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Recapping The 55th Annual New York Film Festival

Given the precarious state of the New York City subway system, I’ve been dreading the commute from my apartment to Lincoln Center, the home of the New York Film Festival. However, the selections that I’ve seen at the 55th edition of the festival thus far have, by and large, been so good that I find myself patiently enduring delays and smiling benevolently at people who accidentally jostle me. Here are some brief mid-festival accolades.

Best of (My Personal) Fest

The Square, directed by Ruben Östlund, 150 minutes, Magnolia Pictures

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKDPrpJEGBY

Christian (Claes Bang), the head of a pristine contemporary art museum is preparing for the launch of a gimmicky exhibition that includes an illuminated square that is designated, idealistically, as a sanctuary. Christian’s life and, by extension, the daily workings of the museum, begin to unravel when Christian becomes obsessed with exacting revenge on the pickpockets who, craftily preying on his kindness, steal his wallet and phone. Like Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure, The Square, which won this year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes, is a raucous, hilarious and vicious satire of civilized masculinity and the barbarism beneath its surface. Bang is bang-on as the debonair but hapless, ironically named Christian. His handful of scenes with Elisabeth Moss, who plays a slightly demented, worshipful journalist with whom he has sex, are instant classics.

Biggest (And Most Delicious) Ham

Bryan Cranston in Last Flag Flying, directed by Richard Linklater, 124 minutes, Amazon Studios

Last Flag Flying is a genuinely sweet, thought-provoking road-trip dramedy about loss and friendship, but it’s Bryan Cranston’s scenery-chewing performance that you’ll likely recount first if you end up recommending the film to friends who haven’t seen it yet. Not that, given Cranston’s incredible charisma, the chewing is unwelcome. Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell play Vietnam veterans who come together to help Carell’s character, Doc, on a poignant errand: Burying his son who has been killed in the early days of the Iraq War. Cranston plays Sal, a potbellied, unapologetic, alcoholic libertine who loves to recall the trio’s sex- and drug-filled exploits, but Fishburne’s Rev. Richard Mueller has turned over a new leaf and become a righteous preacher. Their ongoing debate about pragmatic humanism versus blind faith animate the film, even if Carell’s Doc occasionally gets lost in the shuffle.

Breakout Star (Who Will Break Your Heart)

Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino, 132 minutes, Sony Pictures Classics

The steamy 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name is a tricky one to adapt: It’s a first-person tale of obsession bursting with adolescent lust. Guadagnino seems like the perfect director to translate the novel to the big screen, given the extreme sensuality of his previous film’s I Am Love and A Bigger Splash. However, Guadagnino opts for a fairly sedate, steady, conventional style more reminiscent of his collaborator James Ivory, of Merchant-Ivory fame, who wrote the screenplay. 9 1/2 Weeks this is not. Restraint has its merits—the Franco-Italo-American academic family summering in a grand but cozy home in rural Italy feels authentic, as does Armie Hammer’s Oliver, who charms his hosts and awakens the sexuality of their son Elio. The film largely succeeds, though, because of Chalamet’s smoldering, aching portrayal of a sophisticated but inexperienced young man coming to terms with himself. His explosion into tears when Oliver leaves and subsequent mourning for their lost love will break your heart.

Enough Simmering Tension to Grill a Bratwurst

Western, directed by Valeska Grisebach, 119 minutes, Cinema Guild

The producers of last year’s Oscar-nominated Toni Erdmann return with this mesmerizing tale of a disgruntled, rowdy German construction crew building a water power plant in a picturesque, remote area of Bulgaria. It’s the kind of set-up that may put fear into the hearts of foreign film-phobes, but Western feels more like a thriller as small conflicts – such as one of the Germans nabbing a villagers hat and then oafishly dunking her head in a river—threaten and threaten to explode into the violence required by any “Western.” The ending of the film takes a surprising left turn that nonetheless weds perfectly to a story that turns out to be as much about the loneliness of the cowboy, metaphorical or literal, as the conflicts of the frontier.

Most New York Film Festival Festival Film

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), directed by Noah Baumbach, 110 minutes, Netflix

Much of Noah Baumbach’s latest feature takes place on the Upper West Side not far from where the NYFF also takes place—most of the members of the fractious Manhattan family the film portrays would probably attend. Dustin Hoffman plays Harold, a minor, aging sculptor whose three children by two different wives (including his current wife, Maureen, played by Emma Thompson) have differing plans for his twilight years: Faithful Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) want to rescue his legacy with an exhibition at Bard. Faithless Matthew (Ben Stiller), a wealth manager who has escaped the family by moving to LA, wants his father to sell his now-valuable Manhattan home for financial security. Unlike Baumbach’s breakout, The Squid and the Whale, which depicted a New York family disintegrating before our eyes, the Meyerowitz Stories is largely an ongoing rehashing of old family grievances, which drags like a weight on the story and overly expository script. Still, Baumbach fans are likely to enjoy the rapid-fire crosstalk and gentle satire of city life.

Featured image: Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in Call Me By Your Name. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Thorpe

David Thorpe directed the acclaimed documentary Do I Sound Gay?" (Sundance Selects). Thorpe is also a journalist who has written for numerous publications, including New York, The New York Times and more.

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