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NYFF 2019: A Year of Milestones

The 57th edition of the New York Film Festival, which unreeled at Lincoln Center September 27 through October 13, was an event of milestones. One came even before Opening Night, when it was announced that festival director Kent Jones was stepping down. Since Jones’ predecessors in the role, Richard Roud and Richard Pena, each served 25 years, it might have been expected that he would be aboard for a similar term when he took the reins seven years ago.

But Jones had an excellent and understandable reason for moving on. While he had previously made documentaries about cinema, an outgrowth of his work as a critic, 2019 saw the release of his first drama as writer/director, “Diane,” one of the best indie films I’ve seen this year. So he’s crossed into a realm where his continued work as a festival director could give him conflicts of interest when it came to making decisions about the work of competitors.

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Another milestone, very much associated with Jones’ tenure, was the festival’s Opening Night film, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” With a reported budget of $160 million, the Netflix-produced crime drama was surely the most expensive opener NYFF has ever seen, and with New York’s quintessential auteur at the helm, it was easily the most keenly anticipated. Jones has decades of friendship and working relationships with Scorsese, who exec-produced “Diane.” And while he has said that “The Irishman”’s inclusion had a lot to do with timing, that fortuitous event must have been as pleasing to both men as it was to NYFF audiences.

Those audiences had many other reasons for pleasure, too. In one very important sense, the 57th NYFF was an ideal time for Jones to bow out. With an extraordinary line-up in its Main Slate, and assorted treasures in its sidebar sections (documentaries, revivals, special events, etc.), this year’s festival was one of the strongest I’ve ever witnessed.

Which brings up a personal milestone: the 2019 festival was the 40th consecutive NYFF I’ve covered. In the first decade of that stint, when I was a fledgling critic visiting from North Carolina, the festival held far more press conferences for filmmakers than it has in recent years. In 1980, my first year, among other marvels I got to see Akira Kurosawa discuss “Kagemusha,” Jean-Luc Godard discourse on “Sauve qui peut/ la vie,” Jonathan Demme introduce “Melvin and Howard” and Francois Truffaut explicate “The Last Metro.”

As even that portion of a line-up should indicate, the NYFF has had a certain character and mission from the first. Its primary focus has been international auteurs. Founded by Roud and Amos Vogel in 1963, after the French championing of the auteur idea during the previous decade, it has always been Paris-centric in its tastes and drawn a good portion of its selections from Cannes (the only festival that all its programmers usually attend). 

Under all three of its directors, I’ve found the French influence excessive and have said so. In Jones’ case, his friendships with certain French auteurs seemed to dictate the automatic inclusion of their films in the NYFF, a de facto policy I’ve considered unfortunate even while liking some of the individual films. Looking back at the first five years of Jones’ tenure in my introduction to the 2017 festival, I said I felt the weakness in some of its selections and its ignoring auteurs and cinemas in certain parts of the globe (Russia, Iran, Latin America, etc.) might reflect that, while the selection committee under Roud and Pena had contained prominent film critics, under Jones it had become an in-house affair comprised of Film at Lincoln Center (FLC) employees.

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While those observations and concerns still stand, looking back over four decades of the NYFF I am mainly struck by its consistency in maintaining a high level of quality in its selections, not only through different directors and FLC regimes but also through enormous changes in the industry surrounding it (most recently including the impact of streaming services on the distribution landscape). Certainly, this year there were missing films I thought should have been included (beginning with Ken Loach’s superb “Sorry We Missed You”) and ones included that I found of negligible interest (no need for a list here). 

So, was the fact that I found the 2019 festival overall truly exceptional owed to the selection committee’s choices, or an unusually strong cinema year? No doubt both. But it must be stressed that the exceptional quality jibes with rather than contradicts the consistency just noted, which indeed is remarkable from at least one standpoint: Though the festival’s Main Slate usually contains 30 or fewer films (this year’s had 29), it often accounts for at least half of my annual 10-best list.

With that in mind, the following is a ranked list of the ten best films I saw at this year’s NYFF. All are virtually assured of appearing on my ten-best lists for this or next year (some are 2020 releases):

Parasite” - A surreal satire worthy of Buñuel, Bong Joon-ho’s tale of a poor family invading the lives of a rich one is easily the international film of the year, much as Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” was last year. Word on the Korean Palme d’Or winner obviously got out fast, because it opened to record-setting numbers right after the festival.

Marriage Story - Actually a divorce story, the year’s best American film to date marks a giant leap for writer/director Noah Baumbach. Whatever your views of his past films – mine have been mixed – this one marks him as major American auteur. Leads Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson get the most out of Baumbach’s brilliant script, and they’re matched by supporting players Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda.

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“The Irishman” - Another milestone: a Scorsese gangster film I liked better than my friend and editor Matt Zoller Seitz! Matt gave this one three and a half stars. I give it four. A sprawling, speculative riff on history akin to Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” the epic drama about Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance features terrific performances by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” - Set on the coast of Brittany in the late 18th century, this elegant erotic drama by French director Céline Sciamma concerns a female artist sent to paint an engagement portrait of an unwilling bride-to-be. Almost Rohmeresque in its quiet intensity, the film benefits from the excellent performances of leads Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel.

“Beanpole” - The sophomore feature by 28-year-old Russian auteur Kantemir Balagov, a student of Alexander Sokurov, tells a fascinating story, set in post-WWII Leningrad, about two women scarred by war. But it’s mainly notable as a stylistic tour de force by one of the world’s most promising young directors.

“Varda By Agnès” - I had expected this film to be a loose assembly of clips from Agnès Varda’s long career, but the late French director’s final film is a fully realized work, a triumph that must be counted one of the greatest artistic autobiographies in cinema. The 2019 NYFF was dedicated to Varda, deservedly so.

Joker - The festival’s programmers are to be congratulated for including (as a special event) a film that was bound to draw shrill denunciations from certain pundits. Lincoln Center’s audience seemed to love it. No other film captures the present moment’s madness and anxieties as vividly as Todd Phillips’ electrifying thriller with Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-worthy lead performance.

“First Cow” - Though the Old West setting may suggest director Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” this portrait of male friendship comes off more as a companion piece to her “Old Joy.” The period detail is elegant and Reichardt’s skills as a visual stylist are as impressive as her work with an excellent cast led by John Magaro and Orion Lee.

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“Young Ahmed” - Belgium’s Dardenne brothers turn out another precisely understated masterpiece, this one about a Muslim teenager who is being radicalized by the imam at his mosque. Though the mood is grimly tense throughout, the film’s vision is ultimately as humanistic and illuminating as any of their films.

“The Whistlers” - Romania’s Corneliu Porumboiu has made a daffy and dazzling crime film in this complex drama about a Bucharest police detective who must learn a language made of whistling, invented by a primitive tribe in the Canary Islands. Taut and constantly surprising, the film breathes new life into staid genre conventions.

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