New York Film Fest roundup: ‘French Exit’, ‘Nomadland,’ ‘Hopper / Welles’ & more
The 58th New York Film Festival wrapped up last weekend. As with other festivals this year, it was a very different version than has ever been presented. Most films were shown virtually with some having one or two showings at various DIY drive in’s around the city. Seeing most of the films online, while convenient, certainly made me long for the days when life gets back to “normal” and we can all congregate safely in theaters and enjoy the communal movie watching experience.
I did manage to catch one drive in showing. A wild double feature perfectly curated by John Waters the king of low budget sleaze in only the best way. It featured Climax -- the latest film. from the outrageous, often brilliant and often sending-critics-running-from-festival-screenings filmmaker Gaspar Noe ( fun fact he shot the infamous cover of Sky Ferreira’s Night Time My Time album) -- followed by Pier Paso Pasolini's insanely debauched 1975 classic Salo. The 74-year-old Waters braved the pandemic and came up from Baltimore to do the introduction which you can watch here:
Here are a few films from this year's NYFF:
"3 from Small Axe" (Lovers Rock, Mangrove and Red, White and Blue)
We already wrote about the festival's opening night film, from Steve McQueen's "Small Axe" series, Lovers Rock but there were two others of the five total shown and both were noteworthy. Mangrove, which is the going to be shown as the first film when the series airs on the BBC and Amazon Prime, is a sharp, biting drama depicting the true story of the 1970 racist attacks and wrongful prosecution by police involving members of the U.K. West Indian community centered around the Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill. Frank Crichlow, played with steely determination by actor Shaun Parkes) sees his West Indian restaurant become the center of a community of activists, locals and artists. After relentless harassment by a racist police force, Crichlow and others band together to peacefully protest -- only to be met with police aggression leading to nine people wrongly arrested for incitement to riot and put on trial. Has a familiar ring to the goings on today doesn’t it? The film then moves to the courtroom, where Crichlow along with Altheia Jones-La Coiinte, the leader at that time of the British Black Panther Movement (played by Letitia Wright who, in a great bit of meta-casting, was Shuri in Marvel's Black Panther). Another standout performance came from Malachi Kirby as activist Darcus Howe. Marvel as he purposefully questions and dresses down racist Policeman Frank Pulley on the stand, sending verbal daggers with every enunciation of his name. It’s just one noteworthy performance of many and once again director Steve McQueen doesn’t waste a bit of film highlighting this little known but oh so vital story.
Red, White and Blue was my least favorite of the three. It had much to like in it but the story just felt a bit thin. Once again based on a true story from the early 80’s, it centers around Leroy Logan, who after seeing his father wrongfully beat up by the police, decides to give up his job join the police force in a desire to help root out the racism from the inside. Once inside Leroy sees that maybe this is too rampant and systemic for him to fix. The acting here is once again stellar. In the best performance of his young career to date, John Boyega, who played Finn in the three recent Star Wars films, is sensational straddling the lines between heartfelt desire, forceful rage and familial sensitivity. Steve Toussaint gives a poignant performance as the father trying to find the way out of his anger to understand the actions of his son. Not only is this a story about systemic racism but also the love between a father and son. Take note that the real Leroy Logan had a most distinguished career, having been a Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police force, a founder of the Black Police Association and in 2001 awarded an MBE by the Queen for his service. He also to this day maintains that the British Police Force is still institutionally racist.
I haven’t seen the other 2 films in McQueen's "Small Axe" series -- Education and Alex Wheatle -- but i have no doubt they will be as worthwhile as the others. This is a mighty piece of work from Steve McQueen and his team including co writers Courttia Newland and Alastair Siddons, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and music supervisor Mica Levi to highlight just a few. The series begins airing on Amazon Prime on Nov 20 and a week earlier on the BBC.
Francis McDormand.Frances McDormand Frances McDormand Frances McDormand. Do i need to say anymore? This treasure of an actor could make reciting the phone book interesting. She is one of the rare few who can say as much with an expression or just her eyes as she can with words. Which serves her well for this particular film. Director Chloe Zhao, with her third film and a follow up to 2017’’s excellent The Rider, has fashioned a story out of Jessica Bruder’s novel about “workampers”: those folks, mostly seniors, who have, by their own choice, or forced economic circumstances, taken to a life on the road, living out of vans and working low paid (mostly seasonal) jobs to stay afloat. The novel is a dark yet uplifting look at a sector of people living on the margins, but does not lend itself to a straight narrative. Zhao, to her immense credit, has created a story that focuses on Fern (McDormand), a woman who takes to the road when the faltering economy has collapsed the Nevada town her and her recently deceased husband have lived in most of their life. It is a film of stunning, quiet beauty and a moving examination of the human condition. Fern’s story spans one year, beginning from the Christmas holiday season where she picks up hours at an Amazon fulfillment center. From there she travels the American West trying to find work, and meeting up with fellow “nomads” on the road.
In the grand style of past neo realist filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Jules Dassin and Satyajit Ray, much of the cast is made up of non professional actors. Real life workampers such as Linda May, who was at the center of the novel, Swanky and Bob Wells, a man who runs a nomad support group that, to paraphrase him, finds lifeboats for the workhorses who have been put out to pasture. Again, all credit due to the director and McDormand for making what is normally fraught with difficulty look so seamless. The direction is never forced, often moving at an unhurried pace that matches the lives these characters lead. The wide-open cinematography by Joshua James Richards, as well as Ludovico Einauidi’s plaintive and lovely score, only adds to the beauty of this film. Nomadland is a wondrous film that will leave a mark on you long after the credits roll. And if you want some proof that the Hollywood trajectory works fast, up next for Chloe Zhao? Directing Marvel’s The Eternals.
Talking about actresses that can lift a film to greater heights. Michelle Pfeiffer, in a long career of memorable performances, gives another standout in Azazel Jacobs new film French Exit. Earning the honor of closing this years fest, the film is a playfully absurd, often deadpan funny, and emotionally resonant film that will certainly remind you of film’s past. A little Buñuel, Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Hal Ashby and of course with any film that dares to flash some idiosyncrasies, the inevitable (and often lazy) comparison to Wes Anderson.
Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, an Upper East Side socialite whose clever, biting bon mots had her labeled by the other Ladies Who Lunch as eccentric -- a reputation not helped by the fact that years before, after discovering her husband Frank dead, she declined to call an ambulance until after she comes back from a weekend ski trip. Now 60 years old, the money she was living on and hoping to spend all of before dying, has run out. Seeing no other option, Frances sells her last remaining possessions and, with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) in tow, sets out on a journey by boat to France, to stay in an apartment owned by a fellow socialite friend Joan (Susan Coyne). Along for the journey is her black cat, who may or may not embody the soul of her late husband, hilariously voiced by the always wonderful Tracy Letts. Engaging with a host of various personalities, much of the craziness plays out in the confines of the smallish French apartment.
Frances is determined to end her days in France, making peace with her past and connecting with Malcolm who is still rudderless after being abandoned to boarding school for much of his early childhood. Director Jacobs, as he has done in previous films like The Lovers and Terri, shows an acute, refreshing ability to find the emotional heart of widely disparate characters with an air of respect and not a whiff of judgement. Working from a a rich, often deliciously wicked script by writer Patrick Dewitt (adapting his own novel), it’s a story about connections. How human beings, often lonely marginalized ones, find and engage with one another. Those include: the frenzied zany Mme Reynard, played to the hilt by Valerie Mahaffey (Eve on Northern Exposure, and so great in one of the funniest early Seinfeld episodes, “Papier Mache anyone?”), or Patti Cakes and Dumplin’ actress Danielle MacDonalds’ disaffected medium, Madeleine, who has a penchant for bluntly telling elderly people when they are going to die.
It’s Pfeiffer’s magnetic performance, though, that carries the picture. In her deft hands Frances rises above any stereotypical caricature, whether it's blithely and hilariously calling her hapless unaware lawyer a pig in French, waxing poetic to a bewildered homeless man in Central Park about how his circumstance are truly romantic, or finally expressing a love for her son after years of guilt-ridden neglect. In this film full of charms she’s a tour de force.
Here we have a piece of ‘70s film history long only rumored to exist, and now lovingly rescued. At the start of that decade, the great director Orson Welles had come back to Hollywood after spending the previous decade making films in Europe, and was seen as being a no-longer-viable relic. The young maverick filmmakers were taking over, and one of its most promising was Dennis Hopper, who had just come off the success of Easy Rider. Welles was conceiving something new: a fake, quasi documentary about the making of a brand new film by an aging, cast-aside director, Jake Hannaford, who had subsequently died before it’s release. Although having worked on it for six years, the film, The Other Side of the Wind, was never finished... until director Filip Jan Rymsza, working from pages and pages of detailed notes that Welles had left behind, completed the film in 2018. It was a joyous moment for film lovers who, for decades, could only imagine the great lost film Welles had struggled, and sadly failed, to complete, in his lifetime.
Among the massive amount of footage Rymsza sifted through was a conversation between Hopper and Welles in the guise of the aforementioned fictional Hannaford. Rymsza took the footage, shot in striking 16mm black and white, and presents a fascinating off-the-cuff conversation between two iconoclasts at differing stages of their careers. Hopper, riding high at this point, flew in from his home in Taos New Mexico where he had been laboriously editing his cocaine-fueled bonkers The Last Movie. Over two hours, topics range from art house cinema (Hopper singling out Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, Fellini's I Vitelloni and the films of Michelangelo Antonioni), to the question of the power that directors have (are they a God or magicians), to deeper fare such as religion, sex and politics. The film has the two, at times, sparring aggressively, sometimes in agreement, and often with Hopper clearly trying to impress a legend he holds in high regard. Shot in a cinema verite style with the two cameras jostling around for position, often reloading and slating in the middle of dialogue, the film is framed almost entirely on Hopper, with Welles' unmistakable booming voice in the background. While certainly not for everyone, those with a deep love and appreciation for movies as well as for two of the great artists of all time will find this utterly fascinating.
David Byrne and Spike Lee take what was already a monumental Broadway performance and bring it to new heights. Read our review here.
A few honorable mentions go to:
Documentarian Heidi Ewings Sundance Audience Award-winning first narrative feature I Carry You With Me -- the sweet, real life story of Ivan and Eduardo, who fall in love in Mexico as young adults and continue a decades long journey fraught with economic and societal roadblocks.
Night of the Kings, Philippe Lacote’s quite enjoyable, often stunning film that's part prison drama and part Shakespearean fantasy, encompassing the poetry, song, dance and storytelling connected with the West African griot tradition.
French mainstay Philippe Garrel’s new film The Salt of Tears has a familiar feel, as he once again mines the subject of unstable, deceptive relationships and toxic masculinity in the lives of young adults. Mostly engaging, the film unfortunately falls apart towards the end. Music fans take note, though, as the film’s soundtrack was done by Jean Louis Aubert who fronted the great 70’s French rock band Telephone (one of their hit songs, “Fleur De Ma Ville,” accompanies a rather unusual club scene in the film).
Finally, with a handful of great revivals and restorations this year the one that stood out was William Klein’s Muhammad Ali, The Greatest from 1969. Pages could be devoted to waxing poetic about Klein’s work in fashion photography and films both documentaries and narrative feature, but it’s simply enough to say this is one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time. Set up in two parts -- Ali’s first fight in 1964 against Sonny Liston (when he was still knowns as Cassius Clay) and subsequent rematch to then years later in 1974 for the epic "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa Zaire against George Foreman -- the documentary is an unfiltered look at The Greatest at two stages of his life. Often previously shows in grainy rough prints, this 2k restoration from the original 16mm was eye opening.