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NYFF 2023: AGGRO DR1FT, The Sweet East, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus

The New York Film Festival has always held space for the unconventional. That includes more nontraditional offerings in their Currents program and extends into other sections like a restoration of Man Ray’s short films under Revivals or some of these more atypical films in their Spotlight section. 

For a movie that director Harmony Korine billed as “the future of cinema,” “AGGRO DR1FT” has a lot to live up to. Whether or not it meets that high bar is very much up to the eyes of the beholder. For this critic, the film’s hybrid rotoscope-infrared aesthetic was visually interesting but limited in its appeal once the novelty wore off and my eyes adjusted to the Florida day-glo color palette. There’s little else to sustain its mind-numbingly dumb runtime. 

Korine’s vision of the future of cinema follows an assassin (Jordi Mollà) who seemingly spends most of his day repeating his inner monologue, assuring the audience that he’s “the world’s greatest assassin,” opining about how difficult his life is, and how he just wants to come home to his hot wife and kids. On a trite mission for one more kill, he recruits more assassins (including rapper Travis Scott) to take down a demon-possessed crime lord.

Neither plot nor acting account for much in “AGGRO DR1FT.” It’s more of a vibe, a flashy infrared aesthetic that’s little more than provocative posturing. To add more life to brightly washed-out images, Korine adds animated rotoscoped tattoos to designate different characters and random CGI masks and monsters. But it’s not enough seasoning to look past how murky these soupy neon figures look, how reductive the addition of video game elements feel in the mix (like background characters that repeat motions over and over again or stiff big bads that are relatively easily defeated), and how the film views men as assassins and women as mere ass-shakers. I'd like to believe there's more left in the “future of cinema” than the gruel Korine is pushing in “AGGRO DR1FT,” but I don’t think I’ll find that in the company of the director’s new project, EDGLRD.

Not all experiments are destined to be a hit, but in the spirit of provoking an audience for the sake of provoking, there’s also Sean Price Williams’ directorial debut “The Sweet East.” With a story written by film critic Nick Pinkerton, the movie is a road trip through the underbelly of American politics through the eyes of a disaffected, disillusioned high schooler whose beliefs can be best described as nihilistic. 

On a trip to Washington, D.C., with her high school, Lilian (Talia Ryder) becomes separated from her class and loses her cell phone after a Pizzagate-esque attack. Like Alice following an extremely pierced white rabbit, Lilian enters into a Wonderland full of puzzling creatures—including an Antifa punk collective, a buttoned-up Neo-Nazi with a day job as an English professor (Simon Rex), a pair of exploitative directors (Jeremy O. Harris, and Ayo Edebiri), and an incel group living off the grid.

Williams, who earned a stellar reputation for his cinematography in movies like the Safdie brothers' "Heaven Knows What," Robert Greene's "Kate Plays Christine," and Michael Almereyda's "Tesla," frames a pretty picture on 16mm for his debut. Maybe it’s part of a joke that “The Sweet East” looks quite lovely, even as everything that happens after Lilian’s hookup plays with a used condom and asks her if she wants to keep it is pretty mirthless. Ryder’s deadpan delivery and her character’s fondness for using the R-word like it's a 1990s playground is exhausting the longer the movie continues. While the situations Lilian finds herself in are extreme, ultimately, there’s no point to it all, and she remains smug against the whole of humanity. “The Sweet East” is a road trip without a destination, wielding an edge lord sense of humor without a punchline. 

On a more traditional note, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus” is one of the most subdued films in this year’s lineup, which includes many long features. "Opus" is a farewell concert from one of music’s most renowned artists, a craftsman who blazed a trail in electronic music and never stopped reinventing himself and his sound. 

In the months before his death this spring, Ryuichi Sakamoto performed in a studio in Tokyo, seated at a grand Yamaha piano. There were no other musicians, no visible audience members for this concert film, and few frills aside from the accomplished composer in the spotlight. Barely any words make it into the final cut, letting Sakamoto’s music do the talking one last time. 

Filmed by Neo Sora (Sakamoto's son) and cinematographer Bill Kirstein, “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus” is an elegant and graceful elegy. Shot in crisp 4K digital black and white, the film has a modern yet classic look. It’s a stirring tribute lovingly crafted out of close-ups of Sakamoto’s face and keystrokes as he works through piano versions of his pioneering electronic songs like “Tong Poo” from his Yellow Magic Orchestra days, renditions of scores for movies like “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” and “The Last Emperor,” and later compositions like “Opus” and “Aqua.” It’s a final performance for the ages, showcasing Sakamoto’s ingenuity and musical legacy for the next generation of fans who will not be privileged to watch him live in concert. 

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a freelance writer and University of Southern California Annenberg graduate film critic fellow. Although she originally went to Boston University for biochemistry and molecular biology before landing in the sociology department, she went on to review films for The Boston Phoenix, WBUR, Dig Boston, The Boston Globe, and co-hosted the podcast “Cinema Fix.” 

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