by Tony Dayoub
Here are some capsule reviews of films that played at the 49th New York Film Festival (NYFF11) that I failed to write about back in October, either because I didn't have the time to or just didn't see them. By no means should the short reviews be taken as an indication of the relative unimportance of these movies since many of these are among my favorites of the year.
Despite being a particularly sharp-witted family drama, The Descendants, the festival's closing night film, is not necessarily innovative. But the movie benefits from its liberal use of the culture and landscape of Hawaii. Alexander Payne (Sideways) uses the lush, lazy vacation-like atmosphere of this backdrop to crystallize the very stressful and depressing dual dilemmas facing Matt King (George Clooney) and the rest of his native hauli family. The first is the revelation that his wife was cheating on him at the time of a very serious boating accident that has left her comatose and on life support. The second is King's vacillation between selling an ancestral piece of property worth hundreds of millions that is his family's last connection to their storied history on the island. Though not an unusual part, Clooney's performance as King may end up being one of his best. But a small share of the credit should also go to Payne, a great director of actors, and the more than able supporting cast, well represented by Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, and newcomer Shailene Woodley (who almost steals the film as King's troubled wild child). Watch for a dialogue-free extended cameo by Michael Ontkean (Twin Peaks) as Cousin Milo.
Martin Scorsese's children's fantasy, Hugo, premiered at NYFF11 while still a work-in-progress. For some unfathomable reason, many took this opportunity to lash out at the film, and the respected director, for daring to attempt something ambitious in a realm outside his usual bailiwick. In Hugo, the 3D appears, at first glance, to simply be there for the sake of enhancing the more fantastic aspects of the movie's fairy-tale version of Paris. In reality, though, the 3D creates an unignorable immediacy which envelops the viewer. Not only does this propel the viewer into Hugo's hallucinatory world. It also communicates the effect that cinema had on Scorsese himself in his formative years, as it does on the film's title character (Asa Butterfield) and his friend, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). While trying to evade an overeager station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) at the train depot where Hugo lives (behind a giant clock), both kids investigate clues linking a mysterious automaton to famed silent film director Georges Méliès. Proving his naysayers wrong, Scorsese, not usually known for his gentleness, fashions a perfect movie that is at once entertaining for the kids, a love letter to/from cinephiles and likely the best use of 3D in American cinema since 2009's Avatar.
Like the protagonist of Hugo, Cyril (Thomas Doret), the title character of The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) is practically an orphan until he meets the kind Samantha (Cécile de France). But in this bit of social realism by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the neglected boy is abandoned by a single dad (Jérémie Renier) who sells his precious bicycle for some pocket cash. Samantha takes Cyril in, helping retrieve the boy's lost bike as she tries to fend off a local thief from luring Cyril into a life of crime. A fascinating account of a boy navigating his way through life's pitfalls without a father figure, The Kid with a Bike is one of two films on this list that I did see at NYFF11 (both of which, coincidentally, shared the Grand Prix at Cannes). But I'll avoid diving too deep into the deceptively simple story as it is still unreleased in the U.S.
The festival's Centerpiece film, My Week with Marilyn is a fluffy trifle depicting the behind-the-scenes battle of wills between actor-director Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and his Method-trained star, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), while filming The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). Based on two memoirs by Olivier's assistant Colin Clark (played here by Eddie Redmayne), the movie's weakness is a fundamental one. Its central story of Clark's "secret affair" with the actress plays more like a wish-fulfillment fantasy than a true and verifiable fact, rendering the film inert and uninteresting as a historical document and too starstruck to be an all-out tribute. Branagh, whose work and life overlap quite extensively with the Shakespearean star he plays, is curiously underwhelming as Olivier. The movie is only worth seeing for Williams's surprising evocation of the screen icon and Judi Dench's genial turn as Dame Sybil Thorndike.
Can Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan possibly improve upon his previous films? That's what he sets out to prove with the deliberately paced but flawless Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Like the Dardennes' film discussed above, it won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year, I was fortunate enough to see it at an NYFF11 press screening and I've avoided writing about it at length because it has yet to open in the U.S. The film spends a considerable amount of time with a group of law enforcement types as they escort two brothers back to the scene of a murder they confessed to. Except the brothers can't seem to recall the exact location of the crime. Mostly seen through the eyes of the coroner (Muhammet Uzuner) sent to collect the body, Anatolia has all of the dark humor of the best noir melded with a strangely mystical sensibility which bears fruit in an unusual scene midway through the film. I'll discuss this one further when it inevitably gets a release in 2012, as it will certainly be on my list of best films for next year.
Though once a fledgling discovery at the NYFF, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar is now such a well established auteur he is credited by only his last name in his latest film, The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito). Presented at a gala screening at NYFF11, Almodóvar's foray into body horror (by way of telenovela) reunites him for the first time in over 20 years with the now famous actor he discovered, Antonio Banderas. Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a prominent plastic surgeon who is secretly keeping stunning beauty Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) prisoner at his expansive country estate. The complicated reasons for this gradually become clear as the nonlinear narrative unfolds. The effectiveness and ease with which Banderas inhabits the role of mad scientist recalls the confidence he once exhibited when acting in his native language, a boldness unmatched in any of his English-language films to date. Allusions to Beauty and the Beast, Frankenstein, and of course, Eyes Without a Face come into play. But ultimately, one's inclination is to coin the phrase Almodovarian (like Lynchian) in order to best describe the unique paella valenciana that the director cooks up by injecting his usual preoccupations with identity and transgenderism as the glue which holds all of the disparate influences together. The Skin I Live In is both disturbing and supremely satisfying.
Disturbing is a label that also can be applied to Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again, though not with the same connotation. Ray's unfinished experimental film—a project he worked on with his students at Harpur College—is a melange of split screens, dime-store philosophy and a disquieting measure of self-aggrandizement. This results in an unusually intense focus on the students' hero worship of the auteur terrible (who plays himself in the film) that manifests itself as a cultish sexual vibe between Ray and his female acolytes, who all spend an inordinate amount of time nude in the movie. The most admirable aspect of the project is the dedication that Ray's widow, Susan, displayed in completing it and bringing it to the public as part of the NYFF's Masterwork slate. While this release coincided with Ray's centennial and a period of reappraisal of his oeuvre (such as this site's Nicholas Ray Blogathon), the movie's unexpected byproduct is the assertion that like most heroes, the film icon has feet of clay.