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The Best Movies That Came Out of the 2019 New York Film Festival

The Best Movies That Came Out of the 2019 New York Film Festival

The 57th New York Film Festival came to a close this past weekend, following nearly three weeks of premieres, Q&As, and specialty screenings that collectively showcased some of the year’s best and most anticipated titles. Imposing any overarching theme across a spread of titles as varied and vividly specific as this year’s would be a fool’s errand (or perhaps a Joker‘s), destined to reduce and ill-serve each.

There were vicious social satires, monumental mob epics, breakneck thrillers, and glimmering memory pieces, all with something poignant and thoughtful to say about the ways in which deciding who we are can grow much more complicated and fraught when we exist within systems designed to mold us into certain shapes.

But, in ways unexpected and sometimes quite moving, this year’s festival felt most often like a paean to love, in all its strange and unknowable permutations, from incendiary love affairs along the French coast to life-affirming friendships on the American frontier and aching cross-country separations. Some of the standouts at the festival are listed below:

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Emblematic of how love can free you even if it’s the kind sure to leave you devastated, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was the best movie I saw at the New York Film Festival. A truly perfect film that’s so exquisitely shot as to somehow equal its story, it’s one of the most indelible visions of romantic passion I’ve ever seen in a theater. 

Set along the windswept shores of 18th century Brittany, Portrait follows the elegant Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who’s engaged by her mother to be married. Protesting the arrangement, she refuses to sit for a portrait, to be sent to the future husband. There’s fire in her veins, undoubtedly, but also a deeper despair haunting her at the edges. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter hired in secret to paint Héloïse, is just the new arrival to occupy her restless mind, even if their relationship is forged under false pretenses. Posing as a walking companion who’s hired so that Héloïse can safely traverse the jagged cliffs of the French coast, Marianne’s meant to study Héloïse in long, clandestine looks that deepen with meaning when, one day, Héloïse returns them in kind. 

In the hands of writer-director Céline Sciamma (Girlhood), Portrait is a treillage of such glances, elegantly framing these two as they circle one another, consumed by their shared fascination and quietly ecstatic as it spills into something more than that. The way Sciamma shoots them, vivid as Fauvist paintings against the coastal vistas, must be seen for what it truly is: a radical act of love. Its politics of desire and visibility are breathtaking to behold and cerebral to consider, especially framed as they are from a feminist, queer perspective. Through that female gaze, Portrait’s expressions of what art can signify, how much a look can carry, what power is contained in the making of an image (and who gets to make it) don’t just resonate. They’re revolutionary.

This is a film that delights the mind and penetrates the heart, even as it speaks through the eyes of its leads, always studying one another with the hushed heat of lovers who know they’re almost out of time. And what eyes they are—Merlant’s, dark and sparkling, with piercing immediacy; and Haenel’s, forest-green and far away until they look with intensity enough to make your breath catch in your throat.  

‘Beanpole’

Beanpole, as gelid and repressed as Portrait is sensual and alive, also involves two women bound together—romantically, but on a level markedly more complicated than that—in a world that leaves them precious little room to feel. The first is Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko), also known as Beanpole due to her towering height and ungainly demeanor. She tends to “freeze,” they say, issuing only strangled clicks and croaks amid a dissociative state. The condition is an invisible scar, picked up toward the end of World War II. In 1945 Leningrad, the bullets have stopped flying, replaced by an eerie, shell-shocked calm. Iya, working as a nurse in a military hospital, has found a tiny shred of happiness in Pashka (Timofey Glazkow), a little boy who is the delight of infirm soldiers. During a game of charades, they accidentally stump the kid in a moment that perfectly showcases Beanpole’s grim humor and pessimistic worldview. “Where would he have seen a dog?” one soldier asks. “They’ve all been eaten.” 

For a time, this life feels survivable, if bitter. But then, while playing with Pashka, Iya freezes on top of the boy, and something unspeakably terrible befalls both of them. (The director, an incendiary 27-year-old talent named Kantemir Balagov, lets this scene play out with soul-annihilating clarity.)

Pashka’s real mother is Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who sent the boy to live with Iya when she was invalided out of the war. The emotional wildfire to Iya’s permafrost, she returns home full of sublimated rage and need. Beanpole is a tragedy of almost surreal magnitude for Iya and Masha, who feel the blue in their fingers whenever holding each another close. They are two dead trees in this scorched landscape, of little comfort to one another, barely known to themselves. But if Balagov’s narrative offers them little respite from the bone-deep horrors of their broken world, his formally elegant direction—flushed with color and winter light—suggests a stifled beauty still lying dormant somewhere. And as Iya and Masha gradually regain control over their own lives, sifting through the rubble, Beanpole flickers with barely believed hope. It may be a lie—these women certainly tell plenty, to themselves as much as anyone listening—but there’s nothing false about how these two will their way through their impossible winter with only a dream of spring to sustain them. 

‘First Cow’

Another kind of love—the quiet campfire glow of a friendship that nourishes—emanates off the screen in Kelly Reichardt’s frontier tale First Cow. The filmmaker’s known for her rugged, pastoral depictions of human connection in the natural world, and this quietly graceful yarn might surpass her past films by virtue of locating a rich vein of humor beneath the great frontier that her previous works left largely untapped.

Like most of her films, First Cow combines Reichardt’s favored ingredients—animal symbolism, ambiguous endings, and unexpected encounters with friendly strangers—into something humane and deceptively insightful. The film focuses on a soft-hearted American cook (John Magaro) who strikes up a friendship with a Chinese sailor (Orion Lee) after saving him from irate pursuers. At an Oregon Territory trading post, the two go into business together once they realize the cook’s “oily cakes” could become the area’s most in-demand provision. There’s only one problem: making the cakes requires the pair to secretly milk a cow belonging to the local land baron (Toby Jones), who’d be none-too-happy to learn he’d been stolen from. 

You can surely tell where this is all going, but the story moves forward in such an easy, fluid motion that it scarcely matters. Reichardt’s a master at this kind of naturalistic, open-hearted storytelling, and her latest is quietly generous and lyrical, adding metaphorical dimensions as it peers deeper into questions of just what it means to exist at a fixed point in time, into a world will linger for long after you lie down for good.

‘Pain and Glory’

Love is also etched across every frame of Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar’s rich and gentle memory piece. It’s as autobiographical a film as the director has made, yet far too playful and self-effacing to be reduced to mere hagiography. At its center, Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a Spanish director in his twilight years, a reformed enfant terrible with Almodóvar’s own spiky gray hair who’s plagued by chronic pain and memories of a time when his mind felt more agile. 

The similarities to Almodóvar don’t end there. Pain and Glory jumps between Salvador’s Catholic upbringing in a Spanish village and his current creative crisis, as he battles problems with his own declining health and escalating drug addiction. It’s the role of Banderas’s career, and the actor delivers a performance that is by turns theatrical and finely measured but unfailingly authentic. Read our previous review of the film here.

‘The Irishman’

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is another movie about all the little moments that can make a life—and, in the case of its morally bankrupt characters, ruin a soul. A poetic, portentous return to the gangster genre for Scorsese after Goodfellas and Mean Streets, the film runs three-and-a-half-hours and spans decades in the life of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). 

The Irishman is a manifestly sprawling tapestry of a film, a portrait of mob life that doubles as a near-complete history of American organized crime and corruption in the 20th century. But that makes Scorsese’s intimate focus on character all the more riveting and special. 

A true lion in winter, the director here dispenses with the brio of his earlier gangster pictures, instead mulling the existential consequences of such bloody work, in a vein more similar to Silence. Like in that religious epic, there’s a stillness to The Irishman that creeps up on you, a haunting weight that De Niro carries in his sunken eyes and stooped shoulders. All the made men here are working in a register more muted and melancholic than you might expect, including a sublime Al Pacino as the self-interested local politico Jimmy Hoffa, one of Frank’s close confidants, and Joe Pesci as Russell Buffalino, the quietly terrifying older mob member who opens Frank with open arms.

But as Scorsese expertly charts the years of their lives, his wider aim makes all the more sense. The Irishman is the systematic dismantling of the mob myth Scorsese and his collaborators helped to popularize all those years ago, an incisive meditation on the ways in which bad men justify their actions, and a reminder that time always tells the truth about them in the end. It is a significant, late-stage accomplishment for both its director and the genre he pioneered.

‘Uncut Gems’

It’s amusing to see The Irishman, this towering work of artistic reappraisal, play in the same festival as two movies heavily indebted to Scorsese and concerned chiefly with recapturing the lightning-in-a-bottle ferocity of his earlier work. The first, Joker (more on that here), is a skin-deep impersonation of two Scorsese films, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, that impressively replicates their aesthetics and sense of psychological deterioration without any appreciation for the mordant humor veined beneath each.

But Uncut Gems, the new film from Good Time filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie, recalls Mean Streets for more reasons than just its remarkably scuzzy, nerve-shredding sense of propulsion. It’s worth noting here that Scorsese, and Irishman producer Emma Tillinger-Koskoff, both executive-produced Uncut Gems. You understand what they saw in it. 

Offering Adam Sandler the kind of dramatic showcase he hasn’t had since Punch-Drunk Love, the film focuses on a career schemer by the name of Howard Ratner (Sandler), a New York jeweler who spends his days desperately evading the mobsters he owes money to while sniffing out additional paydays. It’s such a psychologically exhausting way of life that you feel Howard is trapped, the walls closing in on all sides at all times, but he delights in the near-escape, seeing himself as a kind of charismatic antihero whose overriding self-belief has never once failed.  

When Howard acquires a rare Ethiopian diamond and manages to interest NBA player Kevin Garnett, it could be the biggest windfall of his grubby life. But with his wife (Idina Menzel) leaving him, his mistress (Julia Fox) complicating things by not simply doing as Howard expects, and enforcers increasingly infuriated at how Howard seems to toy with them without concern for the guns in their hands and brass around their knuckles, the guy’s tempting fate. He’s Icarus in a gold chain and a Celtics jersey. But that’s the vertiginous, pulse-pounding thrill of Uncut Gems, a work that’s as stressed out and overloaded as its rat-in-a-maze protagonist. The Safdies create a harrowing, richly textured vision of New York that is sleazy and dangerous in all the right places, a cacophony of sweat and noise that overwhelms the senses.  

‘Marriage Story’

The inverse of the teeming, electric New York in Uncut Gems must be the serene artists’ docile that occupies one half of the emotional landscape in Marriage Story, possibly the best American film of the year. Noah Baumbach, writer-director of The Squid and the Whale (which explored his parents’ divorce in gently moving detail), brings to this gorgeous and devastating film the full, complicated measure of his own experiences following the end of a long relationship with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. 

Adam Driver is Charlie. Scarlett Johansson is Nicole. These two once shared a great love, but they have decided to separate. He’s a stage director in New York City. She’s an actress, once his muse, who’s enthralled by “the space” of Los Angeles, but really by the prospect of making a decision for herself. At first, the divorce between them is less than devastating; they want to be friends and work out a version of their lives that, though different, will make things easier on their kid. But the best-laid intentions can’t always close the emotional and monetary fissures that erupt throughout a divorce. Nicole wants to move to L.A. and, when Charlie follows her, he learns that she’s hired a divorce lawyer named Nora (Laura Dern) who’s famous for driving hard bargains. A little stunned, he hires a kindly family lawyer (Alan Alda), and then, when that’s not sufficient, a bulldog (Ray Liotta). 

Marriage Story is about the brutal bloodsport of divorce as it exists in the American legal system as much as it is the more nuanced and emotionally uneven aspects of of these lovers’ lives. And it has much to say about the incredible mess of feeling caught up in this separation, which harbors a patently amusing N.Y.-vs-L.A. dichotomy that’s true to Baumbach but is much more to do with the ways in which we live with someone to such a point of familiarity at which we no longer see them.  

Baumbach’s glimmering jewel of a script treats this all like the substance of a great Broadway play, a stage duet between two actors more than capable of delivering laugh-out-loud funny and emotional-wrecking-ball material, often within the same scene. Driver and Johansson are simply stunning, especially together, graceful and heartbreaking. Marriage Story is a kind of musical, in step to its own mysterious rhythms, perhaps echoing what it feels is the quiet meter of heartbeats at midnight. There are songs, too, in two magnificent scenes constructed around the actors’ deliveries of songs from the Stephen Sondheim musical Company, but the film is generous and lyrical far beyond them.  

‘Parasite’

Parasite, more savagely and complexly, is a puncturing of the upstairs/downstairs caste metaphor that’s long-serviced class critique in both South Korean and American cinema. Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film The Housemaid was one major touchstone for Bong, and there’s an argument his film conceptually honors Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho better than Gus Van Sant’s fussy remake, but Parasite is most of all its own thing, a gloriously genre-averse work that spikes its wrathful social commentary with bitter, pitch-black laughs and stomach-twisting tension. 

That Parasite bears remarkable similarities to last year’s Shoplifters (to which it serves as a dark-mirror twin) and this year’s Us (over which it’s a narratively tighter, more aesthetically unnerving improvement) says something worth heeding about how we’re increasingly grasping, with terrible lucidity, the moral rot that underlays our social hierarchies. Parasite explores some harsh truths about late-stage capitalism, what it does indirectly to our psyches as well as directly to our self-worth, how it’s metastasized into this monstrously unfeeling engine that exists only to propel itself forward, fueled by the flesh and blood of our most vulnerable. Read more of our original review here.

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