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A Robust Main Slate for New York

Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road (2021)

Boasting thirty-two features, the lineup for the Main Slate of this year’s New York Film Festival is a tad bulkier than usual. The fifty-ninth edition will open on September 24 with Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, the first film directed by a Coen brother working solo. In a very fine appreciation of Joel and Ethan Coen’s partnership, Bill Ryan, writing for the Bulwark, notes that the eighteen films they have made together over the course of nearly forty years “were the product of a true, across-the-board collaboration.” What “essential element will be lost,” wonders Ryan, “when Ethan is gone?”

Many will be just as curious to discover what might be gained when a twenty-first-century interpretation of a Shakespeare classic is given over to a single vision as distinctive as either of the brother’s. “Though it echoes the forbidding visual designs—and aspect ratios—of Laurence Olivier’s classic 1940s Shakespeare adaptations, as well as the bloody medieval madness of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Coen’s tale of sound and fury is entirely his own,” write the NYFF programmers.

After opening Venice on September 1, Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers will close NYFF 2021 on October 10. New York’s centerpiece presentation will be another film premiering in competition in Venice, The Power of the Dog, the first feature from Jane Campion in twelve years. The third and last of the New York arrivals from Venice will be another long-awaited feature, Il buco, Michelangelo Frammartino’s first film since 2010’s Le quattro volte. Based on the real-life explorations of a group of young spelunkers in the summer of 1961, Il buco promises a quiet meditation on the natural beauty of southern Italy.

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee won a grand jury prize at Sundance, and as the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney wrote back in January, the film “mixes mood-driven, hand-drawn animation with archival footage to trace the harrowing history and lasting psychological scars of an Afghan man hiding from his past for the two decades since being granted political asylum in Copenhagen as a child. It’s a powerful and poetic memoir of personal struggle and self-discovery that expands the definition of documentary.”

The other Main Slate selection from Sundance is Passing, Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about the reunion of two Black women who were once childhood friends. One “passes” for white, the other doesn’t. At Slant, Chris Barsanti wrote in February that “Hall follows the author’s lead by depicting not so much the blatant prejudices of the time’s stifling racial barriers but the punishing wounds often self-inflicted by those who tried to cross those barriers.”

Two with Two

Both Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Hong Sangsoo will have two films in the program. Hamaguchi won a Silver Bear in Berlin for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a collection of three stories that, as Becca Voelcker writes for Sight & Sound, “continues the director’s interest in doublings, coincidences, and duplicity that has earned him comparisons with Rivette and Rohmer since his debut melodrama, Passion, in 2008.” In Cannes, Hamaguchi won the award for best screenplay for Drive My Car, an adaptation of a story by Haruki Murakami about the relationship between a theater director and the driver he is assigned. Introducing his interview with the Japanese director for Filmmaker, Nicolas Rapold writes that “Hamaguchi has made what is quietly one of the most deftly shot and framed films in this young decade, finding a flow and a route (his words) through its three hours and the secret emotional intricacies that are shared.”

Reviewing Introduction, the winner of Berlin’s Silver Bear for best screenplay, Chuck Bowen writes in Slant that Hong Sangsoo “continues to compress the distance between himself and his actors, capturing moments of unforgettable behavioral acuity, which he fuses with his stark, expressionistic, nearly Bergmanesque compositions. The result is a modern melodrama of grit, beauty, jagged edges, and resonant dead ends and false starts.” Hong’s In Front of Your Face first screened in the noncompetitive Cannes Premiere program, and Jessica Kiang, writing for Variety, finds it “less beholden to the looped rhythms and circular conversations that give a prismatic sheen to so many of Hong’s 26-title-strong feature filmography. Instead there is an unusual emotional directness to this film, which is perhaps more intimately involved with one remarkably sympathetic woman’s internal journey than any of his since the 2017 Berlin Silver Bear winner On the Beach at Night Alone.

Cannes, Toronto, New York

NYFF programmers have selected nineteen films that premiered in Cannes a few weeks ago, and eleven of them, including Drive My Car, are heading first to Toronto. Julia Ducournau’s Titane won not only the Palme d’Or but also plenty of comparisons to the work of David Cronenberg. Writing for InsideHook, Mark Asch finds the linkage justified “not just in [Titane’s] body-horror spectacle and transhumanist subject matter, but its feel for proposing original, open-ended, and totally buck-wild metaphors.”

Spike Lee’s jury in Cannes decided to give its jury prize to both Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria. In the former, an Israeli director rages against government censorship, and the film “finds Lapid at his most vitriolic and lacerating,” writes Leonardo Goi in the Notebook. Reviewing Memoria for Sight & Sound, James Lattimer writes that the film “sends a wraithlike Tilda Swinton on a hypnotic wander through Bogotá, the disparate impressions she collects along the way repeatedly interrupted by a metallic thud that echoes inside her skull: one indeterminate sound within an entire filigree soundscape that at once steers the narrative and highlights cinema’s oft-untapped sonic potential.”

Renate Reinsve won the best actress award in Cannes for her performance as twenty-nine-year-old Julie in Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, “a gentle, unhurried paean to unrest and indecision, to making life wait, for better and worse,” as Guy Lodge writes in Variety. “In essaying Julie, a character at once watery and opaque, shaped by everything around her but vocally resistant to influence, Reinsve has a tricky assignment that she nails with remarkable fluidity and grace.”

Set in a Russian mining town, Unclenching the Fists, which won the Un Certain Regard prize, is a portrait of a young woman just beginning to break free from her overbearing father. Director Kira Kovalenko “not only draws on an impressive performance from [Milana] Aguzarova to convey her active inner life,” writes Stephen Saito, “but expresses the pressure put upon her and her desire to push back against it in long, fluid takes involving extraordinary choreography and evocative framing that viscerally bring her struggle to the surface.”

In Bergman Island, the story of two filmmakers writing and quibbling on Fårö, the island where Ingmar Bergman wrote and shot many of his films, Mia Hansen-Løve “explores the limitations of creative collaboration and hero worship,” writes Sarah Fonseca at Reverse Shot. “Bergman Island spoils rotten the discerning cinephile with its endless meta-commentary and fearless interrogation of an imperfect man’s successes.” Bruno Dumont’s France, starring Léa Seydoux as television journalist France de Meurs, is “a satire of the blackest kind,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia for Sight & Sound. Dumont “doesn’t go for laughs; his withering and implicating critique of our hyper-mediated present exaggerates its absurdities but denies us the catharsis of laughter.”

Three of the films swinging by Toronto before landing in New York premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight. Futura, codirected by Pietro Marcello (Martin Eden), Francesco Munzi (Black Souls), and Alice Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazzaro), is a documentary portrait of young Italians facing an uncertain future. In Radu Muntean’s Întregalde, the SUV carrying a group of humanitarian aid workers to a small Romanian town gets stuck in the mud. “Continuing to ply the type of duration-based realism that many of his New Romanian Cinema contemporaries have either set aside (Corneliu Porumboiu) or reinvented entirely (Cristi Puiu),” writes Jordan Cronk at Reverse Shot, “Muntean here gets impressive mileage out of a storytelling mode that might otherwise seem passé.”

As Tambay Obenson points out at IndieWire, Saul William’s Neptune Frost, codirected with his wife and creative partner Anisia Uzeyman, is an extension of the artist’s “multi-pronged” MartyrLoserKing Project. Catherine Bray calls it “a poetic odyssey, a genderqueer collection of musical visions and vibrations. To watch it is to both kick back and switch on at the same time: let go of narrative convention, while hanging on tight to a sense of righteous fury.”

Nonstop from Cannes

The Directors’ Fortnight also gave us one of the best-reviewed films to come out of Cannes this year. In The Souvenir Part II, Joanna Hogg shows us how Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young filmmaker, begins to pick up the pieces of her life in the immediate wake of the death of her lover. Vulture’s Nate Jones finds himself “wishing that the Souvenir movies might become the new Before series,” but “if this is the end of the Souvenir story, it’s going out triumphantly.”

Jonas Carpignano’s A Chiara is “an enthralling drama about a teenage girl coming to terms with her family’s role in the mafia,” writes Ed Frankl at the Film Stage. “With a documentary-like authenticity, this is a touching, powerful film with a lyrical visual palette and a superb sense of time and place.” With Hit the Road, Panah Panahi, the son of Jafar Panahi, “accomplishes two things,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. “He proves that he’s his father’s son, channeling the slow-burn, self-reflective realism present in much of the best work of the Iranian New Wave; and perhaps more importantly, he moves beyond his father’s oeuvre to discover a distinct new voice, in a movie that’s very much about a son cutting ties with his family so he can find his own way.”

From the Cannes Premiere program comes Vortex, in which Gaspar Noé splits his screen to track an aging writer (Dario Argento) in one half and his partner, a retired psychiatrist (Françoise Lebrun), in the other. “For arguably the first time in Noé’s career,” writes Jordan Cronk, “one can sense a genuine compassion on the part of the filmmaker for his characters; save for a few moments of requisite depravity, Vortex suggests that he may have more on his mind than mere provocation. If this is Noé’s best and most substantial film to date, it’s not because he’s changed his approach so much as broadened his worldview.”

With Prayers for the Stolen, which scored a special mention from the Un Certain Regard jury, documentary filmmaker Tatiana Huezo adapts Jennifer Clement’s 2014 novel about girls and young women harvesting opium in rural Mexico. “A magnificently lucid portrait of girlhood under siege, the film is a slice of life portrayal accentuated with unassuming visual poetry,” writes Carlos Aguilar at the Playlist. “Violence itself is never frontal but a looming force that underscores every scene.”

Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, based on the true story of a seventeenth-century nun who saw visions of Christ and carried on with a newcomer to the abbey, is “a lusty romp concerning repressed desire, the seedy underbelly of organized religion, and whether it really matters if communion is administered at a church or from between a lover’s thighs,” writes Hannah Strong at Little White Lies. In his first documentary, The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes shows “how the music of the Velvet Underground summed up, and in a way that no one else could, the totality of the times in the artistic capital of the United States,” writes Pat Brown at Slant.

From Berlin

Heading up the Berlinale contingent is the winner of the Golden Bear, Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. In Sight & Sound, Carmen Gray writes that the Romanian director has delivered “another dismal state-of-the-nation report card, but a more riotously bonkers one, as he throws decorum in the trash to reveal the hypocrisy of the powerful as the true vulgarity.”

Twin brothers Ramon and Silvan Zürcher won an Encounters award for best direction and an award from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) for The Girl and the Spider, which maps the network of friends and neighbors of two young women as one of them moves out of their shared apartment. “If The Girl and the Spider ultimately feels too much like a recapitulation of The Strange Little Cat [2013], it remains, for a time, a welcome tonic, its symphony of sights and sounds creating the sense of a world on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but never quite collapsing entirely,” writes Lawrence Garcia at In Review Online.

FIPRESCI’s choice for the best film in the main competition in Berlin was Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? “Structured in two parts and narrated by Koberidze himself, the writer-director-editor’s second feature is one part love story, another part city symphony, with a flight of fancy at its center, but one not untethered from the wonders and disorders of its contemporary setting,” writes Tyler Wilson in the Brooklyn Rail.

In Céline Sciamma’s Petite maman, one eight-year-old girl, Nelly, meets another, Marion, who may be some sort of incarnation of Nelly’s mother. “Magic, dream, time travel,” writes Ela Bittencourt in the Notebook, “whatever it might be, Sciamma seems to be interested in themes that are more elusive than her prior ardent explorations of burgeoning self-identity and sexuality. What first seems like a straightforward story about mourning a deceased loved one soon turns out to be more about reconciling with one’s past: Recovering the promise of love, pure, without the burden of regret.”

Avi Mograbi’s latest documentary, The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation, is “a step-by-step primer, using soldiers’ testimony gathered under the Breaking the Silence project, designed to walk us through the Israeli government’s undeclared strategy for permanently appropriating the land,” writes Jay Weissberg for Variety. The film is “an essential explanation of Israeli objectives and the systematic subjugation of a people, deserving international attention.”

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