At the New York Film Festival, delicate movies and ones that go vroom
By Manohla Dargis
Bradley Cooper may still be on strike (solidarity!), but there’s no stopping the New York Film Festival. Over 61 transporting, galvanic and at times weird and fractious years, this institutional stalwart has weathered financial woes, regime change and unfortunate opening-night selections, so there was never any question that it was going to survive missing-in-action stars like Cooper and Natalie Portman. As the festival’s longevity and reputational standing prove, there is far more to movies than crowded red carpets and photo ops.
The festival opened Friday with Todd Haynes’ “May December,” a standout at Cannes that explores what happens when an actress (Portman) meets the woman (Julianne Moore) she’s about to play in a biopic. The New York Film Festival invariably skims the cream from earlier events, but what matters here is less the premieres than the programming. There are larger, more prominent and certainly more glamorous festivals, but New York remains a standard-bearer for the art. It’s a necessary rejoinder to the grotesqueries of the word “content.”
One of the great satisfactions is its sweeping, dizzying diversity. There are shorts and features, personal films and historical epics, austere dramas and wide-ranging documentaries as well as work like Paul B. Preciado’s “Orlando, My Political Biography,” which resists facile categorization. Narrated by Preciado, this sui generis work uses Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, “Orlando: A Biography,” as a launchpad for a messy, often funny, intellectually provocative and finally deeply moving inquiry into trans identity. It’s one of the essential titles in the festival, and one that I’m eager to revisit when it opens in November.
I’m also looking forward to rewatching “Menus-Plaisirs — les Troisgros,” the latest from Frederick Wiseman, a mesmerizing four-hour portrait of a family, a business, a world. It centers on the Troisgros, a dynasty of chefs best known for the titular three-star Michelin restaurant in central France. Intimate and expansive, the movie takes you from kitchen to farm fields and back as it charts the triumphs and quotidian frustrations along with the aesthetic and ethical sensibilities of people whose love for their calling is inscribed in every tweezered morsel. It’s a dedication that recalls that of the genius behind the camera, who was born in 1930, the same year the Troisgros family opened its first restaurant.
Other festival must-sees include “Here,” Bas Devos’ delicate, gracefully paced tale of two strangers — a construction worker and a botanist who studies moss — as they first drift into each other’s orbit on a moody day in Brussels. Not much happens, except that everything does: life, labor, perhaps love. With an eye for beauty and little chatter, Devos makes his characters come expressively into view as he follows each separately and then together during their chance encounter in some verdant woods. Every moment signifies in this lovely, unexpected movie, starting with the opening image of a tall building framed by lush greenery.
“Pictures of Ghosts,” the latest from Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho (“Bacurau”), is a deeply personal, intricately constructed meditation on, well, everything, though mostly movies or rather his life in and with movies. Divided into three fluid chapters and set at the intersection of documentary and fiction, it wistfully yet playfully focuses on the apartment, the city (Recife) and the movie theaters that Mendonça Filho inhabited and that, in turn, sustained and inspired him. There’s an elegiac cast to “Pictures of Ghosts” — most of the once-bustling cinemas are now derelict, as are his old stamping grounds — yet the vigor of the filmmaking is a testament to how our beloveds never truly leave us.
For her estimable feature debut, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” director Raven Jackson has pared her story of a girl and the woman she becomes down to the very bone. Beautifully shot and staged, the movie elliptically traces the coming-of-age of a young Mississippian whose life comes into focus piecemeal across the years. Jackson can test your patience, particularly with her fondness for holding on images long past their ripening. But this is a movie very much worth seeing, as is “Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World,” an exasperating tour de force from Radu Jude that opens with a young woman awakening and morphs into a hilarious, at times furious, exploration of Romania’s past and present. You never know where it’s going or why, and while it, too, tests your patience (if more teasingly), it also rewards it.
Among this year’s more unsurprising attractions is “Maestro,” an intimate, energetic, largely politics-free and scrupulously well-behaved look at the different lives — both on and off the podium — of Leonard Bernstein (1919-90). The movie, which stars and is directed by Cooper, will first screen in David Geffen Hall, home to the New York Philharmonic. In 1943, the 25-year-old Bernstein made headlines with his sensational conducting debut for the Philharmonic, which he later went on to lead while teaching generations of Americans that it was A-OK to love both Gustav Mahler and Broadway musicals.
One of the more interesting things about “Maestro” is how it recasts the familiar Great Man narrative by lavishing attention on Bernstein’s marriage to Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan, who has top billing) while he continued to sleep with men. Bernstein remains the main attraction, no doubt. Yet because the movie consistently circles back to Felicia as Lenny catapults into American public life — from Carnegie Hall to “West Side Story,” baby! — her character is more richly imagined than the classic movie wife. It’s an admirable feminist intervention, yet partly because of the pantomime quality of Cooper’s performance (prosthetic nose and all), Felicia’s pain registers more deeply than Lenny’s genius.
Michael Mann has also updated the Great Man template for “Ferrari,” an intensely focused look at the many lives of the famed Italian car maestro, who’s played by the grayed, tightly wound, perfectly named Adam Driver. Set largely in 1957, when Ferrari was close to bankruptcy, the movie is a psychological portrait of another visionary, both on and off the racetrack, of whom one biographer said, “In Italy, there was the pope and then there was Enzo.” Here, the great man’s inner life largely emerges through his fraught relationships with his wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), and his lover, Lina (Shailene Woodley) — women whose dual, dueling hold on Enzo is as steeped in love and death as his mania for fast and faster race cars.
One of the festival’s bigger head-scratchers is that the latest from Martin Scorsese — a producer on “Maestro” — isn’t at the event. That would be “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which had its premiere in May at Cannes and will open theatrically Oct. 20. “We loved the film and invited it immediately after seeing it in Cannes,” said Dennis Lim, the artistic director of the New York Film Festival. Days before the festival announced its main slate in August, however, Apple, which is releasing the movie, said that it would not be participating. As Lim noted, “Flower Moon” wasn’t in any of the other major fall festivals, which help usher films into the new season and onto the long road to the Oscars. (Apple could not be reached for comment.) Whatever the reason, its absence is a shame, especially because this is the event that 50 years ago presented a little film titled “Mean Streets.”