Mid-October is peak movie freak season. It’s when cinephiles, casual moviegoers, armchair pundits, and Film Twitter favorites and fugitives alike all begin to dig into prestige movie season and weigh in on which features will gain or decrease momentum on the way to the Oscars. For all the demerits of a competitive campaign system for art—something that seems oxymoronic on its surface—the Oscars persist for two major reasons: they’re the glamorous equivalent of the Olympics among those of us who follow pop culture like a religion, and they create an economic production system that incentivizes much of the spending that goes into the independent film community. In other words, many movies get made under the auspices of their Oscar chances, and many of those are the best that the art form has to offer.
The New York Film Festival, which concluded this week, annually serves as sort of a final course in a long banquet of international festivals (the season kicks off in Venice, leading into Telluride, Toronto, and finally New York). It’s also perennially welcoming to international cinema and adept at curating special programs, like Q&As that get broadcast and digested across the entire media landscape. All of this helps to build narratives that everyone will be talking about through March of next year. For those that attend festivals regularly, we’re all operating with our own arithmetic based on what we have seen and not seen. The festival also coincides with many of the releases being pushed as awards season fare at the multiplex—think The Lighthouse, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, Ad Astra, and Judy, for example. Regardless, the festival gives some great indicators of a few things to pay attention to as we continue down the road to full-tilt Oscar season. Here, CR looks at six films from NYFF that made quite an impression.
THE IRISHMAN BROKE BIGWhile many of the films at NYFF this year had previously been reviewed at other festivals, the biggest question heading into New York was what Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour mob epic The Irishman would look like…literally. The film boasts state of the art de-aging technology created by Industrial Light & Magic to span decades with stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, and it does so for the bulk of its runtime. Not only were the effects enough of a benign, unobtrusive element to render them an impressive technical success, but the film played gangbusters in Alice Tully Hall, a rare late-career masterpiece from one of cinema’s most beloved filmmakers, and one that mixes peak dramatic performances from a murderer’s row of talent with sumptuous production design, big-swing cinematic style, action, suspense, and a bittersweet tenor of reflection upon matters of life, aging, loyalty, family, legacy, and death. Look forward to seeing Pesci return to the Oscar field, giving Brad Pitt a run for his money in the supporting actor category along with Pacino, with potential successes for Scorsese’s direction, Steven Zaillian’s masterful adapted screenplay and a smattering of categories above and below the line. And although the film was financed by Netflix, which will release it on streaming after a qualifying theatrical run, definitely see this one on the big screen if you have the chance.
PARASITE COULD MAKE HISTORY
Bong Joon-ho’s latest thriller rode into the festival on a wave of buzz and walked away virtually bulletproof: one can scarcely find any critics immune to its gory charms. Telling a twisty, darkly funny story of a lower-class Seoul family who infiltrates the modernist world of wealth through a web of lies and manipulations, the film blends big themes of economic disparity and moral precarity with a populist genre style—not dissimilar in its DNA to Jordan Peele’s movies Get Out and Us—and manages to elicit empathy even for its least defensible characters. Parasite raises enough questions and doubt over right and wrong to become a potential lightning rod on social media, which makes it all the more impressive that it’s avoided these types of conflicts this far into its promotional calendar. Perhaps it’s because critics and audiences are less game to find offense in foreign titles as opposed to American ones (it’s also easier to connect with class issues from a safe distance, whereas the same themes in Todd Phillips’ Joker were all but avoided and cloaked in more neoliberal topics like presumptive incel trolling), but there seems to be a particular goodwill toward director Bong, who took home the coveted Palme d’Or prize at Cannes earlier this year and is already beloved in the U.S. for films like Snowpiercer, Okja, and The Host.A frontrunner in the newly-rechristened international film category, Parasite could become the first South Korean film to score a nomination, and a win would be doubly historic. The hype is so real, one could even predict greater things for the movie, including nominations in original screenplay, director, and even picture. There is something particularly invigorating about the film’s cold, menacing look at the haves and have nots, like an ice bath, which makes it a welcome presence among what can be a more predictable, staid Academy slate: see it for the humor, the plot twists, the mayhem, and the fun.
THE RISE OF THE SAFDIES CONTINUES
The future of American cinema is in good hands as long as Ben and Josh Safdie continue to find support for their uncompromising vision. In Uncut Gems, which screened as a special presentation at the festival this year, Adam Sandler rockets onto the screen as Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler caught in a criminal gambling web of his own making, hoping to hit big at auction with an uncut opal sourced from Ethiopia while dodging creditors, pawning other people’s property, and juggling his family life with resentful wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and his mistress Julia (Julia Fox, in an astonishing debut). As increasingly dangerous consequences threaten to end him at every turn, he has to continue to keep every ball in the air long enough to score a win to pay off everybody and achieve some desperate moment glory that has evaded him for much of his conniving and persistently mediocre life.
Shot by the legendary Darius Khondji (Delicatessen, Se7en, and Panic Room), the movie feels like an ambitious step forward for the Safdies, while drawing on many of the themes that have come to define their oeuvre to date: gritty New York realism, manic characters striving to land financial windfalls, the tacky glitz of the tri-state nouveau riche, deadbeat fathers, and the despairs of addiction, among them. Comparisons to other guerrilla NYC filmmakers like Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese (a producer on this film), and Spike Lee have abounded, but the Safdies represent the next wave of American auteurship in their own right for one crucial reason: their work exists within its own aesthetic milieu and never veers into the realm of pastiche. With its relentless pacing, ominous electronic score (Daniel Lopatin, of Oneohtrix Point Never), and frenetic dialogue that evokes a candid spontaneity of real life—aspects of which also draw from the Altman playbook, at a louder decibel—the movie is one that will either seduce or destroy, depending on who’s watching, the type of polemic that great cinema is built upon. For the initiated, it’s a hypnotic spectacle of cinematic audacity operating on a level few filmmakers of the Safdies’ generation can match. If A24 can muscle the film into the hearts of viewers at the specialty box office as well as on Netflix, through which the film is being distributed internationally, Sandler could crash the Best Actor race, and the Safdies could see themselves in contention for original screenplay and cinematography, and in a long shot, the director and supporting actress categories (for Fox). Even if they don’t make it this time, there’s always another score right around the corner and it would be wise to watch the brothers’ next move.
ALMODÓVAR IS STILL SINGULAR
In an Oscar season marked by big Hollywood swings (Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, The Irishman), stinging social satire (Parasite, Knives Out, and Jojo Rabbit), and ripped-from-the-headlines dramas (The Report, The Laundromat, and the forthcoming Dark Waters), Pedro Almodóvar, the consummate iconoclast, has buoyed himself this year with a personal, sentimental, altogether beautiful paean to the memories of an aging artist. A winningly earnest and at times romantic film, which he cunningly winks to as “autofiction,” Pain & Glory is loosely based upon the director’s own life. Antonio Banderas dons a spiky hairstyle to become Salvador Mallo, a Spanish filmmaker reflecting on his relationship with his mother (Penélope Cruz, Julieta Serrano), his artistic impulse, and past romances that plague his thoughts and continue to provide inspiration as he drafts a secret play under a pseudonym. All this, while embarking on a fresh drug addiction to cure chronic pain to do with a hidden illness. At times stoic, with itinerant flourishes of breathtaking scenery, Almodóvar is in a quieter mode than some of his contemporaries this year, crafting an intimate and personal film that, despite its darker edges, wraps itself around you and encloses you like a hug.
An icon and a perennial favorite of film fanatics everywhere, Almodóvar is used to standing out, but this time it’s for the uniquely uplifting quality of his story in the midst of so much darkness and depravity—and Jay Roach’s FOX News movie Bombshell hasn’t even come out yet. Fans of the Spanish master’s more extravagant work will find this film more akin to contemplative fare like Julieta and All About My Mother, but to see him reunite with Banderas in this type of self-portrait tugs at the heartstrings and summons many of their past collaborations. After all, it was in Almodóvar classics like Labyrinth of Passion, Law of Desire, and Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown where Banderas got his start: similar to co-stars like Cruz and Serrano, long members of the director’s own honorary company of stars. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Academy anoint Almodóvar here for directing and screenplay, as well as Banderas for this subtle performance that ranks among his career-best work. The film invites it by its own design: you never know how much time we have left, so it’s always best to live in the now.
MATI DIOP IS ONE TO WATCH
In terms of breakouts, this year’s primary head-turner was Mati Diop, the French actress-turned-director who made news in Cannes as the first black, female filmmaker in contention for the Palme d’Or. In her debut feature Atlantics, she stylishly blends genre and fantasy with tactile, handheld realism to tell the story of Ada (the beautiful Mame Bineta Sane), a young woman whose lover, Souleiman (the equally stunning Ibrahima Traoré) goes missing when he departs the Senegalese coast on a migrant vessel. Plagued by visions and a longing for answers, Ada is betrothed to the flashier Omar (Babacar Sylla) whom she refuses to marry, while a hangdog detective (Ibrahima Mbaye) pursues her around town following a fire started under suspicious circumstances.At once a lyrical ode to loneliness against the ravishing backdrop of coastal Dakar and an eerie science fiction possession tale, Diop takes an elliptical approach to storytelling to slowly unravel the yarn of Ada’s romance with Souleiman, spinning a visual poem of sorts to the way unsolved relationships can haunt our lives and affect our decisions. With an offbeat and innovative score from the great Kuwaiti polymath Fatima Al Qadiri and cinematography by Claire Mathon, who also shot the much-lauded Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Atlantics is a starkly original vision that elaborates on the high-art style of cinematic boundary pushers like Claire Denis and Wim Wenders and brings the poetic gestures of European filmmaking into the present, with the blue-lit, crying-in-the-club vividness of Hype Williams or Harmony Korine. Just announced as Senegal’s official Oscar submission, Atlantics would be a fulfilling addition to the international field, a chance to boost representation for black women filmmakers, and an opportunity to welcome a talented and charismatic young director into the big leagues.
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