The New York Film Festival takes place in the pulsating heart of global film culture, and yet its Main Slate is slim and selective, with just 25 cherry-picked titles from all over the world. As usual, the 55th NYFF presented a mix of much-awaited films from legendary filmmakers (Agnes Varda’s Faces Places, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama) as well as festival breakouts from up-and-comers (Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor). While picking favourites from the all-star line-up feels criminal, below is my list of five films to watch out for as they hit theaters in the coming months. Four of these are directed by women, who represented only 32% of the Main Slate, but were behind some of the best cinema at the festival.
Valeska Grisebach’s Western is a truly border-crossing drama: revolving around a German construction crew posted at the Greek-Bulgarian border, it projects a storied American genre onto the fraught frontiers of contemporary Europe. Protagonist Meinhard is as lean, gruff, and broodingly mustachioed as any fictional gunslinger, but his eyes betray a deep pathos. Increasingly alienated from the hypermasculine jingoism of his fellow laborers, he finds surprising kinship in a tight-knit community of local Bulgarians — despite the vast linguistic and cultural barriers. Meinhard’s wordless bond with the Bulgarian Adrian — both played by non-professional actors —inspires an affirming humanism. With sparse, wide compositions that emphasize the desolation of her characters, Grisebach restages classic western themes of territorialism and honor within a grim world in which borders grow tighter even as capital flows more freely than ever.
By all external appearances, The Rider is your conventional sports drama about a rising star struggling to overcome personal obstacles. However, Chloe Zhao’s sophomore feature is made unique by its conceit: in dramatizing the true story of injured rodeo champion Brady Jandreau, the film employs the real-life Brady (cast as Brady Blackburn), his friends, and his family as actors. Set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, The Rider chronicles the aftermath of Brady’s accident. As he fluctuates between acquiescing to his doctor’s advice and risking his life for his passion, Zhao paints a keenly observed picture of life on the reservation, with its masculine codes of conduct (“grit your teeth”; “man up”). Her deft blend of documentary and fiction imbues the film with authenticity, while Joshua James Richards’ cinematography captures the prairie in all its magic-hour glory.
A spellbinding adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel, Wonderstruck cuts between two stories, fifty years apart. In 1977, a double tragedy hits 12-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley) after losing his mother to a car crash, he loses his hearing in a freak thunderstorm accident. In 1927, the congenitally deaf Rose (a magnificently expressive Millicent Simmonds) suffers under a repressive father. Both run away to New York on ambitious quests: Ben pursues his long-lost father after stumbling upon a museum catalog that once belonged to him; Rose is determined to see her favourite silent film star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Assisted by Carter Burwell’s zeitgeist-capturing music and Ed Lachman’s exquisite visuals, Todd Haynes recreates not only the mise-en-scene of New York in the 20s and 70s, but also its overwhelming sensory wonder, made all the more magical by the perspective of a child.
Like the mother-daughter relationship it centers on, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is equal parts loving and lacerating. High school senior Christine (a luminous Saoirse Ronan) dreams of going to school in New York, far removed from the sleepy insularity of her hometown Sacramento—she calls herself “Lady Bird,” a thinly veiled metaphor for her escapist desires. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf), stern but generous, chides her for her impractical and expensive ambitions; she struggles to keep their household together after Christine’s depressive father is fired from his job. Their volatile relationship delicately delineates the ways in which economic status shapes their respective experiences of girlhood and motherhood. Even as Lady Bird treads the familiar beats of American high school movies—sexual awakenings, fickle friendships, clique politics—Gerwig’s light, witty delivery of these subtextual nuances transforms the film into something more mature and melancholic.
Lucrecia Martel’s elliptical adaptation of Antonio di Bendetto’s novel follows Don Diego de Zama, a colonial magistrate in eighteenth-century Paraguay. Worn down by the petty bureaucracy of Spanish imperialism, Zama is anticipating a transfer to Lerma, where his wife and son await him. The anticipation takes up the entirety of the film, which hauntingly chronicles the gradual decay of Zama’s mental and physical fortitude. Martel’s (female) gaze treats Zama with a critical distance, sketching a portrait of tortuous male pathos that is affecting, but never overly sympathetic to his colonialist strife. However, her visceral rendering of the tropical countryside collapses all sense of distance, creating an immersive world that might have you wiping sweat off your brows in the air-conditioned interiors of the movie theater.