It’s not hard to get a sense for the big movies at this year’s edition of the New York Film Festival. Ava Duvernay’s Netflix documentary “13th” will open the festival with much fanfare over its powerful message about America’s broken justice system. Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” has many anticipating its inventive storytelling technology, and “20th Century Women” is said to be a terrific showcase for Annette Bening. Add in a number of festival favorites, from “Moonlight” to “Manchester By the Sea,” and the current edition of NYFF looks like a terrific consolidation of 2016 cinematic highlights.
But these headline-grabbing titles aren’t the whole story. A tightly-curated program assembled by a handful of discerning cinephiles, the festival offers a number of lower-profile titles that are just as worthy of your attention. Here’s a look at 10 of them.
Like so many of the most confident and commanding new filmmakers, Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho is an overnight success story many years in the making. After making short films for nearly two decades, the director broke through in a big way with 2013’s startling “Neighboring Sounds,” which vivisected his hometown of Recife and found an anxious bourgeois nightmare humming beneath the cement jungle. That movie premiered at Rotterdam and played at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors / New Films festival — “Aquarius,” Filho’s follow-up feature, dazzled in Competition at Cannes earlier this year, and is now making its U.S. debut in the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival.
It’s a huge jump to make in the span of a single feature, but this immense drama demands the biggest stage possible, burrowing into a gentrification dispute between an aggressive real estate promoter and the widowed music critic (Sônia Braga) who refuses to move out of the apartment where she’s lived all her life. Anchored to a searingly righteous lead performance, sprinkled with a killer soundtrack that ranges from Queen to Gilberto Gil, and building to an unforgettable finale scene, “Aquarius” more than deserves its place at the center of the conversation. —David Ehrlich
“The Death of Louis XIV”
Starring the legendary Jean-Pierre Leaud as France’s beleaguered king, who died from gangrene in 1715, Albert Serra’s engrossing followup to inventive Casanova drama “The Story of My Death” maintains a clinical air as it tracks the regal character slowly fading from existence. While the king’s closest advisors swirl around him, speaking in frantic, whispered tones about their options, “The Death of Louis XIV” evolves into a nuanced treatise on the aimlessness of wealth and power in the face of mortality. It’s also Leaud’s finest onscreen creation since Antoine Doinel: the pale-faced king, slowly fading away even as he clings to consciousness, presents one of the most remarkable depictions of mortality every caught on film. —Eric Kohn
“Hermia and Helena”
Argentine director Matias Piñero’s first English-language feature, in which a young woman comes to New York to work on a translation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is another clever look at the way contemporary characters relate to classic literature to understand their lives. With bit parts for American indie faces Keith Poulson, Dustin Guy Defa and filmmaker Dan Sallitt, it’s also a welcome evolution for Piñero, whose earlier films existed within the confines of his Latin American ecosystem. Here, his style opens up to a deceptively simple look at a carefree young woman (Agustina Muñoz in a layered performance) that gives way to more emotional chords in the final act. It’s further proof that Piñeiro is one of the most innovative filmmakers working today, and a terrific introduction to his talents that should satisfy Shakespeare fans and newbies alike. —EK
“I Had Nowhere to Go”
In the 98 minutes of “I Had Nowhere to Go: Portrait of a Displaced Person,” there are about 10 minutes of visuals. The rest of the experience takes place on a black screen as accompanying audio tracks doing the legwork. It’s a bold gamble by director and veteran artist Douglas Gordon (“24 Hour Psycho”), but a big part of the experience stems from the ever-engaging storytelling at its center. Narrated by legendary avant-garde film diarist Jonas Mekas, now 93 and livelier than ever as he recollects his wartime experiences, “I Had Nowhere to Go” attempts to encapsulate the journeys of a man known for capturing images through their absence. Though not always the sum of its compelling ingredients, “I Had Nowhere to Go” applies an appropriate degree of cinematic innovation to one of the medium’s greatest advocates. Viewers up for a unique challenge specific to the movie theater will not be let down. —EK
“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea”
As its unwieldy title suggests, “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is much more than your average teen disaster movie. Every image in graphic novelist Dash Shaw’s animated feature delivers a dizzying, evocative reflection of restless youth. At the same time, it remains grounded in a familiar world of geeky teens, smarmy upperclassmen and disgruntled school administrators. As the archetypes swirl around the inane plot, the movie develops an intimate quality that’s not unlike sifting through the scrapbook of an exuberant young mind. And that’s what it makes such a nifty ride: No matter the zaniness of the plot, Shaw’s film is grounded in a very real, intimate set of experiences. It’s John Hughes for the Adult Swim generation. —EK
“The Human Surge”
It starts in Buenos Aires and drifts to Mozambique. Once there, Argentine director Eduardo Williams’ first feature “The Human Surge” stops to watch a character urinate on a patch of dirt. After a few moments, the camera wanders closer to his target, zooms into the ground, ventures beneath it, and zeroes in on a tiny ant crawling through the earth. When it resurfaces, we’re suddenly in the Philippines. This maneuver is typical of the acrobatic camerawork that Williams employs throughout his shrewd and inventive feature, the most ambitious debut of the year. While light on narrative, “The Human Surge” presents a fascinating array of young characters leading similarly alienated lives around the world. It’s a remarkable statement on modern society rich in themes and expert craftsmanship alike. —EK
Mind-blowing in the best possible way, “The Ornithologist” may not work for everyone, but those willing to embrace its puzzling ingredients will find a rewarding solution: further confirmation of a genuine film artist. The fifth narrative feature of Portugal’s João Pedro Rodrigues continues the soul-searching outlook and inventive storytelling of “The Last Time I Saw Macao” and “To Die Like a Man,” but reaches for even more ambitious territory with equally confounding and enlightening results. A favorite in certain diehard cinephile sects, Rodrigues deserves to find some new fans with this remarkable oddity. The movie depicts the Homeric voyage of a modern-day ornithologist named Fernando (Paul Hamy) who inexplicably transforms into a revered Catholic saint after getting lost in the woods. The details of his journey are difficult to describe and even stranger to experience, but this is a beautiful, haunting movie that will keep viewers talking as they search for meaning in its enigmatic depths. —EK
Argentine writer-director Gastón Solnicki’s film casts a unique spell that slowly finds its place in a brilliant reference point: Bela Bartok’s early 20th century opera “Bluebeard’s Castle,” with which “Kékszakállú” shares its English-language title. But the source material, an hourlong performance about a woman coming home to Bluebeard’s lair shortly after the pair elope, takes on metaphorical connotations in Solnicki’s contemporary portrait of several young women. The film lingers on small moments — characters buried in their homes, bored with their jobs, sobbing over solitude — to develop a masterful riff on what it means to grow up in a strange world filled with mysterious possibilities just beyond one’s reach. Like Britain’s Joanna Hogg, Solnicki develops a fascination with the poetic nature of palatial homes and the impact they have on people lost in their confines. While the opera plays throughout the film, “Kékszakállú” develops its own rhythms out of a fascinating character study about modern women. —EK
“Yourself and Yours”
It’s easy to let a new Hong Sang-soo movie slip through the cracks, even for fans of the idiosyncratic auteur — not only is he one of the most prolific filmmakers on the planet, but all of his playfully Rohmer-esque comedies have a way of blurring together. Still, the guy has been on a bit of a tear lately, and this year’s installment of “People getting plastered in rural Korea and ruefully self-destructing in front of past, present, or potential romantic partners” is another winner. An enigmatic story about a newly single woman and the merry-go-round of men who all think that she’s a different person, “Yourself and Yours” might lack the heft of “Right Now, Wrong Then” or “The Day He Arrives,” but this sly puzzle box of a film boasts one of Hong’s sharpest and most enjoyably knotted scripts, and it builds to what might be the biggest laugh of his ever-deepening body of work. —DE
The festival runs September 30 – October 16.