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NYFF: My Favourites and Least Favourite

October 5, 2018


We’re one week into the 2018 New York Film Festival, and I’ve already seen two of this year’s best movies — as well as an early contender for one of the worst.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with the Opening Night feature, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. I’m not gonna lie:  I hated the beginning of this movie, as the Greek director of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer overused fish-eye lenses to create a sense of surrealism around the tale of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, an unquestionable Oscar favorite), an overgrown, temper tantrum-throwing baby of a ruler — sound familiar? But as the film unspooled, and ladies in waiting Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone engaged in a cutthroat competition to win the monarch’s favor, the story grew on me. Lanthimos strikes me as a Stanley Kubrick acolyte, (you could certainly do worse for a cinematic  idol), and The Favourite is his Barry Lyndon. All in all, a strong start to the Festival.

Now let’s move on to two films that give me life — and hope for the future of cinema. Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life is an exquisitely observed portrait of a modern-day NYC couple struggling to conceive a child. Paul Giamatti is, as almost always, note-perfect as the husband, and Kathryn Hahn (whom I don’t always enjoy) matches him beat for beat, as does Molly Shannon, another performer who sometimes grates on me but is well-cast as a buttinsky best friend here. Jenkins doesn’t make movies often — this is only the third she’s directed in 20 years, after Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages — but when she does, they’re achingly autobiographical gems.

With Wildlife, cowriter-director Paul Dano proves that he’s just as gifted as a filmmaker as he is an actor. Based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, this painstakingly precise drama follows a sensitive 14-year-old (Ed Oxenbuild, a remarkable young Aussie) witnessing the dissolution of his parents’ marriage in 1960 Montana. Carey Mulligan will no doubt be an Oscar contender for her fiery turn, reminiscent of Jessica Lange in 1994’s Blue Sky, as a housewife desperate to reinvent herself sexually after her unemployed husband (Jake Gyllenhaal, excellent as ever) leaves home to fight a forest fire. With Bill Camp, who’s been my favorite character actor ever since he played Dano’s cruel dad in Love & Mercy, rounding out the ensemble as Mulligan’s gimpy lover, this is the best-acted film I’ve seen this year. And Dano — who co-wrote the script with real-life love Zoe Kazan — has a filmmaker’s natural eye. He must’ve paid close attention to Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of There Will Be Blood.

On the documentary front, Errol Morris’ American Dharma is a disappointingly unfocused portrait of Steve Bannon. The often-reliable director of The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War tries to examine the Breitbart/Trump firebrand’s twisted psychology through discussions of his favorite movies — black-and-white war films like 12 O’Clock High and Paths of Glory and Westerns like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But due to a lack of context, the gimmick doesn’t work, aside from an insightful section in which Bannon revealingly compares himself to Orson Welles’ Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight.

Welles is all over this year’s festival, with the debut of his finally-finished film The Other Side of the Wind, a fascinatingly muddled mess, and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, an entertaining documentary by documentarian du jour Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) about the chaotic making of Wind. My advice: See the documentary first, as I did, or else Wind will make almost no sense — although the performances by John Huston as a Welles-ian filmmaker fighting to remain relevant in the New Hollywood of the ’70s and Peter Bogdanovich as…. well, basically, Peter Bogdanovich (he replaced Rich Little in the role!) are enjoyable.

Which brings us to the festival’s nadir, at least so far: The Coen Brothers’ disastrously awful The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. A sextet of Western shorts written over the last 25 years and stuck in the siblings’ bottom drawer, the stories should’ve stayed there. The tone is all over the map. It opens with a gory, goofy — call it “gorfy” — segment in which Tim Blake Nelson’s title character croons cowboy tunes and shoots various people dead. Then James Franco stars in another lighthearted vignette about an outlaw who escapes a hangman’s noose, until he doesn’t. Suddenly, the movie turns alternately somber and grotesque with prolonged segments wasting Tom Waits as a gold prospector; Liam Neeson as a traveling showman who exploits an armless, legless actor (Harry Melling); and a brutally overlong romance involving a damsel in distress (Zoe Kazan). The anthology is finally wrapped up with a stagecoach ride that goes nowhere, through no fault of the thoroughbred actors: Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jefferson Mays and a scene-stealing Chelcie Ross as a talkative trapper. Because someone dies in each of the six segments, the Coens — or was it Film Festival director Kent Jones? — tried to claim that the theme of mortality ties together these six disconnected chapters, but I’m not buying it. I’m also disturbed by the Coens’ depiction of Native Americans as faceless savages.

The Coens haven’t made a good movie since their last Western, 2010’s True Grit, and Buster Scruggs — which the brothers admitted is wildly mistitled, since Scruggs dies early  — may well be their worst film ever. Its only competition is a film with a title that could’ve more accurately applied to Buster Scruggs: Intolerable Cruelty.

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