If we think of life as high school, unending, which, who am I to say it isn’t, then this past Fall I celebrated my senior year at the 59th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. This is my fourth year at the festival, my fourth year doing a festival round-up for this site, and as I walked up the steps to the Walter Reade theater, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of triumph, my first day back on campus. Everyone was there! In line, tired, clutching cheap coffee and their badges. Some people got haircuts. Even the grumps were buzzing, happy to have a place to be.
It was impossible to ignore the circumstances that led up to this joyful return, between the masked critics, of course, and films themselves. There were two films playing at NYFF this year that addressed reality under the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, these are not the first two films to do so. In the aftermath of the early days of social distancing, in an era of pre-vaccine availability, there was tasteless, mindless schlock; movies that played up the horror, the confusion, mired in bad faith. Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn—a film that easily takes the cake for the most memorable title of the festival—also plays up the horror, confusion, and bad faith inherent not only in life under COVID but in the increasingly muddy social politics around sex. Bad Luck Banging (as I’ll refer to it for brevity) tells the story of a middle school teacher, Emi (Katia Pascariu), whose leaked sex tape creates tumult at the somewhat posh middle school at which she teaches.
The film is curiously structured: its first and third acts follow Emi pretty directly, but its second act functions as a Wikipedia entry by way of eBaum’s World, a distinctly Romanian scroll through Twitter dot com, defining known terms under contemporary understanding. It’s hard to describe this section, sold to the viewer as a dictionary, other than when someone posts a photo of something clearly bad happening—a house on fire—and says, “This, to me, is good.” The cognitive dissonance is wry, sometimes enlightening. But it’s the meat of the story where the film’s (twisted) heart lies. Amidst theory-heavy and needlessly confusing arguments with the parents of her students, there are snippy reminders between the parents for others to keep their masks over their noses. COVID, in this world, in many worlds, is not only a point of horror, but an administrative nightmare. It’s an inconvenience! It’s this shit on top of everything else. To cast Bad Luck Banging—an otherwise sharp though admittedly hardcore pornography-heavy (I’m not kidding) sex satire—in the light of COVID is to highlight exactly how stratified factions of society are.
One of the highlights of the festival, due out in theaters next spring, is Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes’ The Tsugua Diaries—also a COVID movie but in a much more mellow way. The movie begins in house party res, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “The Night” playing, as three beautiful young people dance. These three people are Carloto Cotta (amazing), Cristina Alfaiate, and João Nunes Monteiro, playing both their characters and themselves. Early sections of The Tsugua Diaries are pastoral and abstract. The three bum around the house: they lounge in the sun, they swim in the I Love To Love: Dispatches from NYFF 59, they build a butterfly garden. Their conversations are circuitous, unclear. They’re bored, clearly. Passing the time. The Tsugua Diaries indeed has a diary-like structure, moving day by day, but not forwards. Backwards. And over the course of its runtime, it becomes clear that this is not just idyllic musing but a COVID shoot gone awry. Bickering about emails, a director confined to the hospital, crew members disappearing, not ominously but not not ominously either, all over the course of 25 days. The Tsugua Diaries is lush, clever, and surprisingly funny.
Neither lush nor clever nor surprisingly funny was Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, a movie I wanted to love. Verhoeven, my brethren in an -oe-having surname, follows up Elle—a great flick I hope I never watch again—with an adaptation of Indecent Acts, a book about the trial of a nun accused of, ready for it, indecent acts with another sister in her convent. It’s Verhoeven’s lesbian nun movie! What could go wrong? A lot, somehow. It’s neither lurid enough to be shocking, nor nasty enough to be off-putting. Elle is a film I felt in my bones, one that left me jarred and ill afterwards. Benedetta I felt in my bones as well, but only in the havoc its runtime wreaked on my back in movie theater seats. There is a tedium to it all, stretching well over two hours, when the text in question just barely broke 100 pages. It’d be one thing if it was really and truly funny, but the jokes surrounding the eternal corruption of the Catholic Church all share a college atheist tone. We’ve been at this too long: we need a higher standard of trolling (see: Bad Luck Banging). Listen, there exists a fantastic Verhoeven movie about the awful vibes a brunette and a blonde have when they hang out together too much, and it’s called Showgirls. All of that said, I laughed almost every time the film cut to Charlotte Rampling, who is, obviously, a genius.
Pedro Almodóvar returns—his short The Human Voice played last year—with Parallel Mothers, another collaboration with Penélope Cruz, perhaps at her best. On its surface, Parallel Mothers is a domestic melodrama, the story of Janis (Cruz) and Ana (newcomer Milena Smit), women brought together in a maternity ward whose lives become linked. There’s surprise, betrayal, romance, sex––all the things we love to see in the movies. But at the heart of the film is Janis’ affair with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), an anthropologist she enlists to help her dig up a mass grave in her hometown. The unending search to properly bury bodies dumped during the Spanish Civil War haunts the picture: it’s perhaps a ghost story more than anything, with no ghosts in sight. Of course these women are neglectful, or dishonest, or wayward: they carry on their shoulders the history of their male family members taken from them too soon. If this sounds confusing, or convoluted, know that it comes together seamlessly, the final minutes reverberating long after the movie has finished.
Weeks have passed since I saw Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person In The World, a movie about which many will share the old Facebook untagging pop-up: “I’m in this photo and I don’t like it.” It is a lovely humanist film about one of the great subjects of film, having two boyfriends. At the center of it all, the titular worst person, is Julie (Renate Reinsve), a woman whose relatability is eminent to anyone who tried to go to med school and now writes for the Internet. She has an older boyfriend, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie—big sexy), who is eager to start a family with her, but that’s not what she wants. Or is it? But no, it isn’t.
It’s an ode to the childless, the wayward, the people who fail upward but we like them anyway. Its structure is Dickensian, characters weaving in and out. It’s pro-cheating, pro-horny, pro-living your life on your own terms, granted you accept that no matter what, we all die. I confess to be less enamored of this film than many of my peers, though I’m willing if not wanting to chalk that up to “being in a weird mood.” (For whatever reason, I can’t shake that it bugs me that this character has no friends.) For long stretches, however, The Worst Person in the World is invigorating and affirming, as magical as life itself can often be.
And then, on the more horrible side of how magical life can be, there’s Titane. Titane! If you think of the second half of Julie Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning latest as a French interpretation of Hank and Bobby Hill’s relationship, then you’ll really be off to the races. Titane is splashy, loud, violent, and tender. By the time you read this, you’ll have either seen it already or decided that it’s not for you. I had fun!
Back in the real world, or real-ish, both Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground and Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee are major upgrades in the documentary feature genre. Haynes, whose work I’ve loved over the years, provides an intimate and often disorienting look into the band and the scene surrounding Lou Reed and company in 1960s New York. Is this the part of the write-up where I admit to listening to almost no music post, I don’t know, World War I? No? Okay, never mind. It’s hard to talk about the substance of Haynes’ documentary while being so generally unfamiliar with the music of the Velvet Underground, but I was still transfixed. The work on-screen is in no way “Behind the Music”-esque: it’s a much more disorienting ride. There are talking heads, sure, and old footage, obviously, but we’re given these things simultaneously rather than sequentially. Haynes leaves it in the hands of the viewer to draw connections, to watch the twitch of an eye or an uneasy grimace in old Warhol-shot footage.
Rasmussen’s Flee, on the other hand, is an animated documentary—images built from the ground up—based on interviews between the filmmaker and his friend Amin about his escape from Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. It’s an often harrowing and occasionally sweet documentary, oscillating between the horrific and the mundane. It will always feel glib to invoke the word “trauma,” but I was so moved by the quieter parts of this film, the ones that show Amin and his boyfriend wrestling with establishing a normal life. They are not hindered by homophobia, but by Amin’s hesitancy to settle down, by his certainty that he is not allowed to have a static, still life.
Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il Buco isn’t a documentary, but it’s not not a documentary either. It’s docu-fictional, stunning not only because of what is happening but because of what happened. In 1961, a group of speleologists traveled to the Calabrian plateau to journey down into the Bifurto Abyss, one of the world’s largest caves. Frammartino’s film painstakingly recreates that journey alongside pastoral sequences of a shepherd’s last few days. The film is not scary. Nothing bad happens. The work is meticulous and careful. In the off-hours, the researchers kick a soccer ball over the cave’s entrance. The dialogue, for the most part, is unsubtitled, allowing the viewer to be completely immersed in the wonders of nature. Il Buco was one of the great films of this year’s festival, with a release due sometime next year. It’s the type of movie that should be seen in IMAX, or in one of those large museum projection rooms, at the loudest volume (which still, all considered, would be quite soft). It was gorgeous, ethereal, meditative, and lovely.
Elsewhere in Italy, we find ourselves looking not downwards but ahead in Futura, a collaboration between Pietro Marcello (Martin Eden), Francesco Munzi (Black Souls), and Alice Rohrwacher (Happy As Lazzaro) that took the three filmmakers on the road across Italy to speak to teenagers about, well, not the font, but the future. It’s a perfectly pleasant idea in theory, and during COVID, the time on the road was no doubt liberating and often beautiful. There are occasional sparks of brilliance—some teens are more charming than others, we all went to high school and know this—but the documentary itself is shapeless. Even as the pandemic takes hold of Italy, there’s little comment to be made at how this might rupture the future of these teenagers who seem to agree down the line, from student to farmer, that the thing to do is to leave Italy. I get it! I left the Midwest, you know. Futura often feels like a 20/20 special designed to humanize a younger generation to, who, exactly? Perhaps it’s my own relatively young age speaking, or my familiarity with this generation, but I don’t need to be told that people born after the year 2000 have dreams and fears and hopes and worries.
Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), the central character at the heart of Mike Mills’ new domestic dramedy C’mon C’mon, is also in for a rude awakening when it comes to the supposed interiority of a younger generation. Saddled with his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) while his sister (Gaby Hoffman) copes with her husband (an almost dialogue-less Scoot McNairy) who is well past being on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As a massive fan of Mills’ last two features, it brings me no joy to say C’mon C’mon left me somewhat cold. Phoenix is amazing, tender, rich with rasp and pathos, and Woody Norman is a worthy scene partner. It’s also not not funny to see Joaquin Phoenix and Jaboukie Young-White together. But the film is a bit too lackadaisical, saddled with an un-fun side plot of Johnny and his team working on a documentary that more or less seems to be Futura—traveling cross-country to interview teenagers about the future. Unlike Futura, however, which averages a plausible profound-thoughts-to-normal-teen-shit ratio when it comes to the interviews, C’mon C’mon’s teenagers only have radio-ready soundbites to give. Protagonists of Mills’ past work would likely find these docu-projects somewhat laughable, if well-intentioned, but the viewer is supposed to love Johnny, almost infallibly so, and I think we’re supposed to take its vision at face value. But, you know, whatever. I’m thinking too hard about this, as the film argues adults are inclined to do, and it isn’t a real Mike Mills experience until I cry through the last 10 minutes, which I of course did. Your mileage may vary, is all I’m saying.
Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, shot in black and white, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, has got to be one of the most “what it says on the box” movies I’ve seen in recent memory. Is it the Mank of this year? When I say that, I refer not to the overlong stuffiness of Fincher’s latest feature, but rather the self-indulgent (not necessarily a bad thing!), esoteric quality of its existence. It really is “one for them,” by which I mean Coen and McDormand, who played the role of Lady Macbeth on-stage a few years back. A question that popped up around the time of its screening was whether it was Coen-y enough, or Coen-y at all, for that matter. Macbeth himself may as well be a Coens protagonist: a fast-thinking ambitious charmer who quickly finds himself out of his depth. I congratulate hungover high school teachers everywhere for having a new, relatively chaste adaptation to show to their classes on days they don’t feel like teaching.
The performance of the movie (outside of the wonderful Stephen Root’s lone monologue) is theater actress Kathryn Hunter who plays the witches, (or is it one witch, or something more evil?). Hunter’s performance has less to do with the bard’s words and more to do with what a human body can look like, sound like. It’s haunting, frightful. Made me squirm in my own seat. For a few minutes at the start of the film, I wasn’t sure if I could handle it. I wish The Tragedy of Macbeth maintained that energy.
Being a power-hungry scammer is not subject matter limited to aspiring kings, necessarily: indeed, there’s a lot of nasty fun to be had. This year’s revivals section featured Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street, a whip-smart bleak comedy about a con artist named William Douglas Street, who drifts from career to career, consequences bouncing off him at every turn. He’s a journalist, or no, a lawyer, or wait, he’s needed in surgery. Harris Jr. not only directs, but writes and stars, too, and he’s every bit the part. I loved watching the new restoration, and I hope it finds an audience in repertory cinemas this fall (it opens in New York on October 22). It’s a prescient movie, a reminder–maybe not that we needed one–of the scammers within our midst, and what makes them tick.
Though if you are starved for stories of bad men going for broke, it is my pleasure to inform you that Sean Baker’s latest, Red Rocket, starring none other than Simon Rex, will be one of the breakout flicks of the fall. It is an outrageous movie: nasty, funny, insightful. It’s hard not to liken it to a feature like Uncut Gems—though I don’t think Baker’s style is at all synonymous with the Safdies’—as both zero in on guys determined to catch a break, no matter the collateral damage. Rex plays a man named Mikey, a former adult film star, returning to his hometown to stay with his wife and her mother while he gets back on his feet. Mikey is a con artist: he talks a mile-a-minute, ever-smiling, ever-nodding, I kept waiting for him to pitch me on a monorail. Rex is amazing in the film: an undeniably likable presence as his character gets involved in schemes more despicable than the one prior. The film is set during the summer before the 2016 election, a time period from which the sound bites have yet to get stale. There is a distinct Americanness about Red Rocket. There are donuts and shopping malls and pornography and smokestacks. It is ugly, and it is perfect. Some people will really hate it.
There’s a grappling with Americanness in Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street too, the other revival I caught at the festival this year. This is a miracle of a film, Silver’s debut, starring Carol Kane as a young Jewish immigrant, Gitl, wrestling with her lack of desire to assimilate. I came to Silver’s work only after she passed away at the start of this year, and to me, she is not only an essential American voice, but an essential Jewish voice. Though Hester Street is an adaptation, not an original screenplay by Silver, there is something remarkable about hearing this much Yiddish on-screen. As a fairly lapsed, rather agnostic Jewish person, it’s easy to forget the lengths through which my ancestors reckoned with a sense of personal identity I’ve otherwise tokenized. Its revival is showing around the country as I write. To call it essential feels like an understatement.
To write about transcendence is an exercise in humility (unless you’re Melville, or Hawthorne, or whatever), so I feel a little stupid even trying to discuss the final three films I’ve thus far ignored: Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria. They share a (don’t write “je ne sais quoi,” don’t write “je ne sais quoi”) particular upended-ness, a desire to subvert and reflect. They are all movies about movies, movies about the purpose of film.
Bergman Island, the most deceptive of these films, begins like a domestic dramedy—a filmmaker couple visits the island where Bergman lived and shot several films—before it unfolds into a buoyant meditation on love as something just as tangible as art. The Souvenir Part II serves not so much as a sequel to its 2018 predecessor, but an examination. I was admittedly lukewarm on Hogg’s last feature, but this one, which investigates the purpose of The Souvenir, the intentionality and failures of the memorial she’s crafted (both in life and in the film), completely re-contextualizes both movies. It’s funny, too—there’s no skimping on Richard Ayoade–imagining what it would be like if your classmates workshopped your grief, especially when we, as viewers, already know what that grief looks like for Hogg on screen. There was conversation after the initial release of The Souvenir around why it existed; frankly, why does anything exist? The Souvenir Part II answers that question with a careful nod and a sip of tea, before launching into an explanation.
Much has been said already about the at best circuitous, at worst restrictive release schedule of Memoria, so I’ll focus instead on the film, an experience that left me curious and frightened, bemused and breathless. The movie, in plainest terms, tells the story of Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a woman who hears a loud sound no one else is capable of hearing. At the press conference after the movie, Swinton described Jessica as “not so much a character, but a predicament.” (On one hand, LOL. On the other hand,) this is a useful way of thinking about Weerasethakul’s film and, I don’t know, the world in general. Or how we perceive the world. At one point, Jessica sits down with a young sound engineer to try to describe what is happening to her. It’s a poignant, lovely scene—humanist and hopeful. But he can’t quite get it, not at first, and that attempt to translate a vision (a noise…a story…) is the exact in-between where film serves a purpose. A movie can’t always take you from one plane to another, but rather, it’s a step, the assistance to realize or see anew.
All of which is to say that when I find myself back at Lincoln Center for three weeks of early morning screenings, bad coffee, stale croissants, exhausted hellos—it’s easy to romanticize it, to make it mean more than it does. They call it “festival fever” for a reason, of course, and part of what’s ever-intriguing about the comedown is what stays with me over time. I won’t know at the time of writing, and I may not for a long time. In fact, most of what lingers is the ongoing struggle of the Film Society of Lincoln Center union, negotiating a contract. This exists more tangibly, more practically. The films are well and good, cinema is back, baby—but the desire for better pay, health insurance, this is what’s been necessary all along. The potential for an IATSE strike loomed large over the festival as well. It’s easy to chalk this up to a matter of timing, of happenstance, but you and I both know this is not the case. To return to an in-person festival after the year and change we’ve had, the way in which labor movements have grown, the way Strike-tober balloons with fury and possibility—this, too, is a part of returning to the world. It is not beautiful; at least, not yet.
Or, consider: when I was home seeing my family, briefly, right before the start of the festival, I took a long neighborhood walk with my mother. It was a sunny, warm afternoon, and our stroll occurred at the same time that school buses drove through dropping off students. “Surely these aren’t high schoolers?” we asked each other, but sure enough, they were. One of them, a nice girl with a high ponytail and a too-heavy backpack, stopped to say hi to us, balked at how long ago I graduated (whatever) and talked to us about the school year. “It must feel good, though, right? Being back in person? After everything?” I asked her. She shrugged. “It’s still high school,” she said, then turned around and went home.