New York Film Festival 2019

In my six years of attending the New York Film Festival, I’ve grown increasingly appreciative of the unique position its organizers have carved out in the fall festival landscape. Ideally timed between the premiere frenzy of late August/early September and the mad dash for awards of November and December, NYFF keeps its focus solely on the films and their creators. For 17 days, the newly-branded Film at Lincoln Center invites New Yorkers to partake in a manageable, curated slate of favorites from across the global festival circuit. The 2019 edition of NYFF casts a particularly wide net, too — apart from the festival’s three big Friday night galas, the Main Slate features only one English-language feature.

But if you’re not going to be in New York to see these films, why not use the time to catch up on the back catalogues of the directors in the NYFF selection? This year’s Main Slate features both emerging international voices and widely recognized masters alike, presenting a unique opportunity to broaden your cinematic horizons. Below are ten films playing at the festival (some of which I’ve been fortunate enough to see prior to NYFF’s official kickoff) and ten films you can watch to prepare yourself from the comfort of your own home.

Marriage Story (Centerpiece)

Marriage Story is the only film to play all major fall festivals — Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York. Why? The answer, according to /Film’s Chris Evangelista, is that it’s just that good. Writing out of TIFF, he praised writer/director Noah Baumbach’s “intimate and subtle” filmmaking that drives the “very definition of a character study” for leads Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as their characters go through a nasty divorce. I’m looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is at the hometown premiere in New York.

Can’t make it to NYFF? Watch this at home: Marriage Story is far from the first Noah Baumbach film to tackle a messy divorce in New York. His 2005 feature The Squid and the Whale, which netted Baumbach an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, explores divorce through the eyes of the two affected offspring. The longer the film goes on, however, it’s the parents who end up looking like children with their petulant bickering and self-centered shenanigans. Baumbach never hits a false note in 81 pitch-perfect minutes. (Available for free to subscribers of Kanopy, Hoopla, and Amazon Prime.)

Beanpole 

NYFF has long committed to bringing the best of Russian cinema stateside, so it caught my attention when they used their programming clout to add Beanpole to their lineup. As just a second feature from 28-year-old director Kantemir Balagov, the selection committee’s inclusion of the film in the Main Slate makes quite the statement about where they see his career going. And if this film is any indication, it is going places. Beanpole is a staggering work of emotional depth that follows two women in the immediate wake of WWII in Leningrad. Balagov already possesses a command of color and mood that filmmakers twice his age still try in vain to exercise.

Can’t make it to NYFF? Watch this at home: Admittedly, Balagov’s debut feature Closeness probably ranks at the lower end of the recommend streaming picks in this column. It’s still got a lot of first feature kinks and bugs, but the ambition and early signs of greatness are unmistakable. This story of a Jewish girl in post-Soviet eastern Russia who must deal with the consequences of a kidnapping in her family leads the film down many an unsavory, disturbing road – another reason why it’s tough to recommend Closeness with enthusiasm. Just go ahead and get on board now so you can say you were on the Balagov train early. (Available to rent on Amazon.)

First Cow

It’s likely that the name Kelly Reichardt needs no introduction to fans of American indie cinema, as she’s been a strong voice in the landscape for over a decade now. But the director’s latest feature, First Cow, arrives with an imprimatur of quality likely to take her further than ever before: A24. The upstart distributor has been with the project since the beginning, and with the backing of producer Scott Rudin, this looks like her biggest production to date. First Cow sees Reichardt back in her traditional stomping grounds of the Pacific Northwest, this time in an early-nineteenth century setting, and tackling an intimate story of how early American business functioned.

Can’t make it to NYFF? Watch this at home: While it was tempting to recommend Reichardt’s other period-set film, Meek’s Cutoff, I have to go with the contemporary-set Wendy and Lucy. This compact tale of Lucy, an itinerant woman played with equal parts resolve and desperation by Michelle Williams, makes for a riveting tale of how capitalistic forces weigh on the individual. After a stern grocery store clerk reports her for shoplifting, a chain reaction of events exposes just how vulnerable her situation is. The direst consequence of all, however, is Wendy’s separation from her beloved travel companion, Lucy. You can relax, there’s no animal cruelty in the film – just a moving examination of the severed bond between human and dog. (Available for free to subscribers of Amazon Prime, Hulu, Hoopla, Kanopy, and the Criterion Channel.)

A Girl Missing

Since its founding, NYFF has programmed great Japanese cinema – their inaugural festival included Yasujiro Ozu! It’s always a good sign to be knighted by the selection committee, and that’s the case now for Koji Fukada. A Girl Missing marks his sixth feature film, and it sounds like quite the follow-up to his international breakthrough, Harmonium. It centers around a middle-aged nurse, Ichiko, who finds herself caught up in the media firestorm surrounding the disappearance of a young daughter in the family for whom she cares. I’ve limited myself to knowing just the logline because the beauty of Fukada’s work lies in watching just how quickly one decision or one event can ripple outwards and cause waves elsewhere.

Can’t make it to NYFF? Watch this at home: Out of all the films I watched in preparation for this piece, none of them affected me quite as profoundly as Koji Fukada’s last film, Harmonium. This story of how a quiet, unassuming nuclear family in Japan watches their life slowly come apart from taking mercy on an estranged friend fallen from grace simply wrecked me. If you can handle something that deals with fairly grim subject matter, you owe it to yourself to watch this film. It’s like Hirokazu Kore-eda meets Asghar Farhadi. (Available for free to subscribers of Hoopla and Kanopy.)

The Moneychanger

South American cinema often gets short shrift on the festival circuit, but NYFF delivers this year with a selection from a country that rarely registers in international cinema: Uruguay. I’m curious to dive deeper into their national cinema through Federico Verioj’s The Moneychanger, a decade-spanning tale of a crafty money launderer in Uruguay taking advantage of the country’s sluggish economy. Other South American films display a real unbridled honesty when dealing with sordid elements of their histories, and I hope that The Moneychanger follows the same pattern.

Can’t make it to NYFF? Watch this at home: Veiroj is nothing if not ruthlessly economical with his runtimes, a feature that endears him to a busy writer like myself. His 2015 feature The Apostate runs a slender 80 minutes, but it never feels rushed or short on action. The story of a Uruguayan man determined to expunge his baptismal records from the Catholic Church grapples with spirituality honestly, yet Veiroj also makes plenty of space for wry, ironic humor. It’s an odd work tonally, but the film proves quite fulfilling. And if you don’t agree, at least you didn’t waste much of your life watching it! (Available to stream for free on Netflix.)

Pain and Glory

A new film by Pedro Almodóvar always feels like an event, but Pain and Glory is something special even among them. As the iconoclastic Spanish filmmaker enters his later years, he’s getting a little more reflective. This film about a fictional aging director, clearly inspired by Almodóvar himself, gives his longtime collaborator Antonio Banderas one of his meatiest roles in years. Come for how eerily well Banderas emulates Almodóvar, stay for the tender reminiscence of what matters in life and art.

Can’t make it to NYFF? Watch this at home: There is no shortage of Almodóvar/Banderas collaborations to recommend, luckily. To fully understand their shared history that forms such a crucial meta-text to Pain and Glory, go back to one of their early films together. My recommendation would be Matador, an Almodóvar black comedy that provides an early glimpse at the fascinations that would pervade his entire career – sex, death and transgression. (Available to rent on iTunes and Amazon.)

Parasite

#BongHive, assemble! South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s masterful Parasite has taken Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto by storm and is now making its final grand stop on the festival tour at NYFF. While cinephiles and genre fans have long recognized Bong’s prodigious storytelling prowess, Parasite represents a real chance for him to claim the status of internationally recognized master — and perhaps even make a mainstream breakthrough. Experience this venal, twisting social satire as blankly as possible. The less you know, the more it will gob-smack you.

Can’t make it to NYFF? Watch this at home: You might have seen it a few years ago, but given the way Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer revolves around similar themes of economic inequality, it’s worth a rewatch before Parasite opens. A recent second encounter with the film reminded me just how great Bong is at directing pulse-pounding action sequences and conveying complicated class dynamics through clever concepts. He knows how to weaponize Chris Evans’ star-power in a way that perhaps only Rian Johnson understands (as shown by Knives Out)Also, Tilda Swinton’s gonzo performance in Snowpiercer deserves more love and attention – that’s all. (Available to stream for free to subscribers of Netflix.)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Film Comment Presents)

It might not be competing for the newly-renamed Best International Film Oscar, as France opted for Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables as their submission, but Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the clear winner of the festival scene. As /Film’s Jason Gorber raved out of Cannes, “Every beat is earned, every glance deliberate.” After seeing the film myself, I came away with a similar appreciation for Sciamma’s tightly controlled and beautifully composed drama between an 18th century French woman reluctantly about to marry – and the portrait artist commissioned to corral her image who becomes smitten with her. Even in spite of the Oscars snub, Sciamma now stands clearly positioned as a major figure in French cinema. 

Can’t make it to NYFF? Watch this at home: While Celine Sciamma really announced herself as a major figure on the world cinematic stage with her last feature, Girlhood, I’ve still got a major soft spot for her sensitive, empathetic film Tomboy. This compact but impactful story follows a young trans boy who moves to a new town and must adjust to a new social scene while also keeping his assigned sex at birth concealed. It’s at once a tale of specific anguish and universal struggle to be seen as one wants to be seen. (Available for free to subscribers of Kanopy as well as to rent on Amazon and iTunes.)

Synonyms

After two well-received previous features, it’s now clear that Synonyms marks Nadav Lapid as a major figure of Israeli cinema. And yet, ironically, the semi-autobiographical film that really puts him on the map primarily centers around a disdainful ambivalence for his home country. As embodied by a fearlessly physical performance from first-time screen actor Tom Mercier, Synonyms grapples with his feelings as an ex-pat in France left to sort through his frustrations and traumas from his time in the military. This is the kind of riveting, boundary-pushing work that lovers of cinema crave.

Can’t make it to NYFF? Watch this at home: If you already watched the English-language remake of Lapid’s last film, The Kindergarten Teacher, then why not start at the beginning of his filmography with Policeman? It’s a far more brooding, plaintive work than Synonyms, and it’s split more or less in half between a section that follows an Israeli policeman and another that tracks the exploits of a militant group of young radical activists. While the build proves a little slow, the payoff is quick – and worth it. (Available for free to subscribers of Amazon Prime.) 

The Whistlers

The likelihood of a breakthrough from a director of the austere national filmmaking movement known as the Romanian New Wave is, admittedly, slim. But in such a world where it would happen, the director most likely to do so would be Corneliu Poromboiu. He’s back at NYFF with The Whistlers, his most overtly genre-aligned film to date. It’s a raucous caper involving a crooked police officer willing to learn a secret “whistling” language in order to gain access to a drug dealer’s treasure. While not without its bumps, the film is raucous fun that points to exciting things ahead for this playful filmmaker.

Can’t make it to NYFF? Watch this at home: The Whistlers isn’t Poromboiu’s first treasure hunt. His prior narrative feature, The Treasure, also centers around a quest for hidden riches. Yet instead of using that as pretext for action and intrigue, Porumboiu digs in (pun fully intended) to the wry sparring dynamics between the three men dedicated to uncovering the bounty – and what their quest reveals about the past and present of Romania. In retrospect, it looks like a very clear indication that the director was charting a clear course towards a genre trajectory. (Available to stream for free to subscribers of Hulu.)

The New York Film Festival runs Friday, September 27 through Sunday, October 13 at Lincoln Center in New York City.

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