21 Films to See at the New York Film Festival

Photo: CG Cinema, Diaphaba Films, IFC Films, Bananeria Films

The 52nd New York Film Festival is upon us and with it yet another whipsawing journey through the diverse landscape of modern (and not-so-modern) cinema — from blue-chip Hollywood extravaganzas like Gone Girl to dramas from Mali (Timbuktu) to restorations of classics, such as Hiroshima Mon Amour. But this year the lines are being blurred, too. One of the most intimate French films of the festival, Clouds of Sils Maria, co-stars Kristen Stewart. The challenging, austere Argentine film Jauja stars Viggo Mortensen. Jean-Luc Godard’s baffling and beautiful Adieu au Langage is in (get this) 3-D. We’ll be covering the festival in-depth as it proceeds over the next two weeks. In the meantime, here are 21 films to see at the festival. (Read the full schedule.)

The title is dead right. Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s drama with jazz is sizzling, smashing, gut-twisting — it gets in your bloodstream and rattles your brain. The excellent Miles Teller is the drummer enrolled in a pressure-cooker NYC music school; J.K. Simmons (in a late-career breakthrough) the abusive, borderline-psychotic instructor and bandleader who behaves as if music school is the Marines. (Even the guy in Full Metal Jacket would be appalled.) The film will be controversial: Does Chazelle mean to vindicate the methods of this teacher, as monstrous as he is? I don’t think it’s that simple — but let’s talk later. In the meantime, let yourself be dazzled by the way Chazelle shoots and edits musical performances like a musical virtuoso himself. As soon as Teller picks up his sticks, the heat is on. —DE Photo: Sundance Institute
Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer wowed us last year with The Act of Killing, which featured perpetrators of Indonesia’s genocidal civil war proudly re-enacting their crimes. Now he turns his lens on the victims, following one family as they confront their tormentors. Not unlike that earlier film, this is not just a condemnation and exposé but also a meditation on both the destructive and redemptive power of the cinematic image. And while this is a companion piece to The Act of Killing, you don’t have to have seen that one to be moved by this one. Either way, you will never, ever forget this film. —Bilge Ebiri
In Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s characteristically contemplative, austere, yet transporting film, Viggo Mortensen (excellent) plays a 19th-century Danish engineer who sets out into the vast reaches of Patagonia in search of his daughter. The director’s films have always been cerebral, but Mortensen helps give this one shape: We can’t help but be intrigued by this man as he transforms before our very eyes, and especially as the film itself becomes something truly otherworldly and hallucinatory. The result might be Alonso’s best film yet. —BE Photo: Bananeria Films
British cinema’s poet of the every day, Mike Leigh turns out to be an inspired choice to direct this stately biopic of the great painter J.M.W. Turner (a terrific, and terrifically grunty, Timothy Spall). Leigh shows us the painter’s inability to engage with the mundane reality of his surroundings: Here’s a man who seems almost clinically incapable of dealing with other people. But the director then juxtaposes that with Turner’s transcendent attempts to capture the sublime drama of nature. This is a very lived-in, immersive period picture and demands to be seen on a big screen. —BE Photo: Focus Features International
Gorgeously ghoulish. It’s another of Bruce Wagner’s scabrous roundelays of Hollywood, where narcissism and insincerity run so thick that the milk of human kindness curdles in the teet. Director David Cronenberg gives the usual machinations just the right waggish (Wagner-ish) mock gravity, training his clinical eye on incestuous specimens that would make Darwin rethink his theory of evolution, and the characters’ frequent nightmares and delusions are similarly uninflected — part of a vast, festering continuum.   The always-just-right Mia Wasikowska plays a badly burned teenager with a shrouded past. She goes to work for Julianne Moore as an aging, Lindsay Lohan–ish woman-child who’s trying to get cast in a film based on the life of her dead-actress mom: What a mean, mesmerizing portrait! John Cusack is a deeply repressed anti-repression guru, Robert Pattinson a game-for-anything chauffeur-actor, and Evan Bird a druggie teen idol who finds new ways daily of being a little punk. This whole rotted edifice is always on the brink of combustion — until, suddenly, let there be blood! —DE Photo: Prospero Pictures
In the Dardenne brothers’ latest, a desperate, fragile woman (Marion Cotillard) has one weekend to convince her co-workers to forgo their bonuses so she can keep her job. The ticking-time-bomb nature of the plot adds a whole new level of anxiety to the Dardennes’ typically uncanny depiction of human fallibility and determination. This is a humanist thriller set in the hothouse of late capitalism — nerve-racking and profound. —BE Photo: Diaphana Films
A quiet, sad, meditative documentary by Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik, who’s still hovering in the vicinity of the Ozarks. Her subject is a burly biker Vietnam vet in a kind of half-life, haunted by his military service, by what was done to him and what he did to other human beings. In between funeral services and tributes to MIAs, he navigates the challenges of an economy in the toilet — a pregnant daughter working two menial jobs, a Mexican partner whose two sons want to move to the United States to earn a living wage (as if). He’s a good camera subject but not, in truth, a ball of fire, and the camera seems to be loitering even when it’s picking up essential information. There are moments of pleasure, but you end up feeling saturated by hopelessness. —DE
Abel Ferrara’s look at the final days of Italian filmmaker, poet, novelist, and critic Pier Paolo Pasolini (Willem Dafoe), murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1975, cannily channels the spirit of the director’s work. Ferrara gives us not so much Pasolini the person but Pasolini the creator, weaving scenes from an unmade film and an unfinished novel into his portrait. In so doing, he walks a fine line: His re-creations don’t attempt to ape Pasolini’s style — Ferrara is a much different filmmaker — but they do try to evoke it in subtle and interesting ways. Also, give him bonus points for bringing Pasolini’s longtime actor Ninetto Davoli out of retirement, to perform opposite another actor playing the role of … Ninetto Davoli. Ferrara’s career has had its ups and downs, but this is a high point for him. —BE Photo: Caprici Films
Ponderous. Bennett Miller’s drama staggers in under a load of angst and becomes even weightier, although the (true) story it tells is a corker. Channing Tatum plays the depressed Olympic wrestler who agrees to be sponsored (and, in name only, trained) by an heir to the vast Du Pont fortune. He’s played by Steve Carell, who’s amazing — for a time. Airy, abstracted, his head tilted up 45 degrees, he confirms the notion that the rich are indeed very different from you and me. He’s an alien. But there’s little to do but watch him slowly go crazy for another 90 minutes while everyone pretends not to notice. (In real life, people did and knew he was about to explode.) Tatum is a casualty of the pacing, but Mark Ruffalo as his slightly puzzled wrestling-coach brother looks and acts like a real human being and gives the last half-hour some punch. —DE Photo: Annapurna Films
An actress (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant (Kristen Stewart) withdraw to a picturesque, mountainous Swiss resort to take long walks and run lines for a play about a domineering female boss’s obsession with a younger, manipulative underling. The play itself begins to snake its way into their interactions and their life — or is it the other way around? Olivier Assayas takes what could have been a ready-made life-imitates-art wank and, with the help of two amazing performers, crafts something rich and genuinely mysterious from it. —BE Photo: CG Cinema
Jean-Luc Godard goes 3-D! Yes, Godard’s new film, like so much of his later work, is maddeningly cryptic at times, but it’s also quite distinct. Of course Godard was going to use 3-D in totally unorthodox ways. His experiments aren’t particularly brilliant: Everybody’s probably wondered at some point or another what 3-D might look like if you superimposed two different images on top of each other, but it took Godard — who truly doesn’t give a shit if it might be too much for our eyes or not — to actually do it. The results make our heads hurt while opening our eyes to new ways of seeing. Appropriately, the film itself is a collection of images, scenes, words that suggest that the way we communicate is changing. That, per the film’s title, we’re not just saying good-bye to words, but to the very notion of the exchange of ideas. Or maybe Godard is saying something else. Or nothing at all. I don’t really know. Also, there is a cute dog. —BE Photo: Wild Bunch Films
An increasingly powerful and finally devastating documentary — one of the best in several years — by Nick Broomfield. It nominally centers on a prodigious (alleged) serial killer living in South Central Los Angeles who might well have murdered more than 100 women in nearly three decades. But Broomfield turns the film into a portrait of a ravaged community in which some abetted the killer, some looked the other way, and some stood helplessly by as they were victimized. Driving around the neighborhood in the company of its residents (some crack addicts, some ex-prostitutes, some homeless), the director finds out more in few days than the LAPD did in 25 years. Along the way we learn a new acronym attributed to police regarding a lot of urban crime: NHI. No Humans Involved. Hard to watch but essential. —DE Photo: South Central Films
Martin Scorsese’s entertaining and informative documentary about the New York Review of Books looks pretty straightforward at first glance — it’s a tribute to and an overview of the journal’s five-decade history, featuring interviews (some archival) with key contributors over the years. But Scorsese proves to be a truly engaged chronicler. By going into the details of the editorial process of the NYRB, the film winds up making a passionate argument for a truly independent style of journalism and criticism that’s all too rare today; it could just as easily have been subtitled Utopia. —BE Photo: Magna Entertainment
In yet another of director Abderrahmane Sissako’s beautiful, beguiling studies in human folly and perseverance, an Islamist takeover upends life for the people in and around a town in Northern Mali. But this is not the black-and-white, good-and-evil screed you might expect: Sissako’s generosity of vision extends to both oppressors and oppressed, even as he shows the horrific consequences of the militants’ actions. Given recent world events, this is one of the most urgent films at this festival. It’s also, as it so happens, one of the most visually striking. —BE Photo: Les Films du Torso
A riveting documentary about piracy from the pirate’s point of view: Alternating between real-life footage and animated interludes, Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting follow Mohammed, a veteran Somali pirate, as he reflects on his past, contemplates his future, and plans what may be his final act of piracy. Last year’s festival opened with the gripping, masterful Captain Phillips. Some felt that film didn’t tell the full story; this provides vital perspective. —BE
The great Nouvelle Vague filmmaker Alain Resnais passed away earlier this year. His final film is a winning, oblique adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s play about theater, love, death, and regret. Describing the setup can do no justice to the film’s layers. An amateur theater group goes about preparing a play while also dealing with the impending death of one of their members. Resnais intercuts between clearly artificial sets and lush traveling shots of the Yorkshire countryside; meanwhile, the characters fluidly move between running their lines and real life. Thus, the film’s breezy surfaces mask its sad heart: The real world, Resnais suggests, lies beyond the boundaries of the frame, beyond this limbo of cinema. And if you really want to get a sense of the swath of this director’s career, pair this with a screening of the restored Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais’s legendary breakthrough feature — a meditative, sensuous look at memory, loss, and war — also screening at the fest. —BE Photo: F Comme Films
The French, they love George (Inspector Maigret) Simenon, whose novel is the basis for this glum, glacial, sexually explicit, and syntactically scrambled quasi-mystery directed by and starring festival darling Mathieu Amalric. He plays a man in heavy lust with the dark-haired (on top and bottom) wife (Stephanie Cleau) of a friend, while his bloned wife (Léa Drucker) gazes at him sadly, angrily, knowingly. He’s accused of doing something terrible (we don’t know what until late), which he might or might not have done but is, in any case, guilty over. You can feel Amalric’s love of cinema in every scrupulous frame, but the film feels long even at 75 minutes. —DE Photo: IFC Films
For all the sumptuousness on display, words are the currency of Dominik Graf’s historical film about the romantic and creative love triangle between Friedrich Schiller and the sisters Carlotta and Caroline von Lengefeld — words as expressed via love letters, in poems, through social niceties. It’s a film that is both romantic and Romantic: It depicts the passions between the characters as well as their passion for the eternal, for embracing life. Don’t be imitated by the length, either; it’s a surprisingly brisk, absorbing film, shot and cut with the speed of a thriller. —BE Photo: Frederik Batier/Bavaria Filmverleih
Eugene Green’s unique brand of art-house provocation — featuring stilted, frontal conversations about high-minded subjects — is not for all tastes, but this film, which tackles happiness, fulfillment, and architecture as its subjects, might be his most immersive work yet. —BE
Or the triumph of vacuous virtuosity. Alejandro González Iñárritu films this teeming backstage showbiz drama in what’s made to look like one fluid take, transcending time (and sometimes space) with magical realism. It centers on the feverish attempt of a fading movie star played by Michael Keaton (he made his fortune, like Keaton, as a superhero) to prove himself on Broadway in a self-penned, self-directed adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The overheated technique synchs up perfectly with the cast’s enjoyable overemoting: Edward Norton is a mesmerizing jerk actor, and kitten-eyed Emma Stone as Keaton’s druggie daughter overacts with all her heart. (The film also features Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, and Zach Galifianakis.)   You can’t not respond to the showmanship, even when it’s tasteless. (Iñárritu never bothers to tell you if his hero’s play is actually good: The snippets we see are dismal, though the sheeplike audience marvels.) The low point is the scene with a smugly corrupt New York Times chief drama critic (Lindsay Duncan) who tells Keaton that, sight unseen, she’ll pan his show because he’s a movie star — as if everyone connected with Broadway these days isn’t grateful for film actors who can hold the stage and bring in crowds. (Iñárritu should hardly complain about nasty, unprincipled critics, most of whom have fallen hard for his films). This is the sort of movie that wins standing ovations because you see the effort and want to cry, “Whew!” —DE Photo: Fox Searchlight