Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson appear in 'Passing' by Rebecca Hall. Courtesy of Sundance Institute (photo by Edu Grau)
Sep 23, 2021
10 can’t-miss movies at the New York Film Festival
The 59th edition of the city's biggest and best film festival returns for 17 days starting Sept. 24. Here's what you should see
Could it finally be time to go back to the movies? The New York Film Festival certainly thinks so. Grab your vaccination card and get ready for 17 days of the best new movies from across the world at the 59th edition of New York’s biggest and best film fest.
Last year the festival took place outdoors at drive-ins across the city and virtually, online. Although NYFF won’t stream their program this year they will hold outdoor screenings at Damrosch Park on the Lincoln Center campus. Outdoor screenings include the American blaxploitation classic “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (its auteur, pioneering filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, sadly passed away this week at 89), a new rock documentary about The Velvet Underground, and the 45th anniversary restoration of John Carpenter’s Los Angeles thriller “Assault on Precinct 13.”
The New York Film festival also comes to Fort Greene for the first time at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with screenings from October 5 to 7. BAM’s festival screenings include “Flee,” “The Lost Daughter,” “Sambizanga,” and the Brooklyn-based drama “Passing.”
This year’s festival runs from September 24 to October 10 at Lincoln Center and various sites across the five boroughs and Westchester. Check out individual ticket availability and other ticket packages on New York Film Festival’s website. Proof of full vaccination (at least two weeks after the final dose) of any FDA- or WHO-approved vaccine is required for everyone attending the festival.
Below are the 10 movies at the 59th New York Film Festival that (we say) you can’t miss.
“Passing,” Director: Rebecca Hall
“Passing” is an adaptation of the Harlem renaissance novella of the same name by Nella Larsen. It tells the story of two Black women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry (played by Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, pictured above), each of whom can pass as white but choose to live on opposite sides of the color line in 1929 New York. It is an intimate, highly subjective narrative that uses “passing” both literally and metaphorically to explore not just racial identity, but gender, the responsibilities of motherhood, sexuality and the performance of femininity. At heart, it is a psychological thriller about obsession, repression, and the lies people tell themselves and others to protect their carefully constructed realities.
“Rude Boy,” Directors: Jack Hazan & David Mingay
One of the great rock movies—part fiction, party documentary—and an entirely absorbing, richly detailed document of the United Kingdom as it exitrf the 1970s and enters the 1980s, Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s film follows Ray Gange (essentially playing himself) as he quits his Soho sex-shop gig to hit the road with one of the most exciting, influential bands on the planet: The Clash. Accompanying them to such iconic performances as the 1978 Rock Against Racism concert in London’s Victoria Park and in the studio for the recording of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, Ray finds himself amid the swirling winds of change as musical subcultures rise to push back against the ascendant British right wing. An unforgettable film portrait of a place, a time, and a band, “Rude Boy” is still as cool and galvanizing as it was at its 1980 Berlin Film Festival premiere.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Director: Joel Coen
Joel Coen’s boldly inventive visualization of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is an anguished film that stares, mouth agape, at a sorrowful world undone by blind greed and thoughtless ambition. In meticulously world-weary performances, a strikingly inward Denzel Washington is the man who would be king and an effortlessly Machiavellian Frances McDormand is his Lady, a couple driven to political assassination—and deranged by guilt—after the cunning prognostications of a trio of “weird sisters” (a virtuoso physical inhabitation by Kathryn Hunter). Coen’s tale of sound and fury is entirely his own—and undoubtedly one for our moment, a frightening depiction of amoral political power-grabbing that, like its hero, ruthlessly barrels into the inferno.
“Titane,” Director: Julia Ducournau
The winner of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or, “Titane” is a thrillingly confident vision from Julia Ducournau that deposits the viewer directly into its director’s headspace. Moving with the logic of a dream—and often the force of a nightmare—the film begins as a kind of horror movie, with a series of shocking events perpetrated by Alexia (Agathe Rouselle, in a dynamic and daring breakthrough), a dancer with a titanium plate in her skull following a childhood car accident. However, once Alexia goes into hiding from the police, and is taken in by a grief-stricken firefighter (Vincent Lindon), Ducournau reveals her deployment of genre tropes to be as fluid and destabilizing as her mercurial main character. A feverish, violent, and frequently jaw-dropping ride, “Titane” nevertheless exposes the beating, fragile heart at its center as it questions our assumptions about gender, family, and love itself.
“The French Dispatch,” Director: Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson’s unmistakable cinematic style proves delightfully suited to periodical format in this missive from the eponymous expatriate journal, published on behalf of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun from the picturesque French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Brought to press by a corps of idiosyncratic correspondents, the issue includes reports on a criminal artist and his prison guard muse, student revolutionaries, and a memorable dinner with a police commissioner and his personal chef. As brimming with finely tuned texture as a juicy issue of a certain New York–based magazine to which the film pays homage, “The French Dispatch” features precision work from a full masthead of collaborators (including Bill Murray, Timothée Chalamet, Tilda Swinton, Benicio del Toro, Frances McDormand, and Jeffrey Wright), each propagating inventive dedication to detail. Anderson’s deadpan whimsy is complemented by the film’s palpable sense of nostalgia.
“The Power of the Dog,” Director: Jane Campion
Jane Campion reaffirms her status as one of the world’s greatest—and most gratifyingly eccentric—filmmakers with this mesmerizing, psychologically rich variation on the American western. Adapted from a 1967 cult novel by Thomas Savage notoriously ahead of its time in depicting repressed sexuality, “The Power of the Dog” excavates the emotional torment experienced at a Montana cattle ranch in the 1920s. Here, melancholy young widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) has come to live with her sensitive new husband, George (Jesse Plemons), though their lives are increasingly complicated by the erratic, potentially violent behavior of his sullen and bullying brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose mistrust of both Rose and her misfit son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) leads to tragic consequences. Mirroring the unpredictable story turns, Campion crafts a film of unexpected cadences and rhythms, and her daring is matched every step of the way by her extraordinary, fully immersed cast and a mercurial, destabilizing score by Jonny Greenwood.
“Assault on Precinct 13,” Director: John Carpenter
John Carpenter’s taut L.A.-set thriller chronicles a small group of cops, administrators, and crooks holed up in a decommissioned police station and their efforts to survive the night when a merciless street gang shows up seeking revenge for a loss in their ranks. With the lines of communication to the rest of the city cut off and a dwindling supply of guns and ammunition with which to fend off the hordes of killers outside, it’ll take an unlikely alliance for this motley crew to make it out alive. The soundtrack of “Assault on Precinct 13” alternates between gunfire and silence, tense conversations and Carpenter’s own blaring synths, yielding an evocative aural backdrop for a stark, elemental tale of survival in the face of impossible odds.
“Benedetta,” Director: Paul Verhoeven
Based on true events, “Benedetta” unearths the story of Benedetta Carlini, a 17th-century nun in Tuscany who believed she saw visions of Christ and engaged in a sexual relationship with a fellow sister at her abbey. Because this is a film by genre auteur par excellence Paul Verhoeven (whose movies include “Robocop,” “Basic Instinct,” and NYFF54 selection “Elle”), the result is anything but a reverent treatment of an odd footnote in Catholic European history. Forgoing the hallmarks of prestige cinema, this delirious, erotic, and violent melodrama is told with a boundless spirit for scandal, and unabashedly courts blasphemy as it unfolds its tale of religious hypocrisy. Wildly entertaining, and featuring standout performances from Virginie Efira as the title character and Charlotte Rampling as the stoic, conflicted Mother Abbess, “Benedetta” maintains both a feverish pitch and a fascinating ambiguity in its depiction of the miraculous and the mundane, the sacred and the profane.
“Parallel Mothers,” Director: Pedro Almodovar
In this muted contemporary melodrama, two women, a generation apart, find themselves inextricably linked by their brief time together in a maternity ward. The circumstances that brought them to the Madrid hospital are quite different—one accidental, the other traumatic—and a secret. Hiding the truth of the bond that connects these two is a powerful story that tackles a deep trauma in Spanish history. Penélope Cruz’s Janis is a complex, flawed, but ultimately alluring lead character, who finds herself in a morally and emotionally treacherous situation. She’s viewed in contrast with Ana, portrayed by newcomer Milena Smit, a discovery who brings a palpable innocence, pain, and longing to this interwoven portrait of women and motherhood. These charismatic stars inhabit characters who are singular among those drawn by Almodóvar in a career defined by striking portraits of women.
“Velvet Underground,” Director: Todd Haynes
Given the ingeniously imagined musical worlds of “Velvet Goldmine” and “I’m Not There,” it should come as no surprise that Todd Haynes’s documentary about the seminal band The Velvet Underground mirrors its members’ experimentation and formal innovation. Combining contemporary interviews and archival documentation with newscasts, advertisements, and a trove of avant-garde film from the era, Haynes constructs a vibrant cinematic collage that is as much about New York of the ’60s and ’70s as it is about the rise and fall of the group that has been called as influential as the Beatles. Filmed with the cooperation of surviving band members, this multifaceted portrait folds in an array of participants in the creative scene’s cultures and subcultures. Tracing influences and affinities both personal and artistic, Haynes unearths rich detail about Andy Warhol, The Factory, Nico, and others, adding vivid context and texture that never diminish the ultimate enigma of the band’s power.
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