New York Film Festival Main Slate 2019

I’ve heard from many a festival-goer that it’s possible to work through the entire New York Film Festival lineup – or at least its premier section, the Main Slate – given how the event spreads out manageably over the course of seventeen days all at Lincoln Center. But with schedule conflicts or lack of interest in certain titles, it’s a feat seldom seen or accomplished. Or, maybe given how gluttonous I feel after having done this myself, people choose not to brag about it if they do manage to pull it off.

While battling fatigue as well as exhaustion, plus countless instances of doubting if this was something I actually wanted to do, I managed to see all 29 films programmed in this year’s NYFF Main Slate. (If you’re the ranking type, I did just that over on Letterboxd.) I learned plenty about myself and some masochistic moviegoing habits after subjecting myself to this marathon of viewing contemporary cinema, but that’s a subject for another piece. It’s impossible to watch this incredible selection of films from across the globe and not have some larger takeaways about trends, patterns and parallels. Here are ten lessons from surveying the Main Slate in its entirety.

The Whistlers 1

1. Language Fails

Across a number of films at NYFF, characters must turn to non-traditional forms of communication when societal forces render them unable to use spoken or written language. I won’t reveal the purpose of characters using Morse code in Parasite, as that does enter spoiler territory. Yet this binary method of communication, simple to transmit yet cumbersome to decode, proves an effective means for Bong Joon-ho to convey the status of those forgotten (or hidden) from the Korean upper class. Director Céline Sciamma, too, shows how the two female lovers in Portrait of a Lady on Fire must find ways to communicate their passion for each other in a society that does not allow them to express it openly.

But the most obvious example of this occurs in Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers, in which a police officer learns a secret whistling language to evade surveillance as he tries to acquire a mobster’s hidden bounty. Is all this inability to count on traditional forms of language a reflection of our post-truth moment? An indication that our current communication styles cannot adequately convey all the meaning we need? Is this reason to panic or hope? (More on this in an interview I recorded with Porumboiu at the festival, which will drop in February 2020…)

Synonyms 1

2. Ex-Pats, Immigrants, and Tourists Provide Fascinating Societal Portraits

There was no performance at NYFF quite like Tom Mercier (making his debut, no less) in Synonyms as former Israeli soldier Yoav, who has expatriated and is trying to deprogram himself in France. He quickly finds his adopted country has issues of its own, a revelation made possible due in large part to how detached from his own body Mercier feels. Synonyms feels almost like a movie where an alien drops in to visit France, akin to Under the Skin. It’s riveting, and just one of many films in the Main Slate that used outsiders’ perspective to give audiences a fascinating glimpse into a society’s inner workings.

Or, in the case of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth, centering on a Japanese news anchor on assignment in far-off Uzbekistan, an outsider protagonist gets in touch with her inner self in strange surroundings. Elsewhere, Mati Diop’s Atlantics and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child both conjure up the supernatural in order to highlight the persistent legacies of capitalist and colonialist exploitation, respectively. Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, meanwhile, frames much of its view of early America through the viewpoint of Chinese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee) and thus exposes many early biases being built into the country’s business framework.

Bacurau 1

3. Liberal Societies Are, Per Usual, Not Living Up to Their Values

Everywhere you looked at NYFF, there was a liberal democracy falling down on the job. Perhaps it was Belgium, where the DardennesYoung Ahmed showed how extremist religion could still corrupt youth in a tolerant society. Or maybe it was Zombi Child, in which the legacy of French colonialism as practiced in Haiti comes home to roost – only to find many of the same attitudes still in place. In Brazilian film Bacurau, directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles imagine a post-Bolsonaro country that might not be as far off as people think: attempting to quash the resistance of small-town rural dwellers by bringing in foreign mercenaries to literally wipe them off the map.

Two other films tweaked existing literary works to shine a light on their county’s shortcomings. Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of Martin Eden moves the action of Jack London’s novel to Italy, where the titular character rails against established capitalistic corruption. And back in the United States, Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn also twists a novel’s setting to find new life, but in time rather than place. In 1950s New York City, he finds an appropriate backdrop to show how democracies sell out to the highest bidder and hoodwink the public into cheering on their corruption.

Parasite pizza boxes

4. The Working Class is Restless and Not Going to Take It Anymore

We’ve come a long way since “inequality” was a flashy buzz word used by President Obama in 2013 when he called it the defining challenge of our time. It’s now a part of the everyday discussion of economics, and much of the Main Slate reflected the anger this awareness of inequality has sparked. Bacurau, Parasite, and Atlantics each crystallized the frustration felt by a class of people who has been overlooked, ignored, and exploited. In all three films, the tension spills over into startling (and sometimes cathartic) violence, suggesting business as usual will no longer cut it. If nothing else, it’s instructive to observe how conflicts that appeared to be merely simmering a few years ago have now reached a full boil.

the irishman

5. Genre Gets a Warm Embrace

While NYFF did relegate the Golden Lion-winning Joker to a “special screening,” plenty of other films with heavy genre elements received the warm embrace of a Main Slate spot. It’s tough to call any of the films pure “genre films” because each filmmaker took some kind of unique angle on established conventions. Be it Martin Scorsese injecting somber, reflective mortality into the gangster film with The Irishman or Filho/Dornelles supercharging the Western in Bacurau by contemporizing the invasion of a small town by outsiders, directors consciously toyed with existing filmic iconography in riveting fashion. Other great examples in the Main Slate included Corneliu Porumboiu’s droll take on the spy thriller with The Whistlers and Edward Norton’s politically urgent noir update in Motherless Brooklyn. Elsewhere, Mati Diop deploys ghosts in Atlantics and Bertrand Bonello raises zombies in Zombi Child.

I’m not exactly holding my breath for NYFF to start programming midnight-style pulpy genre films. However, this year’s Main Slate crop proves they might not have to do that in order to pack a similar sensation into their lineup. Global filmmakers are grappling with the legacy of the many images and storylines that precede their work, which represents cause for excitement and intrigue.

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