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The 300 Week 39: The Favourite and More Reviews from the 2018 New York Film Festival

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A week of NYFF 56 movies, including one on ghoulish Steve Bannon and another on Robert Pattinson's sperm

Greetings, sex astronauts, and welcome back to The 300, my high-flying attempt to watch 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. I’ll be seeing new releases, classics, hidden gems, and festival films to experience the wide world of cinema in all its glory. With that much variety (and so many festival films), I hope you see something here you’ll want to check out.

As always, there are three rules for The 300:

  • The movie must be at least 40 minutes long, meeting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ definition of a feature film.
  • I must watch the movie at a movie theater, screening room, or outdoor screening venue.
  • While I can watch movies I’ve seen before 2018, I cannot count repeated viewings of the same film in 2018 multiple times.

A slower week this week as we continue our coverage of the 2018 New York Film Festival. I'll be attending more NYFF screenings for the next week and a half, with capsule reviews here and also full-length reviews for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs this weekend. Overall, it's been pretty good. I’ve liked a lot of the films shown so far, and my favorite is Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (The 300 Week 38).

Next weekend I’ll catch a few movies at the 2018 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, which runs from Thursday, October 11 to Thursday, October 18. I will see at least four of the films at BHFF this year, though I’ll make an effort to check out a few more if I can make some time.

As of this writing, I have 40 movies left to go. My eyes. My beautiful, sore eyes.

And so, onward.

254 of 300: Shoplifters (2018)
(aka 万引き家族; Manbiki Kazoku)

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Starring: Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Kirin Kiki, Mayu Matsuoka
Country: Japan
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Wednesday, September 26th

Writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda plants small moments of joy and sadness throughout Shoplifters, which follows an assembled family of petty criminals. Sometimes it’s just a whispered line about loving someone else’s child as your own or a minor gesture like a shopkeeper giving candy as a gift and a warning. Scenes like these seem so light, but in the aggregate, these moments can be quietly devastating. It’s a film that’s so humane and heartbreaking. It’s even morally complex given how it avoids overt judgment of its characters and their lives. Before we get the details of who these people are, they just seem like downtrodden folks struggling to get by any way they can. They steal, they do hands-off sex work, they grift. The details, however, are what matter, and they add dark texture to the story’s deceptively sweet exterior.

When watching this family of orphans and thieves from a distance, they seem like any other happy family. There’s mom and dad and grandma, and there’s the oldest daughter, and the son, and their youngest daughter. Holding hands, they tiptoe along the shoreline and get their feet wet, laughing. Many families viewed briefly from afar seem so happy. As we learn more about how this group came together, we find out why all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Yet there is a complicated love between all of these characters that is as undeniable as it is imperfect.

My feelings for Shoplifters have deepened since seeing the film a week ago, and it will probably wind up somewhere in my top 20 of the year. It’s heartache by a thousand delicate gestures.

255 of 300: They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018)

Director: Morgan Neville
Country: USA
Seen at The Park Avenue Screening Room (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Thursday, September 27th

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead feels like one-half of a double-feature I have yet to complete. The documentary chronicles the making of Orson Welles’ uncompleted film The Other Side of the Wind. This documentary and an assembled version of The Other Side of the Wind are getting Netflix releases in November, which seems ideal for back-to-back viewing. (I’m seeing The Other Side of the Wind next Wednesday.)

There are good ideas and moments in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. Morgan Neville structures his film in a playful way that’s a little bit Citizen Kane and a little bit F for Fake. We’re given a portrait of Welles as a frustrated old man living in the shadow of his first film for his entire career. He pours his ego, impishness, and anger into The Other Side of the Wind, which is a satiric(?) riff on the chic European art films of the late 1960s (e.g., Antonioni and Bergman). But like a madman howling into the night, The Other Side of a Wind seems like an unintelligible scream without focus, feeling without shape, an expression of anger not fully formed, a cinematic tantrum.

If anything, Dead is a pretty interesting look at an artist’s ego run amok, though I wonder what I will make of it in a week after seeing the Welles picture. Right now, I am not sure if I should consider They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead a preface to Wind, an afterword, a parallel/accompanying text, or the primary text that Wind is now a supplement to.

256 of 300: The Favourite (2018)

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz
Country: Ireland/UK/USA
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Friday, September 28th

The Favourite is Yogos Lanthimos’ zaniest movie since The Lobster (the first half of The Lobster, anyway). No one delivers their lines like a robot, and the stomach-tugging moments of existential nausea are kept to a minimum. Instead, The Favourite feels like Monty Python running amok in Barry Lyndon (The 300 Week 23) or The Draughtsman’s Contract. There’s a lot of verbal wit and slapstick amid the costumes and powdered wigs. All of Rachel Weisz’s costumes in particular look like next-level Bloodborne cosplay. In an early scene, a band of vulgar aristocrats cheer madly as they watch a heated indoor duck race. Later, the gentry throw pomegranates at a naked goon for amusement. What a splendid bunch of lads.

The Favourite is a showcase for its three lead actresses to spar, barb, and play for power in the royal court. Loosely based on the historical palace intrigue of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Abigail (Emma Stone) vies to become the favorite of the Queen, stealing her majesty’s attentions away from her cousin Sarah (Weisz). A love triangle emerges, and it’s dealt with frankly. I noticed that while so much of the sex in The Favourite is rooted in power, there’s a genuine tenderness and desire between the Queen and her ladies. The hetero sex in the film feels so transactional, underlined by the way Abigail addresses one man’s desires while her thoughts are preoccupied.

An unexpected but fitting sadness seeps into The Favourite in its last half. Sure, it’s hilarious watching these women fight for supremacy as Queen Anne’s health fails, but there’s something affecting about the way the Queen’s body is slowly betraying her. This is a life and a reign in decline, one without heirs or children, but surrogates in the form of lovers, hangers-on, and rabbits. 

257 of 300: American Dharma (2018)

Director: Errol Morris
Country: USA/UK
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Sunday, September 30th

American Dharma is all about the weaponization of idealization. We often compare ourselves to fictional characters. We gravitate toward stories that mirror our situations, and sometimes even build simple narratives about our lives rooted in stories we’ve already heard. Steve Bannon is a man built of self-aggrandizement and self-mythology; he even quotes the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In other words, no matter the facts, give people the convenient fiction. Feed them the bulls**t they want to hear. For a while, the post-mortem line about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was that Trump told a better story. Bannon was one of the authors of that story, harnessing grievances and resentment and allowing people to participate in a self-mythologizing narrative via the campaign.

Two things struck me about Errol Morris’ approach to American Dharma, which is dynamite yet troubling at the same time. First, the documentary allows Bannon to sit and talk in a recreated set of Twelve O’Clock High, one of his favorite films. The entire time, he returns to the that film and others, linking himself to his cinematic heroes, suggesting that his work at Breitbart, the Trump campaign, and in the White House was informed by various cinematic models. We’re given access to his own inflated self-image, sitting with him in a set that houses his ego.

The second thing that struck me was how terrified Morris is the entire time. Rather than using his trademark Interrotron, Morris is seated across the table from Bannon, and he sounds flummoxed. No question he asks can break Bannon’s trollish glee. Bannon is a figure of self-aggrandizement and self-mythologizing, but not someone prone to remorse or self-reflection like Robert McNamara in Morris’ 2003 classic The Fog of War. American Dharma feels more like 2013’s The Unknown Known, in which an oblivious, giggling Donald Rumsfeld equivocated his way around admissions of wrongdoing. Rather than outrage, there is fear in Morris’ voice. He recognizes Bannon as a mad doctor who can superficially diagnose a problem in the body politic but whose only remedy is wanton amputation. Some of the final shots of Bannon—who thinks of himself as a Luciferian hero—reminded me of The Joker in The Dark Knight (The 300 Week 36).

The inability to stagger Bannon or confound him is why some people have asserted (I think wrongly) that American Dharma is accidentally pro-Bannon. The mere existence of a film about Bannon may seem an affront to decency. The thing is, his strategy was effective and enticing, and it’s not going away. Ditto Roger Stone’s ethic of total retaliation. The old adage about internet trolls is that we should not feed them, but this trolling mentality can’t be starved. It’s self-feeding, self-nourishing, built on outrage heightened on an unavoidable propensity for self-mythologizing. Even if the behavior is cloistered in the worst subreddits and comments sections on the internet, nothing is going to be solved by turning away from this mess. We have to face this carnage together.

258 of 300: Private Life (2018)

Director: Tamara Jenkins
Starring: Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, Kayli Carter, Molly Shannon
Country: USA
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Monday, October 1st

Private Life is so incredibly urbane that it might be off-putting. Your mileage may vary when it comes to the lives of neurotic New York City intellectuals. They namecheck Tin House and Yaddo, two things that MFA students or literary scenesters in major cities should recognize. I was tickled by a reference to Harold Brodkey, one of the most writer’s-writers out there, at least for writers of a certain generation.

But under the literary references, Private Life is a painfully loving story about a relationship enduring the difficulties of thwarted parenthood. At the beginning of Private Life, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti) have spent years undergoing fertility treatments without success. The film is about them trying, trying, and trying again to become parents, and how desperation and frustration in this facet of their lives shakes (or doesn’t shake) the foundations of their love.

Part of me thinks that Private Life is about 20 minutes too long, though I also feel like it’s a little too long by design. We get to experience the highs, lows, and unexpected turns of Rachel and Richard’s journey. If anything, the sympathetic performances are so strong that they keep the movie compelling even when the plot hits a holding pattern. Wait long enough and there’s sure to be a moment of cringe-comedy built on compassion. Tamara Jenkins drew on her own difficulties getting pregnant for the film, which probably makes so many of the scenes feel so lived-in or deeply personal. 

259 of 300: High Life (2018)

Director: Claire Denis
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, André Benjamin
Country: Germany/France/UK/Poland/USA
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Tuesday, October 2nd

I like Claire Denis as a filmmaker because it often feels like she’s intuiting her way through her material. In Let the Sunshine In (The 300 Week 19), she follows a middle-aged woman’s active, irresolvable, and generally crummy love life. In White Material (The 300 Week 28), all objects and observations are hinged on a colonial lens and an impending war. High Life is confounding since it has plenty of great ideas and images but they feel insufficiently explored, as if the mere strangeness of these elements are an end in themselves rather than a starting point for greater observation. How nebulous.

I’ve heard High Life described as “Solaris but horny,” which is kind of what it is, but very kind of. Prisoners from our dying Earth are sent into space on a vaguely defined mission. (What was it again?) A mad scientist on board artificially inseminates the prisoners in an effort to prolong the life of the mission. (I think?) But in the present action of the film, sole survivor Monte (Robert Pattinson) is raising a baby girl on the spaceship.

This is Denis’ first English-language production, and it feels like it. She’s not a native English speaker, so many of the lines are grammatically and syntactically clunky. There’s also an issue of delivery. At times the cast mumbles their lines out unintelligibly, but mostly it seems like the cast isn’t quite sure how to deliver their lines, as if they’re not sure what their characters are supposed to feel. I’m similarly left blank by the film. The prison-in-space metaphor is intriguing, but not much is done with it. The entire ship is just several prisoners and a doctor. There are no guards, and they’re mostly given free-range in the craft. I wondered why any of them agreed to go into space in the first place, and what training they were given, and so on. High Life feels like a constellation rather than a full construct, partially realized and dependent on audiences to fill in the many blanks.

260 of 300: Non-Fiction (2018)
(aka Doubles vies; Double Lives)

Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi
Country: France
Seen at Alice Tully Hall (New York, NY)
2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF 56)
Tuesday, October 2nd

In my head, there are two movies in Non-Fiction. One is about a schlubby writer trying to maintain a relationship while keeping real-life infidelity out of his fiction. The other is about a publishing house adapting to technological changes in the publishing industry. The first film could be interesting (though more on that in a bit) while the second film is woefully behind the times. All of Non-Fiction’s conversations about e-readers, digital literary culture, book sales, and changes in readership are conversations that the literary community already had five to ten years ago. The entire publishing plot feels like a marginally interesting conversation in a 2010 movie, and it sucks all the potential life from the film.

As for that first movie about the writer, it could be fertile ground to expand on for an entire movie, but I’m just tired of the same old male writer cliches we get in movies. Some screw-up gets laid a lot and writes about it, and the women in his life get upset, but then love him anyways even though he’s shown no redeeming qualities. It’s pretty banal, though I wonder how the French literary community feels about the unflagging lionization of the “brilliant male writer” cliche.

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Hubert Vigilla
Hubert VigillaContributor   gamer profile

Hubert Vigilla is a writer living in Brooklyn, which makes him completely indistinguishable from 4/5 of people living in Brooklyn. more + disclosures


 




 



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