Cinephiles, Here’s a Feast: This New York Film Festival Is Definitely Not Boring

Posted October 3, 2018 7:13 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Between now and Oct. 14, when the 56th New York Film Festival ends, you can see some of the best — as well as some of the most inspiring, confounding and maddening — movies of the year. A diverse sampler of the popular and the abstruse, the festival may be middle-aged, but it remains surprising, if at times reliably exasperating. Its selections are eclectic, unapologetically and rightly elitist, and occasionally predictable. (Bonjour, Olivier Assayas.) Presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, it has carved out a distinct niche in the festival-crowded fall, partly because, unlike similar events, it isn’t chasing Oscar contenders.

The only boring thing about “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s masterly latest, is that it may well end up in contention. Don’t hold that against it. Set in the early 1970s in the titular Mexico City neighborhood where he grew up, it follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young nanny for a bourgeois family that is gradually falling apart. Like most of the selections in the festival’s main slate, “Roma” has a distributor, in this case Netflix, which plans to stream it as well as give it a limited theatrical release. If you can, see “Roma” in a theater, because if you watch this magnificent panoramic movie at home, you won’t actually see it.

“Roma” is the festival’s centerpiece selection; Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” about the life of Vincent van Gogh, is this year’s closing attraction. At once expressionistic and impressionistic, this latter-life portrait follows the painter — played by a raw, superb, often harrowing Willem Dafoe — primarily during his time in Arles, in the South of France. Stricken by poverty and desperate, fluctuating moods, van Gogh immerses himself in the landscape, making its radiant beauty his own. Oscar Isaac briefly shows up as Gauguin, sucking on a pipe and proudly fanning his feathers, but this is Dafoe’s movie.

Other highlights from the festival’s second half include Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” which tracks two lovers, a pianist and a singer (the erotically charged duo Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig), across several decades and countries, beginning in Poland in the wake of World War II. In May at Cannes, when “Cold War” first screened, a few critics I know lodged a rare festival complaint, saying the movie’s roughly 90-minute running time was too short. But Pawlikowski compresses entire worlds into this exquisite black-and-white drama, which movingly sets love, art and self-determination against tyranny.

The festival has scooped off some additional cream from this year’s Cannes, including movies as diverse as Jafar Panahi’s “3 Faces,” Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters,” Alice Rohrwacher’s “Happy as Lazzaro” and Jia Zhangke’s “Ash Is Purest White.” Tickets were still available for some of these titles. But even if a screening is designated as standby, you may want to head over to Lincoln Center and try your luck. The festival releases tickets daily, announcing availability through its newsletter, and it often gets people off the standby line and into theaters because of no-shows

It may seem counterintuitive to pay more to see a movie in a festival, especially if it’s scheduled to open soon. But seeing new releases before they have been repeatedly fed through the critical meat grinder can be deeply satisfying; good, bright projection on decent-size screens is another festival dividend. In some cases, a movie also demands to be seen more than once, which is invariably the case with the work of Jean-Luc Godard. His latest, “The Image Book,” is a dense visual and aural collage that I’ve seen twice and expect to see several times more, even if Godard seems to be picking a fight with the viewer.

Over time, as he has developed and refined his own cinematic language, he has seemed increasingly indifferent to his audience. That has regularly been held against him, which says more about the state of corporate-dominated popular culture than him; complexity, difficulty, experimentation and opacity aren’t failings. And while even loyalists may find “The Image Book” sometimes rough going, it is a fascinating object, partly because Godard, now 87, seems to be sifting through a lifetime of images and ideas (on war and more war) amid shocks of beauty and horror.

Another standout is Christian Petzold’s moody, beguiling, formally bold “Transit,” about a German refugee (an excellent Franz Rogowski) who’s trying to flee to North America from Nazi-occupied France. Set in a past that looks just like the present — everything is contemporary, clothing included — the story turns history into an existential maze from which few seem destined to escape. Also recommended are the latest from Hong Sang-soo: “Grass” and the quietly elegiac “Hotel by the River.” It isn’t entirely clear what “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the new Joel and Ethan Coen movie, is doing squeezed into the main slate, but it is a lot of fun to watch, until it isn’t.

As is true of any festival, this one has some head-scratchers, including “Asako I & II,” a bland drama about a young woman, a cipher as droopy as the movie, whose heart breaks when her lover walks out. Years later, she falls for a second guy who looks just like the first and is played by the same actor with a shorter haircut. Equally unconvincing is “Ray & Liz,” a stale slice of British miserablism in which every buzzing insect and human agony is lovingly lit and photographed.

There are 30 movies in the main slate, and while these titles eat up most of the media attention, it’s worth remembering that the festival has a great deal more to offer. There are 148 movies in this edition, including in programs dedicated to experimental work and documentaries. There are also some free events, like separate talks featuring Dafoe, Cuarón and Rohrwacher. A number of scholars will be present for a panel on restoration and the film pioneer Alice Guy Blaché, who’s the subject of a recent documentary from Pamela Green.

Green’s “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy Blaché,” in the retrospective program, tracks the life, career and rediscovery of the world’s first female director. It will be accompanied by a screening of Guy Blaché's 1912 film “Falling Leaves,” which in 12 eventful minutes tells the touching story of a young girl, Little Trixie, who attempts to keep her older, tubercular sister alive. Directed by Guy Blaché, who had her own production company, Solax, the film is fascinatingly perched between theater and cinema, and — like Green’s documentary — a reminder of when female directors freely charted their own destinies.

Although some of the older films included in this year’s event are widely available, this is an opportunity to watch new restorations; if you have never seen Edgar G. Ulmer’s sordid 1945 classic “Detour,” about a two-bit loser waylaid by one of the most unrelievedly feral women in film noir, this is a fine opportunity to let it freak you out. Lino Brocka’s great “Manila in the Claws of Light” (1975), which follows an impoverished young Filipino man in a time of desperation, is screening in a program dedicated to Pierre Rissient and Dan Talbot, champions of the art who died in the past year and are terribly missed.


New York Film Festival

Through Oct. 14 at Lincoln Center; filmlinc.org.