“The more I do it, the more I think that moviemaking is so much about the present time,” says Isabelle Huppert, the sprite-size French titan of Continental cinema (and beyond). “What happens is here, ici maintenant — like in philosophy, ‘here and now.’ It’s about this moment.”
For the past 45 years, Huppert’s brilliant, alert, and alive performances have been the fulcrum of films directed by, to name just a few, Claude Chabrol (the late auteur with whom she made 1988’s Story of Women, among many other titles, and with whom she is most closely associated), Jean-Luc Godard (Every Man for Himself, from 1980), Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, 2001), and Claire Denis (White Material, 2009). Huppert excels at creating characters who defy simple assessment, the result, perhaps, of exhibiting agile reflexes while resisting overdetermination. As she explains: “The joy of doing it is how this miracle is going to repeat, hopefully. Not only every day, but every take.”
Those miracles can be witnessed at this year’s New York Film Festival in two titles that both feature the actress in almost every frame: Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. In the former, Huppert plays Nathalie Chazeaux, a high school philosophy professor whose husband of 25 years, a fellow pedagogue, abruptly announces that he’s leaving her for another woman; in the latter, she is Michèle Leblanc, the CEO of a video game company who gets revenge — sort of — on the man who rapes her in the film’s opening seconds.
Though the films are radically different — Hansen-Løve’s unfolds as a gentle drama while Verhoeven’s is a constantly bewildering coal-black comedy — Huppert’s protagonists share certain biographical details. Both Nathalie and Michèle become or are already divorced, have impossibly overbearing mothers, and become grandmothers during the course of the films. (Also: A cat features prominently in each woman’s life.) But on top of these superficial similarities, Huppert sees a broader thematic link between the two projects.
“There is a mirror effect from one to another,” the actress, 63, explained during a conversation in the amphitheater of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, while in town earlier this month to perform the title role(s) in Phaedra(s) onstage at BAM. (She’ll be back in the city for the NYFF presentations of Things to Come and Elle; both screen at the festival on October 14 and 15 and will open in theaters later this fall.) “I think that these are two women who don’t want to be victims and want to turn what happened to them into something — not positive, but they want to take control.”
Hansen-Løve, whose two previous features, Goodbye First Love (2011) and Eden (2014), were also showcased at NYFF, wrote the part of Nathalie with Huppert specifically in mind, though the character is based partly on the director’s own mother. (Both of Hansen-Løve’s parents are philosophy professors; by sheer coincidence, her mom taught Huppert’s daughter, Lolita, at a lycée north of Paris years before the filmmaker and actress began their collaboration.) “We were really in tune during the whole shoot,” Huppert says of working with Hansen-Løve, whose instructions to her lead performer were simple. “She didn’t want to do something too sentimental. And she also wanted to keep a certain light[ness] to the film. This is something she constantly oriented my performance to. Maybe my deep tendency would be to darken things a little bit. Even small details — a way of smiling at a certain moment, where maybe instinctively I wouldn’t have smiled.”
Yet any film starring Huppert bears her authorial stamp as much as that of its director. As Nathalie navigates her life after her spouse’s departure — a process that includes deepening her ties to her favorite former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), in a lovely depiction of intergenerational friendship — the actress perfectly calibrates her responses, never overplaying them while burrowing deep into her character’s emotions. “It helps to maintain a certain distance to whatever happens,” she says. “Even when I have arguments with my husband in Things to Come, to keep this constant slight hint of irony avoids put[ting] too much [of a] burden on what you do. It’s doing a step back. You keep the drama, you keep the hurt, you keep everything, but it becomes lighter.”
The actress’s ability to bring levity to even the most sinister scenarios is crucial to a project as perplexing and unsettling — and funny — as Verhoeven’s Elle, a film that unmoors spectators from the start: After Michèle is violated in her luxe Saint-Germain home, she calmly sweeps up the debris, draws herself a bubble bath, and calls for takeout sushi. When she discovers the identity of her assailant, she pursues him, but in highly unexpected ways.
Huppert had been a fan of Verhoeven — the Dutch provocateur equally renowned and reviled for Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995) — going all the way back to one of his earliest features, Turkish Delight (1973), about the tempestuous relationship between a sculptor and his wife. “I remember reading this very good review of [Turkish Delight] in Charlie Hebdo,” she recalls. “The film was completely neglected release-wise; it was [shown] in a semi-porno movie house, and that’s where I saw it.”
It makes sense that Verhoeven’s audacious sensibility would appeal to Huppert, whose portrayal of the sadomasochistic Erika Kohut (partial to genital-slicing and Mom-humping) in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher endures as one of her most indelible performances from the past fifteen years. “Verhoeven is always on the razor’s edge,” the actress explains. “Like in Black Book” — his 2006 feature — “you have the Jewish girl sleeping with the Nazi.” Huppert inhales dramatically before continuing: “It’s always a bit hard to swallow. There’s always the risk that you confuse the [critique] with the empathy. Where you think he’s in empathy with his subject, no — it’s the contrary.”
To preserve the multiple ambiguities that provide the motor for Elle (written by David Birke and based on Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel, “Oh...”), Huppert and Verhoeven avoided lengthy conversations about her enigmatic character. “If I was going to explain with Paul before [starting] Elle, it would have been hell, with an h — to explain [Michèle’s] behavior,” she insists. “And Paul never said a word to me as we were doing the film, never. He said, ‘I was completely more like a witness.’ “ Huppert says that she approached the role as a spectator of sorts as well: “I never knew exactly what I was going to do the day before. It was always a surprise for me as I was doing it.”
Huppert’s resulting performance is a careful balancing act, one in which she refuses to soften the hard edges of the unpredictable lead character in a film that, as she notes, “gives you more hypotheses” than answers. “Certainly she’s not afraid of going beyond certain limits,” the actress says of Michèle, whose most memorable line in the film may be, “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all.” Endlessly complex, the Elle protagonist is, per Huppert, “a new heroine. She has the ways of overcoming whatever: her shame, her guilt.” And observations that the actress makes about Michèle could equally apply to Nathalie in Things to Come: “She’s a solitary woman. She’s fearless, also. That’s what makes her interesting.” Fearless: just like the actress herself.
Top photo: Isabelle Huppert photographed by Andrew Eccles
In 2006, a publicist in Los Angeles picked up a camera for the first time, unsure of her motivation. “I don’t know what possessed me,” she recalled recently. “I didn’t think it would lead to anything great. I just wanted to make this little story that I remembered about me and my mom and my sisters.”
The short, Saturday Night Life, concerned a black mother in Compton who dresses her three daughters up and takes them to a local grocery store, inviting compliments from strangers about the girls in order to feel better about her difficult life. This novice director had a budget of — don’t laugh — $13,000. And a great deal of resolve.
Obviously, none of this would mean squat if that publicist hadn’t blown up into the black female Hollywood filmmaker with the most cake — or really, any cake — Ava DuVernay. Saturday Night Life made it into the Urbanworld Film Festival, and that revved DuVernay’s motor. She went to film school via osmosis, absorbing knowledge from her A-list clients (including Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg), a couple of whom fell in love with and decided to produce a feature script she’d written called Middle of Nowhere. The film won the directing prize for drama at Sundance in 2012. Now, a mere decade removed from her first short, DuVernay has three narrative features to her credit, including Best Picture nominee Selma, eight or so documentary short films, and, soon, a $100 million adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. The Oprah Winfrey Network premiered DuVernay’s sensuous black drama series, Queen Sugar, earlier this month in part because co-creator Oprah aggressively befriended her after actor David Oyelowo directed her to DuVernay’s online profile.
DuVernay’s latest documentary feature is The 13th, a sobering look at the prison-industrial complex that will open the New York Film Festival on September 30 — the first time the NYFF has ever selected a work of nonfiction as its opening film. (Netflix and limited theatrical releases will follow on October 7.) If its title sounds like that of a horror film, that’s appropriate: The 13th sheds light on a real terror, visited upon real human beings. The ordinal refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which officially abolished slavery. Yet it also retained an unfortunate loophole, doing away with involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The clause has made it possible to arrest American citizens (primarily black American citizens) on flimsy charges, fine them at rates they can’t pay, jail them, abuse them, and steal their labor. DuVernay’s film tracks these practices from their origins to the present day.
Aided by ominous charts depicting the exponentially rising numbers of prisoners in the United States, DuVernay’s tightly argued, deeply upsetting doc consists mostly of interviews with writers, activists, historians, and politicians about America’s history of mass incarceration and the nefarious ways it has victimized black people. Zipping from clip to clip like a racism supercut, The 13th jumps between archival footage of George Wallace pledging allegiance to segregation and choice modern-day pundit quotes, then splices in TV and viral video of, say, the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting or protests following the killing of Trayvon Martin. Each three- or four-second clip adds support to the argument like a brushstroke on a painting, mixing past and present to prove that history did not come from nowhere, nor is the present moment separate from history. Brought together in one place, the footage makes hauntingly visible the ways in which the justice system has criminalized African Americans, destroying families, promoting negative stereotypes, and ruining individual lives, at least since the ratification of that suspicious amendment in 1865.
At fault, according to expert commentators including Cory Booker, Henry Louis Gates, and Jelani Cobb, is a long list of perpetrators, among them: Richard Nixon, whose “Southern strategy” pioneered the practice of cynically gaining white votes by stigmatizing blacks and other brown people as coddled criminals and stepping up efforts to disenfranchise black voters; Bill Clinton and his hateful 1994 crime bill, which helped expand mandatory minimum sentences and led to an expanded prison industry and a more militarized police force; and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shady consortium of corporate lobbyists and state legislators that writes bills to benefit its backers — including companies like the Corrections Corporation of America that profit from building and running prisons.
The film tracks Martin’s 2012 killing at the hands of George Zimmerman back to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which Zimmerman used to avoid punishment despite having pursued Martin through his neighborhood with a gun. The law was written by ALEC, and its implementation in the Zimmerman case reinforced the prejudice that black males in hoodies carrying Skittles are scary criminals, even when unarmed and preyed upon by armed whites.
“It’s a lot of work to try to make it really seem like a tapestry that does have all these threads that go out,” says DuVernay. But looked at all together, she says, “it really is this, like, really fucked-up patchwork quilt” — an apt description for a film that manages to get Angela Davis and Newt Gingrich to sound like they agree about the effects of racial discrimination in the United States.
DuVernay was able to make The 13th thanks to her heightened profile, but, she says, it was already a topic dear to her heart. “Netflix asked if there was something I wanted to do after Selma,” she says. “I said I wanted to look at prisons, to create a primer to make it clear that prison isn’t just a place where bad people go.”
The lifelong Angelena grew up in Compton and remembers being “definitely affected by incarceration in my neighborhood, and the lopsidedness of the criminal justice system.” As her research progressed, though, she expanded her scope: “I thought it was just going to be about the prison-industrial complex and prison-for-profit, but I started to see that in order to fully explain it, I had to give it historical, cultural context.”
DuVernay conducted nearly fifty interviews, and it seems as though she used at least one quotation from every last person she talked to. One was Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, which along with Samuel D. Pollard’s 2012 documentary Slavery by Another Name (based on the Douglas A. Blackmon book of the same title on the history of black convict labor) was an inspiration for DuVernay’s film. “I wanted to give people this information so that they couldn’t say they didn’t know anymore,” she says. “There’s a lot going on that we close our eyes to.” The film whirs through your head like a channel-surfing nightmare, free-associating on injustice and then suddenly returning to its main points. The less you know going in about its subject matter, the more it demands further research on your part once you leave the theater.
Considering such insidious myths as that of black men as rapists of white women, DuVernay puts a measure of the blame on The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s classic white-supremacist movie from 1915 — particularly the way the director’s technical wizardry combined with his racial beliefs in a perfect storm of prejudice and bloodlust. “It was the first film to use all those tools that filmmakers use to manipulate and craft and manufacture emotion,” she says. “The trauma of those images on collective consciousness really speaks to the power of the image and to how that’s been used against so many for so long.”
So what, DuVernay’s film leaves us wondering, can we do about this corrupt system? “Oh, it definitely needs to be dismantled,” she says. “I’m a prison abolitionist for sure. The system needs to be done away with and [we have to] start over.”
As for that other system of longstanding institutional racism — the film industry itself — DuVernay is more conflicted. “The film industry I think is broken, it does not serve all of us. So radical change needs to happen. I am an anomaly — that’s why it’s so important to bring other people into the conversation, make sure other people are in the academy.” So often, she says, people in the movie industry insist that it’s impossible to hire diverse casts and crews. “Oh, you can’t find the people? OK, I’m gonna go find the people. ‘Well, they’re not gonna be qualified.’ [If] someone tells me they can’t do it, what that translates to in my head is, You are a liar. Straight up. Native Americans should be able to have a friggin’ sitcom [with] their actors.”
But pioneering is difficult — even with Oprah on your side, flying you out to chill at her place on Maui. “I just feel like I have a short window of time,” DuVernay says. “And there’s no black-woman Mike Nichols, or Spielberg, or Soderbergh, or Spike, you know what I mean? There is nobody [about whom] I can say, I’m gonna have a career like hers, ‘cause it just doesn’t exist! Not even a white woman! All I know is right now, the window’s open. I’m trying to crawl through it and bring a whole bunch of Negroes and Negresses in with me.”
Top image: Ava DuVernay by Alexandria Compain-Tissier
The city’s biggest, most important film festival opens this week with one of its most intimate lineups ever. “Small” would be the wrong word to use for this year’s New York Film Festival: The selection is broad and diverse in origin and style, and often seismic in impact. But as the wounded superheroes of summer limp away and the shiny Oscar hopefuls begin to emerge for their end-of-the-year race to the finish, it’s worth celebrating that the festival is highlighting films that are life-size in scale and human in approach.
The close of the summer season saw a rash of think pieces about the generally sad state of cinema in 2016, much of it to do with disappointing would-be blockbusters. Many of these pieces did offer “yes, but” disclaimers noting that excellent independent and foreign films are still out there. But focusing so much attention on big-budget studio product effectively consigns the “smaller” movies to a sidebar, further propagating the belief that, in the so-called cultural conversation, they somehow matter less. That’s a vicious circle if I’ve ever seen one.
The New York Film Festival, kicking off September 30 and running through October 16 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, arrives just in time to remind those of us who’ve forgotten that size and budget have little bearing on artistic value. Most of the titles being shown at the festival are not premieres; many played earlier this year at Cannes or Sundance. Perhaps that allowed the festival’s programmers to be more purposeful in their selections — to seek common strands and concerns beyond mere gala value or awards-season hype.
Many of this year’s films obsess over the idea of time, and the persistence of memory. Given that the world today is watching as elements of its darkest hidden self re-emerge — from old, simmering hatreds to the simplistic bluster of neo-feudal strongmen — it only makes sense that our movies are now focused on history and trauma (be it political or personal) and our futile attempts to bury, absolve, and forget.
For starters, New York has carried over wholesale from Cannes a tetralogy on women and memory. In Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, the Dardenne brothers’ Unknown Girl, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, four very different women struggle with the unexpected ways in which the past endures. In Almodóvar’s tense, color-coded melodrama — his best in many years — an estranged mother seeks to reconnect with her wayward daughter while examining the tragedies, and the broken men, that came between them. The Dardennes focus on a young doctor who sets off across the Belgian town of Liège to learn more about an unidentified dead immigrant whom she refused to help one fateful night. And in Assayas’s pseudo–ghost story, a celebrity assistant/medium (Kristen Stewart) obsessed with the loss of her twin brother finds herself dealing with a sleazy (and possibly spectral) cellphone stalker. (With its wild tonal shifts and fidgety central performance, Personal Shopper divided Cannes — I’m still not certain it’s all that good, but I am taken with its notion that there’s a pornographic quality to grief that can prevent us from letting go of it.)
The best of these four, Mendonça’s Aquarius, isn’t about trying to forget, but about trying not to be forgotten. It features a stunning performance by Brazilian legend Sônia Braga as a retired music journalist fighting to stay in her beloved apartment while a corrupt developer tries first to buy her out, then to push her out. To Braga’s character, the memories that haunt her home are like the pops and skips on a well-worn vinyl record — signs that she has passed through this world and lived and loved with ferocity. It’s an unusually tactile, even sensuous film, obsessed with worn surfaces, sense memories, and age.
These movies suggest that the past is never done with us. Some characters seek to preserve it, others want to flee it, but it always bubbles up in interesting ways. The return of the repressed threatens to turn Personal Shopper into a horror flick. Painful family memories transform Julieta into a film noir. The intensely gripping Unknown Girl, meanwhile, has all the trappings of a mystery — nothing new for the Dardennes, whose social dramas, such as Two Days, One Night and Lorna’s Silence, often come with genre inflections.
The horrifying resilience of memory also governs Kenneth Lonergan’s masterpiece Manchester by the Sea, in which Boston handyman Casey Affleck returns to his hometown in the wake of his brother’s sudden death and finds himself having to confront the wreckage of his former life. A down-and-outer goes home and faces his demons: That’s not exactly a novel logline, but Lonergan takes the idea and creates something profound from it, slowly revealing, via flashbacks, a tragic past that just about every character is already aware of. That’s usually a cheap trick in narrative filmmaking (if everyone in the movie already knows something, why shouldn’t we?), but here it replicates the protagonist’s failing attempts to forget. This is a film about what happens when you can’t triumph over grief.
Manchester by the Sea isn’t a “big” movie, but it is one of a handful of festival titles with hopes of Oscar glory. There’s also Barry Jenkins’s lovely Moonlight, a three-part drama following the coming of age of a young gay African-American man in Miami, as he moves through childhood awkwardness, teenage discovery, and twentysomething disillusionment. I hope that mainstream audiences will also embrace this intimate, at times almost unnervingly quiet movie, which has exploded among critics and Oscar handicappers on the fall festival circuit — it’s ready-made for an audience of discerning fest-goers. But its questioning, patient tone reflects the relatively understated quality of the awards-season hopefuls in this year’s lineup. Some do appear to be a bit more blustery than others: Consider Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, possibly the biggest-budgeted title here, which promises (it hasn’t screened yet) an eye-popping experience: Lee shot on high-frame-rate cameras that will supposedly give us the realest realness that has ever been realed. But even this film has memory on its mind: Adapted from Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, it concerns a wounded Iraq war vet suffering from PTSD and replaying his experiences of battle during an honor-our-soldiers appearance at an NFL game.
I also haven’t seen the closing-night film, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. Could it also have something to do with memory, and the return of things we wish to bury? Well, it is about an archaeological expedition to discover an ancient city in Brazil; it remains to be seen whether Gray has preserved the time-hopping structure of David Grann’s riveting nonfiction book.
The notion of confronting the past runs through many of the festival’s documentaries as well. Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s Hissèn Habré: A Chadian Tragedy presents interviews with victims of Habré, the brutal U.S.-backed strongman who ruled Chad through the 1980s and who was recently sentenced to life in prison. Haroun doesn’t offer much historical context — rather, he lets these men and women recount the torture they suffered under the regime, preserving historical memory through personal recollection. There are very few broad-strokes textbook lessons to be learned here, and the overall mood is not of empowerment or reconciliation: Haroun tries on occasion to get the victims and their former torturers and captors to come together, with mixed to disastrous results. The film, and the past, resist closure.
Similarly, in Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan, the life and death of the immortal jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan is retold via reminiscences with his colleagues, plus one final mesmerizing interview with his late wife, Helen, who shot Morgan dead in 1972. If Haroun’s film is a clear-eyed, relentless cataloging of brutal facts, Collin’s immersive work luxuriates in mood and texture. He focuses as much on the weather — the blowing snow, the driving rain, the whipping wind — and other experiential details as he does on the stories being told. You walk away from I Called Him Morgan with something just as valuable as historical facts: a sense of what it was like to be in that club, or on that street corner, or in that shabby apartment, in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Errol Morris is no stranger to digging up inconvenient and painful memories, but he’s here this year with the significantly more playful The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, in which the photographer recalls her decades of taking portraits using large-format Polaroid cameras. The film has the feel of an engaging doodle, as Dorfman guides us through her archive, rarely dwelling on one picture or figure for too long (though she does discuss her long friendship with Allen Ginsberg, whom she shot in some startling ways). Portrait photography can have a frozen, cast-in-stone quality, but the Dorfman images seen here capture the immediacy of the moment, with an ephemerality to them. The reason might be embedded in the title of the movie: The “B sides” in question are the photos she has kept in her archive, which are often the ones rejected by her clients. These discards, we come to learn, reveal more about the subjects and the circumstances of the photographic instant than more polished portraits ever could.
Perhaps the most dramatic exhumation of the festival comes in Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, an essay film built around the unfinished thirty pages of James Baldwin’s final work, in which the writer recalled the lives of his assassinated friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Through archival footage and whispered narration by Samuel L. Jackson, Peck reimagines Baldwin’s incomplete text, which itself conjures these three men and uses those reminiscences to delve into the history (and future) of race in America. The director doesn’t limit his visuals to the period Baldwin is discussing; he includes contemporary footage of Black Lives Matter protests, of Barack Obama’s election, and of ordinary modern people, defiant and alive. The film eventually becomes an act of provocation, and of prophecy.
Of course, not every movie at the festival is about the past. One of the best is Jim Jarmusch’s masterful Paterson, centering on a New Jersey bus driver and poet played by Adam Driver, which finds beauty in the rhythms of the everyday. But maybe this, too, harks back to the past in subtle ways: The film’s austerity and its pointedly undramatic narrative reminded me of Jarmusch’s early work. And let’s not forget that he himself first came to New York in the 1970s with dreams of becoming a poet. In that sense, Paterson might be the most personal work the director has ever made — a possible alternate history of how life might have turned out had he stuck with poetry and not turned to music and film. Its focus may be narrow, but its ambition is vast; it’s a symphony in miniature.
Meanwhile, Maren Ade’s mesmerizing Toni Erdmann, which was widely beloved at Cannes and seems to win acolytes wherever it plays, appears to have no sense of memory. But could the past be a defining absence in this nearly three-hour behavioralist comedy-drama? Our heroine, a female executive trying to make it in a male-dominated corporate world, has almost no shared family history with her bizarro, prankster father, who wins over her colleagues, offends her friends, and otherwise sows chaos in her life. Toni Erdmann’s animating spirit is not reflection, but evasion: The title refers to one of Dad’s many identities as he constantly changes shape and affect, discarding anything that smacks of responsibility or roots.
And then there’s what might be the best film I’ve seen at this festival: Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin earlier in the year. Rosi makes unflinchingly patient observational documentaries. In this look at the Italian island of Lampedusa, where the lives of residents go on while boatloads of refugees from Africa turn up on their shores, he has created a film that alternates between timelessness and immediacy, between the elemental and the unnatural. The people living here are set in their routines, while those arriving — starving, suffering, some of them already dead — have had everything taken from them. What emerges is a portrait of a world — for which Lampedusa, in all its specificity, can be seen as a kind of poetic microcosm — hovering between comforting ritual and terrifying upheaval. As such, Fire at Sea is not about history, or the resilience of time, but about a terrible new trauma being born. And in a festival filled with films about forgetting, it might be the most unforgettable.
Top photo: Adriana Ugarte as the younger Julieta. Photo by Manolo Pavón, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Manchester by the Sea
Grief endures, and so does life, in this heartbreaking family drama from director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret, You Can Count On Me). Casey Affleck is terribly moving as a man who returns to his seaside hometown to settle his late brother’s affairs and ends up struggling with demons from his own past. Michelle Williams, as his ex-wife, gets just a couple of scenes, but they are beyond unforgettable.
Dir. Kenneth Lonergan. Screens Oct. 1, 2, 11.
I Am Not Your Negro
A meditative cinematic essay on race, built around James Baldwin’s final unfinished work. By examining the lives and deaths of his friends Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, Baldwin hoped to explore both the history and future of race in America. He may not have completed his work, but the film furthers his mission in poetic fashion.
Dir. Raoul Peck. Screens Oct. 1, 2.
I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner is both an unrelenting social drama and a bitter comedy. An aging man doing battle with Britain’s enormous, Kafkaesque welfare bureaucracy makes common cause with an impoverished single mother. You can’t help but giggle at some of the absurdities Loach lays bare, even if the laughter quickly turns to rage.
Dir. Ken Loach. Screens Oct. 1, 2.
A young African-American man comes to terms with his identity and sexuality in inner-city Miami. In this three-part film, director Barry Jenkins follows his troubled protagonist through different stages of his youth, as he finds love, acceptance, heartbreak, and even something resembling hope.
Dir. Barry Jenkins. Screens Oct. 2, 3.
An unknown, quiet poet of the everyday, played by an excellent Adam Driver, finds rhythm and beauty in the smallest things. Could this be director Jim Jarmusch’s artistic manifesto? His look at how mundane details become transcendent through repetition and imagination feels like an explanation for his entire aesthetic.
Dir. Jim Jarmusch. Screens Oct. 2, 3
I Called Him Morgan
The life and death of trumpeter Lee Morgan, seen through the eyes of his wife, Helen, who shot and killed him in 1972. This film is less a history lesson than an immersive documentary about what it was like to live through that heady, turbulent time.
Dir. Kasper Collin. Screens Oct. 2, 3.
An ambitious management consultant has to deal with her loose cannon of a prankster father while also trying to make her way in the business world. That description does little justice to director Maren Ade’s shape-shifting, expansive comedy-drama, which has a real feel for both the incessant drone of corporate bullshit and the unspoken terrors of family relations.
Dir. Maren Ade. Screens Oct. 2, 4.
Three intimate tales about women, work, and transformation in Montana. The connections among these short stories — based on the work of author Maile Meloy — are subtle, and their emotional trajectories somewhat incomplete. But director Kelly Reichardt’s filmmaking and the performances captivate you, and the movie lingers in your mind long afterwards.
Dir. Kelly Reichardt. Screens Oct. 3, 4.
Performance intersects with life in the world of young actors at drama school. It’s nice to have director Alison Maclean (Jesus’s Son) back in the world of narrative features; her sensitivity to performance and mood makes this an unusually unsettling film.
Dir. Alison Maclean. Screens Oct. 5, 6.
Fire at Sea
The daily routines of a Mediterranean island, contrasted with the harrowing experiences of refugees arriving by the boatload. Gianfranco Rosi’s hypnotic observational documentary won a well-deserved Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
Dir. Gianfranco Rosi. Screens Oct. 7, 8.
A woman reflects on her troubled history with her estranged daughter and tries to understand the reasons for their separation. Pedro Almodóvar’s sensitive, twisty film is a family melodrama that flirts with becoming a film noir. Its playful sense of foreboding at first seems like a disconnect, but ultimately proves quite powerful.
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar. Screens Oct. 7, 8.
Brazilian superstar Sonia Braga gives the performance of her life as a retired music journalist whose struggle to keep her apartment becomes a fight for the value of the past. An intimate, textured drama that respects the specificity of its tale, even as it reflects the broader changes taking place in Brazil and around the world.
Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho. Screens Oct. 9, 11.
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea
Diary of a Wimpy Kid meets The Poseidon Adventure meets South Park. Dash Shaw’s twisted animation looks at the carnage and chaos that ensues after our nerdy, status-obsessed protagonist’s school falls into the ocean. Funny, gross, and, yes, heartwarming — but in a funny, gross kind of way.
Dir. Dash Shaw. Screens Oct. 10, 11.
An upstanding doctor cuts ethical corners to ensure his daughter’s future, and becomes that which he most despises. An ornate, surprisingly tense Romanian drama that interrogates the entitlement of elites, without ever losing sight of its characters’ humanity.
Dir. Cristian Mungiu. Screeens Oct. 11, 12.
Karl Marx City
Director Petra Epperlein looks into her own family’s past to learn if her father might have been an informant for the East German secret police. More than a movie about one family’s history, or even about one country’s history, this is a fascinating conversation about history itself, the very act of forgetting, and the persistence of memory.
Dirs. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker. Screens Oct. 14, 15.
Top photo: Michelle Williams in Certain Women. Courtesy of IFC Center