The 2020 New York Film Festival: A Recap

Clockwise: French Exit, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, The Disciple

Since I moved to New York in 2016, I’ve spent the first two weeks of October camping out at Lincoln Center for the New York Film Festival. When I decided to go to journalism school this year, I knew that it would throw a curveball into this routine. Then two things happened: I got press credentials as a journalism student to cover the festival, and a global pandemic forced the entire thing to go online, so I could watch everything from my home (Thanks, Donald Trump!) As with every year I’ve attended, the films I’ve seen have been at their best transcendent, and at their worst, still worthy of discussion.

Take for example, Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You with Me, a film about two gay Mexicans, Iván and Gerardo, who emigrate to the United States. Ewing, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated documentary Jesus Camp, has known the real Iván and Gerardo for years, and mashes up a fictionalized version of their love story and border crossing with footage of them in contemporary New York. There are some extraordinary scenes in the first half, particularly Iván’s tense border crossing with his sister. The scene where he finally makes it into lower Texas and meets a woman who gives him directions to a safe space reminded me of my favorite scene in Midnight Cowboy, when Joe Buck meets the waitress upon arriving in Miami and experiences the first act of genuine kindness he has received the whole movie. Unfortunately, the film’s mash-up style works against it, since the actors playing Iván and Gerardo look nothing like their real-life counterparts, and its real-life lack of resolution is unsatisfying after we’ve invested so much in their struggles. A full-on documentary would have been more interesting. But it is still worth seeing for its first half, and Ewing should be commended for taking on this subject matter.

Far less interesting for me was Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit, this year’s closing night film, a comedy-drama about Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer), a widow who’s lost all her money and moves to Paris to live out the last days of her life with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges.) All the actors have their moments, but they are all done a disservice by Jacobs’ unbearably heavy-handed direction, which sucks out all room for humor — yes, the subject matter may be dark at times, but this is still a movie where Tracy Letts plays a talking cat, for God’s sake. At times I wondered why he had chosen to adapt Patrick deWitt’s novel as a film instead of a play, since the allusions to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard — also about a rich woman with money problems — were so strong. But like most Chekhov productions I’ve seen, Jacobs replaced humor with self-imposed seriousness, turning something that could have been lively into a one-note slog. Pfeiffer will likely generate Oscar buzz, but let’s get real, Academy: you had your chance in 1989 when she was up for The Fabulous Baker Boys, and you blew it. You don’t get a Mulligan.

Fortunately, French Exit was the exception and not the norm, as most of the films I saw were excellent. I’ve already written about two of them — Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland and Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI, so I won’t go into too much detail on them here, except to say that the former is part of a rich American tradition of stories that, to quote the critic Leo Bersani, are about Americans “expelled by America.” McDormand’s Fern is an extraordinary character who resists conventional psychological interpretation: yes, economic conditions and personal tragedies have made her an outcast, but even if we didn’t know that, we would still be compelled by her journey. And MLK/FBI, a documentary about J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with monitoring Martin Luther King Jr., is both a great film and a great educational tool: hopefully Pollard develops a lesson plan for students around it the same way Ava DuVernay did with 13th.

Then there is Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, a great film about an aspiring classical raga singer, Sharad (played by real-life raga artist Aditya Modak), who, like Salieri and Llewyn Davis, is single-mindedly devoted to his music to the point that it alienates him from the rest of the world. Sharad¹ is himself a disciple of many mentors: his guru, Guruji, his father, and his father’s raga teacher, Maai, whose lectures he listens to on tape. But he has internalized their advice too literally, and cannot do what all great disciples must eventually do: break free. Unlike his main character, Tamhane has nothing to prove, as his elegant camerawork and the restrained performances he gets from his actors shows. Even more remarkable is that it is only his second feature film: his first, 2014’s Court, got him the attention of Alfonso Cuarón, who took him under his wing during the filming of Roma and gets an executive producer credit here. Cuarón chose wisely — if this film is any indication, Tamhane is going to have a long and fruitful career.

The major coup of this year’s programming was the screening of three entries in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe Anthology, part of a series of films centering around England’s West Indian Community that will debut on Amazon this fall. The films — Lovers Rock, Mangrove, and Red, White, and Blue — are some of the crowning achievements of McQueen’s career. In them, he shows us new sides of himself by re-examining movie genres through the lens of the Black English Immigrant Experience.

Lovers Rock, the first to be screened, takes place over the course of one evening at a west London house party where Black men and women sing, dance, and hook up. McQueen, whose previous work has been more austere and reserved, creates a rapturous film where communal singing and dancing become transcendent. It is not all light and bubbly — the threats of White racism and predatory men on the dance floor are still there — but the highs are extraordinary, such as the a cappella rendition of the song “Silly Games” that the characters sing after the record turns off (and which, according to McQueen, was completely improvised on set.) McQueen has said before that he’s always wanted to do a musical, and this, I suspect, is the closest thing we’ll get to one from him for a while — that is, unless, Stephen Sondheim’s estate asks him to make a movie of Company or Follies (fingers crossed.)

In Mangrove, he gives us a real-life courtroom drama about a Notting Hill café called the Mangrove that was a Studio 54 of Black cultural life (Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley were regulars, as well as Marxist historian C.L.R. James, who appears as a character in the film), and which was repeatedly raided during the late 1960s, culminating in the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine for conspiracy to start a riot. The police raids are quick and brutal, and McQueen is wise not to spend too much time on their brutality: the shot of a spinning colander in the ransacked kitchen, which twirls on the floor for more than 30 seconds, says it all. I knew nothing about this story going in and found myself captivated by the various twists that it takes, particularly when the defendants become their own counsel and put the White policemen on the stand. The film is more than just a history lesson, however: it’s also an inspirational story tracking Frank Crichlow (played by Lost in Space’s Shaun Parkes) the owner of the club, as he goes from avoiding his role as a leader in his community to accepting and embracing it, all while contextualizing his and his comrades’ parts in the long history of Black liberation.

The last of the three, Red, White and Blue, is the most challenging. In it, Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a Black scientist who changes careers to become a police officer, and the pressures he encounters both from his family, who disapprove of his new profession, and his White co-workers, who subject him to both micro and macro-aggressions. It’s challenging both because as Americans, we are processing the racism of our own police, and also because at 75 minutes, it goes in and out so fast that I wished I could have seen more of Logan’s story, especially since I realized after watching it that it was based on true events (in my rush to finish it before my viewing period expired, I didn’t read the press notes.)

What gives the film its power, however, is John Boyega’s performance, which is the work of a true movie star. He reminds me of John Gilbert and the other great stars of the silent era in that he doesn’t have to say a word: we learn everything from his eyes, which reveal multitudes. As such, it becomes fascinating just to watch him think. In one of his best scenes, he hears someone playing Marvin Gaye in the dorm room across from his. He knocks on the door and finds a White guy ironing his uniform, listening to the record. It’s not explicitly stated whether or not he thought his colleague would be Black, but watching Boyega’s thought process gives us that impression.

Surely there will be debate over whether or not the Small Axe Anthology counts as movies or as TV, given the unconventional nature of both the films themselves and the way they’re being distributed. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Great art defies categorization, and the great films from this year’s festival defy it too.

[1] People who are trained to listen to raga will probably be able to pinpoint exactly how Modak gives the impression of being a mediocre raga singer. I can only assume his technique is similar to Madeline Kahn’s in Blazing Saddles: it takes a great singer to know how to play a bad one.

Freelance writer and journalist. Bylines: Vulture, The Daily Banter, Former Jeopardy! contestant.

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