The New York Film Festival, Back on Form
NYFF features an excellent slate, and expands to the outer boroughs
The New York Film Festival is back…and this year, it’s celebrating its 60th anniversary. Perhaps that’s why this festival, which kicked off on September 30 and run through October 16, feels a bit different from recent years: something of a return to its original mission to act as a kind of survey of the film-festival scene throughout the year. At the very least, in its Main Slate, there is only one major world premiere: Till, Chinonye Chukwu’s biopic of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till (about which, more below). And the festival still didn’t select it for the opening, centerpiece, and closing nights.
Instead, those spots went to films that have already premiered at other festivals. Opening night pick White Noise, Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel, bowed at the Venice Film Festival, as did NYFF’s centerpiece selection, Laura Poitras’s Nan Goldin documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (which won the Golden Lion there), while closing night pick The Inspection premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Not that that means this year’s New York Film Festival is entirely a “back to basics” return. Building on the previous year’s geographical expansion, NYFF has included movie theaters in Brooklyn, Queens, and even Staten Island, giving New York City moviegoers opportunities to sample this year’s crop without having to schlep up to its main hub in and around Lincoln Center in the Upper West Side. And the festival has continued to expand some of its sidebars, including its Currents category, once known as “Views from the Avant-Garde” and focused exclusively on experimental fare, and now seeming more like a free-for-all for whatever didn’t make it onto the Main Slate.
Not that I’m complaining. Any festival that gives people more access to the kind of fare that might not normally make it to their local multiplex can only be a force for good. And though this year I was able to attend the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time in six years, I usually don’t have the funds to go to Cannes or Venice. So NYFF will do nicely…especially as a way to reassess films that already appeared at previous festivals.
One example is Stars at Noon, the latest from celebrated French auteur Claire Denis, which played to a general shrug at Cannes back in May. It’s her second film this year after Both Sides of the Blade, and in some ways it’s the more romantic flip side to the earlier film, which detailed the disintegration of a marriage. By contrast, Stars at Noon is about the blossoming of young love: specifically, the relationship that develops between American journalist Trish (Margaret Qualley) and British businessman Daniel (Joe Alwyn) amid life-threatening political intrigue in present-day Nicaragua. The film is adaptation of a Denis Johnson novel from 1986, which he set during the Nicaraguan Revolution; Denis, who cowrote the film with Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius, has merely updated the setting.
Colonialist critique has often figured into Denis’s work, from her 1988 debut Chocolat to her scalding 2009 drama White Material. So it’s rather jarring to see her basically make a modern-day version of The Year of Living Dangerously, which treats the plight of the Nicaraguans as little more than a backdrop for a romance between two comparably privileged white outsiders. And yet, even if one finds the film disappointing on an intellectual or political level, Denis’s feel for visceral sensation remains as sharp and entrancing as ever.
With the help of cinematographer Eric Gautier, she conjures up a palpable atmosphere of hothouse purgatory, one in which erotic sex coexists with brutal death, where a neon-drenched slow dance shared between our two young lovers on a nearly empty dance floor—scored to a gorgeous tune written by Denis’s frequent musical collaborator Tindersticks—feels like a dreamy oasis from the danger surrounding them. More so than with some of her recent features, Stars at Noon, at its best, offers some treasurable reminders of the kind of pure-cinema splendors of which Denis is capable.
Unlike Stars at Noon, Chan-wook Park’s latest film, Decision to Leave, was greeted with hosannahs at Cannes, with the Oldboy and The Handmaiden director nabbing a Best Director prize. If nothing else, he certainly directs this mix of police procedural and forbidden romance to the hilt, employing all sorts of visual bells and whistles—shots from behind smartphone screens, rapid-fire montages collapsing time and space—to tell the twisted noir-ish tale of a married detective, Soo-wan (Go Kyung-Pyo), who finds himself falling in love with Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the prime suspect in the murder of her husband.
It’s perhaps the most overtly Hitchcockian film Park has yet made, with Soo-wan’s obsession to the mysterious Seo-rae often recalling Scottie’s fascination with Madeleine in Vertigo. Even Hitchcock, however, was eventually willing to grant the female object of that increasingly disturbed man’s fixation a certain level of interiority and pathos. By the time the theoretically devastating finale of Decision to Leave rolls around, though, one may find oneself struck less by the tragedy of it all than by the realization that Park and co-screenwriter Jeong Seo-kyeong have merely written yet another male fantasy of an ultimately unknowable femme fatale who destroys a man while destroying herself for reasons that remain as frustratingly opaque at the end as they were at the beginning.
There’s no room for male fantasy or self-pity in Till, since its real-life protagonist, Mamie Till-Mobley, is too busy trying to bring her son Emmett’s murderers to justice. Chinonye Chukwu’s biopic follows, in unsparing, heartbreaking, yet ultimately inspiring detail, Till-Mobley’s path from a housewife begrudgingly accepting of the racist status quo to a social-justice warrior radicalized by her 14-year-old son’s torture and lynching at the hands of two white men in Mississippi. Considering that it took a whole 67 years—until this year, in fact—for Congress to pass a law making lynching a federal hate crime, Emmett Till’s death remains a national wound that has come nowhere close to healing, thus making stories like Mamie Till-Mobley’s worthy of retelling.
Thankfully, there’s more to Chukwu’s film than the sheer essential nature of its story. Though her screenplay, cowritten with Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly, doesn’t always escape a feeling of encrusting her real-life heroine in worshipful amber, she does allow moments here and there that complicate the nobility. Perhaps the film’s best scene in that regard is one in which Mamie confronts Emmett’s uncle, Moses Wright (John Douglas Thompson), upon discovering that Moses had allowed those two white men to take her son. The scene trembles with pain and anger as Moses offers a pained justification for the impossible choice he had to make in the heat of an agonizing moment. Till is rare among films about American racism in that it truly makes you feel the deep, dehumanizing rot of the institution of slavery without having to resort to onscreen graphic violence to make its points.
Above all, there’s Danielle Deadwyler’s performance as Mamie, infusing the film with genuine aching humanity amid the trauma. If Chukwu’s previous film, Clemency, demonstrated anything about her as a director, it’s that she genuinely loves actors, with Alfre Woodard offering a career-peak portrait of a prison warden wrestling with the moral complications of her job. In one crucial courtroom scene in Till, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski films Deadwyler’s face in one single unbroken take as Mamie both testifies against the two men accused of killing her son and fields tough questions from defense attorneys, and damned if Deadwyler doesn’t keep us rapt in attention during that whole sequence. Her intensity is enough to cut through any historical distance, making Mamie’s journey in the wake of her son’s tragic demise emotionally immediate and affecting.