What Not to Miss at the 2020 New York Film Festival

From Lovers Rock (2020), dir. Steve McQueen (image courtesy Amazon Studios)

This year the New York Film Festival presents a mix of in-person and virtual screenings, partnering with institutions in Queens and Brooklyn to offer drive-in screenings. Keeping pace with global film culture amid the pandemic, the festival brings a more streamlined, yet eclectic mix of auteur films, documentaries, shorts, and experimental cinema.

Enthralling Narratives

In this time of sensory deprivation, the Main Slate offers a number of visually enthralling works. Steven McQueen’s Lovers Rock — the first of his five-part Small Axe series, which includes Mangrove and Red, White, and Blue, also showing in NYFF — transports viewers to a Caribbean dance party in London, in the 1960s. Replete with swanky décor, bright-prints, a soaring soundtrack, and frequent conversations in Jamaican patois, Lovers Rock is a nostalgia blast that revels in its own cultural specificity.

From Tragic Jungle (2020), dir. Yulene Olaizola (image courtesy Malacosa Cine)

Equally rousing is Night of the Kings, the second feature from director Philippe Lacôte, in which a young inmate in a notorious prison in Côte d’Ivoire gets caught between feuding gangs, spinning a lavish tale to save his life. Similarly to Lovers Rock, Lacôte’s is an energized ensemble piece, in which players revel in talk and dance. Meanwhile, Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle is also rife with darkly spun myths: In the 1920s, Mexican gum-tree workers wander the sprawling rainforest, where they take captive a woman, who might be an incarnation of a Xtabay goddess — a mystical seductress that leads men astray.

On the more ruminative side, Ephraim Asili’The Inheritance, Song Fang’s The Calming, Tsai Ming-Liang’s Days, and C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin), all find uncanny grace in the mundanity of human existence. Days, in particular, is an incandescent, austerely framed story of two men who share an evening that combines sex and healing, their brief bond unspools as a nagging, tactile memory. Heidi Ewing’s atmospheric I Carry You With Me, similarly reminisces on how time and passion exert their wages: Two young gay men escape from a Mexican pueblo to start over in New York, while trying to maintain ties to their families, particularly to a son from one of the men’s previous relationships.

From Her Socialist Smile

Incisive Documentaries

In the documentary realm, Lisa Cortés and Liz Garbus’s urgent All In: The Fight for Democracy follows the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia, focusing on the African-American Democratic candidate, Stacey Adams, who later sued incumbent Brian Kemp over voter  suppression. The directors show how arbitrary yet targeted hurdles have plagued US elections since the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, thereby exposing the questionable practices — stringent ID requirements, gerrymandering — that may undermine the fairness of the upcoming presidential election.

Suppression also plays a role in John Gianvito’s Her Socialist Smile, a profile of Hellen Keller, a passionate socialist, who was also blind and deaf, and rallied for persons with disabilities. By combining Keller’s speeches with loosely strung images of nature, Gianvito channels her spirited insistence on an intuitive sense of justice and the sensorial over more abstract forms of knowledge.

Also worth catching is Garrett Bradley’s Sundance hit Time, which chronicles the devastating effect of mass incarceration on a Louisiana family.

From Time (2020), dir. Garrett Bradley (image courtesy Amazon Studios)

Revivals

This year, the Revivals section returns with a robust program, including titles selected by feature filmmakers like Ephraim Asili (The Spook Who Sat by the Door, 1973) and Steve McQueen (Zero for Conduct, 1933). Set in a nineteenth-century Chinese brothel, where courtesans compete for clients and freedom, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (1998), is a feast for the eyes. Much like McQueen’s Small Axe films, Hsiao-Hsien’s historical drama delights in opulent costume and set design, recreating a debonair atmosphere that brims with intrigue.

The program also includes notable documentaries, such as Terrence Dixon’s Meeting the Man: James Baldwin (1971) and William Klein’s Muhammad Ali, The Greatest (1974). Both films meditate on racism in the US, as Baldwin and Ali each speak out passionately against the unspeakable violence and prejudice endured by Black people. In explaining to Dixon why speaking out about injustice is even more crucial than writing fiction, Baldwin states, “I’m a writer in a revolutionary situation.” Ali’s revolutionary spirit meanwhile carries from his boxing into the ring of the civil rights movement.

From Days (2020), dir. Tsai Ming-Liang (image courtesy Grasshopper Films)

Vibrant Shorts

As in years past, New York gets its own thematic shorts program, bringing together particularly striking work from Tayler Montague (In Sudden Darkness), Neo Sora (The Chicken) and Noah and Lewie Kloster (Shots in the Dark with David Godlis), which take the city as its subject and setting. From Montague’s evocatively captured portrait of the Bronx, where a mother and daughter shop for food during a blackout; to Sora’s earthy, sensual twist on Chinatown and the Bowery, where a multicultural pregnant couple settles into their new place; to Klosters’ East Village, with an upbeat photographic commemoration of the CBGB Nightclub; the city’s distinct locations and myriad cultures come into sharp relief.

In other programs, notable shorts include Sanfield, Kevin Jerome Everson’s formally rigorous portrait of Black soldiers at the Columbus, Mississippi Air Force Base who undergo physically strenuous exercises, in preparation for duty, and Ana Vaz’s Apiyemiyekî?, both featured in Program 6: Here and Elsewhere. In the latter, the Brazilian-born filmmaker brings to the screen startling drawings and stories, related by researchers, of the Amazon’s Waimiri-Atroari people who, back in the late ‘70s, had been attacked by the Brazilian government with Napalm.

Overall, this year’s NYFF shorts slate is a great opportunity to discover vibrant, adventurous new voices in international cinema.

The 58th New York Film Festival continues through October 11 online and via drive-in screenings. See Film at Lincoln Center for the full schedule. 

Get your popcorn ready. This year’s program includes highlights like Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, ruminative queer romances, and incisive documentaries about US politics and Helen Keller’s activism.Read MoreFilm, Film at Lincoln Center, New York, New York Film FestivalHyperallergicRead More

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