The 59th edition of the New York Film Festival concluded on Sunday, October 10. Based on the fourteen films I saw, it was a very good year. I don’t know any actual figures, but from what I could tell there was a heavy turnout for screenings. After last year’s virtual festival, I think filmgoers were anxious to get back into theaters to see NYFF films on a big screen with an audience, plus Q&As with filmmakers. All of this feels so much different when you’re actually there, in the space. It’s a connection you simply don’t have with virtual screenings or via Zoom events. There was no social distancing, but masks had to be worn inside the venues and during screenings. Supporting a good slate of films, everything was extremely well run, which must have been more of a challenge this year than organizing a large festival normally would be. Below are notes on the rest of what I saw.
Friday, October 1 — The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, director & writer) Set on a cattle ranch in Montana in 1925, this is an extremely powerful film. At times, the tone and look of it reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), which was equally inscrutable and made you work to parse it out. I think The Power of the Dog gives us all the information, but nothing is spelled out. An enormous weight, both physically and emotionally, is conveyed. It’s also set in a time and place in a way that feels like I’ve never seen it before. There’s a granular detail to everything, the buildings, the location, clothing, behavior, all of it. The year is 1925, but there’s a cattle drive that evokes Red River. It’s the Twentieth Century, but it’s more like the Wild West. The excellent cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The role is a definite departure for Cumberbatch as an angry, bitter, tightly wrapped rancher with an overload of testosterone. He’s a long way from Sherlock Holmes.
The Power of the Dog opens in theaters on November 17 and begins streaming on Netflix on December 1.
Sunday, October 3 — The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, director & co-writer) I mentioned an attention to granular detail in The Power of the Dog. That’s putting it mildly with regard to Wes Anderson. His films, and this one in particular, are like finely crafted dollhouses, symmetrical and highly detailed. It’s like his films are etched on the head of a pin, or impossibly intricate needlepoint tapestries.
The French Dispatch opened in theaters on October 22. A streaming date has not yet been announced.
Sunday, October 3 — Passing (Rebecca Hall, director & writer) Based on a short novel written by Nella Larsen and published in 1929, Rebecca Hall’s Passing examines a powerful racial issue. The film is set in New York City in the same period. Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives in Harlem with her husband Brian (André Holland), a successful doctor. One day, in a posh hotel in Manhattan, Irene sees a childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), in the hotel restaurant. They haven’t seen each other for many years. It turns out that Clare has been passing for white, married to a white man, John (Alexander Skarsgård). Told mostly from Irene’s point of view, the film looks at how her relationship with Clare develops, given the circumstances. Passing is shot in crisp black & white, and evokes the period with skill and economy. The excellent cast also includes Bill Camp, who I always like seeing.
My problem with Passing is this: At one point in the Q&A following the screening I attended, Ruth Negga says she “fell in love with Clare’s refusal to be anything but herself.” I found this to be an astonishing statement for her to make. Clare is passing for white, but is not white. At the outset, Irene is the only one in the film who knows. Clare’s husband John is a virulent racist. He has no idea that she is anything but white. At one point, he makes a “joke” that if Clare doesn’t stay out of the sun she’ll turn into an n-word. What must it cost Clare to hear this and know her husband hates Blacks? She says nothing, which to my mind makes her complicit. Maybe I’ve missed something, but I don’t see how this is being true to herself. These are powerful story elements, but the film doesn’t question Clare’s tolerance of her racist husband, at least not directly. I find this disturbing, and also the fact that it wasn’t addressed in the Q&A or in anything else I have read about Passing. Again, maybe I’ve misread the film. I’ve not read the short novel it’s based on. Passing is too well made and well acted to ignore, and I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from seeing it.
Passing opened in theaters on October 27 and streams on Netflix beginning on November 10.
Monday, October 4 — C’mon C’mon (Mike Mills, director & writer) I love this film. Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance of great warmth, plays Johnny, a radio documentary journalist who interviews kids around the country, asking them questions like, “When you think about the future, how do you imagine it will be?” During a break, he visits his estranged sister in Los Angeles, Viv (played by a terrific Gaby Hoffman, who was excellent on the Amazon Prime series Transparent). While there, Viv’s mentally ill ex-husband reaches out, and she has to suddenly travel to Oakland to help him. She asks Johnny to stay with her 9-year-old son, Jesse, while she’s gone. It develops that Viv has to be away longer than expected. Johnny has interview assignments he has to do, and he gets Viv’s permission to take Jesse along with him. This is a road movie that travels to Detroit, New York City, and New Orleans. Jesse is played by Woody Norman. It’s a cliché to say someone is a revelation, but that’s what he is. It’s a amazing performance, free of cute-kid mannerisms. The relationship that develops between Johnny and Jesse is another revelation. Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman feel totally authentic and real in ways that transcend performance. Based on two previous films written and directed by Mike Mills, Beginners (2010) and 20th Century Women (2016), I anticipated something special with C’mon C’mon. I was not disappointed. And like Passing, it was shot in black & white, a detail I’d forgotten until starting to write this. Faulty memory aside, I know it looked great and wish more films would be shot that way (when appropriate).
C’mon C’mon opens in theaters on November 19. A streaming date has not yet been announced.
Wednesday, October 6 — Hit the Road (Panah Panahi, director & writer) Panah Panahi is the son of the great Iranian director, Jafar Panahi, who was sentenced in 2010 to a 20 year ban on making films by the Iranian government. Since then he’s made nine films off the grid which were smuggled out of the country. So much for the ban. Hit the Road is his son’s first feature and definitely shares his DNA. We’re with four people in a car on a road in what looks like a desert. Mom is driving, Dad is in the back seat with a cast on his leg while Little Brother raises hell. Big Brother is in the front passenger seat, not saying a word. The film reveals itself very slowly and even then not entirely. We eventually learn that they’ve sold their house and car (this one is either borrowed or a rental) to finance getting Big Brother across the border. You get the sense he’s in trouble with the authorities and needs to leave the country, though this is never spelled out. Little Brother is played by Rayan Sarlak. Like Woody Norman’s character in C’mon C’mon, he’s a real live wire, though maybe not quite as endearing. If you’ve liked the work of other Iranian directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi, this is a film to see.
Hit the Road is currently playing the international film festival circuit. Theatrical release dates have not yet been announced.
Thursday, October 7 — Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, director & writer — 1976) This was John Carpenter’s second feature, after Dark Star (1974) and before he got everyone’s attention with Halloween in 1978. This film was part of the NYFF’s Revivals category. The premise is simple. Police and prisoners in a Los Angeles precinct that’s in the process of being shut down are under siege by gang members with superior numbers and firepower. We’ve seen this before in Rio Bravo (1959) and most recently in Copshop (2021), as well as a remake of Assault on Precinct 13 in 2005 with Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburn. I was somewhat surprised to realize I’d not seen Carpenter’s film before. I didn’t like it very much, but can see why it got attention in ’76. Typical of many exploitation films of the period it’s blunt, brutal, and single minded. It’s not everyday you see a little girl gunned down on camera, which is probably the most original thing about it, though I don’t think many would see that as a recommendation.
Assault on Precinct 13 is available for streaming from Amazon Prime.
Friday, October 8 — Dune (Denis Villeneuve, director & co-writer) I was surprised to see this on the NYFF schedule, but I’m glad it was. Denis Villeneuve is an excellent director, one of the best, and a favorite of mine. I love Sicario (2015), and find it endlessly repeatable. Blade Ruuner 2049 (2017) is also excellent and proved that Villeneuve could easily work on the large scale that Dune required. Frank Herbert’s Dune, published in 1965, became a science fiction classic with a cult following over the years. Many sequels and spinoff novels followed. The first attempt to make a film of Dune was in 1984, directed by David Lynch, his third feature after Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980) and before the wonder that is Blue Velvet (1986). The consensus is that it was a disaster, a judgement shared by Lynch. Aside from a few scenes and details that exhibit the Lynch weirdness, it is, indeed, pretty bad. Villeneuve’s version is not; it’s excellent and really delivers. But it covers only the first half of the book, so in a sense it’s all setup and prologue. Audiences will have to wait for Part Two to see how it all plays out.
Dune is set far in the future (in a galaxy far, far away). The House of Atreides (yes, there’s a Game of Thrones vibe to all this) has been ordered by the Emperor to take over spice mining operations on the planet Arrakis, aka Dune. Spice is a priceless commodity, somehow essential to interplanetary travel. The cast is excellent. Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the protagonist of the story. Oscar Isaac is his father, Duke Leto Atreides, the head of their clan. Rebecca Ferguson is Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica. Others in the cast include Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, Josh Brolin, and Zendaya. My favorite is Jason Momoa, who plays Duncan Idaho. Though how a person 20,000 years in the future in a different galaxy would come to have a name like Duncan Idaho is beyond me. But it’s a great name and Momoa is great. He brings warmth, humor, loyalty, and heroism to the role.
Dune was shot with IMAX cameras. Denis Villeneuve has said that Dune was “dreamed, designed, and shot for the IMAX experience.” At the NYFF, Dune was shown on screens at Alice Tully Hall and the Walter Reade Theater. I saw it at the latter venue. It was fine on that screen, but I’m also going to see it tomorrow in IMAX at AMC Lincoln Square on 68th Street. How could I not? Dune was released last Friday, October 22, in theaters and on HBO Max. Seeing this film on a TV screen, no matter how big, will be a diminished experience, though probably better than not seeing it at all.
It was announced a day or so ago that Warner Bros. had given the go-ahead for Dune: Part Two, which should be released sometime in 2023.
Friday, October 8 — Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodóvar, director & writer) This was the last film we saw at this year’s festival. I was really looking forward to a new Almodóvar film. His films are so full of life and energy. I remember the first time I saw him in person, which was at the New York Film Festival. Not sure of the year, but it was probably when The Flower of My Secret was shown in 1995. He came from backstage to introduce the film wearing a brightly colored jump suit and practically turning somersaults. So I hate to say that I found Parallel Mothers disappointing. Though it’s more accurate to say that I was disappointed, not that the film was disappointing. It might have been my mood and attention span, after over two and a half hours seeing Dune just before. Penélope Cruz is excellent, as is Rossy de Palma. They play Janis and Elena, two pregnant single women in the hospital at the same time to give birth. They become friends and develop a relationship after their children, both daughters, are born. This leads to a big twist that’s not much of a surprise when it comes. There’s a second storyline concerning the killing of hundreds of civilians by the Franco regime during the Spanish Civil War. This is a powerful subject, but I’m not sure how it all fits together. Also, though the film is always entertaining, at time it didn’t feel like an Almodóvar film. I didn’t see his identity in it. For me, it doesn’t compare to his last film, Pain and Glory (2019), which I thought was great. I need to see Parallel Mothers again, just like I need to see Passing again, and will do so.
Parallel Mothers opens on December 24 in New York City and Los Angeles. Streaming has yet to be announced, but will probably be early next year.
That wraps it up for me. Of the fourteen films I saw, my top picks are Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, with Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch a close third. Most of these are either available now or will be soon. Supplemental material for the films discussed will be posted in a couple of days. See you at the movies. Stay safe. — Ted