I’ve been attending the New York Film Festival since I was a teenager. The event, held each year at Lincoln Center, is where I had my first encounters with such classics as “Breaking the Waves,” “Gods and Monsters,” “Volver” and — just last year — Martin Scorsese’s magnificent gangster epic “The Irishman.”
So it was more than a little strange this year that, instead of making that anticipatory journey uptown to be surrounding by hundreds of other movie lovers, I experienced this year’s New York Film Festival from my living room, Chrome-casting a series of online screeners onto my flat screen. (The festival, which concludes on Oct. 11, also offered a number of drive-in screenings in Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx.)
No fellow movie obsessives to debate the intricacies of what I had just watched. No half-insightful, half-pretentious question-and-answer sessions. No sense of an “event” at all. Indeed, it’s hard for a film watching experience to feel special when, at any minute, you can just click over to “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix.
Still, credit to the organizers, who stayed true to the festival’s foundation, serving up a collection of carefully curated new movies from around the world, some great, others so-so, all of which at the very least get your neurons firing. In a year when nothing feels normal, this brand of constancy goes a long way.
This year’s program was anchored by three films from the same director — a rarity for the festival. That director is Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), and the films are part of a five-film anthology series for the BBC and Amazon Studios called “Small Axe,” each considering various aspects of West Indian life in London from the late 1960s to the 80s.
For my money, the strongest of the three showcased at the festival is called “Lovers Rock,” a luscious mood piece set mostly at a house party in the early 1980s, where the camera stays thisclose to the undulating bodies of the characters, and the music is elating.
On a much more sober, but no less technically sophisticated, note, is “Mangrove,” based on a true story of police bullying and subsequent community protest in the early 1970s. It’s one of those “People talking about politics in rooms” movies, but beautifully crafted and acted with ferocity, especially by Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”), as British Black Panther member Altheia Jones-Lecointe.
If I was less enthused about the third McQueen film in the festival — “Red, White and Blue,” about a Black man (John Bodeya) who aspires to join the Metropolitan Police in the 1980s — it’s mostly because the arc of the story felt more familiar than the others. But there’s no denying the scale of McQueen’s ambition, and I can’t wait to see the remaining two movies in the collection, “Alex Wheatle” and “Education.” Amazon will begin rolling the films out in late November.
Documentaries played a bigger than usual part in this year’s festival, with a number of titles worth keeping your eyes peeled for, including “The Truffle Hunters,” about a group of aging Italian men and their determined canines searching for pricey mushrooms in the dirt, and “MLK/FBI,” a recounting of the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. (Both films are expected to be released theatrically next year.)
My favorite of the docs was the most purely entertaining, Spike Lee’s filmed version of David Byrne’s “American Utopia” show on Broadway. Forget the movie version of “Hamilton,” which to me never captured the immediacy and scope of that (amazing) Broadway show. This is how to translate live events to film, and make you feel as if you’re seated in the front row. (“American Utopia” drops on HBO Max on Oct. 17.)
Finally, the two highest-profile titles in this year’s mix were star vehicles for two supremely gifted actresses: “Nomadland” stars Frances McDormand alongside a cast of largely unprofessional performers playing themselves, in a drama about the itinerant lives of a group of people who have dropped off the grid and skirt from one temporary gig to the next in the Western United States. The film, eloquently directed by Chloe Zhao (“The Rider”), is ultimately too even keeled to have a full emotional impact; it’s not clear to me if we’re supposed to grieve for these victims of capitalism, or admire and aspire to their independence. But McDormand delivers one of her greatest performance, as a woman whose intransigence is both her most endearing and most insufferable quality. (“Nomadland” is also the opening film for this year’s Montclair Film Festival, which will host a drive-in screening on Oct. 16 at the South Mountain Recreation Complex in West Orange; it’s scheduled to be released in theaters in December.)
Meanwhile, Michelle Pfeiffer is absolutely smashing as Frances Price, a newly insolvent socialite who absconds from New York City to Paris with her son (Lucas Hedges) to piece her life back together in “French Exit,” the festival’s closing night entry. Directed by Azazel Jacobs (“The Lovers”), the film (expected to be released theatrically in February) is an assured and bittersweet adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s very odd novel, which I would have thought unfilmable. (To wit: A talking cat plays a significant role.) Pfeiffer – vampy and cruel one minute, aching and desperate the next — hasn’t had a part this robust and complicated since her great Catwoman in “Batman Returns,” nearly three decades ago, and she knocks it out of the park.
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Christopher Kelly is Senior Director, News and Innovation for NJ.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.