The black and white photography and squarish screen format are also interesting, from what we can tell from the trailer. I’d like to see more films shot in black and white, and that’s not just nostalgia for the old days. In any event, I very much look forward to seeing this film.

Here is a press conference with Joel Coen, Frances McDormand, Denzel Washington, and others, moderated by Dennis Lim. It runs approximately 43 minutes.

The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in theaters on December 25 (counter-programming for Christmas) and streams on Apple TV+ on January 14.

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Our NYFF59 viewing offically began last Saturday with Bergman Island, directed and written by Mia Hansen-Løve. I’d especially liked her earlier film, Father of My Children (2009), so I was looking forward to this. Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps) are a married couple who have come to the Swedish island of Fårö, where Ingmar Bergman lived and shot many of his films. Tony and Chris are filmmakers, each working on a screenplay. They are staying in one of Bergman’s homes and hope to be inspired by the location and the Bergman vibe that seems to be everywhere. Chris is having difficulties with her writing. At one point she begins describing the story of her script. As she does this, the film we’ve been watching begins to weave in an out of her script. Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie play characters in Chris’ story. At times it seems like the film within a film is beginning to take over. After it was over, I wasn’t sure if the film worked, but it’s stayed with me, which is a good sign. One of the most interesting things about Bergman Island is that it was shot in Bergman’s actual homes on the island, and people are constantly talking about Bergman and his films, which lends a kind of documentary aspect.

The trailer is followed by a Q&A with the director and stars, which runs approximately 18 minutes.

Bergman Island opens at the IFC Center in Manhattan on October 14 as part of a series called “Fårö and Other Edens: Films by Ingmar Bergman and Mia Hansen-Løve.”

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The next film, which we saw back to back with Bergman Island, was The Worst Person in the World, a Norwegian film directed by Joachim Trier. We loved it. Here’s a description I’ve adapted from the NYFF program, which gives a good sense of the film: “As proven in such exacting stories of lives on the edge as Reprise and Oslo, August 31, Joachim Trier is singularly adept at giving an invigorating modern twist to classically constructed character portraits. Trier catapults the viewer into the world of his most spellbinding protagonist yet: Julie, played by Cannes Best Actress winner Renate Reinsve, who’s the magnetic center of nearly every scene. After dropping out of pre-med, Julie must find new professional and romantic avenues as she navigates her twenties, juggling emotionally heavy relationships with two very different men (Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie and engaging newcomer Herbert Nordrum). Fluidly told in 12 discrete chapters, Trier’s film elegantly depicts the precarity of identity and the mutability of happiness in our runaway contemporary world.”

Renate Reinsve truly earned her Best Actress award at Cannes. She gives an extremely engaging performance. Anders Danielsen Lie was also in Bergman Island, so we saw him in consecutive films. Along with Herbert Nordrum, it’s a very strong cast.

The following trailer presents the film as something of a rom-com, which I guess it is, but it’s also more than that. After the trailer is a Q&A with Joachim Trier, Renate Reinsve, and Anders Danielsen Lie. It runs approximately 20 minutes.

A release date has not yet been announced.

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We had one film last Sunday afternoon, Paul Verhoeven’s latest provocation, Benedetta. As we were waiting to enter Alice Tully Hall, we were treated to a vociferous protest against the film by a Catholic organization, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. They felt that a film about lesbian nuns in a 17th Century convent in Italy has to be blasphemous. I suppose from their point of view, it is, even though Benedetta is based on fact. This “protest” seemed silly and ineffectual to me.

Verhoeven has always pushed the envelope in terms of sex and violence. Robocop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Elle come to mind. I like his films partly because he’s not afraid to go over the line, in fact, he’s eager to do so. Though the inclusion of a wooden figure of the Virgin Mary modified to serve as a dildo might have been a bit much.

The trailer is followed by an interview with Verhoeven by Film at Lincoln Center’s Dennis Lim, which runs approximately 41 minutes.

Benedetta will be released theatrically at the IFC Center and Film at Lincoln Center on December 3, and will also be available for streaming.

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On Wednesday afternoon I saw Titane, a French film directed and co-written by Julia Ducournau. Having now seen Titane, I’m at a loss to understand how it received the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year, the prestigious Palme d’Or. I hadn’t read anything specific about the film, but this seemed like a good sign. I also hadn’t realized that Ducournau had previously made Raw (2016), a film about a vegetarian young woman in her freshman year at a veterinary school who becomes a cannibal. I’d wanted to walk out on that one many times, but I hate to do that, so I stuck it out. Titane is no different in the reaction it provoked in me. The film is aggressive and assaultive in ways I found very ugly and unpleasant. David Cronenberg, whose films I love, is much better at the kind of body horror on display here. I suspect I’m in the wrong demographic for this one. Though it does feature Vincent Lindon, one of my favorite French actors.

I’ve resisted attempting a synopsis. It would require one spoiler alert after another, and I just don’t feel up to the challenge. But this is only my opinion. Sometimes you get on the ride and sometimes you don’t.

The trailer below is followed by a Q&A at the festival with Julia Ducournau, Vincent Lindon, and lead actor Agathe Rouselle. It runs approximately 23 minutes.

Titane opened in theaters today, October 1.

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Wednesday evening we saw The Lost Daughter, based on the novel by Elena Ferrante. It was written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal for her feature film debut. The strong cast, many of whom were onstage at Alice Tully both before and after the film, includes Olivia Colman (awesome as always), Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescak, Dagmara Dominxzyk, Ed Harris, and  writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Colman plays Leda, a divorced college professor on a solo vacation on a Greek island. She becomes involved with a large family that she initially finds annoying. A child’s lost doll figures heavily in the narrative. The present is interwoven with the past and Leda’s memories of her younger self and her relationship with her two daughters. I wasn’t initially sure that the film worked for me, but, like Bergman Island, it’s stayed with me, which is always a good sign.

Here is the Q&A that took place following the screening we saw. I wish Gyllenhaal had been asked about her visual approach and the cinematography, which employs a lot of tight closeups on faces. The Q&A runs approximately 24 minutes.

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Last night I saw a film I’d been anxious to see since reading about it earlier this year, The Velvet Underground, a documentary directed by Todd Haynes. The Velvet Underground is a group that has meant a lot to me over the years, both for the music and the personnel, specifically Lou Reed and John Cale. I’d seen the band play at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco in 1968. The one thing I remember from that concert is when someone in the audience called out for “Heroin,” Lou Reed said, “We don’t play that anymore.” Of course, this signature song continued to be performed by the band and later, during Reed’s solo career. After I moved to New York City in 1977, I saw Lou Reed frequently at The Bottom Line and John Cale almost as many times. Their music has been a part of my life for years. Haynes’ film is startling in many ways, both in the often radical way it’s structured and in the depth of the material presented. I learned a lot I hadn’t known about the backgrounds of the people who came to form the Velvet Underground. The cultural scene in New York in the Sixties provided a unique and fertile landscape that expressed itself through film, art, photography, and music. Everything fed into everything else. The importance of Andy Warhol to all this is examined in the film. The amount of material amassed is almost overwhelming. The editing is excellent. The source attributions listed in the lengthy closing credits seem to go on forever. Along with all the archival footage, interviews conducted for the film are interwoven throughout. Haynes said during the Q&A after the screening that they limited new interviews only to people who were there at the time, in that scene. John Cale is especially great to hear. Maureen Tucker, too.

The Velvet Underground always comes back to the music. I’d forgotten how experimental their sound was, especially during the early years. I think there’s stuff on the first two albums that we still haven’t caught up to yet. Seeing this film reminded me of that. I was quite moved at the end.

The Velvet Underground opens here in New York City on October 13 at Film Forum and Film at Lincoln Center. It begins streaming on Apple TV+ on October 15, though I recommend seeing it on a theater screen played as loud as possible through a good sound system.

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Still to come, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, and more. In the meantime, stay safe. – Ted Hicks

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About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Books, Documentaries, Feature films, Film posters, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable. Bookmark the permalink.

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