The New York Film Festival has established itself as a haven for film purists, a place where the masters of cinema are treated like titans and auteurism supersedes all other other religions. In keeping with that spirit, the fest has always made sure to steer an uncommon (and greatly appreciated) degree of attention towards the history of the medium, complementing their roster of contemporary films with in-depth retrospectives and well-curated revival screenings.
NYFF 54 is no exception. In fact, this year’s retrospective section offers two programs for the price of one — centering on director Bertrand Tavernier, the wonderfully expansive sidebar doesn’t just appreciate its subject as a filmmaker, but as a film thinker as well. Only showing one of Tavernier’s narrative features, the retrospective focuses instead on his unmissable new cinematic essay, “My Journey Through French Cinema,” and is crowded with several of the Gallic masterpieces that he excerpts in that epic tour of the movies that have shaped his life and the post-war identity of the country in which he’s lived it.
It’s a killer lineup, stretching from Robert Bresson’s first film to Robert Bresson’s last film and covering a handful of classics in between (full disclosure: “L’Argent” is technically screening as part of the Revivals section, where Bresson’s bleak final statement will play alongside iconic titles from heavyweights such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Barbara Kopple, and Albert Lewin).
Additionally, NYFF has programmed a dozen well-chosen wonders by one of Tavernier’s favorite filmmakers, American director Henry Hathaway. A wildly eclectic talent whose career began in the silent era and ended with a blaxploitation B-movie in 1974, Hathaway made Gary Cooper Westerns, Lionel Barrymore whaling epics, bitterly unsparing films noir, and a whole lot more, and his work will be lovingly represented at this year’s fest. In other words, there’s a lot to see here beyond the sexy new fall movies that are swinging by on their way to Oscar glory — you might come for “Manchester By the Sea,” but you should stay for “Memories of Underdevelopment.” Here are five repertory films that you shouldn’t miss at this year’s NYFF.
“The Battle of Algiers”
It sometimes feels as though “The Battle of Algiers” is always screening in one place or another, but there’s never a bad time to sit down and reckon with Gilles Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece, as the movie hasn’t aged a day. The newsreel-style narrative film remains the cinema’s most immersive and volatile depiction of an insurgency, lightly fictionalizing key events of the Algerian War in order to create a portrait of guerrilla resistance that’s as fluid and explosive as the rebellion it recreates. Cast entirely with non-actors and weaving through the serpentine streets of the Casbah with the comfort of a local, the film captures what it feels to fend off am occupation from the ground level. “The Battle of Algiers” has received a new 4K restoration from Rialto Pictures, and if you’ve never seen it before, you need to jump on this.
“The Dark Corner”
Before she was Lucille Esmeralda “Lucy” McGillicuddy Ricardo, Lucille Ball was a wonderfully versatile actress who was as comfortable angling for thrills as she was playing for laughs. Ball may not be the star of this electric and thoroughly self-possessed Henry Hathaway noir, but — as the lovestruck secretary of private investigator (Mark Stevens) who’s being framed for murder — she steals the show all the same. A hardboiled detective story that was shot in high-contrast black-and-white and smoked through a thousand different shades of gray, (in no other film did Hathaway so directly apply the lessons he learned under the tutelage of Josef von Sternberg), “The Dark Corner” is the stuff of vintage noir from its terse opening scenes to its precarious finale.
“Memories of Underdevelopment”
When people think of classic Cuban cinema, they tend to think of “I am Cuba” — Mikhail Kalatozov’s cinematographic marvel is so monolithic that any number of worthy films have been disappeared under its shadow. Such was the fate of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s similarly pro-Castro “Memories of Underdevelopment,” which astonished viewers when it escaped from Cuba in 1973 (five years after it was shot), but has since been under-appreciated as a sensuous critique of bourgeois thinking. Now as much of a compelling time capsule as it is a sober character study about a man who stays behind when his life (and everyone in it) flees to Miami, this poetic and irreplaceable film is being revived for new audiences that may be more receptive to the stark feelings of isolation that define its hero and the country he loves.
Want to feel old? NYFF’s “Revivals” section is now screening films that were made in 2002. But, in this case, you’ll be glad they are — 2002’s “Safe Conduct” finds Bertrand Tavernier doing what he does best, using French cinema as a tool with which to excavate French history (but like, in a sexy way). A loving and lustrous portrait of filmmaking during wartime, the 170-minute epic follows an assistant director (Jacques Gamblin) as he navigates the industry during the madness of the Occupation and fights for a way to do his job without betraying his nation. Far-reaching and episodic but galvanized throughout by Tavernier’s obvious passion, “Safe Conduct” is a rich reminder that the director is as much of an artist as he is a curator.
It may not seem like it at that moment, but this is actually a great time to be alive. Sure, the end of western civilization as we know it may be on the immediate horizon, but — on the bright side — the sublime films of Taiwanese master Edward Yang are finally being restored and made available to a wider audience. The Criterion Collection released a pristine edition of Yang’s lovelorn political epic “A Brighter Summer Day” earlier this year, BAM is hosting the country’s first theatrical run of “The Terrorizers” next month, and NYFF is showcasing the late filmmaker’s exquisite (and extremely rare) “Taipei Story.”
More compact than Yang’s signature work, but no less compelling for that, the wistful 1985 drama stars Hou Hsiao-hsien (yes, that Hou Hsiao-hsien) as a baseball player who’s trying to reconcile his idealism with his girlfriend’s more pragmatic middle-class concerns. A formative work of New Taiwanese Cinema, “Taipei Story” is a portrait of a nation torn between its past and future, filtered through the lens of a filmmaker who was just beginning to shape the present.
The festival runs September 30 – October 16.