By: Sam Weinberg  | 

Arts & Culture: A Trip to the 61st New York Film Festival

The New York Film Festival — the most prestigious film festival of the region and, perhaps, the country as a whole — ran its 61st iteration from Sept. 29 until Oct. 15 this year. While New York is rarely a launching ground for entirely unseen films, the festival often gives a critical boost to films and filmmakers that had debuted in festivals earlier in the year. This year's offerings included premieres from the Cannes, Venice and Telluride festivals, providing the grounds for a large American showcase for films that are bound to be major awards contenders in the next few months.

The biggest winner of the festival circuit, which began with Venice at the end of August, is Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” starring and produced by the widely acclaimed Emma Stone. The film follows Bella Baxter, a back-from-the-dead, Frankenstein-esque woman learning about herself and her world in a most unique coming-of-age story. Lanthimos is a filmmaker who was widely acclaimed, if not a bit underrated, before his excellent 2018 offering “The Favourite,” released to a showering of praise and ten Academy Award nominations. Five years apparently have not caused Lanthimos’ films to lose their riotous edge, as “Poor Things” has been described as “daringly outrageous” and its director’s “finest movie so far, a strange, gorgeous-looking picture.”  As the awards race stands right now, this film, in all of its shocking glory, perhaps will be “Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon’s” biggest competition for awards in the coming months.

A handful of other acclaimed films hoped to get a leg up in cultural discourse through their premieres at the festival. “Priscilla,” “May December,” “Anatomy of a Fall” and “All of Us Strangers each played to ecstatic crowds as they made their way to the East Coast. “Anatomy of a Fall” particularly seems primed for a boost in film circles in the coming weeks, as the Palme D’Or winner, Cannes’ biggest honor, is getting a boost in screenings following a stellar performance in its initially limited release. The film, which follows a woman accused of her husband’s murder, is director Justine Treit’s fourth and easily most acclaimed film. I was left underwhelmed by her previous film, 2019’s “Sibyl,” but “Anatomy of a Fall” is a major turn-around in my view, led by an exhilarating screenplay and an unbelievable center performance by Sandra Hüller.

Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic, “Maestro,” had an extraordinary night when it premiered toward the beginning of the festival. Netflix, which is distributing the film, likely erred by premiering this deeply New York-centric movie in Venice, where the reaction was more muted than hoped. A few weeks later, when it played at the David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center (a Bernstein staple), the response shifted from mild to rapturous, as critics raced to throw superlatives in its direction. Some called the film, which is directed, written by and stars Cooper, his “masterwork, elevating him both as a filmmaker and as an actor, to a new stratosphere,” while others specifically noted Carey Mulligan, who plays Bernstein’s wife, Felicia, as “magnificent.” A handful of writers were taken aback by “Maestro’s” shifts toward an “impressionist portrait" of its subject; it will certainly be interesting to see how this film plays in the public sphere in comparison to “A Star is Born,” Cooper’s first film, a fantastic debut which became a mainstream cultural sensation.

The festival was filled with many big films that I couldn't get tickets to. Thankfully, I did, in fact, get to see some of the movies playing, and the films I saw displayed tremendous quality. The biggest player I got to see was “The Zone of Interest,” director Jonathan Glazer’s unique and horrific vision of domestic Nazi life.  The Höss family, whose patriarch Rudolph was in charge of operations at Auschwitz, lives as tranquilly as possible in a setting in which the background is detailed by sights and sounds of genocide.  The harrowing and thematically unsettling film is made more effective by Glazer’s ability to make the audience feel enough proximity to its central family as to recognize their warped humanity, but also distant enough to retain a chilly sense of overt evil. “The Zone of Interestis not a film that simply tells you that evil and inhumanity exist faraway, at a safe distance from our modern, open society. Rather, it is a film that is actively aware of its discomforting qualities and is in constant conversation with the audience about their ability to be complacent toward suffering in their own experiences and worlds. Zone is an evidently major work and a mighty return for the British filmmaker, although certainly not for the faint of heart.

Even less for the faint of heart is “Green Border,” the Polish film from Agnieszka Holland, who herself has made unquestionably effective Holocaust films during her long career. “Green Border” is not one of them, but, as Holland explained in a Q&A at the showing, it is a movie abundantly sensitive toward the plight of oppressed people. The film primarily follows a family of Syrian refugees who try to sneak into the EU to take refuge with a family member in Sweden but, tragically, are thrown into a brutal back-and-forth between the Belarusian and Polish border that gives the film its name. If “The Zone of Interest” was shocking in its mundanity, “Green Border” gets its emotional heft by brutally presenting deeply upsetting images. Its depiction of horrific crimes on the border has earned condemnation from the Polish government, whose justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, likened the film to Nazi propaganda. (At the time of his comments, he had not seen it. This being the case, it is unclear why he felt he could comment on the movie.)

Poland was not the only foreign country with films screening at the festival. France’s Oscar submission, “The Taste of Things,” is a lovely yet somewhat hollow celebration of food and love. A handful of Japanese offerings, “Evil Does Not Exist” and “Perfect Days,” further cemented the reputation of their directors, the emergent Ryusuke Hamaguchi and the generational master Wim Wenders, respectively. Finland’s most popular filmmaker, Aki Kaurismäki, has hit new levels of acclaim with “Fallen Leaves,” while Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan showed his Cannes award winner “About Dry Grasses.” (I was seated for the latter on October 9 but was too distracted by the horrific events of two days prior to focus for almost any of its 197-minute runtime.)

The best movie I saw at the festival, and the most low-key of any mentioned thus far, was “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.” The debut from photographer-poet Raven Jackson (whom I gleefully met before the screening), “All Dirt Roads” first entered my radar after its Sundance premiere months ago. (In truth, its mouthful of a title stood out to me more than anything else.) It is a movie that rebukes the need for narrative or even characterization, finding thematic weight through its profound non-linear meditation on black identity in the South and almost unfathomably moving cinematography. The film’s fluidity bodes well for its examination of life’s ever-shifting yet eternal nature. “Wanna know a secret?” a character asks another. “Nothing begins or ends.” Indeed, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” through the boldest of filmic methods, allows raw life to shift and spin for what may be days, years, or generations. NYFF specifically doesn’t have awards because they say the honor is in being selected; while All “Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” would be my winner for the festival’s best, I’m incredibly happy to have had the opportunity to see all these works from master filmmakers in an environment of people equally passionate as I am.


Photo Caption: A crowd of people gathers outside the entrance of Alice Tully Hall

Photo Credit: Sam Weinberg