This year, Film at Lincoln Center dedicated the New York Film Festival to the memory of Agnès Varda, which felt right in two ways. First, of course, was the recognition of Varda’s decades-long association with the NYFF, up through a farewell work, Varda by Agnès, screened in the main selection. But even more important, considering the tenor of the movies I’ve watched recently in the festival and beyond, was the spirit of her work, justly described by the NYFF with the much-overused term “radical.” Many people are afraid to look at the dark side of life. Varda wasn’t one of them—see Vagabond, for example. But neither was she afraid to look at the bright side—the capacity of people to sustain and renew themselves, take pleasure in the world, and support one another—or to show the bright and dark together, as she did in Le Bonheur.
Not only intelligence and skill but also wholeness, strength, honesty, curiosity, love: These are some of the qualities that infuse Varda’s cinema. Then there’s Joker.
I wouldn’t waste a paragraph on the damned thing, except it was the only movie anybody outside the NYFF talked about in early October and for unfathomable reasons was also invited into the festival for a special screening. The antithesis of Varda: darkness visible as a fashion statement, Nietzschean despair for dummies. Worst of all, the burden of holding an opinion about Joker has now become obligatory. All right: I say director Todd Phillips can dump two cups of Taxi Driver into a bowl and slop in a cup and a half of The King of Comedy, but that doesn’t make him Scorsese. He can stir the goop with visual tricks from Se7en and Fight Club, but that doesn’t make him Fincher, either. And he can try adding political import with a dollop of V for Vendetta, but that doesn’t improve the mess, because V for Vendetta, like Joker, is mindless crap.
Now let’s move on to The Irishman—this year’s opening night selection in the NYFF—which unfortunately showed that sometimes even Scorsese isn’t Scorsese.
He is one of the greatest artists of our era and understands 50 times more about film than I ever will. Of course, the festival would invite him to come with a major new historical drama, based on the author Charles Brandt’s reconstruction of the death of Jimmy Hoffa. The subject seems ideal for Scorsese and (better still) has brought him together with Robert De Niro for their first feature since Casino almost a quarter-century ago. That’s why it pains me to say that the reunion is part of the problem.
In effect, The Irishman picks up where Casino ended, with De Niro (here playing the Mob hitman Frank Sheeran) in senescent retirement. Auteurist self-reflection intrudes at once on narrative plain meaning, and continues to do so when The Irishman flashes back to the roadside meet-cute, long ago, between Sheeran (then a truck driver) and his future boss, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). The year is 1957 (a local movie house is showing The Three Faces of Eve), which means Sheeran probably would be in his mid-30s. De Niro and Pesci are in their mid-70s. No image-smudging technology can disguise that fact, or keep you from thinking about Goodfellas instead of Sheeran and Bufalino.
The only time you lose yourself entirely in The Irishman is when Al Pacino, as Hoffa, blasts through the posing and reminiscing with the movie’s one all-out, from-the-gut performance. (There’s no dissonance in this case between actor and character. Hoffa was an old-style stump speaker.) Sometimes all the brooding over actors and motifs from past films makes you feel as if Scorsese is engaged in a conscience-stricken meditation on his career. (I don’t know why he’d be conscience-stricken, but the frame story is confessional.) At other times, you wonder what happened to his famed momentum. Made for Netflix, the three-and-a-half-hour Irishman conforms to Sarandos’s Law: Stories expand to fill the time allotted for streaming. In this case, the picture plays as if it were meant for a three-season series, with all of Season 2 dedicated to Frank Sheeran schlepping messages back and forth between the Mob and Hoffa.
Bookending the festival in the closing-night slot was another solemn, overinflated period crime drama: an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, written, directed by, and starring Edward Norton. Set in a nostalgically recreated 1950s, when cars were cars and men wore hats, the movie aspires to be a kind of New York Chinatown, with racist urban renewal projects substituted for water exploitation, something like Tourette’s syndrome (rather than a sliced-up nose) as the outward sign of the gumshoe’s inner wounds, and a showily oneiric visual style replacing Polanski’s head-snapping rigor. Also, the performances can’t compare. Norton is an excellent actor, but I have to conclude he needs a director who will give him less love than he’s given himself, or the other cast members for that matter. (Willem Dafoe is goosed into giving something I hadn’t thought possible from him: a bad performance.) With Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the Faye Dunaway role, as the love interest with a mysterious past.
Apart from choosing these opening and closing pictures, the festival’s selection committee programmed an unusually high number of crime pictures this year, maybe in response to supply. It seems that some of the directors the NYFF follows have been reinvigorating themselves by taking on the self-discipline these stories can impose.
Arnaud Desplechin turned away from the baroque, Hitchcock-obsessed narratives within narratives of his recent Ismael’s Ghosts—a brilliant and beautiful film, but exhausting—to make a contemporary police procedural set in the dirty, narrow brick lanes of his native Roubaix. Based on documented investigations but realized in the impassioned, sorrowing spirit of its title, Oh Mercy! (chosen no doubt from the Dylan album that features “Everything Is Broken”), the film is a tour de force for Roschdy Zem, an engrossingly self-contained Obama lookalike who plays Roubaix’s police captain, and for Léa Seydoux as a scuffling single mother who gradually falls under suspicion of a Christmas Eve murder. Mostly nocturnal, and largely shot in probing close-ups, Oh Mercy! is less concerned with discovering who committed a crime than in establishing precisely how it happened and understanding why. You’ve heard of a pitiless gaze? Desplechin’s is the opposite.
After several years of semimystical woolgathering, Marco Bellocchio has pulled himself together with The Traitor, a decades-spanning fictionalization of the life of Tomasso Buscetta, the Sicilian “man of honor” who testified against the Cosa Nostra in a series of landmark trials. In remarks at the public screening, the grave and burly Pierfrancesco Favino, who plays Buscetta, asked the New York audience not to think of The Traitor as a genre movie, because for Italians the subject is all too real. Fair enough. The high points of The Traitor don’t involve gunfire, screeching cars, or door-bursting squads of cops (though you’ve got those, too) but rather the extended confrontations at trial between Buscetta and some of the men he’s accused. You might call these scenes highly theatrical for the way the gangsters dramatize themselves and fabulate, but they’re actually about the dangerous moment when someone insists that playacting come to an end.
Even Corneliu Porumboiu, the most oblique and quizzical writer-director of the Romanian New Wave, has tried his hand at a caper movie, picking up his ordinarily protoplasmic pace while channeling his imagination toward questions of where the loot is hidden, and who’s double-crossing whom. Still, he’s Porumboiu, so the channels swerve strangely and circle back. Starring Vlad Ivanov as a police detective who is deeply corrupt (or maybe not) and Catrinel Marlon as a criminal femme fatale (named Gilda, of course) who will betray the cop (or not), the film has the English title The Whistlers because the criminals for no good reason rely for coded communication on a language of whistles developed in the Canary Islands. The landscape of the Canaries makes a lovely change from Bucharest, and the scenes of the cop learning to whistle are little masterpieces of deadpan comedy. That said, I thought the movie was mostly hot air.
Not exactly a true-crime story but moving with the speed and efficiency of the best espionage thrillers, Wasp Network is a return to order, and urgency, for another perennial festival favorite, Olivier Assayas. As he did with his earlier, magnificent Carlos, Assayas throws himself headlong into telling a story about the deeds and emotional make-ups of people engaged in extralegal political intrigues; in this case, Cuban agents who infiltrated anti-Castro groups in Miami in the 1990s. For a factual account, you might turn to the film’s source material, Fernando Morais’s The Last Soldiers of the Cold War. Assayas can’t be footnoted, but he gives you impeccably crisp direction, a wide scope of action, an exceptional cast—Edgar Ramírez, Wagner Moura, Penélope Cruz, Gael García Bernal—and some enjoyable misdirection. This is, after all, a tale about liars.
So far I’ve focused on festival selections that fall more or less comfortably into categories. You know the rules; you know how well the filmmaker is playing within or against them. These genre pictures make up most of film history, and sometimes (as I’ve suggested) even the headiest directors need to get back in touch with the demands they make. They belong in the NYFF. But a NYFF that showed only genre movies would have no reason to exist.
Here are some of the selections I really liked.
Challenging and unpredictable, when not outright daring you to punch it in the face, Nadav Lapid’s extraordinary Synonyms offers an alarming new take on the themes of drifting youth and soured identity. Yoav (Tom Mercier) is a strongly built, twentyish Israeli who has “escaped” his country (much as his grandfather escaped Lithuania, he says) and is now knocking about Paris, wearing a hideous, borrowed overcoat and speaking an absurdly bookish French. He’s done with Hebrew. For the pretty young French couple with whom Yoav falls in, he’s what lawyers would call an attractive nuisance. For the Israeli mission, where he somehow lands a security gig, he’s trouble at home. For Lapid, he’s the vehicle for one narrative provocation after another. My favorite: Yoav’s sudden explosion into a tabletop performance at a disco, where he dirty dances with a croissant.
After too long a fallow period, Pedro Almodóvar has returned to form, or even improved on it, with Pain and Glory, the most candidly autobiographical film he’s ever ventured. A bearded, shambling Antonio Banderas, his eyes downcast and expression guarded, plays Almodóvar’s stand-in, a filmmaker suffering from depression, idleness, and multiple physical ailments. So he tries heroin. While drifting in and out of memories of childhood (the church school where all he did was sing; the cave-like house where his impoverished family took shelter; most of all his mother, so warm and protective that she’s played by Penélope Cruz), the scagged-out protagonist also risks encounters in the present with two men who have troubled his past. To call the filmmaking fluid is to belabor the obvious; in its imagery, the movie is practically an essay on hydrology. More to the point, Pain and Glory is an unsentimental but radiant and faultlessly sustained emotional journey from futility and near-isolation to reawakening. I think Varda might have loved it, especially the funny parts.
Noah Baumbach’s excellent Marriage Story—which is actually the story of a divorce—revisits territory this filmmaker has explored before, notably in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. That movie was a drama about a break-up told from a son’s point of view. Marriage Story is the tale of an increasingly nasty break-up as seen by the parents: an avant-garde New York theater director (Adam Driver) and his actress wife (Scarlett Johansson), who wants to return to her native Los Angeles and independent, paying work. Their young son (Azhy Robertson) in effect controls both but is often treated as if he’s part of the background, while the foreground fills up with lawyers (Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta), court officials, staggering dollar figures, and disputed residences. One of the most straightforward movies in this year’s NYFF, Marriage Story was shown as the festival’s centerpiece selection, where it made a strong case for being direct—so long as the film is also honest, wised-up, and mature about the messes we make of our lives.
Finally, to cite a movie that fits into no category but its own: Vitalina Varela is the latest evocation by the Portuguese master Pedro Costa of the lives of impoverished Cape Verdeans—nonprofessionals who more or less play themselves, within scenes that are dreamlike in appearance and yet absolutely concrete. This time, the lead performer and title character is someone whose husband ran off decades ago, leaving her alone and unsupported in Cape Verde. As the film begins, she arrives in the outskirts of Lisbon for his funeral, getting there three days too late. “Go home,” people advise her. She says she’s waited all these years to come to Portugal and isn’t about to leave. What follows is less a story than a collage of incidents, many unexplained and some imagined, crossed with a theological disputation with a despairing parish priest. The camera focuses on Vitalina with hallucinatory precision; an almost theatrical wash of area lighting makes fragments of buildings loom out of near-blackness; incidental colors smudge faintly on walls, as if in a Twombly painting, or shout from the shirts on a clothesline; and the noise of unseen babies crying, or broadcasts nattering, hovers just outside the scenes, suggesting an ongoing life that has paused within the frame. Vitalina Varela begins with a procession leaving a funeral, ends in a graveyard, and in the middle puts you in touch with something absolute in its main character’s experience. It is a film with no commercial prospects whatever. It is the reason we have a New York Film Festival.
Well, that and Parasite—but that’s another story.