To experience Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is to observe a detailed painting coming to life. Over time, its sketch marks and broad dabs of paint begin to layer and blend, filling out a finished canvas full of detailed and vivid complexion — a slow burn that turns more beautiful the longer it heats. Movies often teach you how to watch them, and director Celine Sciamma, much like her two female protagonists, insists on your patience, your attention to detail and your openness.
Invoking his signature cinematic past, in the opening-night film of the 57th New York Film Festival, director Martin Scorsese opens The Irishman, his 209-minute mob-focused opus, with a long tracking shot. Instead of weaving through casino slots or dinner tables though, this visual tour slowly glides past the sterile, morose hallways of a nursing home to greet a solitary, white-haired old man, staring blankly into an empty room. The movie’s primary focus and sole storyteller, Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, looks into the camera and begins meditating on the unthinkable, unlikely atrocities and long gestating regrets that have consumed his life. If it’s fair to label this the conclusion to a trilogy, the bow wrapping together Scorsese’s mob-centric classics Goodfellas and Casino, then it’s also fair to consider it a technical and spiritual hard pivot.
NYFF2019 Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones said, “Cinema is the domain of freedom, and it’s an ongoing struggle to maintain that freedom. It’s getting harder and harder for anyone to make films of real ambition anywhere in this world. Each and every movie in this lineup, big or small, whether it’s made in Italy or Senegal or New York City, is the result of artists behind the camera fighting on multiple fronts to realize a vision and create something new in the world. That includes masters like Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar and younger filmmakers coming to the festival for the first time like Mati Diop and Angela Schanelec.” The 57th NYFF has announced its Main Slate lineup.
We have a special program to thank for two excellent indie films in the past two years – “Lucky Grandma,” by Asian-American filmmakers Sasie Sealy and Angela Cheng, and “Nigerian Prince,” by young, Nigerian-American filmmaker Faraday Okoro. Both films were winners of AT&T Presents: Untold Stories, which is an alliance between AT&T and the Tribeca Film Institute. Now in its third year, the program awards a $1 million cash prize, mentorship and distribution to under-represented filmmakers with a story to tell. Helen Highly Recommends both “Lucky Grandma” and “Nigerian Prince.” Helen also Highly Contemplates the benefits and drawbacks of corporate sponsorship in filmmaking and in Pride parades.
“Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes,” a film by Sophie Huber, tosses you straight into a stylish mood poem. It’s medium-raucous to medium-mellow jazz with soft shots of “cool cats” opinionating on a range of topics – improvised jazz-chat. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Robert Glasper, Norah Jones, Don Was, and more, these jazz musicians cross an interview-portal to play in dimensions of possibility beyond the dilemmas of yes or no. Consequently, they have a points of view more engaging than your Average Joe
A common criticism often heard in reviewing documentaries is “it’s more of Dateline segment than a movie;” even good investigative journalism does not in itself make a movie. Sometimes “advocacy documentaries” can be forgiven their school-bookishness because the subject is so urgently relevant; their social or political importance overrides their artistic mediocrity. But how do you justify “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” written and directed by Aviva Kempner? This documentary, in theaters now, is more of an answer to a Jeopardy question than it is a movie. Or maybe it’s an entire Jeopardy episode – as chock full of rapid-fire bits of quirky trivia as it is.