Fran At The Festival: Dispatches From NYFF ’19

Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman' premiered at this year's NYFF | Netflix
The Irishman (2019) | Netflix

Hi, yes, hello, welcome. I’m writing from the tail end of my second year covering the New York Film Festival for Bright Wall/Dark Room. It’s good to be back! My first repeat festival experience and, like the second time doing anything, the sheen had worn off a little. Things felt comfortable, familiar. The seats at the Walter Reade Theater had lost their glow, but in exchange, I found this year’s festival to be a much more social affair. No longer new to the area, or the film scene in New York, it was nice to trudge up the Lincoln Center steps each morning to see sleepy, anxious, but joyfully familiar faces waiting in line. Anyway, there were some great movies this year! (And also some good movies I didn’t much care for.)

The Shrugs
The Traitor; Synonyms; I Was At Home, But…; Sibyl

Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor is a densely constructed biopic—a genre that, even when done with a certain amount of style and pizazz, is a genre of which I am weary. The film is an extensive look at the latter half of the life of Tommaso Buscetta, the first mafia informant in Sicily. I imagine The Traitor is quite a ride for those better versed in the sordid history of the Italian mafia, but for me, The Traitor was a little too in the weeds of its own narrative. The courtroom scenes, most of which take place right in the middle of the film, were the most entertaining: a masterclass of middle-aged Italian men screaming at each other. 

Synonyms may have taken home the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale, but I find myself in the lowly minority that didn’t quite connect with Nadav Lapid’s bleak comedy of identity crisis. Take this with a grain of salt! I said minority! The film is well-worth seeing on the merit of Tom Mercier’s lead performance alone. Mercier plays Yoav, an Israeli expat trying to make his way in Paris. In many ways, Synonyms reminded me of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: an often-nude Yoav is so traumatized by his experiences back home that modern life feels inexplicably absurd. A decade ago, I would have told you Catch-22 was my favorite novel, but upon reread last summer, I found its circular storytelling and incessant quipping tiresome. I felt this same exhaustion at the edgy, chaotic energy of Synonyms, too.

Imagine a world in which I am paid a reasonable sum of money to create my version of a European arthouse film. What I give you is something unspeakably opaque. The children are ominous. The adults are irresponsible. They feel everything yet show nothing. What I give you is I Was At Home, But. Circular conversations, animals as metaphor, long static shots. I vibed with the sleepy energy of Angela Schanelec’s meditation on grief (though what isn’t a meditation on grief, these days?), but felt alternatively too smart or too dumb to fully understand it. Oh well, it was still nice to see my crush, Franz Rogowski.

Justine Triet’s Sibyl is, in a word, wild. In a few more words: Sibyl has about four movies bustling inside of it. On its surface, Sibyl is about Sibyl (Virginie Efira), the world’s worst therapist, working tirelessly to drop all of her clients so she can take time to write a novel. Look, I’ve also tried to trim my obligations to write a novel before. It never works! But just as her slate is nearly cleared, she takes on a weeping, unstable actress, Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos—nice to see you!) who is in the midst of a sordid romance with her co-star Igor (Gaspard Ulliel) on the set of a movie his wife Mika (Sandra Hüller—I love you) is directing. Plus, Sibyl is on some shit about her ex-boyfriend. PLUS, what’s going on with her novel? Like I said, four movies in one. Only one of these works, and bafflingly, it’s the movie-within-a-movie. Sandra Hüller, best known to American audiences for her star turn in Toni Erdmann, plays the endlessly frustrated female director so well it’s uncanny. I wish Sibyl was simpler and more streamlined, but then again, its frazzled mess is more than half of what makes it so damn entertaining.

The Films During Which I Cried A Single Tear
Marriage Story, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story was—maybe to my surprise—the most conventional film I saw at this year’s festival. Like an updated Kramer Vs. Kramer, Baumbach’s latest is a searing look into an increasingly ugly divorce that goes right up to (if not just a little bit over) the line of asking why people get married in the first place. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a director and an actor, are struggling to keep things amicable as they negotiate the nature of a bi-coastal, entertainment industry-centric relationship. The cast is rounded out by the couple’s formidable team of lawyers on both sides: Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda. Dern’s Nora is whip-smart, Liotta’s Jay is, well, menacing as all hell, and Alda’s Bert steals the show. (I had no idea Alan Alda was in the film when I sat down for it, and I practically applauded with delight the second I saw his face.) 

Though Johansson is no slouch, it’s Driver’s film through and through, and he does woe-be-gotten, slouching single dad so damn well. His moment—spoiled already by some but not by me!—is definitely A Moment, but it’s a different scene in the final minutes of the film that caught me entirely off-guard, and as Driver’s face crumpled, so did mine. As an avid watcher of every damn season of Girls, I feel a profound affection for Driver; though anybody who watched his big body burst onto the small screen back in 2012 could tell he was something special, this is a performance that feels entirely worthy of all he is capable of doing. 

Every single frame of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is perfect. I know I’m setting myself up for failure here, taking a swing so big, but I mean it, really. Its crisp blues, its lush greens, its tender oranges; the whole experience is a feast for the senses. And the more time passes since I saw Sciamma’s film, the more I want to see it again. I find myself nostalgic for the warmth I felt throughout. It’s a postcard, a love letter.

Before Portrait of a Lady on Fire began, I found myself saying to another critic that I felt like I knew what it was going to be. I got a look—you know, a look—that told me I ought to have expected otherwise, and it’s true. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a period piece and a lesbian romance between a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The core of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, though, is an investigation of the female gaze. So many (though not all!) notable lesbian films in recent years, several of which I have a good deal of admiration for, suffer under the eye of their male directors. To be frank: these films get pretty porny. I was floored not only by the visual beauty of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but by how erotic it was without being so graphic. Glances, traces, the soft whisper of charcoal on parchment. It all echoes, even weeks after having seen it.

It was not the ending of Portrait of a Lady on Fire that conjured a single tear, but the surprise of a shot so gorgeously unexpected right in the middle of the film. Sciamma’s eye shows tenderness in every single interaction in the film, not just the romantic ones, and this one, well, it got me good.

First Cow
First Cow

At the risk of sounding like the most annoying person you’ve ever met, the film I’ll think about most from this year’s lineup won’t be in theaters until next March. And that would be Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. I loved approximately 66.6% of Reichardt’s last feature, Certain Women, a collection of three somewhat interwoven storylines, and found myself intrigued and perplexed by 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff, a film I watched at three in the morning after a day-long migraine (both a less than ideal and completely ideal viewing experience), though neither of those films took me in the way First Cow did in its opening minutes. 

Like Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt returns to the 19th century yet-to-be-established American territory to tell the story of two men—a cook named Figowitz (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee)—trying to get by. It’s been a year of directors asking critics and viewers not to spoil their films, so I guess it’s funny, then, that I’m choosing to do the same when it comes to First Cow. There’s little to spoil: there’s little that happens. First Cow is almost more of a mood piece than anything else—a sleepy, open-hearted, easygoing film about men trying to make due with what they have and what they can get. 

That’s not saying much, I know. There are stakes, no doubt, and moments of stress, and there’s a cow, obviously. She’s beautiful. Really a dazzling cow. But part of the joy I experienced watching First Cow was the sheer pleasure in realizing what the film was, like easing myself into a warm bath. It was lovely as well to see John Magaro, an actor I’ve long admired in small parts—The Big Short, Carol, and the seasons I committed to of Orange Is The New Black—taking a star turn. Figowitz is trusting and gentle in the way so many men don’t get to be on the big screen. When I think of his tenderness towards the titular first cow, I still find myself feeling a little weepy. 

The Standouts
Parasite, Martin Eden, The Irishman, Uncut Gems

Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite delights then devastates. To try to write about it is like walking on a tightrope—I agree with the consensus that the less you know about it, the better time you’ll have. It’s an equal parts cathartic and unsettling movie to watch, especially following yet another stint in food service this past summer, where women wearing rings that cost ten times my rent told me I had beautiful skin and left me no tip whatsoever. I say this in the least gendered way possible. I say this in the most patient way possible. I say this in the way that as a native Midwesterner, still relatively new to New York, I can’t fight the urge to ask whether every single celebrity any friend of mine has ever seen in public is nice. It doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. I hope you see Parasite. It has an amazing score!

Though undoubtedly less twisty-turny than Parasite, Martin Eden is another slice of class conflict and economic disillusionment. To get this out of the way, I’ll briefly address the obvious: Martin Eden from Martin Eden, played by Luca Marinelli, has got to be one of the hottest guys I’ve ever seen. Moving on. The film itself is an adaptation of a Jack London novel and tells the story of—wait for it—Martin Eden, a self-educated sailor looking to make his way in the world as a writer. The film is a constant argument about whether the writer can ever really be a comrade, a worthy question to ask ourselves, especially if we’re writers. As Martin is enmeshed in communist conflict in mid-20th century Italy, his views become increasingly incoherent. If this sounds, I don’t know, too political, allow me to remind you how hot Martin Eden is. The guy is hot! And the film, for all its discussions and negotiations of the role of the artist in society, is lush and saturated beautiful. Martin Eden! Martin Eden! A movie about a hot guy. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The Irishman is good, for crying out loud! It’s funny how much we—I?—doubted the possibility. Maybe it was the budget talk or the de-aging technology talk, or maybe it was the fellas-ness of it all that got in the way, but here is, without a doubt, my favorite Scorsese film (he’d call it a “picture”) of the decade. It’s also quite possibly the longest and most consistently entertaining film I’ve seen in a long time, and though some have said it was aslow to start, I was entranced the whole time. The titular Irishman is Robert de Niro’s Frank Sheeran, a fixer and bully and glorified hitman, who begins working for the Italian mob through Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), before shifting loyalties to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). 

I joked in the immediate aftermath of watching The Irishman that the movie was three and a half hours of guys pulling each other aside to “vibe check,” and while the film is often more dynamic than that, it is…a lot…of men checking in with one another. That’s not at all an unpleasant thing, though, as so much of the joy of The Irishman is found in simply listening to the characters speak to one another. Sheeran is the type of relaxed psychopath we’ve all come to love from mob movies, Bufalino carries a quiet menace to him, and Hoffa…well, Hoffa is insane. And though there’s not a weak link among the three leads, Pacino’s Hoffa is an utter delight. Every sentence he utters is a surprise. Often tender, sometimes manic. He’s eating an ice cream sundae in practically every other scene! 

For a while, The Irishman is a rhythmic going-through-the-motions with these three characters. Time passes, things change. Presidents come and go. But life in the mob is not a pleasant one, and more often than not, as the movie is eager to remind you, these folks don’t get to happily retire. They go missing. They’re killed. And though being shot to death in front of your home is not, say, an ideal way to go, The Irishman argues it’s just as difficult to be the last man standing. What does it mean to survive a life of crime? Who is left at the end of the day? What is our legacy, Scorsese asks, both of his characters and of his own work. The Irishman is a rich, rich text, and the one I’m perhaps most eager to revisit this fall.

The highlight of the festival, however, and the film I’m ready to shout about is the Safdies’ Uncut Gems. I wrote about their last feature, Good Time, for this magazine upon its release a little over two years ago. That film, a dizzying and dazzling look, repulsed me. It’s a deeply unsettling look at one man’s relentless journey to do one (somewhat) selfless act at the expense of everyone he comes into contact with. In the interim, I’ve thought about revisiting Good Time no less than a dozen times, and I’m always too afraid. Too worried it’ll cut to the quick once again. And though Uncut Gems shares a similar amoral universe and heart-wrenching pace, I’m thrilled to say that it’s also…a delight? It’s A Serious Man set to strobe lights. Who knew!

Look, there’s a reason that Uncut Gems…dare I say…sparkles more than Good Time, and that’s the ADAM SANDLER factor. It does not behoove me to ask whether or not Sandler is “actually good” or “actually bad” in movies, in life, in general. His lead performance as Howard Ratner is a desperately, achingly likable no-goodnik. His wife hates him, his kids hate him, his employees hate him. He’s deep in debt with seemingly every single person in the diamond district and yet—we want this guy to break big! 

Uncut Gems begins with the black opal—the titular uncut gem—that might turn Howard’s fate. There are other wonderful supporting performances in Uncut Gems; there’s not a weak link in the bunch, including The Weeknd and the Fat Jewish (I wish I was kidding). Julia Fox, in her film debut, plays Howard’s mistress, one of his sales representatives, and her character, also named Julia, brings so much life to a character often brushed aside in lesser narratives. A long shot of her storming back to a nightclub after she and Howard get into a screaming argument on the street is full of pathos; her steely determined glare as she brushes past dozens of people who no doubt watched her screech into the night. Idina Menzel, too, as Howard’s perhaps-soon-to-be ex-wife, is equal parts simpering and sympathetic.

But it’s really the Sandler show, and what a show it is. There’s a perverse joy in watching Sandler be not only gross, but this kind of gross. I’ll admit, I spent the first half of the film not entirely sure that he was really giving us anything new—like, if you love Adam Sandler screaming, you’re going to see a fair amount of it in Uncut Gems—but as the stakes get bigger, the gambles more desperate, and as Howard gives a speech to Kevin Garnett (as himself!) about how he plans to win big, it’s hard not to feel entirely won over both by Howard and by Sandler. This is how he wins, he explains, and eyebrows cocked, I’m sold.