New York Film Festival 2019 Week 1 Recap: 'Synonyms,' 'The Irishman,' 'First Cow'

As we head into the second week of the 57th annual New York Film Festival, let's look back at the best that week 1 of the festival had to offer us.

The prestigious film festival kicked off on a strong note with Martin Scorsese's latest mob masterpiece, The Irishman, and only kept it up from there. Nadav Lapid's maddening Israeli-French immigrant drama Synonyms confused but impressed, while Kelly Reichardt's offbeat and tender frontier drama First Cow has a very good cow. Dive into our New York Film Festival 2019 Week 1 recap.


"Is this death?"

When Tom Mercier's young Israeli man is awakened by a Parisian couple who find him freezing and naked in an empty upstairs apartment, he dispassionately asks if he has died. He is very much alive, but his encounter with this young couple becomes the funeral pyre for the country and national identity that he wishes to leave behind. Mercier gives a muscular, tidal wave of a performance as Yoav, a young Israeli man who flees to Paris armed with little but a dictionary. Determined to abandon his national identity, Yoav refuses to utter a word of Hebrew from then on, speaking only in a stilted, poetic French aided by his dictionary.

Yoav gets a job as a security guard at the Israeli embassy, but refuses to befriend his fellow Hebrew-speaking coworkers. He ignores his parents' pleas to return home. Instead, he ingratiates himself into the lives of the young Parisian couple who found him, striking up an easy, near-romantic connection with Emile (Quentin Dolmaire), an accomplished writer who find Yoav's life story infinitely more interesting than his, and a hostile, sexual relationship with Caroline (Louise Chevilotte). Yoav is almost alien in his interactions with these two and everyone else around him, blatantly refusing to abide by society's rules and testing the amount of times he can scream in people's faces on the subway without getting arrested (he never does). But his anarchic actions only get more mysterious, while the society around him becomes more amenable — even jaded — to his outbursts.

Lacking any kind of concrete narrative structure and featuring characters that are nearly all ciphers, Nadav Lapid's turbulent, tremulous French-Israeli drama based on his real-life experiences is a maddening, baffling, and alienating portrait of radicalism without a purpose. It keeps its audience at arm's length, existing in a kind of emotional purgatory where the raging whirlwind of passion, anger and misplaced nationalism exist underneath a stoic surface. Synonyms is an always-challenging, frequently hilarious film that almost exists as a satire of cultural stereotypes, probing your own preconceptions about what it means to exist in a globalized society.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

The Irishman

Martin Scorsese delivers his mob magnum opus with The Irishman, a sprawling crime epic that manages to be brutally funny, coldly thrilling, and startling sad all at once. The legendary director directs what can be most simply described as a "greatest hits" of his esteemed career — in the best possible way. Reuniting with his longtime stars and friends Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and working with established star of the genre Al Pacino for the first time, Scorsese looks back at his legacy of violent mob movies to create a moving, elegiac rumination on the effects of a life inextricably tied crime.

In one of the film's most polarizing choices, Scorsese uses de-aging technology to follow De Niro throughout the years as mob hitman Frank Sheeran, the titular Irishman with longtime ties to the Bufalino crime family who may have killed former Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa (a deliriously, deliciously outsized Pacino). The film opens on an aged Sheeran, confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home, as he enthusiastically launches into a story about his career as a hitman, recounting the early glory days of his rise through the Bufalino ranks after he strikes up a friendship with the local Philadelphia gangster Russell Bufalino (Pesci, in a soul-stirringly understated performance).

While the first hour is a little awkward, thanks in part to the clunky de-aging technology that takes nearly takes one out of the film, once it settles into its rhythm, The Irishman reveals itself to be a profoundly elegant, melancholic masterpiece that unfolds like a dreamlike memory — a little whimsical, a little wry, and always a tiny bit sad. With De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino giving exquisite — in some parts, career-best — performances, Scorsese ruminates on mortality in genre that has always treated death as an afterthought.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

First Cow

Calling First Cow a buddy comedy wouldn't do justice to Kelly Reichardt's strange, offbeat character drama about two frontiersmen who steal milk to start a baking business. The deep connection that is struck between John Magaro's mild-mannered cook and Orion Lee's shrewd Chinese immigrant is nigh romantic, with the pair's sweet interactions forming the beating heart to the Richardt's tender frontier fable.

The Meek's Cutoff director returns to the wilds of Oregon for this loose adaptation of frequent Riechardt collaborator Jon Raymond's novel The High Life, a book that the director has said made her want to work with him in the first place. The film takes place in the 1820s, just as the Royal West Pacific Trading Post receives its first dairy cow, imported to an isolated camp by its one wealthy resident (Toby Jones). But to the cow owner's misfortune, and to the impoverished settlement's luck, Cookie Figowitz (Magaro) and King Lu (Lee), start to steal the cow's milk to bake "oily cakes" — a backwoods riff on scones that becomes an instant sensation for the rugged pioneers starved for reminders of home.

First Cow is a laughably low stakes drama that plays on the intense expectations set for these kind of pioneer films, instead focusing on the lovely relationship between Cookie and King as they dream of making enough money to strike out west and settle down together. Magaro is an adorable scene-stealer as the wholesome Cookie who whispers words of encouragement to the (very good) cow, and dreams only of baked confections and opening his own shop. Lee's shrewd King Lu could easily teeter into exploitative, but he treats Cookie with such a warmth that their connection is indisputable. Their subtextual romance is cemented in the opening scene of the film, in which a nameless woman in modern-day Oregon stumbles upon two skeletons lying side by side, holding hands. It casts a profound sadness over the entire film, which is as dryly funny as it is sweet, but adds much-needed depth to the decidedly slim narrative./Film Rating: 8 out of 10