The 54th New York Film Festival wrapped another successful year. With its main slate, documentaries, restorations, projections and some very cool virtual reality exhibitions, there was a little bit of everything for the festival goers. Here are just a few highlights from the many films I got to see:

'I, Daniel Blake'
'I, Daniel Blake'

I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach’s Cannes-winning film is an absolutely heartbreaking story that cuts to the heart of the human struggle to survive and be treated with decency against an unforgiving bureaucracy. As usual with Mr. Loach’s films, I was in tears after.

Directed with a slow and steady poignancy by Barry Jenkins masterfully using three non actors (a very difficult thing to do) to tell the story of a gay African American’s growth and struggle from childhood to adulthood through Miami’s drug plagued inner city. The kind of film that days after I was still thinking about it. It's in theaters now.

The Lost City of Z
The closing night film -- which won’t be in theaters until next year -- was director James Gray’s return to the epic filmmaking that the studios used to do and had me happily thinking about Werner Herzog’s great films Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Shot on sad-to-call-it-old-school 35mm film by the great Darius Khondji, it boasted standout performances by Charlie Hunnan, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller and our new Spider-Man, Tom Holland.

Manchester, By the Sea
Sadly and criminally underrated writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s film is another devastating family drama. Casey Affleck is just dynamite portraying a man who after a tragic event in his life finds that sometimes you don’t ever come back from the abyss but learn to live within it.

One only has to see films such as Dona Flor and her Two Husbands (1976) or Kiss of The Spider Woman (1985) to know what a treasure the actress Sonia Braga is. She’s back this year with another captivating performance as an elderly woman dealing with age, sex, class struggle, bureaucracy, and standing up for your rights in this film from Brazil’s Kleber Mendonca Filho. It features a pulsating soundtrack as well that hopefully gets its own release.

Provacative director (even though he doesn’t like to think he is) Paul Verhoeven is back after a few years away with this wicked Claude Chabrol-like French film. Sure to stir up controversy, it has the always fantastic Isabelle Huppert (also seen at the fest in Mia Hansen Love’s Things to Come) portraying a women who won't allow herself to be victimized following a rape. This is France’s entry for the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Film. And for more, The Film Society of Lincoln Center just announced a complete retrospective titled Total Verhoeven which runs from November 9-23. Of particular interest here are his early Dutch shorts which are almost never shown.

Jackie and Neruda
Chilean director Pablo Larrain was here with two films. Jackie is a portrayal of the former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. It was a special late entry screening and it’s a beauty, with a knockout performance by Natalie Portman that surely will be honored during the awards season. Neruda, a film I did not like as much, is a non-linear portrait of the poet Pablo Neruda during his flight and political exile from Chile. It is Chile’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards Foreign Film.

Toni Erdmann
Keeping the trend going, this is Germany’s entry for Best Foreign Film and it’s a hoot. Revolving around a prank-loving father trying to connect with his corporate-minded daughter. Director Maren Ade's film, at almost 3 hours, might be a bit too long, but it’s got too much charm to let that bring it down. Not to be missed if only for one hilarious dinner party set piece that has to be seen to be believed.

You can also read about Jim Jarmusch's Paterson and Gimme Danger here.


Rounding out the Best Foreign film entries, the fest had Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta,(Spain) a mother-daughter drama based on short stories by Alice Munro, and Fire at Sea (Italy), Gianfranco Rosi’s abstract documentary about the refugee crisis that won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Fest.

There were plenty of other films that were very good and showcased really fine performances by a number of talented actresses. Annette Bening is so good in Mike Mills' 20th Century Women, the fest’s centerpiece. Cynthia Nixon’s dynamic portrayal of the poet Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies A Quiet Passion, which unfortunately for me it was not quite as good as Mr. Davies superb Sunset Song from last year. Adele Hanell lifts the Dardenne Brothers' rather straightforward (for them) The Unknown Girl. And rounding out actresses, mention must be made of this year’s belle of the ball Kristen Stewart who was represented by three films and was also given a gala in her honor. While I was underwhelmed by Olivier AssayasPersonal Shopper and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, I thought Miss Stewart gave fine performances in both. Her third film was Ang Lee’s Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I did not see but heard was more spectacle than substance. Not to be outdone, there was the legendary French actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, in what felt like a final career performance, mesmerizing as always in The Death of Louis XIV.

For sheer craziness, there were fave festival oddballs (in only the best sense) Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie) and The Ornithologist (Joao Pedro Rodrigues)

On the documentary front, we had opening night film 13th, Ava DuVernay’s insightful examination of the history of US prison system and its mass incarceration of minorities (13th is now streaming on Netflix). Errol Morris provided a heartfelt look at the career of 20X24 Polaroid portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman (whose work adorns the lobby of the Walter Reade Theater). Abacus: Small Enough to Jail was Steve James' excellent and moving examination of the legal battle of a family-run bank in Chinatown that was the only one prosecuted in the 2008 financial crisis. Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, was a funny and sweet look at one of the most famous mother-daughter tandems Hollywood has ever produced. The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened was Lonny Price’s charming look at the 1981 Stephen Sondheim/Harold Prince Broadway musical Merrily We Roll Along, which was a disaster when it first opened (closing after only 16 performances,) but has since gone on to cult status and constant revivals.

'The Battle of Algiers'
'The Battle of Algiers'

Finally, in the restorations and restrospectives category, there was a stunning 4K restoration of The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 account of the Algerian battle for independence that has lost none of its power and is one of the best films you will ever see; Weirdo western One-Eyed Jacks is from 1961 and the only film directed by Marlon Brando was the last film Paramount ever shot in VistaVision (with a backstory full of drama) has never looked this good, and after a run at Film Forum last week it arrives on Criterion Blu-Ray next month; the late, great Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s Taipei Story (1985) also made an appearance. Starring future director Hou Hsaio-hsien, and one of the essential films that began the Taiwanese New Wave, its Antonioni-like realisim and detachment still casts a spell; Lastly, director, cineaste and historian Bertrand Tavernier’s loving, insightful and personal My Journey Through French Cinema. The latest installment in the series that began years ago with Martin Scorsese’s Journey Through American Cinema, these are essential viewing for all film lovers.

Until next year...

words and some photos by P Squared

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