The New York Film Festival is one of the most reliably compelling events on any local cinephile's calendar, in part because the aggressively curated event is encouraged to put art before commerce. While NYFF is the crowning jewel of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual program (and almost certainly its top earner), the consistently high-brow fest is largely free from the burdens that restrict the likes of Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. NYFF isn't a market, it's not the gatekeeper for the year's new slate of elite world cinema, and only in recent years has it been used as a launching pad for select Oscar contenders. While NYFF certainly knows and serves their audience, the festival is crucially unafraid to shape and steer them as well – though NYFF understands the role it plays in delivering the best of Berlin, Cannes and Venice to its patrons in New York, the fest never feels like a mere compilation, its inclusive attitude and unparalleled emphasis on the artists helping to ensure that each year's edition doesn't merely offer a vital slate of movies, but also presents them in such a way that even the most difficult films (i.e. Lav Diaz's 250-minute "Norte: The End of History") feel genuinely accessible.
While the exit of the fest's long-time honcho (the uncompromising Richard Peña) inevitably caused some concern – especially when it was announced that mainstream titles like "About Time" and "Le Week-end" were among the films selected for the main slate – the 51st edition of the New York film community's premiere event ultimately proved that the festival is in tremendous hands, and is positioned to grow even more significant for the industry as a whole. This year's main slate was as strong as any I can remember, new director of programming Kent Jones keeping true to the bold spirit of the festival, his background as a prominent film critic ensuring that even the most unlikely selections were conducive to great discussion. NYFF's various sidebars have never been more varied or essential: Convergence, a surprise Godard retrospective, and the festival's first filmmaker in residence (Andrea Arnold) easily overshadowing this year's few disappointments (i.e. centerpiece offering "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", which is difficult to begrudge due to the attention it surely channeled towards the rest of the fest and FilmLinc as a whole).
So with all that said, here are my picks for the 10 best films of this year's main slate, complete with excerpts from our reviews.
Look at me. Look at me. ...I'm the captain, now:
10.) BASTARDS (Claire Denis)
Sometimes there are detective movies without detectives. Or, more to the point, the detective is the audience. Clarie Denis’ newest film, the evocative and cool “Bastards,” is a thriller that purposefully obscures the thrills. There are striking revelations, but nothing as gauche as a Shyamalan twist. It is, at heart, a straightforward story, but told in an intentionally complex manner, rewarding the audience at its conclusion. There’s even a peek at surveillance footage, and while it does offer up something of a character unmasked, it is more about finally understanding a dark corner of a person’s soul.
Printed out on index cards, “Bastards” is simple, but Denis’ film holds plot points close to the vest. The effect offers a strange empathy with the characters. I’m not saying I want every movie done in this elliptical fashion, but when done sharply it can make for a compelling experience. I haven’t had so many post-screening conversations to nail down the implication of certain shots since “Upstream Color.” Unlike Shane Carruth’s pseudo-scientific psychedelic freakout, however, this is ultimately a straight-up tale of vengeance.
"Bastards" will open in theaters and on VOD on October 25th, 2013.
9.) CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (Paul Greengrass)
A macro-economic horror story in the guise of an exceptionally harrowing hostage thriller, Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips” dramatizes a 2009 incident in which a small band of Somali pirates hijacked an American cargo ship, a siege that has since become emblematic of the recent rise in similar armed attacks. Anchored by a compellingly candid titular performance by Tom Hanks (his best on-screen work since
“Larry Crowne” “Catch Me if You Can”), Greengrass’ latest recreation of recent history’s most vividly violent events is not – as its awkward opening moments might first suggest – just another Hollywood celebration of American bravado at the expense of faceless third-world foreigners. On the contrary, “Captain Phillips” is not only a masterful action movie that breathlessly and believably re-stages a tense standoff at sea, but a resonant portrait of systemized financial imbalance trickling down into the water. While this is arguably Greengrass’ best film, it’s almost certainly his most urgent.
"Captain Phillips" is in theaters now.
8.) NOBODY'S DAUGHTER, HAEWON (Hong Sang-soo)
Though Hong Sang-soo has for some time ranked among the world’s foremost working filmmakers, his work remains uniquely resistant to criticism. How can one hope to articulate the depth of these films, their emotional and intellectual richness, when on paper they read as so thinly conceived and schematic? Their charms are ample and readily apparent, certainly, but their greatness seems somehow more elusive—it is as though share an inscrutable quality which elevates each toward the sublime. It is of course the job of criticism to discern and convey this quality in writing, to wrestle with the greatness of the work until it is pinned down. And yet in this case it seems ill-equipped to do so. Perhaps the great Hong exegesis will one day arrive and with it his body of work will be thoughtfully elucidated and properly extolled. Until then it seems all I can do is describe the local phenomena.
What I can tell you with more certainty is that “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon”, Hong’s fourteenth feature film and the first of two released to date this year, enjoys many of the pleasures found reliably in his other work, plus a few to call its own. Chief among the holdovers is Hong’s perceptive, sensitive depiction of interpersonal relationships, which here include both mother-daughter and student-teacher pairings in addition to the usual bittersweet romance.
7.) NEBRASKA (Alexander Payne)
Bruce Dern stars as Nick Nolte – no, that’s not it, hold on. Ah, Bruce Dern stars as Billings, Montana’s Woody Grant. An angry, (mostly) functional alcoholic no longer able to drive whose main focus in life is to make his wife Kate (June Squibb) miserable. The recipient of one of those Publisher’s Clearing House letters, Woody is convinced there’s a million dollar prize waiting for him. Unwilling to claim it through the mail, he insists on traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska, the source of the letter. No amount of saying “this is just some scam” will deter him. Not from Kate, not from his back-up newscaster son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) or from his younger son, the melancholy consumer electronics salesman David (Will Forte.) Despite Woody’s nasty demeanor, David has enough sympathy to take him on a car trip to Lincoln just to shut him up (and to keep him from getting picked up from cops each time he just gets up and starts walking there.)
“Nebraska” is a sad film, shot in striking black & white, and it pulls no punches in showing how gross the deteriorated main streets of America’s heartland have become in a rough economy. Payne is darn-near ethnographic in his insistence of casting “real looking people.” Dave’s on-the-rocks girlfriend, appearing sympathetically in just one scene, is, by movies standards, practically a Medusa. In actuality she’s representative of 99% of the world – it’s just that we’re not used to seeing people like that in movies.
"Nebraska" will open in limited release on November 15th, 2013.
6.) A TOUCH OF SIN (Jia Zhangke)
The cinema is well-equipped to respond to corruption and oppression, whether its powers are channelled into disconsolate sighs of resignation or marshaled toward something more fierce, like Jia Zhangke’s impassioned, state-directed philippic “A Touch of Sin”. There is something uniquely satisfying about the strain of anger Jia taps into here, something perhaps about its scope and intensity that makes it almost galvanizing. The feeling is infectious. And because it is articulated by Jia, a filmmaker of otherwise peerless rigor and patience, what might come off in lesser hands as a bit histrionic instead seems somehow precisely calibrated and controlled, the vitriol justified by circumstance. Following a more than fifteen year career founded on precision and restraint, an eruption of feeling is warranted.
Less expected, though no less successful, is Jia’s rejection of the social realist and documentary traditions within which he has long established himself as among the world’s major contemporary figures. The apparent contradictions in Jia’s style—between documentary practice and narrative fiction, naturalism and fantasy, authenticity and artifice—have nevertheless produced a body of work as distinctive as it is strangely unified, the differences between films like “Still Life” and “24 City” less pronounced than their similarities. When critics describe “A Touch of Sin” as a departure for Jia, as they did often after its world premiere at the Cannes film festival last May, what they mean is that, for the first time, Jia has abandoned the singular and ever-evolving filmmaking mode for which he remains best known to adopt an approach that is far more recognizable. In other words, “A Touch of Sin” is a genre film. It has its roots in the wuxia, as Jia has said in interviews, but to Western eyes it is also quite simply an action epic, a blockbuster spectacle of stylized gunplay and the violence of revenge. To that end praise comes easily: “A Touch of Sin” is by far the best action film of the year.
"A Touch of Sin" is now in theaters.
5.) STRAY DOGS (Tsai Ming-Liang)
The extremities of Tsai’s first feature-length use of digital are a factor of time, not in the jumbled and complex manner afforded by modern editing capabilities and excessive coverage offered by inexpensive cameras but in the vastly expanded amount of footage that can be recorded on a hard drive. Shots in “Stray Dogs” occasionally stretch well past the 11-minute limit of a traditional 35mm film reel, typically focused on actors’ faces for so long that mundane action, or outright inaction, takes on cryptic, interpretative qualities.
That mysteriousness extends to the film’s story (for want of a better term), which opens as a series of vignettes involving a single father (Tsai’s regular collaborator Lee Kang-sheng) and his two young children, engaged in activities such as the kids jovially roaming forests and beaches while their father stands on street corners holding signs for apartment complexes. Well into the film, Tsai reveals that the family is homeless, recontextualizing the dull rote of the father’s job and the wistful truancy of the children into something more harrowing and desperate. This withholding of information turns a basic fact of the characters’ identities into a development instead of a foundation, moving “plot” along the z-axis in such a way that nothing ever pushes the film forward but a narrative slowly emerges through the clarification of literal and symbolic connections.
4.) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (Jim Jarmusch)
Tilda Swinton (Eve) and Thomas Hiddleston (Adam) are two “spookily entangled” (to use Einstein’s phrase) individuals. Eternal outsiders. Spiritually connected. Slow moving, withdrawn and the smartest people in the room by a hundred fold. They ought to be, as they’ve been around since the dawn of time, seem to have knowledge of upcoming events (“Have the water wars started?” “No, they’re still all about oil,”) and have had a hand in creating many of mankind’s major works of art. Or, part of them at least. Adam only gave Schubert a section of a symphony (an adagio) because he wanted a “reflection in the world.”
“Only Lovers Left Alive” is an exhibit A example of how to use style to enhance substance, not overwhelm it. “Lovers” is, by the time you get to its conclusion, a deeply affecting tale about the addiction to bad love and its consequences.“Only Lovers Left Alive” is, in my opinion, the next great midnight classic. Much like its characters, it has no business being out in the daylight. It is hazy and dreamy and if you fall asleep for a few minutes here and there that’s totally fine – perhaps even preferable. Jarmusch’s last film “The Limits Of Control” failed to connect with many people (though I loved it) and this one ought to be much more of a crowd pleaser. For the right crowd, that is. Not the zombies.
3.) 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Steve McQueen)
The very title of Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” provides that rare sliver of hope by establishing a rigid timeline within which the once-freed Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) would see release after being kidnapped and sold back into bondage in the mid-1800s. Northup’s story was a true, terrible thing, and by virtue of telling it, the burdens of all American slaves are unflinchingly realized by Ejiofor and McQueen alike.
“Slave” might be the most grimly accurate depiction of American slavery committed to film, which in turn threatens to render monotonous countless inhumane offenses as the story stretches into its third hour. It’s not that McQueen and writer John Ridley (working from Northup’s own memoir) could help it, assuming they even wanted to. The subject matter doesn’t exactly invite comic relief, while cutting away to Solomon’s surely concerned family up north would have rung false and detracted from such an aptly oppressive experience.
2.) THE WIND RISES (Hayao Miyazaki)
Legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki needn’t have formally announced his retirement for it to be abundantly clear that his latest feature would also be his last. While the cinema’s most revered animator confirmed on September 6th that he intends to put down his pencil once and for all, “The Wind Rises” is such a magnificently lucid summation of Miyazaki’s fierce humanism and singular genius that the film itself serves as a formal farewell.
The only Miyazaki film since his debut (1979’s brilliant Lupin III adventure, “The Castle of Cagliostro”) not to prominently feature magic, “The Wind Rises” is the wistful work of a man whose consideration of the past belies an overwhelming concern for the future. A classic three-hankie melodrama folded into a biopic, this heavily fictionalized portrait of renowned airplane engineer Jiro Horikoshi – the man credited with designing the A6M Zero fighter that Japanese forces used to attack Pearl Harbor – who ultimately resolves as a bittersweet yet breathtaking reflection on beauty in the face of its inevitable corruption.
Our full review will be published soon. "The Wind Rises" will be released in theaters for a brief Oscar-qualifying run on November 15th. Disney will release a dubbed version in 2014.
1.) INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (Ethan & Joel Coen)
Despite some ambiguity, this is not “A Serious Man.” This is far and away the most straightforward thing the Coens have ever done. There’s very little of their trickster-ish ways, either in the story or the dialogue. (There are quotables, don’t get me wrong, but by Coens standards very few.) It’s a character piece, and one of the best, and most understated, movies I’ve ever seen about the grieving process.
You don’t have to know much about the Greenwich Village folk scene to enjoy this film, but those in the know will smile at the nods to John Hammond, Albert Grossman, the Holy Modal Rounders, Mark Spoelstra and especially Dave Van Ronk. What you shouldn’t expect from this film, however, are big set pieces or dragged-out confrontations. Carey Mulligan gets some demonstrative moments as a mirror to Davis, but there’s no implication that she will be the one to change him. This is a movie about a guy who repeatedly takes it on the chin – someone who is tired – someone who is condemned to a mediocrity and “just existing.” And it goes at two speeds: melancholy and just real, real sad.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" will open in theaters on December 6th, 2013.