The unbearable news came one day before No Home Movie was scheduled to have its US premiere in the New York Film Festival: Chantal Akerman was dead at age 65, apparently by suicide. She had been in correspondence with the festival only weeks before, a visibly shaken Kent Jones and Amy Taubin explained to the audience on the night of the film’s first screening. She was proud of No Home Movie and had been looking forward to showing it to her friends in New York. And then, for reasons you could neither avoid imagining nor decently pretend to comprehend, she could not go on.
No single film, event, or personality can sum up an enterprise as inherently various as the New York Film Festival—an annual hodgepodge of available products and personal tastes, shaped into something resembling coherence by sheer curatorial will—but the experience of watching No Home Movie in the absence of its maker was as close to definitive as it’s possible to get. Not that the works in the festival were all as indifferent to commercial goals as No Home Movie (this was the year of Steve Jobs and Bridge of Spies) or as formally austere. Styles ranged from the 3-D fakery of The Walk (unfortunately) to the lushness of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin and Todd Haynes’s Carol to the maximalist, anything-can-happen methods of Arnaud Desplechin (in the one unmistakable masterpiece on the main slate, My Golden Days) and Miguel Gomes (who dreamed up the grandest, most audacious cinematic contraption to break into view, the three-part Arabian Nights). Still, I will remember the 53rd New York Film Festival as the year of No Home Movie: because of the shock, because the selections turned out to be uncommonly full of mourning, and because so many of the established authors (though not Akerman) seemed to have stopped pushing ahead in their art, or (for better and worse) had turned inward.
To take just three examples: A family copes with the terminal illness of its matriarch in Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre. In Heart of a Dog, which was presented apart from the main slate, Laurie Anderson meditates (I believe that’s the precise word) on the deaths, both long ago and recent, of friends (including her dog Lolabelle), her mother, and Lou Reed. Cemetery of Splendour—an allegory of moribund democracy in Thailand—is set in one of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s haunted jungles, where an improbable military hospital has taken over an old elementary school built on an ancient graveyard. These are very different pictures—Anderson’s a brilliantly inventive handmade collage of home movies, drawings, and reenactments, with a gently knowing voice-over; Moretti’s a satisfying conventional drama, enlivened (though not disrupted) by a film-within-a-film premise; and Weerasethakul’s an attenuated version of the work this admirable writer-director has made in the past—but they are united in their sense of loss, which had its most intense expression at the festival in No Home Movie.
Shot with simple video cameras in Akerman’s customary long takes, in a style that is not rigorous (as the cliché would have it) but rather impassioned by the need to pay attention, No Home Movie witnesses the love between the filmmaker and her mother, recorded mostly in the small apartment in Brussels where this survivor of Auschwitz was declining toward helplessness and death. Conversations over the kitchen table, scenes of housekeeping, and chats by Skype (with lingering, multiple good-byes and many kisses) alternate with unexplained views of a dry, hilly landscape glimpsed from a speeding car. It’s all as simple as can be. But just because these images are so matter-of-fact, they soak up as much thought and feeling as you can bring to them. When Akerman takes a walk through the darkened rooms late in the film, repeatedly hitting a dead end at the curtained windows, you’d think the camera was trying to break through to the light. When you hear a violent rushing in the landscape scenes—the microphone is deliberately blown out—you’d imagine you were listening to the winds of history. Something very big has happened in No Home Movie, but you can’t hold on to any of it, apart from some family small talk that is weakening into mumbles. Something irreducibly important is seeping out of the world, leaving behind only the still, final shot of an empty foyer—and now the knowledge that the filmmaker, too, is gone.
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It’s tempting to imagine No Home Movie as having brought this year’s NYFF to point zero, while rebuking the frivolity implied by the very word “festival.” But thoughts like those would betray everything that Akerman achieved over more than 40 years of creative life, and would deny the manifest vitality of much of the program, including breakout works by younger filmmakers. Let me acknowledge, as I must, some disappointments—movies in which the authors fell back from a challenge—after which I’ll build back to the high points of the festival.
It’s almost obligatory to say “the great” before mentioning the name of Hou Hsiao-hsien, a master who can pause Earth in its orbit to make unforgettable beauty out of, say, a game of pool in a roadside bar. Nobody should be surprised—nor should anyone take it for granted—that every image in Hou’s saga of ancient political and romantic intrigue and martial-arts derring-do, The Assassin, is thoroughly gorgeous, with many of the shots recalling classic Chinese landscape painting. But beauty, in itself, takes you only so far. I miss the grounding that Hou used to get from those cheap bars. I also feel he’s uncharacteristically mechanical in this film, with his scheme of interrupting slow, protracted scenes with choppy outbursts of close-up violence. And I will confess that I didn’t understand the roles of at least two characters in the story and failed to follow the plot perhaps 20 percent of the time. Will some of the ardent fans of The Assassin also come clean?
Jia Zhangke, who at times has seemed to be the most important living filmmaker, has followed his explosive 2013 A Touch of Sin with a tame, sentimental fable of family ties, indomitable spirit, authentic Chinese values—all the claptrap—titled Mountains May Depart. It’s essentially a vehicle for Jia’s favorite actress, Zhao Tao, who gives a lovely but futile performance as a provincial beauty caught between a simple, honest coal miner and a boastful, Westernized entrepreneur. Despite some sharp incidental humor and an expansive scale—the action takes place from 1999 to 2025, in locations from Fenyang to Melbourne—that’s how schematic the film is, and how intrinsically small.
As for Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next, a travelogue in which the filmmaker jocularly ventures forth to conquer half a dozen nations and bring back their valuable resources—paid vacations, edible school lunches, full political participation by women—maybe the less said, the better. The greatest amusement I got from the film came from seeing it with the Lincoln Center audience. Talk about a home-field advantage for Moore. People cheered to hear everything they already believed repeated back to them.
The goal of the festival, to my mind, ought to be to give you something other than what you’ve paid for, revealing the unexpected and indispensable. One of this year’s lessons, though, may have been the occasional virtue of the predictable. Take Steve Jobs. Though directed by Danny Boyle with surface-skimming panache (no surprise there), it’s really screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s movie, and a good one, hurried along by a cleverly repetitive structure. All the action takes place backstage in the frantic last moments before three successive product launches, giving the characters urgent and continually mounting occasions to be frustrated with the Mephisto of Apple Inc., and providing Sorkin with ample opportunities for his adrenaline-fueled quips. That’s all you get—no fresh insights into the character of Jobs or the people around him, no perspective worth mentioning on technology and social change, just a redemption narrative about a cold, driven man (played by Michael Fassbender about half a beat ahead of everybody else) who learns to love, maybe, a little.
Better still in the category of respectable commercial product is Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s fictionalized drama about the efforts of James B. Donovan to provide a legal defense for the captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and then, years later, to negotiate the trade of Abel for the US spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers. The collaboration of Ethan and Joel Coen on the screenplay (with Matt Charman) introduces some running gags into the dialogue but cannot seduce the director into wise-guy posturing. This is emphatically a Spielberg movie: heartfelt in its admiration for modest, ordinary people who do their jobs well, and impeccable in the performances it draws from Tom Hanks as Donovan and Mark Rylance as Abel.
The merits of just doing your job also seem to have sunk in with three inveterate avant-gardists—Todd Haynes, Michael Almereyda, and Michel Gondry—who gave the festival outstanding features by settling down for once and telling their stories. Haynes, whose films are usually “films,” has let the quotation marks drop away, to superb effect, in Carol, his adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel about the blossoming love affair between a wealthy suburban wife and mother (Cate Blanchett) and a young Manhattan shopgirl (Rooney Mara) in the deeply closeted 1950s. In performances that are of necessity made up largely of hints and nuances, glances and murmurs, both actresses seem stunningly, paradoxically present. When they’re alone for the first time, shut inside a car, you can almost smell their perfume. Almereyda, while equally true to his subject, can allow himself somewhat more playfulness in Experimenter, his biopic of Stanley Milgram, whose deviously designed studies of obedience made him one of the most frequently cited and controversial social scientists of the 1960s. Given the role-playing that was central to Milgram’s experiments, Almereyda has license to tease you with his own artifice and still give an essentially straight portrait of the man and his work. It’s an absorbing and thoughtful portrait as well, featuring wonderfully modulated performances by Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder. As for Gondry, his Microbe & Gasoline was one of the festival’s most endearing selections, and a road movie unlike any I’ve seen: a quasi-autobiographical tale of two high-school misfits who run away in a jalopy they’ve slapped together, meanwhile maintaining a sense of domesticity—and disguising their entirely unlicensed vehicle—by giving it the body of a wood garden shed.
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And now, the fever dreams.
Yorgos Lanthimos, a writer-director in his 40s best known for Dogtooth, stepped up to full authorial status this year with his first English-language feature, The Lobster. At once droll and horrifying, deadpan and absurd, it’s a film that should not be summarized, given that so much of the pleasure comes from the progressive elaboration of its Kafkaesque premise. It’s enough to say that The Lobster stars Rachel Weisz and a glumly funny Colin Farrell and is set in a dystopian society in which you’re required to be in a registered, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Otherwise, you’re sent to a resort hotel where the staff transforms you into the animal of your choice.
The festival’s other newly elevated author, also in his 40s, was Miguel Gomes (Tabu), who offered the biggest, wildest, most motley and ambitious achievement of the year: the six-and-a-half-hour Arabian Nights trilogy. Ostensibly a project without an author—at the beginning of the first film, Gomes shows himself fleeing miserably from his own crew, having realized he can’t both entertain an audience and faithfully reflect the awful suffering imposed on Portugal by economic austerity—Arabian Nights presents itself as a patchwork of other people’s fragmentary stories and stories within stories, some folkloric, some documentary, many played in a mélange of Orientalist trappings and modern dress, but all full of outrage, sarcasm, and heartbreak about life under a government “devoid of social justice.” Gomes probably could have trimmed each of the films by 20 minutes, but so many wonders keep spilling from this cinematic treasure chest that I don’t care. It features the glorious Crista Alfaiate as Scheherazade (also as a punked-out social-services worker and a stolen cow) and a sound track with as many versions of Alberto Dominguez’s “Perfidia” as Gomes could dig up.
Finally, the masterpiece: Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days (or, as it’s known in French, Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse). This, too, is a film of mourning: for the parents one might have had but didn’t, the siblings who slipped away, the mentor who could not live forever, and above all the first all-consuming love, impossible to have endured without scars and impossible to let go, even after 30 years. Mathieu Amalric, Desplechin’s regular on-screen alter ego, plays the protagonist, Paul Dedalus, in the frame story; but most of the action is given to Quentin Dolmaire as the young Paul and Lou Roy-Lecollinet as his siren, victim, and faithful betrayer Esther, so placidly, arrogantly sure of herself and so hopelessly fragile. Stop My Golden Days at any moment, and you won’t be able to predict what the next shot will be, beyond the certainty that it will be richly, fully alive. Look back at any moment in My Golden Days and you will see its connections spread to every other moment. The network is so intricate, while seeming so natural, that it feels as if every other filmmaker compared to Desplechin gives you only one-eighth of a movie.
This is what great cinema looks like. This is the reason for the New York Film Festival.