The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Godfrey Cheshire: First off, it’s been a great pleasure covering the 2014 New York Film Festival with you, Scout. As I said early on, we’re a well-matched pair: This is my 35th year covering the festival, and it’s your first. I must say I’m glad we’re getting to do this wrap-up conversation, because to me this festival has ended up being an extraordinary surprise, in part because of two films that were shown on the penultimate day of press screenings: Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” I consider the best American dramatic film I’ve seen so far this year. And Laura Poitras’ Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour” is really beyond amazing, it’s a film of tremendous historical importance. Seeing it shown for the first time publicly on Friday evening was an incredible thrill, and a great coup for the festival. It’s funny: for much of the festival, I figured I would end up saying, “There are no best or worst years at the NYFF; what’s remarkable about the festival is the consistency of its programming over the years.” But scratch that now. I consider this the best year in the 35 I’ve attended the festival, and I offer my warm congratulations to Kent Jones, Dennis Lim and the rest of the selection committee.
Congratulations indeed! The selections this year feel very much of a piece and
that could have ended up feeling like a monotonous slog. But no, these films
sparked each other, conversing in exciting ways, often feeling like they pick
up where the last one left off. On the one hand, there are the incredibly tense
social historical documentaries like “The Look of Silence,” which is
incredible, and “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” which I had issues with, all of
which seemed to build toward the premiere of Poitras’ unsettling “Citizenfour,”
the ultimate statement this year about how far from our ideals we’ve allowed
ourselves to fall. I saw so many great documentaries this year and no matter the
tone or subject, they all feel like they’re asking how we wound up where we
are. Look at Albert Maysles’ excellent “Iris,” which shows a 93-year-old icon
sorting through the relics of a well-spent life, wondering how she ended up a
legend and not coming up with many answers. She was just unafraid of living.
There’s a flamboyant unpretentiousness to Iris Apfel, perhaps best exemplified
by the glee she takes in throwing her husband his 100th birthday
party. And while it couldn’t be any more different than “Citizenfour,” its
subject Edward Snowden seems similarly unflappable, unconcerned with how he’ll
be painted for giving away incredibly volatile information about the most
powerful governing body in the world. There’s a version of events where Snowden
is less careful and winds up being tortured or killed, and yet he’s never less
than totally calm. His mind’s made up, he knows the consequences and the truth
is more important to him than his life. Poitras’ camera stands in solidarity,
showing him plainly and in full, calm light. He’s just a guy and he’s unafraid
of what life might throw at him.
On the flipside of the equation, there were dozens of films about people who are absolutely terrified of what tomorrow brings. The characters in “Gone Girl,” “Two Days, One Night,” “The Blue Room,” “Jauja,” “Life of Riley,” and “Foxcatcher” all do nothing but worry about their futures, distant and immediate. They’re dissatisfied with their lot, but doing something about it rarely helps. “Foxcatcher” is one of the best depictions of broken expectations I’ve ever seen. My favorite writer, David Cairns, once hypothesized that the reason America is so full of violent outbursts is because we’re sold the “American Dream” from a very young age. When we fail to achieve it, we feel cheated, like we failed, and that’s bound to make one upset, depressed, angry or all of the above. I don’t know that I’ve seen failure handled with such incredible intelligence and grace by another filmmaker. Steve Carrell’s vulture-like John E. Du Pont never amounted to the right things to himself. He wanted to be an athlete and a leader, and when he couldn’t be either, he bought those achievements for himself. Placed in opposition to Du Pont is Dave Schultz, who was both of those things naturally, but gave them up whenever he thought they’d interfere with his family life. If I’ve seen a better performance this year than Mark Ruffalo’s quiet transformation into the lanky, soft-spoken Schultz, I can’t think of what it might be. It’s appallingly great work in a film full of brilliant performances. I’m already prepared to be upset when they don’t give him the Oscar. Like the beautiful humans all over the documentary section, Ruffalo’s Schultz is just happy to live every new day, and help his family the best way he knows how. I wonder if any themes stuck out to you Godfrey? What did you see a lot of and did you appreciate the repetition of ideas talking to each other from screening to screening?
GC: The first thing that springs to mind in terms of films conversing with each other is the interesting repartee between Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” and Frederic Wiseman’s doc “National Gallery,” about the great museum in London where, of course, a number of paintings by J.M.W. Turner are on display. I think Wiseman’s film is up to his usual high standard. Leigh’s also belongs in the never-large group of films that I grow to like much more afterwards in thinking about it. I think that’s partly because I’ve always been a big fan of Turner, and the film’s portrait of him (he’s played by a grunting Timothy Spall) is not very appetizing; also, the film’s structure is unusual and feels a bit haphazard on first viewing. But Dick Pope’s cinematography evokes Turner’s paintings so subtly that I found myself thinking about it for days after. Scout, you used the O word, so I’m going to jump in on that. If speaking of cinematic achievements is terms of Oscars is trite, let’s be trite for a minute. I think “Foxcatcher” could deservedly win Best Picture. I think Channing Tatum deserves a nomination, but it looks like you and I will be voting against each other; I think Ruffalo is fantastic, but I’d vote for (and bet on) Steve Carrell. To me it’s very unlikely that “Citizenfour” won’t win Best Documentary. And Michael Keaton has got to win Best Actor for his role as a crazed actor in the delirious comedy “Birdman” by Alejandro Innaritu, a director whose work I haven’t liked much previously. What other Oscar implications do you spy in the festival?
ST: It’s rare that the speculation feels earned but after such a glut of wonders, I’m in the mood to hand out awards. I loved “Mr. Turner” and would love to see Mike Leigh get recognition for his work here, orchestrating a willfully misshapen love letter to a man who was too complicated for an ordinary examination. I think the reason I love “Mr. Turner” so much is that it sides with the artist content to be a square peg in a world of round holes. He’s much happier being himself than he is doing what will be popular or well-received. It’s Leigh’s plea for understanding from a world so often used to asking the same things of every film, album, book, or painting. I’d love to see Spall walk off with the Best Actor prize. On the doc end I watched one after another I’d be happy to see win (“Citizenfour,” “Iris,” “The Look of Silence,” “National Gallery,” “Stray Dog,” “Seymour: An Introduction”), though I can’t help feeling like they’re in for an uphill battle against “Life Itself,” but I digress. I think “Mr. Turner” is extravagant and wild where “Foxcatcher” is controlled and concise. Choosing which I like better is a tough fight. “Mr. Turner” is a shoo-in for cinematography and art direction, not to mention the incredible lead performances. “Foxcatcher” also gets mind-blowing work from its cast, and has a jaw-dropping score, fabulous cinematography and stellar ‘80s production design. Miller makes America look like the most stunning mausoleum. It really is his finest film, isn’t it? As for other prizes I’d love to see Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” win best screenplay, but I fear it’s a little too, err, unique. I don’t think the Academy is ready for “Listen Up Philip.” I’d like to see Joaquin Phoenix finally win for his delightful work in the blisteringly strange “Inherent Vice,” but again it might a little too peculiar to win hearts and minds, so to speak. I loved how many singular and strange films I saw this year, but I doubt very much that the brilliant likes of “Horse Money” or “Jauja” have a shot at taking home an Oscar.
GC: No, I don’t think there’s much danger we’ll see Pedro Costa or Lisandro Alonso grabbing the gold any time soon, though just the thought of it makes me smile. As I said in my review of “Horse Money,” it’s the kind of thing that I’m often resistant to, but it largely won me over. But what’s really pleasing to me about recalling this year’s festival is the range of films from the likes of the Costa and the Alonso on one hand to others that are much more likely to be Oscar-bound on the other. Among the latter, I greatly liked Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” which is already in theaters, and I would expect J.K. Simmons to give Steve Carrell (sorry) some stiff competition if both are nominated in the Supporting Actor category. It may be unlikely that Oren Moverman’s brilliant study of a homeless man, “Time Out of Mind,” will get a release till next year, but when it does, Richard Gere’s terrific lead performance deserves honors. Though I didn’t care much for “Gone Girl,” it’s hard to imagine David Fincher won’t get the nod for its direction. I’d love to see nominations for actresses in two foreign films: Kristen Stewart, who’s surprisingly fine in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” and Marion Cotillard, who creates a incisive portrait of economic desperation in the Dardennes brothers’ “Two Days, One Night.” Finally I agree with what you said about several of the excellent docs in this fest, and would be especially gratified to see nominations for “Seymour: An Introduction,” “Red Army” and “The Look of Silence.”
ST: I really enjoyed “Two Days, One Night” but it’s funny to see how much flashier a performance Cotillard gives than the usual Dardennes lead. Compared to, say, Arta Dobroshi in “Lorna’s Silence,” my favorite of their films, Cotillard gives a much bigger performance. Which reminds me of Richard Gere in “Time Out of Mind,” who can’t quite strip himself of his tools and give in fully to the performance. I’d be much happier to see Ben Vereen get nominated in the supporting category for his incredible, go-for-broke work as a garrulous, broken denizen of one of Manhattan’s many shelters over Richard Gere’s much more self-conscious work. I don’t think I was quite as wild about Stewart in “Clouds,” who couldn’t ever quite get over the theatricality of the dialogue. It isn’t her fault, per se, as I also think the dialogue defeated Juliette Binoche, one of our greatest actresses. I agree with you about the performances in “Whiplash,” even if there was a different kind of translation issue. Miles Teller quite clearly isn’t playing what he’s supposed to, but that’s a minor quibble because he’s brilliant otherwise, a coiled nerve prodded by Simmons’ horrifying anti-mentor. I have issues with “Whiplash” but Teller and Simmons’ caustic interplay is the real show.
I also had a blast watching an unbeatable cast bounce off Jason Schwartzman’s toxic narcissist in “Listen Up Philip.” Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, Kate Lyn Shiel and Joséphine de La Baume all get to show off a host of charged emotions in opposition to Schwartzman, deliciously one-note here, who brings out the worst in everyone he loves. But the actor who impresses most is Jonathan Pryce, who I can’t remember ever being this meaty a role to bite into. Pryce is hilarious and tragic and completely uncompromising as Schwartzman’s idol, the reclusive Ike Zimmerman, who has burned one bridge after another and now doesn’t remember what it’s like to really let someone into his life. It’s a perfect performance. Did you happen to see “Philip,” Godfrey? There was a lot of very rough sledding this year, but I never felt beaten down by the harshness of a lot of these movies. I think the reason I loved “Philip” so much is that after watching a lot of incredibly tough art like “Heaven Knows What,” “Time Out of Mind” and “Pasolini,” it was nice to watch something that was both honest and incredibly funny. I was too busy laughing to notice all the bruises forming on your psyche. Did you find yourself laughing much this year? I ask this knowing you enjoyed the sublime and often very funny “La Sapienza.” I laughed so hard at a number of films that I think I might have made some of the patrons around me a little upset.
GC: I did see “Listen Up Phillip” and didn’t consider it wholly successful because I thought its narrative (especially in leaving its main character for long periods) was rather lumpy and misshapen. I love Elizabeth Moss and thought she was great here. But the big surprise was Schwartzman; he’s an actor I often don’t like but thought he was note-perfect here, really impressive. And I’m glad you mentioned “La Sapienza,” because in this last stretch of our conversation, I wanted to turn to personal favorites and things we haven’t mentioned before. Eugéne Green’s film I found truly delightful and astonishing; it was my favorite foreign film and I really congratulate the festival for including it. Second favorite was Dominik Graf’s “Beloved Sisters” from Germany, which is intoxicating especially for its lush look and strong acting. “’71,” from Britain, is a brutally tense thriller and one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the Irish “troubles,” with a commanding performance by rising star Jack O’Connell. Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” a French-Mauritanian production, offers a fascinating look at the jihadi threat in sub-Sahara Africa. While I stand by the reservations in my review of Mia Hansen-Love’s “Eden,” its portrait of the French techno scene in the last two decades is memorable. Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent” stayed with me as one of the most intriguing and well-crafted biopics I’ve seen in years. Finally, though I’m not much of a sports fan, the doc “Red Army,” about a legendary Russian hockey team, I can’t get out of my mind and can’t wait to see again.
ST: I agree with just about all of that. “Red Army” is a riot, and much more poignant than I was anticipating, but I’m a huge fan of hockey movies. It’s “Ninotchka” meets “Slap Shot.” What’s not to love? “’71” is also great, an attempt to explore new action filmmaking technique through subtly adventurous camera work and editing. “Timbuktu” is a pretty scorching piece of work, alternately sensuous, grim, beautiful, funny, and thought-provoking. African films are distributed all too rarely and I hope Sissako’s latest makes its way to audiences with much fanfare. It’s full of splendid camera work, and even though the script occasionally gets bogged down in heavy symbolism, it’s heartbreaking enough to transcend that. It’s a throwback in a lot of ways, feeling like a lot of the hallmarks of West African Cinema like “The Law,” “Yeelen,” and “Mortu Nega” but with compositions right out of old Hollywood westerns. Maybe it’s just me but I felt the touch of King Vidor in “Timbuktu.” “Saint Laurent” is a divine vision, all voluptuous tableau and brittle romanticism. After it was over I tracked down director Bertrand Bonello and begged him to make a biopic about Freddie Mercury. He’s got just the right decadent, postmodern temperament. Similarly lithe was Abel Ferarra’s “Pasolini,” which I definitely loved more than you. I felt totally wrecked by the end of that. “Beloved Sisters” is also my kind of movie, and I think definitely a writer’s movie. It’s kind of the perfect festival film because it encapsulates what it can feel like to marathon art like this. You don’t sleep well, you’re only concern is the work, meeting your deadline, getting that last perfect turn of phrase, subsisting on little else but coffee and well-executed tracking shots. “Beloved Sisters” captures the often exhausting urgency of being a writer. I don’t pretend that my time at the New York Film Festival is quite the same thing as redefining romanticism for a highly skeptical new age, but the image of characters holed up in a dingy attic apartment writing in secret stayed in my head all throughout my time at the festival. “Beloved Sisters” ought to be a shot in the arm for any writer who wonders if it’s worth going on. And it sums up my relationship to this great festival year rather nicely. It was a huge joy and an honor to cover this fest with you, Godfrey. I hope we can do it again sometime.
GC: Yes, let’s!