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Four Days At The Flooded New York Film Festival

NYFF programmer Rachel Rosen moderates a press conference with director Todd Haynes, writer/executive producer Samy Burch, producers Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Jessica Elbaum and for "May December" during the 61st New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 29, 2023 in New York City.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for FLC

It's fall in New York City, and for me that signals that it's time for cool casual jackets, a lot of midwestern emo records, and making the miserable subway trek from Brooklyn to Lincoln Center in Manhattan for the New York Film Festival. I've attended for the past five years since I first moved into the city (the fest did not run in 2020), and it's become the main way I see the bulk of the biggest movies of the second half of the year, before awards season kicks up.

I have a love-hate relationship with the NYFF, despite it being my home festival. It feels like the organizers go out of their way to be inaccessible and unhelpful to the less well-heeled attendees, but in that typical capitalist power structure way where they can deny that such inaccessibility even exists, and insist that it exists only in your head. This year, the festival's gatekeepers got an assist from the weather, when flooding struck the city on the same day that two of the festival's biggest premieres—Todd Haynes's May December and Yorgos Lanthimos's Poor Things—were on the schedule. The rain more or less shut down the entire subway system, but that's a problem for the poor and unwanted, and the NYFF caters to industry people and the kinds of Manhattanites who live near its ritzy zip code. So the festival went as scheduled despite the flooding, because the festival is committed to never going off its schedule. Tough shit to the public transit users who wanted to see either of those movies.

It sure would've been nice to have had a chance to pay to see one of the secondary screenings of May December or Poor Things, but those sold out the first day tickets went on sale to the public. My only option after that was waiting in the standby line for hours, hoping that maybe I wasn't too far down in line to get into the screening. As you can probably surmise, I did not see either of these movies.

But that's a first-world problem in the grand scheme of things, so let's talk about some notable movies I did see.

All Of Us Strangers, directed by Andrew Haigh and starring Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Claire Foy, and Jamie Bell

This one was a doozy to watch in a theater. A pretty looking melodrama by the guy who made the HBO show Looking and 2011's Weekend about dead parents, loneliness, and queer love. It was a doozy because this movie, which has a ghost story's sense of surreality and dream logic and insists upon its theme of grief and loneliness with the tact of a sledgehammer, caught me at both the right and wrong time.

A week before seeing it I found out that a college acquaintance of mine had been murdered. I don't feel comfortable pretending that the grief is mine to have because we weren't close enough, but we shared a lot of friends and the violent way his life was taken shook me to my core and put me in the kind of mindset where I can't stop thinking about death and where it'll come from next in a country that has no real respect for life, particularly a black one. All that was swirling in my head as I watched this movie about a young gay man (Andrew Scott) who lost his parents at age 12 to a car crash and begins to have visions (or are they?) of his parents (Jamie Bell, Claire Foy) still living in his childhood home. When he comes to see them, they catch up on all the things they've missed in his life since their deaths, including his coming out. It's an interesting film with a premise that could easily be a hokey tear-jerker (and at times it is), but it commits to the bit so hard (and with such good actors), that it can't help but work. There's a version of this movie that would work better as a stage play, but Haigh made a beautiful looking film alongside it's claustrophobic melodrama. The movie isn't just one long roller coaster of sadness, either; it's funny at times and sexy at others, the latter bit provided by the relationship between this man and the only other guy living in his fancy London apartment (Paul Mescal). They have great chemistry together, and Mescal's great at playing wounded puppy men (non-derogatory).

The Boy and The Heron, directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Hold up wait a minute. Y'all thought he was finished? The Boy and The Heron, the 44th definitely-last-but-probably-not film by Miyazaki, is a fantastical autobiographical story about a young boy who loses his mother and goes on a journey through the spirit world. Another movie about grief, but this time told through the lens of the spiritual and phantasmic. There are some who will tell you this is just Miyazaki playing the hits; I would argue that those are some pretty goddamn good hits, and this is probably the most purely enjoyable experience I've had in a theater all year. Not only is this movie delightful, and a nice change of pace from all the computer animated fare currently out, it's a reminder that nobody makes animated movies like this guy. These are movies that are challenging and sophisticated and adult while still being for children, and not in the condescending way found in other animated films that make pop-culture references and use songs from the '80s and '90s that kids know nothing about just so parents won't get bored. The Boy and The Heron isn't completely hand-drawn, like past Miyazaki movies, but it still holds onto rich detail and specificity like the others, and its depiction of a spirit world in concert with ours was genuinely moving to watch.

Evil Does Not Exist, directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and starring Hitoshi Omika, Ryô Nishikawa, Ryûji Kosaka, and Ayaka Shibutani

Hands down the strangest film I saw at the festival. An eerie and hypnotic movie about nature, industry, and authenticity vs. phoniness. The movie pulls all sorts of deep ideas from a story about a local community where a big corporation wants to start a "glamping" site (that's glamorous camping, and apparently it's a whole thing). This is one of those movies where it's better to go in blind, but I will say it's a movie that leaves more questions than answers, and even I was unsure what to make of what I'd just seen, particularly given its wild ending. What I can say is that I haven't forgotten it. The movie's been stuck in my bones because Hamaguchi does an unsettling thing where he forces scenes to drag out longer than you expect them to, but then ends them abruptly (a similar thing happens with the score). As a followup to the successful Drive My Car, I don't think this is the kind of movie that will garner that level of acclaim and appreciation, but I was put under its spell.

Maestro, directed by Bradley Cooper and starring Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan

It's kind of frustrating, but also kind of amazing, that Bradley Cooper is a pretty good director. His abilities allow him to engage in movie star self-indulgence from behind the camera, but those indulgences are often validated by technical mastery and the scope of the stories he tackles. Do you know how many actors wish they could just do what Cooper is doing right now? How many actors have been able to parlay box-office success and industry connections into a second career as an auteur? Like it or not, Cooper is the Warren Beatty of his era.

Maestro, about the life and marriage of the composer Leonard Bernstein to his wife Felicia Montealegre, is a deeply self-indulgent piece of muscular filmmaking in the mold of Raging Bull. It's designed to impress you and bowl you over with its technical bonafides and Oscar-haranguing performances. Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper (and Bradley Cooper's maybe antisemitic fake nose plaster) are capital A acting, and this is one long, exhausting showcase. But one thing about me that you might be picking up on is I cannot help but admire strong commitment. I look at movies like this almost as an athletic feat, and just like with the most recent A Star Is Born, this movie is so committed to its own self-seriousness that I can't bring myself to hate it.

Aggro Dr1ft, directed by Harmony Korine and starring Jordi Mollà and Travis Scott (lol)

OK, so: I have always wondered what it would be like to be in a theater for a premiere that lead to multiple walkouts. You read those pieces about the premier of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me at Cannes or the Reservoir Dogs premiere at Sundance, and you see the phrase "multiple walkouts," and you wonder: Does everyone leave at once? Did people do a dramatic "harumph" with their nose in the air as they left the theater?

Once again, reality is always more boring. Multiple people walked out of the theater during Aggro Dr1ft, a rotoscoped experimental crime movie by trash artist Harmony Korine, but they all left slowly and sheepishly, as though they were just tired of being bored. I cannot in good conscience call Aggro Dr1ft a good movie, or even a good experiment, and I will tell you for an 80-minute film I felt every one of those 80 minutes. But that said, I appreciated it the way you might appreciate a museum exhibit that catches your eye, even if you can recognize it's an absolute mess.

To get into the plot mechanics of this movie would be a waste of both of our times—it's a movie about assassins fighting the devil, and then some strippers are dancing around for some reason. It is the second-strangest thing I saw here, and the most ridiculous. It is both a bad movie and a great screensaver. I honestly believe the ideal way to watch this movie is on your phone when you can't fall asleep, or on the background screen at an acid-house club party. At times it seems like a movie specifically catered to the video game-addled minds of all the Travis Scott fans who are sure to support this thing if it somehow makes it to a wide theater run. It is also probably the ideal version of a film adaptation of Grand Theft Auto. Harmony Korine, you're still crazy after all these years.

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