NYFF57 Week Two: Upstairs, Downstairs

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho was met with rapturous applause as he walked onto the stage of Alice Tully Hall and introduced his Palmes d’Or winning Parasite to New York. Outside of this 9 pm screening, stood a standby line of fans waiting since late afternoon for a chance of getting in. It looks like Bong Joon-ho’s reputation looms larger for American audiences than ever before, especially since his last two films advanced him past the art-house crowd and into the mainstream with Snowpiercer’s cult success and Okja’s massive Netflix release. Part of the explanation is that Bong is the perfect foil to the radioactive: ‘Is Marvel cinema?’ discourse that has gripped film twitter in the last few weeks. On the one hand, he is clearly an auteur with a concrete artistic vision, yet on the other, his films (particularly his recent output) aren’t far from the theme park style blockbusters that Martin Scorsese derided. 

Each of Bong’s last three films acts like a roller coaster held together by sharp social commentary. He creates blockbusters out of the chasms of social issues like class and actualizes their traversal. In Snowpiercer, we travel from the back of the train to the front, in Okja we move from rural to factory farms, and in Parasite, easily the best of the three, we move from the city slums to the upscale swank. These themes are the key element missing from most Marvel films where the core ideas are often so pat (have faith, believe in yourself, etc.) they might as well not exist. Pedro Almodovar’s take on Marvel nailed the issue calling their films ‘neutered’. Even Black Panther, the best Marvel has to offer, only hints at colonialist critique before quickly recoiling to the safety of a mealy-mouthed liberalism so toothless that
the CIA is giddy to promote it.

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)

Bong’s developing approach might speak to a genre of his own, but these are still emphatic joy-rides, even when compared to his past work like Memories of Murder. However, his roller-coaster construction is not just fearless in its approach to social critique but is grounded in it. Never has this been truer than with Parasite, which is at once more subtle than Snowpiercer, but also more direct in its real world setting. Removed from the sci-fi trappings of the former, this is more akin to a mirror-universe Shoplifters, last year’s Palmes winner, gutted of Koreeda’s melodramatics which were as cloying as they were heartwarming.

In Parasite, two parallel families center the film, one rich and one poor, and an elaborate con game of the latter to infiltrate the former drives the plot. This fabulistic upstairs-downstairs thriller is reminiscent in tone to Jordan Peele’s Us, but a sharper pairing might be Joe Talbot’s fantastic (and woefully underseen) Last Black Man in San Francisco. While the films are different in tone, both are fables about class, property, generational wealth, and the menacing threats of climate change. Walking out of Talbot’s film carries the air of leaving a postmodern play, meanwhile, Parasite feels exactly like leaving a great theme park ride: out of breath, shaken, a little sick, yet itching to go again. That both are successful as dense explorations of similar issues is great proof that no matter the genre or style, what matters isn’t so much the vehicle, but the destination.

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, 2019)

Bong Joon-ho’s Hitchcockian mayhem might have stolen the show, but Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole made a strong case for the young auteur worthy of international acclaim in his own right. This unassuming 28-year-old, who introduced his movie in jeans and a black anarchy hoodie, delivered, what could very well be, the best film of the festival. Balagov is a protege of the Russian master Alexander Sokurov (Mother and Son, Russian Ark), and this lineage shows as his films carry a severity and depth that befit work from a director twice his age. Balagov’s debut, Closeness, (filmed when he was just 25) was directly overseen by Sokurov. Closeness explored the familial, religious, and political tensions of his hometown Nalchick with tremendous patience and grace. In Beanpole, Balagov shifts his gaze to 1945 in post-siege Leningrad (modern St. Petersburg) and is seen through the lens of two women whose friendship becomes a mirror for the traumas of the post-war period.

Beanpole was largely inspired by stories from
The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexeyivich’s book of oral histories of Soviet women who served in World War II. Post-screening, Balagov described what he saw as a lack of WWII films concerned with the women who served, noting Larisa Sheptiko’s Wings as one of the few prominent examples. Apart from this focus on women, Beanpole stands out as a war film that much like Wings is more concerned with life post-war and the process of recovery rather than the fighting itself. The opening scene frames Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) frozen still, unable to speak beyond clicks and gasps – a nightmarish condition from a war injury; this trauma is the key metaphor for the post-war condition. Iya, who is at times casually referred to as ‘beanpole‘ (slang for an awkwardly tall person) has been taking care of her friend Masha’s (Vasilisa Perelygina) who is away fighting the war. The film opens up with Masha’s return and a sharp shift in the dynamic of their friendship. 

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, 2019)

Tragedy and trauma plague the two women, however, Beanpole is less indulgent in the cruelties of the devastation than the films of modern directors like Von Trier or Haneke, and has close parallels in the work Warner Rainer Fassbinder. Visually, Balagov described Vermeer’s paintings as an inspiration for the look, and Ksenia Sereda’s cinematography full of impressionistic reds and greens is breathtaking to absorb and gives even more dimension to an already loaded film. Meanwhile, the wellspring of emotion coursing under the friendship between the two women is as viscerally intense as the erotic tensions that fuel Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The performances are raw, immediate, dangerous, and like the immaculate sound design, they teeter on the edge – a finger tracing the rim of a glass until the tones rupture into unnerving squeaks. 

Another fascinating emerging director to watch is Mati Diop, who until this point, has largely been known for her brilliant starring role in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum. This year, however, Diop made history by becoming the first Black woman director to have her film in competition at Cannes. Atlantics, her directorial debut earned Diop the Grand Prix which is second only to the Palmes d’Or. Atlantics shows a tremendous amount of promise for Diop’s future and there are strong intriguing concepts at its core, however, it isn’t able to bring its fascinating ideas together into a successful and coherent whole. 

Atlantics (Mati Diop, 2019)

Diop guides the film through several thematic contrasts: Africa and Europe, labor and the bourgeoisie, and most strikingly the living and the dead. Set in the port city of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, the film tells the story of a young couple: Ada (Mama Sané) and Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré). As Ada prepares for her arranged marriage to another man, Souleiman, a struggling construction worker, plans to escape to Spain to start a new life. The ocean, bathed in a blinding white light, menaces from every frame, alongside a giant futuristic tower that Souleiman and his work crew have been constructing on the coast. This tower doesn’t exist in real Dakar, but plans for a monument like this were long considered. In the world of the film, this CGI creation serves as a symbol of Senegal’s severe economic disparities. 

Diop weaves rich metaphors through the storyline, but struggles to balance the doomed romance, Ada’s rebellion, and the labor commentary; meanwhile, the inclusion of a detective subplot keeps threatening to topple the whole project into an episode of Law & Order. Atlantics works best when lingering within the melancholy love story and expanding out from there, rather than direct interactions with the worker/boss plot-line. Sequences where the owner of the tower is haunted by the workers seeking pay repeat themselves coming off heavy-handed and literalize a subtext that was doing fine on its own while breaking the dreamy pall that Diop casts.

Ultimately, the metaphor stands strongest within Ada’s anguish at the forthcoming arranged marriage to a rich man who doesn’t understand her, and her longing for Souleiman who is a poor construction worker and has no choice but to try to escape. Unfortunately, the core of this relationship never has time to develop as we begin shifting attention to the investigation. A later attempt to entwine Souleiman and the detective, comes off awkward and undercuts what could have been a gorgeous conclusion were the threads a little neater. Despite these flaws, the ideas in Atlantics are fresh and gripping, and I can’t wait to see where Diop journeys next. For the first time in my life I was glad to see the Netflix logo open a film – that they acquired it shortly after its win of the Grand Prix in Cannes guarantees that the world at large will be watching Diop closely as well.

Motherless Brooklyn (Ed Norton, 2019)

In introducing his passion project, Motherless Brooklyn, Ed Norton thanked a long list of Warner Brothers producers for backing what sounded like an unfilmable work – a film-noir with Norton himself playing a detective with Tourette’s. As if the very notion of such a film wasn’t concerning enough, what Norton continued with was much worse. During the filming, Norton explained, a fire broke out on set and one of the firefighters working to put it out had perished.  In truth, not only did a firefighter die, but as reported by NY1 the building had burned down leaving an elderly Harlem couple homeless. Ed Norton’s production company faces multiple lawsuits and shamelessly refuses to acknowledge any responsibility. While this is atrocious and disgusting to begin with, it is also deeply hypocritical that Norton refuses to help this poor family given that Motherless Brooklyn is ostensibly about housing, gentrification, and discrimination. All of this is made doubly outrageous by how self-indulgent and inept the film is, not that great one could alleviate such callousness, but the outrageous incompetence adds insult to injury.

If Parasite was a finely tuned thrill ride, then Motherless Brooklyn is a rickety coaster at the state fair. The wooden beams rattle and groan, the seat jabs at your spine, and the bar holding you in place wobbles to and fro. The main cause of discomfort is immediately obvious: Ed Norton’s over-the-top depiction of Tourette’s is not only offensive, but distracting to aggravation. His twitches and tics dominate the screen at a clip of about every two minutes. After thirty minutes of watching Norton contort his face and yowl obscenities, the couple sitting next to me walked out. Once you get a little more used to the outbursts and are able to look at the developing plot, it becomes clear that despite the dramatic gestures, the commentary on housing and justice is wafer-thin. Norton wants to be making Chinatown but instead produces a flimsy pastiche of noir that feels awkwardly dated, and like a bulk of the cast: Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, and Ed Norton himself would have fared better had this premiered in the 90s rather than today – it’s no wonder an ad tried to pitch the film as “LA Confidential with a touch of Rain Man.

Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)

Motherless Brooklyn left me confident that I wouldn’t find a worse film if I tried, so feeling bold, I detoured to see the subject of seemingly infinite discourse: Todd Phillip’s Joker. How is it possible that Lucrecia Martel (La Cienaga, Zama) handed over Venice’s top prize to what looks like the cinematic equivalent of Alien Ant Farm covering Smooth Criminal? My working theory is that Martel was making a joke at Marvel’s expense as a response to their insulting and sexist offer to the world-renowned Argentinian filmmaker. Whatever the reasons were, Joker followed this unexpected win in Venice with a record breaking box office that has now made it the highest grossing R-rated film of all time. Having finally seen it, I can confidently say that the swirling controversy has done this excruciatingly mediocre film a tremendous favor. Outside of its overt references, this has less in common with the work of Scorsese than it does with the parade of lazy Fincher-inspired thrillers that lined Blockbuster shelves in the early aughts. 

That said, Phillips’ determination to ape Scorsese is obvious, and also clearly points to Joker’s main flaw. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle peppered his loner diatribes with racist slurs, his racism was an integral part of the portrait of his despicable condition. Todd Phillips who is happy to mimic, but unprepared to engage or give it a second thought, instead sanitizes the Joker of the white supremacy that he simultaneously invokes at every corner. One of the clearest moments of this is when Phillips centralizes an incident based directly on the 1984 New York subway shooting Bernard Goetz (a white man) shot four Black teenagers who he feared were about to rob him. The press labeled this scared racist a hero vigilante (Phillips copies this into Joker as well) and a jury acquitted him of the charges. Meanwhile, those who knew Goetz, knew him as a Travis Bickle type racist, riddling his rants about cleaning up the streets with racist slurs about Hispanic and Black people.

In Joker, Todd Phillips white-washes this history while simultaneously referencing it as a symptom of ‘general turmoil.’ In his reworking, Phillips removes all the genuinely troubling elements of the case to make things as clear cut as possible. Instead of a racist coward shooting teenagers, Phillips paints it as self-defense. Not just that, but Phillips turns the subjects of Joker’s (Goetz) ire from Black teenagers to older white Wall-Street types singing Sondheim. This type of feigned ignorance fits exactly the type of re-framing that is used by the right-wing in order to reclaim the term “deplorable.” – this is even directly referenced, as the denizens of Gotham take on the label of “clowns” to wear with pride. Phillips may laughably argue that Joker is not a political film, but even laying aside its Trumpian tilts, it is turgid, self-serious, exhausting, and so shallow that it’s not worth the time it took me to write this, let alone the weeks of discussion it sparked.

To The Ends of the Earth (Kyoshi Kurosawa, 2019)

To the Ends of the Earth was a fitting close to my NYFF experience, I caught it at an encore screening the weekend after Motherless Brooklyn officially closed the festival. Japanese director Kyoshi Kurosawa might be known more for his atmospheric thrillers like Cure and Pulse, but he’s equally adept stepping out of the genre. His bittersweet film is an elusive work that elegantly zig-zags from a meditative piece on alienation closer to Chantal Akerman’s The Meetings of Anna all the way to the grand musical set pieces of The Sound of Music. The film follows Yoko, a young Japanese reporter filming a travel show in Uzbekistan with a small crew. On camera, Yoko is charming and bubbly, but in real-life, she finds herself alienated in this new environment. This is revealed to be a combination of distance from her boyfriend in Tokyo, her discomfort at the casual misogyny of her hostile crew, and remorse over giving her childhood dream of being a singer. The nimble genre-hopping Kurosawa employs is a clever fit for a story rooted in homesickness and the quick shifts of tone and style act like homing beacons – attempts to pin down the inexpressible in a more comfortable context. 

There are many striking sequences to be found in the film, but the one that resonated most was Yoko running lost after a failed trip to a local Bazaar. Intimidated by the sellers, Yoko rushes into a tiny general store, and picks up a smattering of random mass-produced goods that she dumps into a plastic bag. The bag she carries, screams of the futility, loneliness, and angst. This bit of plastic is a flimsy icon of artifice, surrounded by this organic market. Anyone who has seen Baumbach’s Frances Ha and relished in the clumsy trip to Paris that Frances takes will feel at home with the awkward unease that Kurosawa toys with.

Several motifs from this year’s festival recur throughout the film including show-stopping musical numbers, and looming threats of natural disaster and climate change, which lead to a pivotal sequence in the film. Walking home from the film, through the sunny promenade of Lincoln Center, my phone buzzed with a news alert from the Washington Post. Usually, these notifications signal another development in the impeachment investigation or another monstrous act of the administration. Instead, I started reading a report about a typhoon which had just struck Tokyo – at the time there were 35 dead in the flooding. New York Film Festival may have officially closed with Motherless Brooklyn, a film that posits that the status quo prevails and all you need to do is carve out a little piece of earth to escape its terrors. However, To The Ends of the Earth, hammers a more accurate point; there is no escape from the devastation we face, and since we’re all under threat, we better start to learn to work together.

The Ten Best Films of 2020​

With 2020 finally drawing to a close, lets take one last look at the wonderful films that came out in this otherwise devastating year.