Film Critic Harlan Jacobson: 58th NYFF

Oct 20, 2020

NYFF 2020
Credit NYFF

DD: The NY Film Festival, which ended last weekend, was a miracle that it happened at all. The 58th festival, since its founding in 1962 by Richard Roud and Amos Vogel, faced challenges that the previous 57 never did. Like Toronto last month, it scrambled to go virtual. The good news is it turned up some quality films among its 50 film lineup that will make their way to you on your home screen, and possibly to theaters, some day soon.

Like everyone else, our film critic Harlan Jacobson was not on the scene. But here’s what he saw anyway, thanks to the festival stream.

HJ: When you see 2020, this strange year, it has in its way helped all of us to have occasional bouts of perfect vision: What’s important. Who’s important. The long months of retreat, the summer of respite, the looming return to the pandemic.

What I liked about the films this year at the 58th NYFF is that many characters and stories were struggling toward the new. New world, New places, new ways of being. That’s actually often true, but this year, 2020, you could more than see it with perfect vision. The films had an emotional resonance with how personal struggle was rooted in a world that still moved about its own streets, even if uneasily. It all felt round but full of costs paid to be here.

"I Carry You With Me" was one of Harlan's favorites at the NYFF
Credit NYFF

Highlights included: I CARRY YOU WITH ME, a Mexican film about Ivan, a middle-aged gay chef and restaurant owner in New York, and the life cost he paid to leaves his family at 20-something in Puebla, south east of Mexico City. There’s no future in Puebla, Ivan runs out of space , and like many an immigrant to New York, “crosses over” the personal and the geographic Rio Grande to “move himself forward.” That’s what he tells his lover, Gerardo, the son of a landed cattle rancher he initially leaves behind, and himself. It’s beautifully shot with urgency and color, and acted by Armando Espitia as Ivan, and Christian Vasquez as Gerardo. I wasn’t put off by its late revelation that it sprang from a true story. It’s the emotional template created by director Heidi Ewing, and her script collaboration with Alan Page, who wrote Babel some years back. A Sundance ’20 World premiere, Sony Pics Classics will release in January.

I mostly liked the three chapters of Steve McQueen’s British series, SMALL AXE, about West Indian life at different time periods in London. They are quiet stories that continually tease you with the hint of explosions awaiting the beleaguered black population. McQueen paves the way for privileged entry into an alien world, where many of us could never go. Watching his characters in the Small Axe trilogy is like spying through a scope at the hunted as they move across the grounds of the hunter. Look for Small Axe soon on Amazon.

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The first chapter, MANGROVE centers on Cafe Mangrove in Notting Hill in 1968, which was a clean well, lighted place for Island ex-pats, hounded by racist bobbies who break plates and heads with impunity. When things go too far, Shaun Parkes who plays Frank Crichlow, the Mangrove owner, and friends get their day at the Old Bailey to make their case.

LOVERS ROCK, the second in the Small Axe series, is set in 1980s London, over one complete day that begins with the prep for a Reggae birthday party and ends at dawn. In their quiet way McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland, flirt with every disaster you can think of that threatens young black men and women--kids really--before landing on a dime on Sunday morning.

RED WHITE AND BLUE, the third installment, also written by McQueen and Newland, is the story of Leroy Logan, a young Island Man doing bio research in a police pathology lab, who decides one day to trade his lab whites for the full blues of a beat cop. He wants to change police work from containment to community preservation. Logan finds there’s little room to wiggle, no one is happy to see him on the beat or at home, no one has his back, quite literally. As Logan, John Boyega is wonderfully reminiscent of the young Poitier, who understood how to use silence.

William Klein’s 1974 doc, MUHAMMAD ALI: THE GREATEST, while an interesting restoration, does not hold up to Leon Gast’s 1996 doc, When We Were Kings, when Ali took down George Forman in the rope-a-dope Rumble in the Jungle. Both docs establish Ali’s transformation from a stripling with a mouth on him to a legend.

"Meeting The Man, James Baldwin in Paris"
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But the preceding 27-minute short, MEETING THE MAN, JAMES BALDWIN In PARIS, filmed in 1971 in Paris and just restored, sets off neurons you don’t normally use. This is in part because Baldwin is fascinating, seductive, elusive, shaming and always a pain in the ass to pin down. Director Terence Dixon, a well-meaning young Brit acolyte 50 years ago, hung on for dear life in Baldwin’s slippery presence, and in the end got the native son to say a bit more about who he is or was by saying who he wasn’t.

You’re going to want to catch up with THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS, a wonderful doc set in the Dolomites, about the white truffle hunters, the wily old coyote crazy men who know where the truffles are and will take the secrets to the grave, and the truffle brokers, trying to get everyone to behave a little more like a commodity market. Beautiful to look at, funny, and ultimately about the vanishing world of quality fit only for kings. Coming to a pixel near you by Sony Pictures Classics.

"American Utopia"
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I saw David Byrne’s AMERICAN UTOPIA live on Broadway where it lived until the pandemic. Now both the Toronto Film Festival and the NYFF brought Spike Lee’s film of a live performance for HBO to a big screen--in NY on the Army Terminal pier in Brooklyn. (It won’t reopen live on Broadway until Sept 21, 2021.) There is no opening up beyond the stage, but Lee and cinematographer Ellen Kuras used the camera as a pool cue to take shots from all sides swooping in, around and behind, even overhead to capture the joyful noise. Byrne has always played with, satirized and celebrated the art of the pose and the poses people strike. “Once in A Lifetime,” the Gen X anthem, is held back until the midpoint.

In American Utopia Byrne has affirmed city culture and its inherent inclusiveness-- there’s one of everything in his troupe—dressed in gray suits, in bare feet, like a dancing graveyard, given light and color by the magnificent light techies. It’s not just for us here: Byrne sends a lighthouse signal to all those who feel they don’t quite fit where they are… So come on down to the great White Way—the lights of Broadway and the next NYFF.

"French Exit"
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Normally, FRENCH EXIT by Azazel Jacobs, the closing night of the virtual film fest, is the sort of city culture film that rubs my fur the wrong way. Cute, cute, cute, a drop down from Woody Allen into the ranks of Noah Baumbach and the much more likable Greta Gerwig. French Exit is a mother-son story with notes of Harold and Maude in it. Michelle Pfeiffer is both a carefree and careless heiress who rolls up in a Rolls to pick up her son, played by Lucas Hedges, from his suffocating prep school where her ex stashed him. The pair decamp to Paris as their stack of cash is reduced to zero in an extravagant blowout. I loved both Pfeiffer and Hedges, I liked the script which was a lot of wink-wink by Patrick Dewitt, as was the score by Nick DeWitt. It’s like distrusting the sincerity of marzipan your whole life, only to bite into a particularly good piece of bourbon vanilla. Go figure. Sony Pictures Classics will release—again, somehow—Feb. 21. And I’m Harlan Jacobson.