The New York Film Festival serves each year as a preview of many foreign and independent movies that are to be released over the following several months. It can be a mixed bag, but is often very rewarding. This year, in addition to the opening night feature, The Darjeeling Limited (which I reviewed here last week), I saw eleven movies ranging from interesting failures to downright brilliant movies that you won’t want to miss. Here’s a look at what I saw:
Margot at the Wedding
Noah Baumbach still hasn’t found a visual style to give form to his skillful writing and the excellent performances he elicits from actors. This new movie, like his last one, The Squid and the Whale, is visually murky and uninvolving. Both films are about dysfunctional families among New York’s literati, but this script is not as consistently excellent and piercing as was Squid. Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh are marvelous as sisters who hate and love each other just about equally. Kidman has the showier part of a near-psychopath whose deep insecurities lead her to lash out at the people she most cares for. Jack Black is also quite effective as Leigh’s sensitive loser of a fiancé.
Gus Van Sant’s new movie is the third in a loosely connected “trilogy” of strange and beautiful meditations on youth and anomie and violence, following Elephant and Last Days. Possibly Van Sant has left the mainstream, commercial cinema behind permanently, and both he and his audience may be the better for it. This film shares some of the amazing visual qualities of Elephant and Last Days, and their critical view of American culture and conformism and what this does to misfits. But it is based on a young adult novel and has a much more conventional approach to narrative and characters than the two earlier movies, which turned off many filmgoers with their avant-garde refusal to entertain in any “normal” manner. As he often has in the past, Van Sant gets a remarkable performance from a non-professional actor, in this instance Gabe Nevins, in the lead role of a Portland, Oregon skateboarding high schooler who gets involved in a grisly crime. The photography, the use of music, the overall look and feel are hypnotic, but in a way that evokes the sort of post-modern installation art you might find at the Whitney or the Tate Modern, rather than other movies you would see in a theater. This will come and go quickly. Don’t miss it if you care about cinema as a living, evolving art form. But escapist entertainment it most certainly is not.