I agree with Chalamet on at least one of these points. Though I skipped his gruesome twosome flick, the feeling of societal collapse was all but laced into the reels of film at this year’s New York Film Festival. That runs the risk of sounding like a complaint, but it’s actually the opposite. All that was ugly was on display this year: violence, sure, but also addiction and fascism and death and the police and bigotry and violence. Now, two and a half years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing a wave of movies conceived and filmed under not only COVID protocols but COVID mentalities. These films had eager, stranger swings and gentle wistfulness. They dealt not only with the present, but also the future.
Far and away, the festival’s highlight was Todd Field’s TÁR, a film so au courant that it’s set in November 2022—next week, more or less. In TÁR, Cate Blanchett is Lydia Tár, an EGOT-winning contemporary classical composer and conductor, sort of like Leonard Bernstein but scary in a goyishe way. My interests have long circled the topics of “classical music” and “Has cancel culture gone too far?,” so consider me aggressively catered to by a film about classical music and whether cancel culture has gone too far, but perhaps the greatest endorsement I can make is how unexpected and rigorous and funny the film is. The most obvious comparisons—ones I made in a longer review—were to the genre’s most obvious “artist” films: Whiplash, The Piano Teacher, Black Swan. Really, though, the joy in TÁR is in its similarities to Phantom Thread, a film that teaches you how funny it is over the course of watching. Blanchett is rarely rivaled, but never better here, flanked by the talents of Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant and Mark Strong. What a finale!
Also future-minded was Noah Baumbach’s long-awaited White Noise, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name. The film is Baumbach’s most expensive to date, a note I make because that was, perhaps, my primary takeaway: boy, this looks pretty expensive. DeLillo’s novel centers around an average Midwestern family—commodity-worshiping and death-fearing—in which the father and central character, Jack, teaches Hitler studies at a small liberal arts college. A “toxic airborne event” occurs in the first third of both the novel and the film, one that sends the family packing in the middle of the night in search of safety.
White Noise features steady performances from Baumbach mainstays Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig (playing Jack and his wife, Babette, respectively), though not even their easy chemistry can keep the film from feeling like it’s missing something—like it’s such a conventional adaptation of the text, with much of the dialogue ripped right from the book. Despite featuring standout performances from Don Cheadle and Vox Lux’s Raffey Cassidy, White Noise never really escapes its adaptive prison. It adheres to itself time and time again, with sequences sometimes thrilling but often not. Its scope is large, but the story is small, if only it ever gave us a proper sense of scale.
If White Noise threatens its audience with the concept of death, several other films are willing to dive right in. Consider the seductive, wry Decision to Leave from Park Chan-wook, a detective story about a police inspector who may or may not be falling in love with the woman he suspects committed a murder. Decision to Leave is not as erotic or twisty as his last film, The Handmaiden, but it is far sexier with far less actual sex in it. Memories of Murder’s Park Hae-il and Blackhat’s (!) Tang Wei share exhilarating chemistry, so much so that scenes without them might as well have not existed to the viewer. The game of cat-and-mouse they play has all the trappings of an old-world noir: rather chaste, especially considering the director, but not without a profound sense of lust. Decision to Leave may also be the only film in recent memory to accurately depict longing over text: this is an Apple product-heavy film. They text, they call, they send voice memos. Rather than write in a little notebook, or talk into a tape recorder, Park Hae-il’s Hae-joon speaks directly into his Apple Watch. It’s funny, too, as falling in love often is. These two do want each other more than anything; it’s just a shame about all those killings.
It’s hard for me to conjure a bad word about the work of director Mia Hansen-Løve (it’s so cool that that’s her name), so I won’t: her latest film, One Fine Morning, is a gentle, moving depiction of a life lived through grief. Léa Seydoux stars in what is perhaps her best role to date—a reminder of how much range she has, and how wasted she’s been on American audiences thus far—as a translator navigating single motherhood as her father slowly succumbs to dementia. Not a laugher, exactly, but full of Hansen-Løve’s signature life-y-ness (Seydoux’s character Sandra refusing to see Frozen II with her daughter, for one). As she mourns the loss of a father who is still there but also not, Sandra starts up an affair with an old friend, who is married. (Ah, France!) It’s a moving, quiet film, less daring and cheeky than Bergman Island, but one that feels genuine, and from the heart, as saying goodbye often is.
You could make a fascinating double feature out of Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun and Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter. They’re both ghost stories, in a sense, about people who no longer walk the earth but live instead on film. Wells’s film is set on the sunny beaches of Turkey, a young woman’s memory of a trip she took with her father when she was a child. Daughter and father here are played with chummy aplomb by newcomer Francesca Corio and Paul Mescal. Mostly it’s a hangout film, easygoing and lush, richly textured with time-appropriate needle drops. Of course, the vacation fades into something darker that fails to be captured on the family camcorder that came along. On the other side of Europe, Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter depicts daughter (Tilda Swinton) and mother (…Tilda Swinton) away for a spooky pre-Christmas trip at a derelict Welsh hotel. Hogg returns to The Souvenir’s metaverse (for lack of a better word), with Swinton playing both her daughter’s formal role, Julie Hart, and reprising her own performance as a much older version of Julie’s mother, Rosalind. It’s an anxious, eerie film at times, more magic trick than memorial, but a surprising and daring turn from Hogg nonetheless.
I saw two documentaries at this year’s festival, the timely The Super 8 Years and Laura Poitras’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. The former is by and about recent Nobel Prize-winner Annie Ernaux, compiled and directed with her son, David. The film spans the mid-1970s through the early 1980s as the Ernaux-Briots go on vacation and live otherwise unremarkable domestic lives, with Ernaux herself both writing the narration and reading it alongside the footage. It’s a minor piece of filmmaking, but wholly enjoyable for fans of her work or those interested in a tumultuous era in European history. In a Q&A after, Ernaux mentioned that what goes unseen in this footage—largely shot by her husband—is her own activism in the pro-choice movement across France, a prescient subject both today and in Ernaux’s writing.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is as large as The Super 8 Years is intimate. Laura Poitras’s latest film is about the contemporary artist Nan Goldin and Goldin’s recent work surrounding the Sackler family’s responsibility for the opioid crisis as well as their financial impact on the art world. It is a dizzying, heart-wrenching piece of work, like Goldin herself, both painful and joyful. It’s as much Goldin’s film as it is Poitras’s, infusing the former’s work and memories into her current struggle for justice against the Sacklers’ blood money. The documentary’s rich inclusion of both those from Goldin’s early years—David Wojnarowicz and Cookie Mueller, to name two—and non-famous activists with whom she works in her organization, PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), eventually convinced several major art museums to refuse Sackler funding. It is a profound movie about not only bearing witness, but about community action and harm reduction. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is paced so elegantly that just when I stopped crying at any given time, I would start up again soon after. It is monumental, and not to be missed.
There were striking similarities between Jerzy Skolimowski’s donkey-centric crowd-pleaser, EO, and Helena Wittmann’s semi-experimental Human Flowers of Flesh, a film whose genre and context is best left discovered. Both are hyper-focused not only on the natural world, but on what it is that humans do to it, for better and for worse. EO’s sweet ass, Eo (whose name is Polish for the noise donkeys make), wanders central Europe, encountering all that is haunting and humble about human destruction. Human Flowers of Flesh puts a handful of international sailors out on an old, creaky boat where they read and write and eat fruit. Both films made me feel as though I was not quite in my own body, but elsewhere and elsewhen.
I swooned for both Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener and Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon, both of which feature love stories that should not by any means work but do in spite of themselves. Schrader’s latest is perhaps the conclusion of his “men in rooms” trilogy, starring Joel Edgerton as a gardener named Narvel Roth (yup!) employed at an old Southern estate by a haughty socialite (Sigourney Weaver—the best). The arrival of his boss’s grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who is mixed-race, highlights the racism inherent to the manor. Roth himself has a former history as a neo-Nazi, one he hopes he will be able to shed through the careful curation of—what else but—the earth. That he and Maya spark up a flirtation may strain plausibility, but Schrader’s work has never been literal. Master Gardener is a fable, a retelling of what we saw in both First Reformed and The Card Counter, with an ending that moves and trembles. Denis’s Stars at Noon, in theaters at the time of this writing, is hot and annoying and wonderful, a story of two white morons who should be fighting for their lives but are mostly getting wasted in Nicaragua. Margaret Qualley is never better as a wanton messy blogger, and Joe Alwyn is perfectly cast as a hot guy out of his element.
Also at the festival were “issues films” She Said and The Inspection. The former is the ripped-from-the-headlines story of Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s Harvey Weinstein investigation starring Fran Hoepfner favorite Carey Mulligan and Bright Wall/Dark Room favorite Zoe Kazan. The film manages to elude a lurid didacticism that comes with journalism movies in favor of letting women, well, talk. The Inspection is director Elegance Bratton’s debut feature about his time serving as a gay man in the Marines. It’s a brutal, if not rote film, deftly led by theater star Jeremy Pope. Though it might prove too conventional for some, it’s a worthy watch, a sticky movie about several difficult subjects, infused with grace and patience.
I’ve saved James Gray’s Armageddon Time for last, as it’s a film that I’m still sifting through, its moving and thorny portrait of a Jewish family in Queens reminding me too much of elements of my own life. That it has proven divisive seems like the Gray Standard™ at this point: perhaps the director will never be a mainstream favorite, but his ever-complex and engaging movies will always hold a place in my heart. Here, he tells the story of his own life through Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) and his family—mother and father, Esther and Irving (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong); and grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins—perfection). Paul’s friendship with a Black student at his school named Johnny sets him on a course of unforgivable sins, ones that I don’t think the film expects the viewer to forgive. This is not so much a film about a child learning about racism, but a child learning why people often choose to act without a sense of solidarity. It is a story about Jewish-Americans and the sacrifice that American Jews felt they had to make in order to assimilate with the white aristocracy. It is an ugly, stressful subject, and altogether difficult to consider, especially as often likable as the Graffs are. That so many of the films this year focused on ugly and stressful subjects feels not like a demerit, but rather a catharsis—a healing that can only be done in a dark room, surrounded by others, but entirely viewed through your own eyes.