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  • Writer's pictureSam Malone

2020 New York Film Festival

Updated: May 26, 2022

Film festivals allowing nationwide virtual screenings is one of the only few good things to come out of 2020. The 58th New York Film Festival wrapped up this past weekend and I had the pleasure of catching some of the films. From one new voice to veteran filmmakers, this was another solid year in New York. Hopefully these films are able to screen in a theater soon and that next year’s lineup will be in person again. My thoughts on what I saw:

The Human Voice (Pedro Almodovar)

Tilda Swinton is heartbroken and unbearably alone in Pedro Almodovar’s contemporary short film take on Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play, The Human Voice. She’s a woman isolated in her literally staged house with nothing to do but pace around through an internal struggle of emotions, watch the dog, and have a one-sided conversation with her heartbreaker on the phone. Tinged with his colorful visual flares and caustic passion, Almodovar’s first English film is a wrenching, unforgettable 30 minutes. Currently has no release date.

Nomadland (Chloe Zhao)

The best film of 2020 so far will be hard to top these last few months of the year. My full thoughts here. In theaters December 4th.

The Salt of Tears (Philipe Garrel)

This is a tricky one. Veteran French director Philipe Garrel’s staid black-and-white film is either a complete misfire of an indictment on toxic masculinity or is a nonchalant yet judicious criticism of toxic masculinity teetering on self-reflexive. Film is subjective and while I can (maybe) see the latter, I ran with the former as I watched in disgust. It seems we’re supposed to feel sorry for the imprudent, libidinal male protagonist when the film panders a little too close to the implicit lovesick aphorisms we soft boys fall for and that’s dangerous because this guy absolutely sucks. One-dimensional female side characters whose only role in the film is to pine for our antihero doesn’t bode well for what little critique there is; and there is (again, depending on how you see it), but it’s so miniscule (for me) as to be barely noticed. The ending is a decent payoff, but it’s not a harsh enough punishment for our main guy. There’s better ways to attack the selfish tendencies of men and this inert, cold and (almost) empty slog is not it. However, there’s a club dance scene that completely hits the spot; the only good thing about the film, like a nice interval back massage between persistent punches in the spine. Currently seeking US distribution.

Mangrove (Steve McQueen)

This film from Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology Small Axe- centered on London’s West Indian community in the 60s and 80s, (Lovers Rock; Mangrove; Education; Alex Wheatle; Red, White, and Blue)- coming to Amazon Prime on November 20th is a powerful courtroom drama. Based on the true story of the Mangrove Nine, Frank Crichlow is the owner of the Mangrove, a restaurant in late 1960s London’s Notting Hill. After being assaulted numerous times by racist cops in the Metropolitan Police, he organizes a peaceful protest. Things go crazy and the police charge them with inciting a riot as McQueen sets a showcase for the year. Relying on incredible performances, especially Letitia Wright, this is a simple yet masterful piece of storytelling from an event in history that’s never been given the time on screen. “We should not play the victims, but the protagonists of our own story,” Wright’s character says. They’ve always been the victims and now they need to fight the system that’s been brutally antagonizing them for too long. That fight currently echoes on and this is a film for the present tense. On Amazon Prime November 20th.

Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili)

What we’re seeing in the narrow frame matters, but the forces outside of the frame is what’s doing the damage to Yana, a person who doesn’t seem to belong where’s she from and a subjugated woman whose internal conflicts include motherhood, suppressed desires, and what may or may not be her religion. Bookended by two violent acts, steady on still compositions, and a cultivated pace, this is a really good feature debut from Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili. Currently seeking US distribution.

Undine (Christian Petzold)

Real, true love is a deep feeling that dives into the farthest, most burning parts of our being. Love awakes us to the realization that the human heart can feel immensely, oceans of feelings we never knew existed or were possible to feel, currents of yearning drive us and warm tides push us into undiscovered passion. German director Christian Petzold (Transit, Phoenix) is becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. His newest film is a modern retelling and restructuring of the Undine myth, a fairytale between an industrial diver (this kind of looks like a cool job?), an absolute sweetheart named Christoph (Transit actor Franz Rogowski), and Undine (Paula Beer), a history museum guide who manages to give a captivating Berlin history lesson throughout the film. Sweet, simultaneously enchanting and disenchanting, but also wonderful. The disparate world underwater has never looked more elegant or romantic (The Shape of Water didn’t really do it for me), even with a massive, ugly catfish languorously swimming by. This is a must see for lovers of love. Currently seeking US distribution.

Tragic Jungle (Yulene Olaizola)

From Mexican director Yulene Olaizola, this is another film based on a female, but much more deviant, mythological figure. Exploiting the virility of working men in a jungle on the border of 1920s Mexico and British Honduras, she delivers on the title. Verdantly claustrophobic, unflinchingly bloody, and moving with the pace of a fever dream, this is a solid film but doesn’t offer anything novel enough to be memorable. The pillow shots of South American wildlife does make up for a lot of it and I also learned how they make chewing gum. Cool stuff. Currently seeking US distribution.

French Exit (Azazel Jacobs)

Not sure exactly what the point of this one is. Michelle Pfeiffer is great and Lucas Hedges is solid as always. Besides that, this eccentric film rides along towards a barely touching ending and that ride is a whimsical, offbeat story that needs a little more flare and aesthetic. It’s like the conductor asks to play to the tune of Wes Anderson but the musicians miss a lot of chords. I don’t mind quirk, but it’s got to have a little more heart with it. Quirkiness for the sake of being weird doesn’t work. The score is fantastic though. In theaters February 12th, 2021.

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