New York Film Festival 2015

 

Please note that titles are arranged alphabetically.

ARABIAN NIGHTS

Miguel Gomes wanted to make two movies: one full of beautiful tales, and one about Portugal’s wretched economic situation. He made one instead: a movie full of tales about Portugal’s wretched economic situation, a la Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights, divided into three distinct films.

Interweaving fiction, documentary, and news-based stories, Gomes has created a reality-based fantasy full of rich, exotic imagery, absurd morality, and tragic circumstances. Each of the three films, which he designates as “volumes,” has its own purpose and aesthetic, but all three should be seen (hopefully on consecutive nights) to get the full effect of the work.

Between Arabian Nights and Tabu (2012), Gomes has emerged as one of the finest filmmakers of this century. His profound understanding of the medium, combined with a fertile imagination, gives a lasting depth to everything he does. Arabian Nights is certainly no exception.

JOURNEY TO THE SHORE

Death might be a universal experience, but rituals and attitudes surrounding death are as numerous as the cultures that humankind has created. In Japanese culture, the verb mitoru denotes the act of watching over a dying person until the moment of death. The living and the dying together remember the past they have shared and moments they have kept secret from each other, and look forward to a future they will experience together.

In Journey to the Shore, the process of mitoru is gracefully transformed into a tender road trip. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa based the film upon Kazumi Yumoto’s eponymous novel, in whichmitoru begins when a lonely piano teacher is visited by her dead husband and agrees to accompany him to the many beautiful places he saw in his life. Along the way, they enable others to finalize the death process with dignity and self-awareness.

Though the enactment of mitoru might be specifically Japanese, the film shimmers with universal insights into the pain of regret and wonder at the miracle of creation. Experiencing it is like watching the sea; what is deep rises to the surface and sinks again, what is visible vanishes, and what is unknowable makes itself known.

LES COWBOYS

In Thomas Bidegain’s update of The Searchers, a French family heavily into the cowboy culture popular throughout Europe discovers that their daughter is missing; she’s run away with her Muslim boyfriend to join the jihad. Substituting Muslims for Indians and radicalization for kidnapping, Bidegain has created an intelligent remake full of well-observed moments.

Still, remaking a classic confers both advantages and danger. Advantages lie in the fact that the original is inherently powerful—that’s what’s made it a classic—and some of that power devolves to the remake. The danger lies in not living up to the original. Les Cowboys is an unsettling mix of the power conferred by The Searchers and the nagging feeling that the issues Bidegain is addressing are too complex to deal with at this point in time.

Bidegain has a phenomenal ability to capture interior lives and interpersonal relations with a minimum of dialogue; he is a master of show, not tell. But when it comes to dealing with Muslims as a whole, the film’s intelligent edge slips. The power of the original, in which John Wayne is forced to confront his own racism, is first diluted—rather than being forced to take an honest look at himself, the father in Les Cowboys dies in his epic quest, to be replaced by his son—and then inadvertently made into stereotype (radical Muslims mistreat their women). But perhaps this is not Bidegain’s problem but the fact that, unlike John Ford, whose Westerns refer to a different time period, he’s making his film at the very point when ISIS is using children to decapitate their enemies. Given the heinous lengths to which ISIS currently stoops, it’s possible that Bidegain’s ultimate message of forgiveness and understanding can be appreciated as a welcome step away from fanatical anti-Muslim views of the Western variety.

EXPERIMENTER

Peter Sarsgaard brilliantly portrays Stanley Milgram in Michael Almereyda’s tragicomic biopic, which conveys Milgram’s inner life as much as it conveys his impact on our understanding of human psychology.

In 1961—as Adolf Eichmann’s trial was broadcast around the world—Milgram, a social psychologist, began his obedience experiments at Yale University. The son of Eastern European Jews who had immigrated to New York in 1933, Milgram wanted to discover how deeply the instinct to obey inhumane orders ran in human nature.

To that end, he designed an experiment in which he spuriously told his subjects he was investigating learning. The subject would have to administer an electric shock—possibly lethal—to a second subject whenever he failed to learn the required material. In fact, the second subject was one of Milgram’s confederates, and the shocks weren’t real. And Milgram was not investigating learning: He was investigating people’s willingness to obey authority even when doing so went against their own moral codes.

Milgram discovered that 65 percent of his subjects were willing to administer a shock simply because they were told to do so. His findings horrified the world. He was labeled a monster for lying to his subjects and putting them under extreme stress, and he became an academic pariah. But the question remains: Was Milgram labeled a monster because of his methodology, or were his findings so devastating that the scientific community needed to discredit them by maligning him instead? Almereyda’s homage delves into the question with a clever touch.

SON OF SAUL

Like Claude Lanzmann, director László Nemes has introduced a new approach to making a Holocaust film. Rather than telling a third-person narrative in Son of Saul, Nemes has created an immersive, first-person experience so visceral it’s almost too much to bear.

The subject matter, too, is almost too much to bear: the Sonderkommando, Jews forced to man the crematoria in extermination camps. The Sonderkommando were the unwilling proxies who led concentration camp inmates (sometimes neighbors, sometimes friends, sometimes, even, relatives) to their deaths. The Sonderkommando were the ones forced to clean up after the Zyklon B had done its work.

Son of Saul has raised many questions, some dealing with the sensitive issue of how to make a film about something as incomprehensibly horrific as the Holocaust, some with the moral quandary presented by the Sonderkommando.  But the most germane question is, Why should we watch such a painful film, when we are so removed from the event? The answer is simple:  Because we have no right to remove ourselves from human suffering. Because watching is the first step in saying, I will not let this happen again. To anyone. Anywhere. And because Son of Saul represents a leap forward in what movies can accomplish in a mere two hours.

THE LOBSTER

In Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant, surrealistic vision of romantic life today, people are not allowed to live without mates in The City. But a parallel society exists in The Forest: there, people are not allowed to fall in love. Ironclad rules, brutally enforced, dominate both.

A wildly funny, well-observed take on romance and solitude, The Lobster uses humor and inelligence to reveal the punishment we inflict on both ourselves and others in our increasingly blind quest for attachment in a disconnected world. With Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly heading up an astute acting ensemble

THE MEASURE OF A MAN

Because The Measure of a Man comprises such a seamless bond between the material world and the inner life of its main character, it feels as if there’s no light between real life and what you’re watching on screen. It is a feature film—a sociopolitical expose told from a position of intimacy—that feels truer than a documentary. It is a completelyunique viewing experience.

Director Stephane Brise achieved this miracle with the help of lead actor Vincent Lindon, cinematographer Eric Dumont, and a cast of nonprofessional actors (excluding Lindon). Lindon won Best Actor at Cannes for his portrayal of a man on the edge after being unemployed for twenty months. This is Eric Dumont’s first feature film; he had previously made only documentaries. The nonprofessional actors play themselves—real cashiers, real bank examiners.

The dehumanization of an economic system that values money over men, and the humiliation that system imposes on the millions of men and women who labor without reaping its benefits, are painful to see, especially when conveyed by Vincent Lindon. As an actor, he is a physically powerful man, handsome and sympathetic. He is so good that it is almost too painful to watch as he is stripped, layer by layer, of his power. Yet director Brise knows that the measure of a man is determined not by his power but by how he will behave in a morally corrupt system. In this, we find our relief.

THE TREASURE

Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu has created a farce that simultaneously satirizes class, Communism, history, technology, and fairy tales. Actor Cuzin Toma, who also starred in Aferim! and The Japanese Dog, plays a loving father whose neighbor asks him to find buried treasure in his grandparents’ garden. What results is a hilarious journey into the recently buried past; along the way, the recently buried present comes to the fore with sly humor and witty grace.

WHERE TO INVADE NEXT

Michael Moore’s inherent optimism reveals itself in Where to Invade Next. As the director journeys to European countries searching for good ideas to bring back home in order to solve our nation’s woes, he unleashes both a condemnation of our present and a tribute to our past. We are a land of great ideas, hijacked by greed, narcissism, and short-sightedness—all of which can be withstood by opening our hearts and minds to the greater good and taking individual action. Behind all the antics and the humor, there is a conviction of great hope: By taking care of each other, America can become great again.

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