A good many of the strongest films in the festival this year stayed close to the facts. Apart from the amply stocked “Spotlight on Documentary” sidebar, the main slate included Jehane Noujaim’s vital and urgent report The Square, Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley (another late masterpiece by the dean of the real), and perhaps the thickest, chewiest, most engrossing slice of life of them all, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s American Promise.
In 1999, the filmmakers placed their son Idris in Manhattan’s elite, predominantly white Dalton School. Seun Summers, the son of another African-American family in their Brooklyn neighborhood, also entered Dalton at that time. Inspired in part by Michael Apted’s Up series, Brewster and Stephenson decided to videotape the boys’ careers through twelfth grade. What they have dug out of the resulting 800 hours of footage is a narrative of persistent racial divisions and negotiations and a lot more besides: missed signals, dashed expectations, efforts to cope with sudden catastrophe, and a final parental coming-to-terms that is painful to see—and was extraordinarily brave of Brewster and Stephenson to show.
Wiseman’s portrait of the University of California at Berkeley concentrates on two themes—the school’s efforts on the one hand to manage ongoing financial pressures, and on the other to maintain a culture of public engagement—which give the old wizard the makings of a suspense drama, as surely as if a locomotive were racing toward a heroine tied to the tracks. (New York City’s IFC Center will release the film theatrically in November.) Noujaim’s The Square, which follows half a dozen Cairo revolutionaries through waves of protest and repression in Cairo’s Tahrir Square from early 2011 through summer 2013, will open at Film Forum in New York City in late October, offering as immediate a view of ongoing political struggle as you are likely to see.
I consider Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust separately because it has an invaluable document at its core: a protracted interview conducted in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the only survivor among the Nazi-appointed “Jewish Elders” of the ghettoes and death camps. Through Murmelstein’s testimony, Lanzmann is able not only to rebut certain accusations about the collaboration of Jewish elites (a charge that, in this case, is reduced to absurdity) but also to cast light on the character and motives of Adolf Eichmann, the course of development of the German death industry and, above all, the function of lies as the mortar in the Nazi edifice. Lanzmann could find no place for all this in Shoah, and so he has now made the interview into a three-and-a-half-hour film of its own by adding present-day contextual footage. These additional scenes unquestionably diminish the rigor of Lanzmann’s method, lowering it at times from revelation to rhetoric. Nevertheless, The Last of the Unjust stands as a monument appended to a monument.
Among the fiction films at this year’s festival, perhaps none generated so much popular excitement as Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ loving re-creation of the New York folk music scene in 1961. “Loving” is not a word I have used before with the Coens. “Condescending” would be more like it, especially when they turn their cold gaze on people who avow any kind of principle. In the scuffling title character of their new film, though, they have someone with both principles and a sarcastic edge, and an actor, Oscar Isaac, with such a revved-up and illicit air that you’d think he’d been hot-wired in an alley and gunned onto the set. The Coens still can’t resist playing tricks on the audience—in this case, a gag so corny that sixth graders are warned away from it—but for once they risk allowing real sorrow to run through the fun, games and grotesquerie.
Even better, to my mind, is Nebraska, written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne: a story about a middle-aged man (Will Forte) on a road trip with his half-addled father (Bruce Dern) and vituperatively honest mother (June Squibb). Two out of the three know they’re on a fool’s errand, which takes them from their present drabness in Montana back to a derelict home town in Nebraska, all shot with Payne’s unmatched eye for the American unpicturesque. It’s a catalog of disappointment, loss and stupidity, made touching and funny by Forte (a comedian practicing self-restraint) and by Dern’s mysterious reserves of dignity in the midst of frailty.
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Current taste clearly favors the asperity of films such as Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis while running against sentimentality. But for people who still want lush, unembarrassed emotion coupled with a sensuous richness of imagery, the festival offered James Gray’s melodrama The Immigrant. Starring Marion Cotillard as a Polish woman traduced straight from Ellis Island into prostitution, and Joaquin Phoenix as her Lower East Side impresario-pimp, the film is as old-fashioned as its 1920s setting and yet as true to life, in a movies way, as the locations that Gray found still available in New York City.
Observers curious about the stamp that Kent Jones might put on the festival will find welcome early answers in films by three French directors he has championed. Philippe Garrel’s intimate black-and-white drama Jealousy, with Louis Garrel and Anna Mouglalis, was pure, simple and heartbreaking in its playing out, moment by moment, of love and betrayal. Claire Denis’s Bastards—her imaginative response, I would guess, to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal—was brooding, brutal and not for the fainthearted. Best of all was Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. Based on a true story—God alone knows where Desplechin found it—about the talking cure of a troubled Blackfoot veteran of World War II, the film features Benicio del Toro and Mathieu Amalric in brilliant, utterly dissimilar performances and a script with as many convolutions as the human brain.
In the necessary category of worthy disappointments, I include The Wind Rises, the final film by the great animator Hayao Miyazaki (beautiful and morally complex but greatly overextended); Like Father, Like Son (a tart but predictable drama by Hirokazu Kore-Eda); and the closing-night selection, the sci-fi romance Her (which showed just how much Spike Jonze needs Charlie Kaufman). Among the flat-out disappointments were Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism (which was elegant but took a lot more from me than it gave back) and Richard Curtis’s anodyne comic fantasy About Time (which wasted mine).
Time, in a sense, is what a festival is all about: the hours you devote to watching the movies, the years that lie behind each selection, the decades that may pass until today’s films come into perspective. So I might sum up the festival with Burning Bush, another of the main slate’s extremely long films, made as a miniseries for HBO Europe by NYFF veteran Agnieszka Holland, here in masterful form. Like several significant dramas in this year’s selection, it’s based on real events: the 1969 suicide by immolation of Jan Palach to protest the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, and the efforts of two women—Palach’s mother (Jaroslava Pokorná) and an uncompromisingly brave attorney (Tatiana Pauhofová)—to uphold his name against the regime’s slanders. To Holland, this isn’t history; it’s part of her personal experience, as someone who was in Czechoslovakia at the time. Her film may be short on formal innovation (many selections were this year) but it’s long on narrative power, emotional conviction and moral responsibility. Like the festival as a whole, it improves the time.