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A Critics Academy Conversation: New York Film Festival Wrap-Up

A Critics Academy Conversation: New York Film Festival Wrap-Up

We’ve still got a few pieces left to publish from our Critics Academy, but with the New York Film Festival concluded, we asked two of our Academy members — Fariha Roisin and Blair McClendon — to have a conversation about their personal highlights from their time covering the festival for Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Fariha Roisin: So, Blair, New York Film Festival has come to an end. How do you feel? Overjoyed? Excited? On a scale to one to ten, how devastated are you really?

Blair McClendon: I’m pretty devastated. During the last weekend of the festival I watched “Charlie Bartlett,” so I’m a little worried that I’m going back to a world where just randomly choosing a movie and expecting it to be good isn’t really possible. How about you?

Fariha: I know for a fact that you liked “Charlie Bartlett.” Are we going to let that slide?

Blair: Liked? I am accepting of its existence, but liked is a bit strong.

Fariha: Okay. As for me I definitely feel devastated. I thought I’d be really happy about not having to wake up before 8:00 AM to catch 10:00 AM press screenings, but instead I am quite emotional. All I have been doing is watching all the Daniel Day-Lewis movies on Netflix to fill this void inside of me.

Blair: Well, on the topic of Mr. Day-Lewis, would you give him the nod for your favorite performance? Or just favorite person?

Fariha: He definitely has my vote for favorite person. But honestly, “Lincoln” was phenomenal, like whoa now. DDL’s performance was obviously always going to be brilliant, so it’s important to note that every time I mention his brilliance someone chimes in that Tommy Lee Jones gave an equally spectacular performance.

Blair: Well, I was a little further down the scale on “Lincoln”‘s reception, I can’t deny there were some great performances in there. In that movie, I would actually give the tip of my hat to Mr. Jones, though. I felt like he owned every scene he was in not just by design, but also because of his abilities. That’s not to put down Daniel Day-Lewis, as I’m sure the Academy will reward him well.

Fariha: Or at least nominate him. There is no doubt in my mind that both men will be nominated for some kind of Oscar. Moving on to the other performances: What was your favorite of the actual festival?

Blair: My favorites were Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur in “Beyond the Hills,” because “Beyond the Hills” was my favorite everything. But I think the best has to go to Jean-Louis Trintignant or Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour.” Those were really difficult roles that they pulled off to perfection. I also want to give a shout out to Rafe Spall in “Life of Pi” as the unnamed “Writer.” He does “Bearded Guy Willing to Listen and Provide Cues for Exposition” really well.

Fariha: Ah, yes, Spall does play that character to perfection. Although I must admit that every time he came onto the screen my mind just screamed, “Scientist from ‘Prometheus’ who knew NOTHING!”

Blair: Which makes me think that maybe he’s playing the same character.

Fariha: Touché. For me, personally, Emmanuelle Riva was just impeccable. Every facial expression, hand movement, or even her absolute stillness and silence — like when Georges is feeding her towards the end of the film — was so nuanced and meaningful. Jean-Lous Trintingant was also so gentle, courageous and real as Georges. Even the last “horrific” moment is done with so much subtle empathy. I also agree that Stratan and Flutur were unbelievable. Flutur’s Alina was just astounding, that mix of sexual frustration, adoration, and brutality was just right. Though both performances were utterly heartbreaking. But, I also want to shed light on an equally disturbing performance by Emilie Dequenne for “Our Children.” I’m so happy that there was a really strong year for fierce and beautiful female performances. Also, last, and random, shout out to William Shimell in “Amour.” For those of you who were watching the movie thinking, “Hey, I know that guy…” He played James Miller in Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy” opposite Juliette Binoche. He’s actually an opera singer, but evidently has been working it with the greats. What a career, just casually doing films with Kiarostami and Haneke. NBD.

Blair: I had no idea he was an opera singer and I was trying to figure out who he was.

Fariha: There you go.  

Blair: Thinking about strong female performances though, I think it’s been a little overlooked that in both of Cristian Mungiu’s last two films his worlds are constructed around two female protagonists who are in situations particular to them as females (abortion in “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” and the life of a nun in “Beyond the Hills”).

Fariha: You think? I mean that’s definitely what I focused on (or at least tried to) when I wrote about it for Indiewire, but also what I praised him for when I met him. I think that’s why his work is so captivating. He characterizes the plight of women in poverty so well. Other auteurs have no doubt focused on these topics — abortion, in a way — homosexuality, but also the effect of religion on those who have nothing else. What makes him stand out is that he takes it one step further and refuses to lay judgment on what happens, intending to merely “show us.” His films are not didactic and that’s a true testament to him as a filmmaker.

Blair: I did read your piece on it, but I feel like a lot (my own included) were so captivated by the intensity of his work and the way he produced that feeling that this aspect was in general left out. I agree with you though, that some of that power is due to the fact that he refuses to be didactic. It’s one thing to make a movie about women in a way that announces to the world that the filmmakers want to talk about women. It’s another to just lay bare a story. What I’m trying to say is: why can’t everyone be Cristian Mungiu?

Fariha: And why can’t more films be about women in a realistic way? I mean, we don’t all just want to watch “What To Expect When You’re Expecting.” Hollywood, we cool? But in the issue of full disclosure, I watch “Lola Versus” on repeat…

Blair: Well, besides the structural reasons, I think part of it is that whenever we want to talk about films about women or minorities, everyone approaches it first and foremost as “a film about ‘This Particular Group.'” So it gets these weird reviews where people say it’s “important” or “necessary” but never “this is a good film that should be seen and you should stop being racist or sexist, too.”

Fariha: Definitely agree with you there. I think we operate under this mindset that it’s “important,” but not natural, so we need to highlight the reasons why it’s necessary to watch, instead of judging these films on the scale we judge all other films about everyone else. No one should be precious about films made about women/minorities.  We don’t need to be coddled. We’re capable of making up our own decisions and liking a film based on actual substance.

Blair: Right? It’s going to be crazy when the film industry learns that.

Fariha: I can see the headlines, “Women actually like films that are intellectual and don’t have Channing Tatum in every scene? WHAT IS LIFE?”

Blair: The world will probably end the next day.

Fariha: I don’t mean to offend Tatum or any die hard fans. I liked “The Vow.” But I also liked “The Gatekeepers.” Go figure. Which brings me to my next question: Favorite films during the festival. That is besides “Beyond The Hills.” Can anything compare, really?

Blair: To put it simply: no. But after “Beyond The Hills?” “Amour,” “Like Someone in Love” and from the Midnight Movies section — “Outrage Beyond.”

Fariha: Ah, yes, I didn’t catch “Outrage Beyond.” Give me some high points.

Blair: Well, “Outrage Beyond” is Takeshi Kitano’s sequel to “Outrage.” To put it briefly: an arrogant police officer tries to pit rival Yakuza clans against each other by using a retired Yakuza’s desire for revenge. I must admit that I’m a fan of gangster movies of any national cinema, because I think they tend to say a lot about how people think of their society. Kitano also happens to be a master of slapstick. In one shot he has someone executed by placing them in front of a pitching machine at a batting cage, which isn’t at all funny. But he plays the scene until it’s absurd, cuts away, and then comes back to it in a wide angle. To top it all off, he makes some pretty cutting remarks about there being little difference between the Yakuza, the State, and the world of high finance.

Fariha: It sounds good, I’m sad I missed it.

Blair: And I was actually a little sad it was in Midnight Movies. Even though it’s a really fun section, I thought it was doing more than providing guns and blood and deserved to be included in the Main Slate. But how about you, what were your favorite?

Fariha: Well you mentioned my top three already — “Beyond The Hills,” “Like Someone In Love” and “Amour.” I also loved “Frances Ha.” That was very surprising for me because I traditionally loathe most Baumbach films. Actually, I can’t remember ever really liking one. But “Frances” was so light and actually funny, instead of being unnecessarily caustic. I also really loved Potter’s return to form in “Ginger and Rosa,” and the performances by Elle Fanning and Alessandro Nivola were exceptional. The audience members in my theater were having some kind of visceral reaction to Nivola’s Roland, as one woman yelled out, “He deserves a good slap.” When you piss audience members off, that’s when you know the acting is really good. I also really enjoyed a lot of the documentaries. “First Cousin Once Removed” was so moving, as was “Casting By.”

Blair: I didn’t get a chance to see “Frances Ha,” but I heard a lot of thinking along the same lines — people who either didn’t like his work, or had grown tired of it and were suddenly shocked by what was on the screen.

Fariha: Yep. I initially didn’t even want to watch it, but then I did. And how glad was I. What a truly rewarding film. Gerwig is/was always sensational. Special mention goes out to Adam Driver who seems to be in everything these days. He was even in “Lincoln!”

Blair: Wasn’t everyone in “Lincoln?” I’m pretty sure we’re in “Lincoln” for a few minutes.

Fariha: Oh wait, that’s in the final edits, right?

Blair: Yup, we’re in one of the crowds he tells stories to. I actually think the only actors who weren’t in “Lincoln” were in “Flight.” I thought John Goodman’s character was such a weird (but good!) choice. Everything’s very heavy and melodramatic (alcoholism! broken families! drug abuse! crashing planes!), but he is just entirely comic relief. I mean in a movie where Denzel’s plane clips the tower of a church and crashes into a field John Goodman makes his entrance to “Sympathy for the Devil” and a bag full of alcohol and porn. And Denzel deserves another shout-out anyway for his performance and quivering jaw line.

Fariha: Denzel is just Denzel. I think half way through the movie I realized Denzel wasn’t acting, he just was the character. I would probably honor him more if he wasn’t Denzel. Dude’s like the Meryl Streep of men. You’re right about Goodman, though. He plays these comedic roles so effortlessly, I saw a lot of Walter Sobchak from “The Big Lebowski” in his character from “Flight.” I’m yet to see him “Argo,” but I’ve heard that’s it’s good and he’s also quite good in it.

Blair: This might be the best I’ve ever seen Denzel, but I wonder if he’ll be rewarded for it. I thought the script was a little leaden, but he sort of put everything on his back. I also thought the race was over after what Joaquin Phoenix did in “The Master” (I still do), but with him and DDL and Washington there might actually be intrigue as awards season comes around.

Fariha: I really hope all three get nominated, but seeing as though the other two have won, (and even despite my undying allegiance to DDL) I also think Phoenix should get rewarded for once. But we’ll see, maybe this year it will actually be an exciting race. Though with Seth MacFarlane hosting I can’t imagine the ceremony being any better than the Hathaway/Franco fail whale. 

Blair: Well, as everyone knows the New York Film Festival is just a run up to the Oscars, so I’m sure all of the films we’ve mentioned will be richly and justly rewarded in February.

Fariha: The operative word being “justly.” Don’t know how much truth is in that, but we’ll see what happens. If some of you missed the films showing at the festival, make sure you catch them when they’re play near you. There are some definite masterpieces.

Fariha Roisin is a writer by day and a writer by night. A culture and film critic, she has a certain penchance for writing about women. Blair McClendon is currently studying art history at Columbia University, while working in and writing about film. He firmly believes that the Mothers of America should let their kids go to the movies. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

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