Best movies at NYFF 2019
Modern dance makes a lot of sense onscreen, but few documentaries (Pina among them) have effectively enlisted 3-D to the cause. Alla Kovgan’s definitive study of NYC choreographer Merce Cunningham turns the air itself into something tactile, sliced by angular, precise movements. Your takeaway is a tangible appreciation for an innovator of both mind and body.
If you thrill to archival footage of the city in its earlier black-and-white incarnation, Manny Kirchheimer’s hour-long collection of gorgeously restored vignettes (shot by himself and Walter Hess) needs to be seen: a reclamation of impossibly romantic late-’50s street life. Children playing stickball, some guy walking with his cat, rows of chrome tailfins—all of it plays hypnotically. The jazz accompaniment is nice but the live sound is even better. In some ways, our town hasn’t changed a bit.
Already, Oscar buzz is deafening for Joaquin Phoenix’s galvanizing turn as a damaged supervillain in the making (this ain’t your typical comics movie), and even if you don’t care for the movie’s sociopolitical subtext, Joker is the one movie that everyone will be talking about this fall. You’ll want to join the conversation. Set in a Scorsesean Gotham clearly inspired by the mean streets of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, it’s essential viewing for locals. Our fest gets it early, before the fanboys do.
Noah Baumbach’s killer divorce drama—starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both hitting career highs—is an updated Kramer vs. Kramer, now loaded with the combative machinations of matrimonial lawyers stuck in a street fight. This love affair may be a cinder, but it still throws off an immense amount of heat; you won’t see arguments this raw in anything else.
Jack London’s 1909 novel, about an angry young man who blooms into a radical poet (and then becomes something of a sellout), is one of the most epic-feeling Italian movies in years, a throwback to ’70s-era big-canvas statements. Lead actor Luca Marinelli, rousing in every scene, comes within hailing distance of a young Robert De Niro. He’s even got the mole.
Call it an upstairs-downstairs drama if you must, but Bong Joon-ho’s nerve-shredding social satire—the most perfect film out of this year’s Cannes—plays like blackest comedy. A downtrodden family secretly infiltrates a wealthy one, job by job, over several months. Their comeuppance is too good to spoil; meanwhile, outside the film, this kind of class warfare seems increasingly probable.
Two ladies are on fire, actually, in Céline Sciamma’s exquisite romance. Among other things, it teaches you to think like an artist, in terms of contours and shade, light and dark, subtle flushes of contempt, flirtation and release. It’s a feminist rejoinder to Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, and just as major.
If Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin used the despot’s 1953 funeral as a springboard for vicious comedy, Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary is a fascinating counterpoint: an assemblage of Soviet footage of grieving, wreath-laying and paying respects. The grandeur is off the charts. A live orchestra saws away in a stiff March breeze, and the footage has an unusual hush: It’s the official record, with no dissent. Stalin would be disentombed in 1961 but for now, the cult of his personality commands obedience even after death.
Nadav Lapid’s spiky quasi-comedy is about a man drifting through Paris; we come to learn that Yoav (Tom Mercier, doing a physical Adam Driver–like performance) is Israeli, that he hates his home country, that he wants to improve his French post-haste. Falling in with an attractive couple of twentysomethings, Yoav begins to broaden his horizons, but Lapid’s film has other ideas, specifically about the indelibility of one’s past and culture. This is the kind of edgy, problematic drama that you go to festivals to see—and hopefully hash out afterward.
This year’s NYFF is dedicated to the late French documentarian Agnès Varda, who died in March at age 90 but still seems impossibly alive. Her final work is a literal master class: a filmed lecture during which Varda rambles enjoyably through her greatest hits, such as Cléo from 5 to 7, Vagabond and The Gleaners, imparting the crucial lesson that art is meant to connect its maker with the larger public.