The 49th Annual New York Film Festival: Films of Note

The Skin I Live In; Sony Pictures Classics

For the 49th year, the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center presented a cornucopia of films: old, new, foreign, American, long, short, documentary, scripted, animated, and avant-garde – something for every taste. There were forums and discussions, some of which you can see on their website. And with the opening of the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, there are now more theater spaces on the Lincoln Center campus in which to see the films.

Twenty-seven films scheduled within 17 days makes it practically impossible to see everything, but it is exciting to see films before anyone else, to hear what the filmmakers have to say about their projects, to compare your opinions with others, and to see foreign or independent films that may, unfortunately, never be shown elsewhere. No matter where you are around Lincoln Center, you can hear heated debates about the merits of specific films.

Although there were several films worthy of attention, my own criteria for judging a film is simple: Does the film pull me into its world so that I forget where I am? With that consideration, I recommend the following films. They couldn’t be more different from each other, but each captured my full attention and my admiration.

THE ARTIST

You might say that what’s old is new again. The Artist is not only an homage to silent films, it IS a silent film, in black and white. A good old melodrama that takes place during the time when talkies were first introduced, the film incorporates all sorts of movie clichés and techniques of the old silents, but it works incredibly well on its own. French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius has created a fresh and deliciously entertaining film, one that captures all the verve and magic of those early films – the ones that still have the power to captivate us today. (Note: In the style of silent films, there are title cards with some printed dialogue. Even though this is a French-made film, you can relax because the title cards are in English.)

Hazanavicius clearly loves the cinema of Old Hollywood and liberally salts this film with aspects you’ll recognize: the smiling bravado of Douglas Fairbanks, the bubbly sweetness of Mary Pickford, and the cute cleverness of a Jack Russell terrier as a sidekick. As both writer and director, Hazanavicius steals from the best, referring to some of the most famous films ever made (both silents and those with sound). Somehow he has reworked the familiar plots and characters, included some visual tricks, and even used some of the same music – but he has made all this into something new and delightful.

The French actors, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Béjo, embody the qualities of the 1920s, which are very different from today’s sensibilities. And American actors James Cromwell, John Goodman, and Penelope Ann Miller add to the world of the 1920s in small parts.

Not only was I caught up in the concerns of the characters, I was constantly tickled by the cinematic allusions. It makes me want to see the original old movies, and I want to see this film again, just to catch the moments I may have missed. If you’re a cinema buff, you will certainly enjoy and appreciate the references. If not, the film story that unfolds is a fun experience. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry; you’ll understand why people have loved going to the movies since the silent era.

My Week With Marilyn; The Weinstein Company

My Week With Marilyn; The Weinstein Company

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

Another movie about the movies, My Week With Marilyn is based on a memoir by Colin Clark who worked as Third A.D. on The Prince and the Showgirl, one of Marilyn Monroe’s less successful films. As anyone who has worked on a film set will tell you, the story of the making of a film has a different set of characters and plot from what appears on screen. Clark’s memoir provided the believable details and the amusing perspective, but screenwriter Adrian Hodges has adapted the book into a coherent, emotionally satisfying, and very entertaining (funny, witty) screenplay.

The Weinstein Company released this film and, like Shakespeare in Love, this is an intelligent film that is also accessible to a general audience. Both writer Adrian Hodges and director Simon Curtis have a background in British TV, which may have given them an understanding of how to involve an audience without dumbing the story down.

The cast includes a Who’s Who of the best actors in Britain (Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, and others), led by the American Michelle Williams, who gives an astonishing performance as Marilyn Monroe. As Marilyn, she is no caricature, but a fully realized person who elicits our sympathy. Moreover, within moments, you believe that Williams looks exactly like Monroe. Considering that Marilyn Monroe is such an iconic figure whose image is so familiar, well, I was very impressed.

A SEPARATION

This emotionally charged Iranian film, written and directed by Ashgar Farhadi, gives us a glimpse into Iranian middle-class society – but the issues are universal. A cross between a Sidney Lumet film and a Scott Turow/John Grisham legal thriller, it’s about an ordinary family who becomes involved in the equivalent of our family court system.

After I’d seen the film, I wanted to discuss the implications of morality, justice and society; but while viewing it, I was completely involved in each character’s emotional journey. In fact, I was so invested that, at times, I realized that I was holding my breath. This is a very taut drama, well-paced, with clearly defined characters who find themselves caught up in a web of distressing situations — the kind of human family circumstances that might happen anywhere to anyone. The stakes are continually ratcheted up, but always feel realistic and never contrived nor soap-opera-ish.

This is a first-rate drama based on a terrific screenplay, directed in a first-rate production with wonderful actors. I hope that the fact that it was made in Iran or that it has subtitles doesn’t keep it out of American theaters.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN

This is a very unusual film directed with great style by Pedro Almodóvar, which he adapted in collaboration with Agustin Almodóvar from the novel Mygale (written by Thierry Jonquet). I hesitated to see it because I had understood that it was a horror film, and I’m not a fan of that genre. It is NOT a horror film, in that it doesn’t immerse itself in blood and gore. Instead, it only suggests and implies horrible things, discreetly presented – but that is very creepy. Very creepy … and unsettling …

At the beginning, we are introduced to a methodical and serious plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas), who apparently has developed a new kind of skin and is using Vera, a very beautiful woman (Elena Anaya), to test his scientific research. She is so beautiful that one easily imagines that a plastic surgeon created her look. Soon we discover that Vera has been kept prisoner for these experiments. Banderas’ controlled performance keeps the film from sliding into the territory of the overwrought Vincent Price films of the 1950s. Banderas doesn’t appear to be a mad scientist, and as he quietly commands the screen, you follow him with interest. His calm authority makes his actions seem almost reasonable, at first.

The timeline moves back and forth, and many characters are introduced, but Almodóvar is masterfully in control. He gives us just what we need to know while constantly teasing us with new questions, drawing us further and further into this world. The Skin I Live In is a very complex story of revenge, with a complicated plot, odd relationships, strange emotional motivations, and fascinatingly bizarre implications. The music, the visuals, the locations are beautiful and richly lush.

It is a tour de force for all concerned, but, again, it is very creepy …

MISS BALA

A pretty young woman (Stephanie Sigman), whose main interests are shopping for clothes and winning a local beauty pageant, finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kidnapped and held hostage by a drug gang, her superficial concerns instantly change to those of serious and fearful survival.

Directed in gritty style by the Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo (who also co-wrote the script), we are drawn into the woman’s terribly real and frightening situation. This is no fantasy and she is not particularly clever, so what will happen to her? Will she be able to escape? I couldn’t help but wonder what I might do in her circumstance, and I completely empathized with her and understood her actions. I was very invested in the outcome.

As much a psychological drama as a thriller (with touches of irony), it is also a portrait of small town power struggles and the collateral damage of drug trafficking in Mexico.

A Dangerous Method; Sony Pictures Classics

OTHER FILMS WORTH MENTIONING:

So many of the films in this festival were interesting and had reasons to recommend them, but some made me feel that I had to work too hard, some never pulled me in, and some were so slow as to feel torturous. I want to be swept into the world of a film, but if that doesn’t happen, I can still appreciate some good qualities.

Some of the films that I appreciated for different reasons:

CARNAGE

I admired Carnage for its crackling good dialogue written by Yasmina Reza. Basically a reproduction of her Tony® award-winning stage play, God of Carnage, it would have been inappropriate to “open” it up, but it feels like a stage-y project, with stock characters. The excellent actors Christopher Waltz, Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly directed by Roman Polanski (who gets co-screenwriting credit), bring out the laughs, so it’s fun in the moment you’re watching it — but never entirely emotionally involving.

A DANGEROUS METHOD

Originally commissioned as a film that was never produced, the screenwriter Christopher Hampton turned the project into a stage play, and then rewrote it into a film. Directed by David Cronenberg, whose previous films have dealt with psychological issues in a more lurid manner, this is a measured, intellectual discussion about the beginnings of psychoanalysis; in other words, it’s talky. It’s interesting to see well-known figures in historic context, and they are embodied by the really fine actors Viggo Mortensen (Sigmund Freud), Michael Fassbender (Carl Jung), and Keira Knightly (Sabina Spielrein). It is beautifully filmed.

SHAME

Michael Fassbender’s performance in Shame is startling when compared to his performance in A Dangerous Method. The former is proof of what a chameleon he can be. Like Daniel Day Lewis with whom he’s been compared, he plays such a different character that it’s difficult to recognize it’s the same actor in both films. In Shame, Fassbender plays a sex addict in contemporary Manhattan whose sister arrives for an unexpected stay. Reasonably, considering the subject, there are a lot of fairly graphic sex scenes, although, curiously, few of them are very sexy. Like the addict who is never emotionally satisfied, unfortunately, neither was I.

Steve McQueen, the British writer and director, has presented a worthwhile exploration, but his style is so self-conscious and s-l-o-w that I wished he involved me more. Although I loved that New York City was practically a character in the film, I was really bored by the amount of screen time in which Fassbender’s character walked and walked or ran and ran down the streets. Though Fassbender is such a compelling actor, the extended static shots of him in closeup felt like they were just filling time. It made me lose interest. I found it truly irritating. I’m a very patient filmgoer; but to my mind, the extremely slow pace did nothing to add to the story nor to the understanding of the character.

However, credit where it’s due, I did love some individual scenes: like an awkward dinner in a restaurant and the emotionally charged conversations with the protagonist’s sister (a wonderful Carey Mulligan).

Although there are many reasons to recommend this film, I wish that McQueen didn’t keep me at arm’s length. Curiously, as irritated and bored as I was with the pacing, I also had the sense that this was a director who had command of the medium. You might want to decide for yourself.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

This is a revealing psychological portrait of a cult community (led by the charismatic John Hawkes) and the emotional distress of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who escapes the community. (The difficult-to-remember title refers to the various names that the main character is called at different points in the film.) Living in the present with her older sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy), her behavior is erratic and troubling.

The writer-director Sean Durkin has created a film that mirrors the main character’s inner life. She is never sure if she is reliving a repressed memory or if what’s happening is taking place in the present. Often filmed in tight closeup, we, the audience, are also unsure of where we are. This tactic usually works to good effect, as the flashbacks tell us the story, but sometimes it’s just confusing.

Le Havre; The Criterion Collection

This is Durkin’s first film, so I hope that his talent with experience will help him to create more clarity in his next project. And Elizabeth Olsen, who is the younger sister of the Olsen twins, is certain to have a great career based on her own talent.

THE KID WITH A BIKE (Le Gamin au Vélo)

A touching portrait of a young boy who is abandoned by his parents, this film was written and directed by French award-winning brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Created with their signature light touch, this is a pleasant drama.

LE HAVRE

A quirky, lighthearted film spiced with dry wit tells the story of a shoeshine man who helps an African boy avoid immigration authorities. Written and directed by Finnish Aki Kaurismäki, Le Havre feels as French as its location.

IN CONCLUSION:

It’s important for screenwriters to see many films, and seeing so many films at once – such different films with such different sensibilities – can be a little overwhelming. Overall, there was so much that was exciting (and motivating) about this year’s New York Film Festival, that I suggest that you check the website to learn about what happened during the festival and to get information about the films, including the ones that I didn’t mention. You can also see what other events are planned during the  year, and perhaps you can arrange to visit New York next year for the 50th Annual New York Film Festival.

3 thoughts on “The 49th Annual New York Film Festival: Films of Note

  1. Arlene

    Excellent reviews, Sheila. Thank you so much for your insights and critiques.

    There are defintiely a number of films I will now want to see based on your in-depth reviews.

    Happy Holidays and looking forward to reading more of your reviews in the future.

    Arlene 🙂

COMMENT