Over the past few years, the New York Film Festival has become a stomping point for Oscar contenders. This year’s line-up appears to only have few Oscar possibilities. They are 20th Century Women, I Daniel Blake, Manchester by the Sea, Paterson and possibly Personal Shopper.
Directed by Ava DuVernay
The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis. A Netflix original documentary.
20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills
Mike Mills’s texturally and behaviorally rich new comedy seems to keep redefining itself as it goes along, creating a moving group portrait of particular people in a particular place (Santa Barbara) at a particular moment in the 20th century (1979), one lovingly attended detail at a time. The great Annette Bening, in one of her very best performances, is Dorothea, a single mother raising her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), in a sprawling bohemian house, which is shared by an itinerant carpenter (Billy Crudup) and a punk artist with a Bowie haircut (Greta Gerwig) and frequented by Jamie’s rebellious friend Julie (Elle Fanning). 20th Century Women is warm, funny, and a work of passionate artistry. An A24 Release.
The Lost City of Z
Directed by James Gray
James Gray’s emotionally and visually resplendent epic tells the story of Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett (a remarkable Charlie Hunnam), the British military-man-turned-explorer whose search for a lost city deep in the Amazon grows into an increasingly feverish, decades-long magnificent obsession that takes a toll on his reputation, his home life with his wife (Sienna Miller) and children, and his very existence. Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji cast quite a spell, exquisitely pitched between rapture and dizzying terror. Also starring Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland, The Lost City of Z represents a form of epic storytelling that has all but vanished from the landscape of modern cinema, and a rare level of artistry.
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
Brazil/France, 2016, 142m
Portuguese with English subtitles
A highlight of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s follow-up to his acclaimed Neighboring Sounds revolves around the leisurely days of a 65-year-old widow, transcendently played by the great Brazilian actress Sônia Braga. Clara is a retired music critic and the only remaining resident of the titular apartment building in Recife. Trouble starts when an ambitious real estate promoter who has bought up all of Aquarius’s other units comes knocking on Clara’s door. She has no intention of leaving, and a protracted struggle ensues. Braga’s transfixing, multilayered performance and the film’s deliberate pacing and stylistic flourishes yield a sophisticated, political, and humane work.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
USA, 2016, 107m
The seventh feature by Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff), a lean triptych of subtly intersecting lives in Montana, is a work of no-nonsense eloquence. Adapting short stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women follows a lawyer (Laura Dern) navigating an increasingly volatile relationship with a disgruntled client; a couple (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros) in a marriage laden with micro-aggression and doubt, trying to persuade an old man (Rene Auberjonois) to sell his unused sandstone; and a young ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) fixated on a new-in-town night school teacher (Kristen Stewart). Shooting on 16mm, Reichardt creates understated, uncannily intimate dramas nestled within a clear-eyed depiction of the modern American West. An IFC Films release.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
France/Germany/Belgium, 2016, 131m
French with English subtitles
Paul Verhoeven’s first feature in a decade—and his first in French—ranks among his most incendiary, improbable concoctions: a wry, almost-screwball comedy of manners about a woman who responds to a rape by refusing the mantle of victimhood. As the film opens, Parisian heroine Michèle (a brilliant Isabelle Huppert) is brutally violated in her kitchen by a hooded intruder. Rather than report the crime, Michèle, the CEO of a video game company and daughter of a notorious mass murderer, calmly sweeps up the mess and proceeds to engage her assailant in a dangerous game of domination and submission in which her motivations remain a constant source of mystery, humor, and tension. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Fire at Sea / Fuocoammare
Directed by Gianfranco Rosi
Italy/France, 2016, 108m
English and Italian with English subtitles
Winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary observes Europe’s migrant crisis from the vantage point of a Mediterranean island where hundreds of thousands of refugees, fleeing war and poverty, have landed in recent decades. Rosi shows the harrowing work of rescue operations but devotes most of the film to the daily rhythms of Lampedusa, seen through the eyes of a doctor who treats casualties and performs autopsies, and a feisty but anxious pre-teen from a family of fishermen for whom it is simply a peripheral fact of life. With its emphasis on the quotidian, the film reclaims an ongoing tragedy from the abstract sensationalism of media headlines. A Kino Lorber release.
Graduation / Bacalaureat
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Romania, 2016, 127m
Romanian with English subtitles
Cristian Mungiu’s expertly constructed drama concerns a doctor desperate for his daughter to escape corruption-plagued Romania by accepting a scholarship offer from a British university (after-the-fact layer of irony courtesy of Brexit), contingent on her high school final exams. But after she’s assaulted, perhaps for past sins of her father, the doctor must decide whether he will take advantage of his position to ensure that she receives high marks, despite her trauma. Parents anxious about their children’s education will appreciate the moral dilemma the film poses. Like Mungiu’s superb 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (NYFF ’07), Graduation resonates beyond national boundaries. A Sundance Selects release.
Hermia and Helena
Directed by Matías Piñeiro
Argentina/USA, 2016, 87m
English and Spanish with English subtitles
Shooting outside his native Argentina for the first time, New York–based Matías Piñeiro fashions a bittersweet comedy of coupling and uncoupling that doubles as a love letter to his adopted city. Working on a Spanish translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on an artist residency, Camila (Agustina Muñoz) finds herself within a constellation of shifting relationships (an old flame, a new one, a long-lost relative). Mingling actors from the director’s Buenos Aires repertory with stalwarts of New York’s independent film scene (Keith Poulson, Dustin Guy Defa, Dan Sallitt), Hermia and Helena offers the precise gestures, mercurial moods, and youthful energies of all Piñeiro’s cinema, with an emotional depth and directness that make this his most mature work yet.
I, Daniel Blake
Directed by Ken Loach
UK, 2016, 100m
Unable to work after suffering a heart attack, Daniel (Dave Johns) must apply to the government for benefits. But with the seemingly endless documentation he has to provide, his lack of familiarity with computers, and the condescending attitudes of the functionaries to whom he must repeat the same information in one soul-killing encounter after another, he is all but defeated from the beginning, as is his new comrade in misery, Katie (Hayley Squires). English director Ken Loach’s thoroughly shattering film, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, will strike a chord with anyone who has ever tried to negotiate their way through the labyrinth of bureaucracy. A Sundance Selects release.
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Spain, 2016, 99m
Spanish with English subtitles
Pedro Almodóvar explores his favorite themes of love, sexuality, guilt, and destiny through the poignant story of Julieta, played to perfection by Emma Suárez (younger) and Adriana Ugarte (middle-aged), over the course of a 30-year timespan. Just as she is about to leave Madrid forever, the seemingly content Julieta has a chance encounter that stirs up sorrowful memories of the daughter who brutally abandoned her when she turned eighteen. Drawing on numerous film historical references, from Hitchcock to the director’s own earlier Movida era work, Almodóvar’s twentieth feature, adapted from three short stories by Alice Munro (“Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence”), is a haunting drama that oscillates between disenchanted darkness and visual opulence. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Manchester by the Sea
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
USA, 2016, 137m
Casey Affleck is formidable as the volatile, deeply troubled Lee Chandler, a Boston-based handyman called back to his hometown on the Massachusetts North Shore after the sudden death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), who has left behind a teenage son (Lucas Hedges). This loss and the return to his old stomping grounds summon Lee’s memories of an earlier, even more devastating tragedy. In his third film as a director, following You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret (2011), Kenneth Lonergan, with the help of a remarkable cast, unflinchingly explores grief, hope, and love, giving us a film that is funny, sharply observed, intimately detailed yet grand in emotional scale. An Amazon Studios Release.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
USA, 2016, 110m
Barry Jenkins more than fulfills the promise of his 2008 romantic two-hander Medicine for Melancholy in this three-part narrative spanning the childhood, adolescence, and adulthood of a gay African-American man who survives Miami’s drug-plagued inner city, finding love in unexpected places and the possibility of change within himself. Moonlight offers a powerful sense of place and a wealth of unpredictable characters, featuring a fantastic ensemble cast including André Holland, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali—delivering performances filled with inner conflict and aching desires that cut straight to the heart. An A24 release.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea
Directed by Dash Shaw
USA, 2016, 75m
No matter your age, part of you never outgrows high school, for better or worse. Dash Shaw, known for such celebrated graphic novels as Bottomless Belly Button and New School, brings his subjective, dreamlike sense of narrative; his empathy for outsiders and their desire to connect; and his rich, expressive drawing style to his first animated feature. Packed with action but seen from the inside out, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is about friends overcoming their differences and having each other’s backs in times of crisis, and its marvelously complex characters are voiced by Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, and John Cameron Mitchell.
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Chile/Argentina/France/Spain, 2016, 107m
Spanish and French with English subtitles
Pablo Larraín’s exciting, surprising, and colorful new film is not a biopic but, as the director himself puts it, a “Nerudean” portrait of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s years of flight and exile after his 1948 denunciation of his government’s leadership. Larraín’s heady blend of fact and fancy (the latter embodied in an invented character, straight out of detective fiction, played by Gael García Bernal) is many things at once: a loving, kaleidoscopic recreation of a particular historical moment; a comical cat-and-mouse game; and a pocket epic. Featuring Luis Gnecco, a dead ringer for the poet and a formidable actor, alongside a terrific cast. A release of The Orchard.
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
USA, 2016, 118m
Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver who writes poetry drawn from the world around him. Paterson is also the name of the New Jersey city where he works and lives with his effervescent and energetic girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani). And Paterson is the title of the great epic poem by William Carlos Williams, whose spirit animates Jim Jarmusch’s exquisite new film. This is a rare movie experience, set to the rhythm of an individual consciousness absorbing the beauties and mysteries and paradoxes and joys and surprises of everyday life, at home and at work, and making them into art. An Amazon Studios release.
Directed by Olivier Assayas
France, 2016, 105m
French and English with English subtitles
Kristen Stewart is the medium, in more ways than one, for this sophisticated genre exploration from director Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria). As a fashion assistant whose twin brother has died, leaving her bereft and longing for messages from the other side, Stewart is fragile and enigmatic—and nearly always on-screen. From an opening sequence in a haunted house with an intricately constructed soundtrack to a high-tension, cat-and-mouse game on a trip from Paris to London and back set entirely to text messaging, Personal Shopper brings the psychological and supernatural thriller into the digital age. An IFC Films release.
Directed by Alison Maclean
New Zealand, 2016, 75m
Alison Maclean (Jesus’ Son) returns to her New Zealand filmmaking roots with a multilayered coming-of-age story about a young actor (James Rolleston) searching for the truth of a character he’s playing onstage and the resulting moral dilemma in his personal life. Set largely in a drama school, featuring Kerry Fox as a diva-like teacher who tries to shape her student’s raw talent, The Rehearsal, adapted from the novel by Eleanor Catton, demystifies actors and acting in order to reveal the moments where craft becomes art. The same happens with Maclean’s understated but penetrating filmmaking. Her concentration on the quotidian yields a finale that borders on the sublime.
Directed by Cristi Puiu
Romania, 2016, 173m
Romanian with English subtitles
A decade after jumpstarting the Romanian New Wave with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Cristi Puiu returns with a virtuosic chamber drama set largely within a labyrinthine Bucharest apartment where a cantankerous extended family has gathered forty days after its patriarch’s death (and three days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris). Rituals and meals are anticipated and delayed, doors open and close, and the camera hovers at thresholds and in corridors. As claustrophobia mounts, heated, humorous exchanges—about the old Communist days and the present age of terror—coalesce into a brilliantly staged and observed portrait of personal and social disquiet.
Son of Joseph / Le fils de Joseph
Directed by Eugène Green
France/Belgium, 2016, 113m
French with English Subtitles
The American-born expatriate filmmaker Eugène Green exists in his own special artistic orbit. All Green’s films share a formal rigor and an increasingly refined modulation between the playfully comic, the urgently human, and the transcendent, and they are each as exquisitely balanced as the baroque music and architecture that he cherishes. His latest movie, Son of Joseph, is perhaps his most buoyant. A nativity story reboot that gently skewers French cultural pretensions, it features newcomer Victor Ezenfis as a discontented Parisian teenager in search of a father, Mathieu Amalric and Fabrizio Rongione as his, respectively, callous and gentle alternative paternal options, and Natacha Régnier as his single mother. A Kino Lorber Films release.
Staying Vertical / Rester vertical
Directed by Alain Guiraudie
France, 2016, 100m
French with English subtitles
North American Premiere
Léo (Damien Bonnard), a blocked filmmaker seeking inspiration in the French countryside for an overdue script, begins an affair with a shepherdess (India Hair), with whom he almost immediately has a child. Combining the formal control of his 2013 breakthrough Stranger by the Lake with the shapeshifting fabulism of his earlier work, Alain Guiraudie’s new film is a sidelong look at the human cycle of birth, procreation, and death, as well as his boldest riff yet on his signature subjects of freedom and desire. The title has the ring of both a rallying cry and a dirty joke—fitting for a film that is, above all else, a rumination on what it means to be a human being, a vertical animal. A Strand Releasing release.
Things to Come / L’Avenir
Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
France/Germany, 2016, 100m
French with English subtitles
In the new film from Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden), Isabelle Huppert is Nathalie, a Parisian professor of philosophy who comes to realize that the tectonic plates of her existence are slowly but inexorably shifting: her husband (André Marcon) leaves her, her mother (Edith Scob) comes apart, her favorite former student decides to live off the grid, and her first grandchild is born. Hansen-Løve carefully builds Things to Come around her extraordinary star: her verve and energy, her beauty, her perpetual motion. Huppert’s remarkable performance is counterpointed by the quietly accumulating force of the action, and the result is an exquisite expression of time’s passing. A Sundance Selects release.
Directed by Maren Ade
Germany, 2016, 162m
German with English subtitles
An audacious twist on the screwball comedy—here, the twosome is an aging-hippie prankster father and his corporate-ladder-climbing daughter—Toni Erdmann delivers art and entertainment in equal measure and charmed just about everyone who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Maren Ade’s dazzling script has just enough of a classical comedic structure to support 162 minutes of surprises big and small. Meanwhile, her direction is designed to liberate the actors as much as possible while the camera rolls, resulting in sublime performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, who leave the audience suspended between laughter and tears. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
The Unknown Girl
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Belgium, 2016, 106m
It’s a few minutes after closing time in a medical clinic in Seraing, Belgium. The buzzer rings. Doctor Jenny (Adèle Haenel) tells her assistant (Olivier Bonnaud) to ignore it. She is later informed that the girl she turned away was soon found dead on the riverside. From that moment, Jenny becomes a different kind of doctor, diagnosing not just her dispossessed patients’ illnesses but also the greater malady afflicting her community. And this is a different kind of movie for Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, in which the urgency pulses beneath the seemingly placid surface, and it is all keyed to Haenel’s extraordinary performance. A Sundance Selects release.
Yourself and Yours
Directed by Hong Sangsoo
South Korea, 2016, 86m
Korean with English subtitles
Prolific NYFF favorite Hong Sangsoo boldly and wittily continues his ongoing exploration of the painful caprices of modern romance. Painter Youngsoo (Kim Joo-hyuk) hears secondhand that his girlfriend, Minjung (Lee Yoo-young), has recently had (many) drinks with an unknown man. This leads to a quarrel that seems to end their relationship. The next day, Youngsoo sets out in search of her, at the same time that Minjung—or a woman who looks exactly like her and may or may not be her twin—has a series of encounters with strange men, some of whom claim to have met her before . . . Yourself and Yours is a break-up/make-up comedy unlike any other, suffused with sophisticated modernist mystery.