New York Film Festival Report No. 1 (Faces Places, The Florida Project and The Meyerowitz Stories)

florida project

This is the first of three journal-style reports from the 55th New York Film Festival. I had a great day watching three movies one after the other yesterday. Not only were they all really good, but you will be able to see them all very soon in theaters (or streaming).

Faces, Places (Visages, Villages)
Legendary director Agnes Varda is 89 years old and she’s losing her eyesight. She suffers from an eye disease that makes letters bounce up and down and faces look blurry. It’s a rather sad, and frankly ironic situation to find yourself in when, like Varda, you rank as one of the greatest observers in cinema history. But that’s not stopping her. In this latest movie, Varda teams up with photographer JR, a young man who goes around the world taking giant portraits and pasting them on buildings. This is a sort of diary film, chronicling the duo as they travel from one French village to the next: meeting new people, and taking their portraits. The concept is simple, but the execution is masterful.

I don’t think there’s a more lovable personality than Agnes Varda, a tiny French woman who is as serious as she is hilarious, and manages to find deep truths in the most simple aspects of life. JR is a perfect foil for her because he, like us, can’t help but be fascinated by her. Of course Varda’s touch has all to do with how she can turn everyday events into moving moments of cinematic magic. This movie, like Varda’s greatest work, EXISTS. It doesn’t portent to be something it is not. It doesn’t pretend, it simply is. And it’s miraculous. This sort of premise could be deadly in the hands of virtually any other director. In the hands of Varda and JR, it is one of the great movies of the year.

Faces, Places opens in limited release on October 6. 

The Florida Project
This is the latest movie by Sean Baker, whose previous movie Tangerine was a huge critical hit a couple of years ago. As much as I admired its intensions, I was one of the few people who couldn’t quite connect to Tangerine‘s groove. All of this makes me really happy to report that The Florida Project is not only a huge step up, but one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Baker continues to be fascinated with characters who live on the fringes of society. This time, the focus is on a group of poor kids growing up in the shadow of the Walt Disney World resort in Florida. The mothers hustle in order to get by, scarping enough money to pay rent at a low-level motel (run by a lovable manager played by Willem Dafoe) while the kids run around screaming, cursing, and wreaking havoc.

Like with Faces, Places, this is a very tricky tone to pull off. Baker jumps between the innocent perspective of young children who only half-understand the world around them, and the pressure that mounts over the adults around them. After the screening, Baker mentioned that part of his inspiration was a desire to make a “Little Rascals” movie, which makes a lot of sense. This movie flows from uproarious comedy to deep realistic drama seamlessly as it builds toward an incredibly audacious finale.

While we’re on the subject, I could debate the merits and purpose of the finale for hours. I’m still thinking through it, currently admiring its intention but still wondering about certain aspects of the execution. I look forward to having many conversations about an ending that’s the sort of gamble most filmmakers would be too afraid to approach.

The Florida Project opens in limited release on October 6. 

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Noah Baumbach has entered the golden age of his career. He is grown unafraid of sillier jokes, he has become a master of wrangling his ensembles, and along with editor Jennifer Lame, has embraced a more experimental and playful approach to editing. This Netflix production is a bit of a continuation on the themes of The Squid and the Whalefocusing on two brothers -a successful accountant (Ben Stiller) and a failed musician (Adam Sandler)- and their relationship to their father (Dustin Hoffman), who like the father in Baumbach’s earlier movie, is a frustrated artist. A writer then, a sculptor now.

Beyond being hilarious, the movie features the truthful bitterness of Baumbach’s best work. There is a certain frustration in dealing with your parents as an adult that this movie gets at a little too well. The movie is a little more rambly than usual for Baumbach. It goes for a bigger scale that shows the director’s ambition as his career continues, but leaves perhaps a little too many elements it needs to weave together. At the end of the day, though, the movie remains a very interesting piece of filmmaking (changing in perspective, style and rhythm as it goes along), and is anchored by an excellent cast (with Sandler and Hoffman as the stand-outs).

The Meyerowitz Stories will be available to stream on Netflix on October 13.

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