The 54th edition of the New York Film Festival has come to a close. This year’s offerings were a tad less “commercial” than last year’s—there was no “Bridge of Spies”, “The Walk” or “The Martian” to attract the non-festival crowd. However, there were numerous riches to be discovered by ambitious viewers. Kent Jones, Dennis Lim, Amy Taubin and the rest of the festival selection crew put together an eclectic list of films that ranged from the indecipherably avant-garde to the lowbrow red meat usually reserved for today’s version of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater groundlings. There were several common themes and motifs running through the films, which made for some interesting connections between seemingly dissimilar films. The Spotlight on Documentary section was especially strong this year as well. In addition to DuVernay’s festival opener, “13th”, there were documentaries by prominent filmmakers like Errol Morris, Steve James, Sam Pollard and Jim Jarmusch.
Let’s start with the docs, many of which focused on performers. Errol Morris’ “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography” is a lot like being trapped with the auntie who wants to show you her slides for hours on end. Unless you’re a fan of Dorfman’s work, this might be a very long slog despite its short 76-minute running time. I confess to knowing nothing about Dorfman’s Polaroid photography going in, but the compulsive in me eventually warmed to Morris’ repetitive rhythms and deliberate pacing. It also helped that I have some nostalgia for the now-defunct Polaroid cameras in general, and an affinity for films that show people simply doing their jobs. Morris wrings a bittersweet lament for film out of retiring artist’s story. As an onscreen subject, Dorfman is refreshingly low-key and informative. But this isn’t for all tastes, to be sure.
Debbie Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher are the subjects of “Bright Lights,” an often-hilarious pseudo-extension of Fisher’s “Postcards from the Edge.” Like that film, where Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine played stand-ins for Fisher and her mother, “Bright Lights” explores their close relationship and all the wicked, antagonistic banter it entails. The focus here is on the show Reynolds performs, and the behind-the-scenes work Fisher puts in as her guardian, agent and companion. “It’s like I’m raising her now,” Fisher says, because her mother won’t listen to any suggestions that she retire. Reynolds’ workaholic tendencies are a by-product of her days at MGM, but those days were long ago and Father Time is a lot crueler taskmaster than Leo the Lion. “Bright Lights” is light fare, but it earns strength from its conclusion that the mind may always be willing, but the flesh quite often is not.
For those who haven’t seen the Broadway smash “Hamilton” (a.k.a. practically everybody), “Hamilton’s America” is a nice consolation prize. Airing on PBS on October 21st, Alex Horowitz’s fun, breezy documentary takes us behind the scenes of the smash musical, offering up several performances from the show as well as informative bits of history. Horowitz follows “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda from the show’s inception through opening night. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush show up to provide historical facts and the show’s performers all get a turn discussing their roles. It’s a very accessible look at the creative process, and it features one of the greatest credit sequence outtakes I have ever seen.
Sam Pollard’s “Two Trains Runnin’” and Kasper Collins’ “I Called Him Morgan” weave tragedy into the fabric of their musician-based films. Collins’ film tells of the life and death of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, using as its backbone the audio interview conducted with the woman who killed him. Her voice haunts the film’s soundtrack like a ghost, and the fantastic cinematography by Bradford Young make this the rare documentary that must be seen on a big screen.
Pollard’s film is an excellent intermingling of two completely unrelated non-fiction threads which converge in the state of Mississippi on June 21, 1964, the day Freedom Riders Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered by the KKK. That trio’s quest for justice is juxtaposed with a set of music fans’ journey to find the old Delta bluesmen whose records they adored. When the storylines converge, “Two Trains Runnin’” becomes a powerful meditation on the musical origins of an African-American musical genre and the painful reasons for its existence.
On the features side, I liked Hong Sang-Soo’s “Yourself and Yours,” a twisty, frustrating comic paean to notions of identity that owed more than a bit to Buñuel. A man runs into an ex-girlfriend, only to be told she is not the person he’s looking for, despite a striking resemblance. This occurs multiple times with various men and the same woman, who at one point hints that she might be a twin. Much of the admittedly uncomfortable humor stems from these situations, where the male characters are so adamant they are correct that they mansplain the woman’s identity to her. There’s a nasty little satire about male entitlement hidden amongst the film’s twists and turns. “Yourself and Yours” is less concerned with the answers than one might expect or desire, but I cop to enjoying being left in the dark.
“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is one of those movies that caters to the aforementioned rowdy groundlings in the audience. The only feature at NYFF to carry a seizure warning, Dash Shaw’s hand-drawn animated feature sounds intolerable on paper, especially to those who have an aversion to teenager movies. I admit I have this affliction, but for some reason, this cross between Irwin Allen disaster movies and the work of John Hughes held my interest. The animation is well-done, with some excellent background work, and the voice acting by Maya Rudolph, Lena Dunham and Jason Schwartzmann is far less grating than I expected. But this is a very mean-spirited movie with a lot of gory cartoon deaths, so be warned.
To close out, I’ll have to leave room on my ten best list for Jim Jarmusch’s wonderfully poetic “Paterson,” with Adam Driver giving NJ Transit some insanely good product placement, Ava DuVernay’s “13th” and Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or winner “I, Daniel Blake.” Loach’s film would make a great triple feature with Vondie Curtis-Hall’s “Gridlock’d” and my favorite romantic comedy of all time, the Diahann Carroll-James Earl Jones starrer, “Claudine.” All three films highlight the absurdities of government programs designed to entangle and strangle the less fortunate with oodles of red tape.
Loach’s film is the subject of much critical dissent, with some detractors calling it trite and condescending. I disagree, but I did see a movie that fits that description at NYFF: The Dardennes’ “The Unknown Girl.” This was my least favorite film of the festival, a borderline offensive misfire whose lead character makes horror movie victim-style mistakes while trying to solve a mystery whose unearned resolution reeks with her sense of entitlement. Considering that the directors’ last film, “Two Days, One Night” was my runner up for best picture of 2014, this was the biggest heartbreak I felt at the New York Film Festival.