About three-quarters of the way through the New York Film Festival’s press screenings, which unfolded in an orderly pace at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater last month, I was struck by an unexpected and unavoidable observation. This was a very good year. Not just by shambolic pandemic standards; by any standard. The festival’s program, both its Main Slate and more experimental Currents, was one of the strongest in recent history – a revelation and a comfort to those of us whose favourite pastime has been hollowed out by theatre closures, postponed releases, and the pittance of virtual links. Anyone lucky enough to make it to Lincoln Center over the past few weeks saw cinema flourish, in full force. In fact, I was going to have a hard time finding things to criticise. 

I might have dismissed these raptures as mere excessive exuberance, at being allowed out of the house and into the theatre again – except that I’d had the distinct pleasure of making it to Cannes earlier this summer, where I found the films there distinctly less pleasurable. To be sure, the best films at Cannes were some of the best films at NYFF, but these were carefully culled from various programs with an overall entropy towards middling. New York, of course, has the advantage of foresight. The festival largely depends upon regional premieres of films that have already been vetted by their reception at other festivals over the summer and spring: Cannes, Venice, Toronto, and Berlin. But this is precisely what makes NYFF so ideal for taking the temperature of global cinema on a yearly basis, as well as something of a diamond mine of quality entertainment and artistic vision readily accessible to any discerning New Yorker. Press screenings are conducted on a distant, shadowy parallel from public ones, so it’s hard to be sure to what extent the public noticed, but this year’s program was particularly more diamonds than rough. 

It was all the more exciting because we are finally far enough along in this damn pandemic to make something out of the new normal. By my count, 17 of the 33 films I saw at NYFF, or just over half, contain principle photography shot during some stage of quarantine. Of these projects, the vast majority (including Titane, The Worst Person in the World, Parallel Mothers, and Red Rocket), make no overt reference to the period they are filmed in, faithful realisations of scripts which were drafted in 2019 or earlier. Others, like Drive My Car, The Tsugua Diaries, and especially Radu Jude’s uproarious Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, take on the aesthetic of masks and the conditions of quarantine, however obliquely, to make a film which embodies our new reality and its strange dispensations. And still others – I’m thinking especially of Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman and Gaspar Noe’s Vortex – contain no reference to a novel coronavirus at all, but retain the hermetic airlessness of productions made in lockdown.

 The Tsugua Diaries © O Som e a Fúria Uma Pedra no Sapato

NYFF made the uncharacteristically bold choice this year of holding the festival entirely in person, with some virtual equivalent not even extended to press who would be kept away by travel restrictions. Beyond compliance with the city’s creaky reopening, this decision seemed the result of evident frustrations with last year’s virtual set-up, which included some grumbling from within the industry about the preciousness of screener links, controlled far more tightly than the carte-blanche of an accreditation would normally allow for. There was also some dismay amongst the public that the primary consolation for theatrical premieres, once Lincoln Center went dark, was to set up various drive-in screenings – in a city where few people drive. NYFF attempted a more accessible, expansive festival this year, with a select number of screenings in a few extraneous theatres, but these were largely peripheral to the main events of the program, all of which took place on the north side of 66th Street, in a Lincoln Center heavily scaffolded for restoration. The ongoing construction helped underscore the quaint glamourlessness of this festival, which comes off as limply democratic in every way Cannes appears rigidly authoritarian. But the refurbishments, mainly on Lincoln Center’s still-defunct live performance spaces, also spoke of further optimism, and heralded more reopenings to come.

If the films were making their own appeals for the supremacy of in-person viewing, this was best expressed through sound. Several big-name critics have unhelpfully pointed out over the past year that positioning one’s laptop over one’s lap is apt to get you a screen roughly the same size as sitting in the back of a multiplex theatre – and without the nuisance of other people!1 One of the many things this fails to account for is the inability of laptop speakers – or even a respectable Bluetooth setup – to capture the immersive qualities of excellent sound design, in a space designed expressly for it. While any film is more or less done a disservice when watched at home, several here could scarcely be approximated without the experience of a theatre proper. 

Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground begins with an exuberantly loud clashing and screeching – whining riffs of angular guitar, and viola, from that band’s “Venus in Furs,” which rattle through the theatre loud enough to shake you. This kicks us off with a display of raw power from a subject that, for the rest of the film, Haynes treats elegantly. The documentary is pretty straightforward in its combination of archival footage and present-day testimony; what makes it exceptional is the range of both. Haynes interviews some of the more enigmatic figures of the 1970s Downtown scene, and we are guided through the first half of the film by John Cale, who has never been enthusiastic to speak about a band he was unceremoniously kicked out of. He probably feels comfortable helming the narrative again now that Lou Reed, his rivalrous former bandmate, has passed away, and yet we hear from Reed as well, in intimate and conversational voiceover – despite the fact that he died in 2013 and was nearly impossible to interview before then.2 The film is just as exciting visually, with a seemingly endless profusion of rare and experimental pieces from the period. Haynes’s documentary is as much about the explosion of independent American cinema in the late ‘60s as it is about a rock-and-roll band, which makes sense only when you discover how closely the two are related. 

The Velvet Underground, courtesy of Apple

The Velvets were introduced to Andy Warhol, who gave them the institutional clout to make their otherwise unimaginable first record, by Barbara Rubin, a downtown filmmaker who was herself tied up with the Factory crowd because Warhol had just announced he was done with painting and, having traded in his silkscreens for Super 8, began a significant period making practically motionless motion pictures. Core interviewees tend to have their testimony supplemented by Warhol “screen tests,” showing them as they were in the ‘60s, and often played alongside present-day clips in full. (Splitscreen, which visually dominates Haynes’s film, is itself an homage to Warhol’s Chelsea Girls [1966], and also makes an appearance, coincidentally, in Gaspar Noé’s Vortex). How Haynes was able to release such a plethora of archival gems from their notoriously strict captivity at Philadelphia’s Andy Warhol Museum is beyond me, but the profusion of cash from Apple surely played a role. It’s a devil’s bargain, more than worthwhile in the interest of making such a rich and historically relevant work, but the thunderous opening credits of the film are enough to tell you that Haynes does not want you watching it on an iPad. 

Similarly indomitable sound design graces Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, a shocking picture that I am more than willing to call, at mid-October, the best movie of the year. The plot hinges entirely on auditory cues. Jessica (Tilda Swinton) wanders around Buenos Aires in search of a reason behind her hearing loud, unexpected booms – which rock the cineplex as they do Jessica’s psyche. The film is slow, gorgeous, and ostensibly unmotivated in its unfurling of events; I had to watch it twice to realise how splendidly they cohered. Even so, the climactic finale – which one might call a plot twist, as silly as this sounds for all apparent plotlessness – comes out of left field, and will surely be too much for some viewers, though longtime fans of Apichatpong’s work will recognise a persistent image. No spoilers, of course, but I’ll tell you now that the climax feels to me less like a leap than a revelation – the fullest divulgence of a sense of dislocation (some would say alienation), that persists throughout the film, so thematically potent as to subvert its allegiance to realism. Some viewers will find this alienation speaks to them; others will simply be alienated by it. But see it anyway, if for no other reason than the film’s immaculate ambience, which ranges from a sonic boom to a quiet so loud that the purr of the theatre air conditioner seemed to be getting in the way. Apichatpong’s new work swells and concludes like a symphony, and he has stated that he’s worked with Neon to attenuate his sound design to each theatre it has played in thus far. Perhaps that’s why the distribution company has set the release up as a “touring” theatrical run, to play one week per theatre as it makes its way across the United States, with no plans for a DVD or on-demand release.3


My colleague, Daniel Fairfax, panned Memoria in his Cannes festival report from this summer – and fair enough. The film is certainly not for everyone. What surprised me was his crediting of the project’s baffling array of public sponsors (it is, as he puts it, “a Thai/Colombia/French/German/Mexican co-production…[with] funding from Beijing and Doha”) as evidence against the piece. 4 Perhaps this is just my obtuseness as an American, where public funding is scant-to-nonexistent, and usually attached to a Senate investigation into the Use of Taxpayer Funds to Advance Heretical Immorality, but I find it absolutely delightful that a film as mindboggling as Memoria could earn funding from governments as diverse as China, Colombia, and Qatar. And this was (from an American perspective) the big story of the festival, where an unusually fertile array of shocking, agitational, politically aberrant, and artistically exultant films graced the screen, almost all of them preceded by the seal of some ministry of culture.

In the case of Titane, it seems easiest to think of the film in relation to exploitation flicks of the 1970s, which drape unflinching themes over careening plots with a similar frankness to Julia Ducournau’s queer-coded horror piece. The “morals” embodied by the film (if you can forgive the bloody and oily trail that leads us to them) are some of the most basic and fundamental values of queerness: family is chosen and gender is performance. This (plus a decent helping of Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”)5 makes the movie a semiotic powerhouse, but it is by all appearances a grindhouse work as well, and this strange profusion is made even queerer by the thought that the project had some help from France’s Centre national du cinéma, and a place in Belgium’s Tax Shelter du Gouvernement Fédéral – to say nothing of the top prize at Cannes. The unapologetic oddness of Titane is proof positive that the rulebook for how we made and watched movies before the pandemic ought to be thrown out, and perhaps already has.

Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging was confinanced by Croatian, Czech, and Luxembourgian film funds, (as well as a Romanian mineral water company), but it’s probably no surprise that the movie, which was shot in Bucharest during what appears to be the height of the pandemic’s first wave, didn’t get the stamp of approval back home. True to its name, the project begins with an amateur-style video of unsimulated sex, ostensibly starring the film’s protagonist Emi (Katia Pascariu), which spreads across the internet after her boyfriend uploads it to a fetish site, until various parents of the students Emi teaches find it and demand her resignation. Jude takes us through a day in Emi’s life, anticipating an acrimonious parent-teacher conference, to cast a wandering eye around the streets of Bucharest and descend into an overwrought, provocative, and largely unrelated film essay satirising Romania’s troubled past and troubling present. For all its caustic chauvinism, the film is strangely touching, and the ludicrous final scene enacts a crude catharsis familiar to anyone who has engaged in enough absurd political debates to wish there was something impeding the words leaving their opponent’s throat.

Ahed’s Knee

Of course, public funding also has its drawbacks, or at least attendant disappointments. In Ahed’s Knee, Nadav Lapid’s kinetic new film, a director, Y (Avshalom Pollak), screens a recent project in a remote Israeli village. That country’s Ministry of Culture plays a direct role – in the form of Yahalom (Nur Fibak), a deputy who has organised the screening. We learn that the Y is at work on a new project, which, from what little we are shown of the casting call, signals solidarity with a Palestinian dissident. This project (in the world of the story, at least), stands little chance of getting funding, and over the course of the screening Y manipulates Yahalom into divulging exactly what the Ministry of Culture will and will not allow in terms of content. When she discovers Y has recorded her, Yahalom falls into a fit of despair, and even contemplates taking her own life. Such is the agony of violated censorship. All this rings bleakly hollow when you discover that Ahed’s Knee was, of course, readily greenlit by the Israel Film Fund and their Ministry of Culture and Sports, and will almost certainly be that county’s official entry into the Academy Awards this year. The mock-controversy within the fake Ministry of Culture only serves to make the real Ministry of Culture look generous and lenient – all while distracting entirely from the real controversy of Israeli occupation and apartheid that is so effectively downplayed by that country’s media apparatus. If you want a real sense of what is going on in the West Bank, skip Ahed’s Knee and watch The First 54 Years: A Guide to Military Occupation, Avi Mograbi’s unglamorous documentary on the annexation of Palestinian land, which shared the festival’s Main Slate with Lapid’s project and is addressed, disconcertingly, as a playbook for future imperialists.

If I sound wistful about government financing, Lapid’s film aside, it’s probably the warped conditions of American private capital that drive me to do so. The American films at NYFF fall into three distinct categories: prestige projects made by established directors for streaming services, which were by-and-large middling; high-production blockbusters made by old Hollywood studios, which were expensive, byzantine in scope, and speak generally to the last great tremblings of a collapsing empire; and A24 films – mid-size indie projects that were fresh, exciting, the best of what the United States has to offer. That such films only exist to be made by a single independent production company now is worrying to the point of nausea; especially because A24 has recently entered into acquisition talks with Apple.6

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Apple TV+ is struggling, with only a few original programs keeping subscriptions renewed, and it now appears to be gunning cynically for cinephiles, so to expand the consumer base. This didn’t stop Joel Coen from accepting their support in his production of The Tragedy of Macbeth, NYFF’s opening night film and Joel’s first production ever without his brother Ethan. Shakespeare is a reach for Coen, who seems far more comfortable détourning old stories and making them strangely new, but his Macbeth is strictly traditionalist, with theatrical lighting design and such a dearth of set details that the film seems to take place more on a stage than any sort of Scottish heath. Screen adaptations of Shakespeare are nothing new, but any effort to give the play the advantages of a film – immersion, context, scale – was strictly eschewed in this production, as even the performances attest. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, as Sir and Lady Macbeth, say their lines like actors reciting lines. Any effort at embodiment on their part feels like less empathy than indulgence. Washington, in particular, speeds through the crucial first act of the play with the impression that the meaning of the words is lost on him – only when he grasps the crown and becomes the mad king does he make a meal of his performance. But how can you blame him, or McDormand, when their motivations are as murky as the castle walls implied by Coen’s set design and yet never really conjured?

Jane Campion’s Centerpiece for the festival, The Power of the Dog (for Netflix), faces similar problems, though it has the helpful advantage of originality. In her idiosyncratic adaptation of a nearly forgotten Western by Thomas Savage, Benedict Cumberbatch does about as convincing a job playing a ranch-hand as Campion’s native New Zealand does playing Montana. The film, as Campion intends it, is full of secrets, a repressive slow-burn that gradually reveals its poison. But this foreboding tone, alongside some of the production’s odd anachronisms, threatens to topple our entire sense of the story until quite late into it. I, for one, couldn’t figure out exactly what kind of movie I was watching until the final scene, at which point it all became pretty gripping. I suspect others felt rather the same around the sagging middle, where quite a lot of uneasy laughter leaked out around the edges of scenes, taut with tension, that generally concern Cumberbatch’s characters’ refusal to take a bath.

Dune, Photo Credit: Chiabella James

Oddly enough, the best of the major releases was the biggest: Warner Bros’ Dune, which premiered in the festival’s Spotlight section, and is gambling its entire $165 million budget on a strong theatrical release. Dune has an all-star cast, and the institutional production value of a different era; its director, Denis Villeneuve, proved his bona fides at handling massive productions with untold intellectual property value and impossible fan expectations when he made Blade Runner 2049, probably the reboot closest to improving on the original in this era of revenant franchises. When it comes to Dune, the bar is set low, with only David Lynch’s reviled 1984 adaptation to compete with – but the plot of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel is onerous, and the political implications are hairy. Villeneuve plays his project straight and dead serious, orchestrating massive fight scenes and epic story arcs without a hint of pandering to his audience. This in pointed contrast to Disney, who, between the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, has a near monopoly on interplanetary conflict, and appears straightforwardly interested in milking those sagas for all they’re worth. The fourth wall gets a little thinner each time these spin-offs take another turn through the wash, as if winking at the fans still dumb enough to still spend their money here, but Dune is having none of it. It is, by all efforts, an original, and has the potency of one. What it lacks in familiarity it makes up for in spectacle, throwing literally everything it can at the screen, and playing these effects to the formidable limits of present-day technology. It is the most beautiful science-fiction film I’ve ever seen, also the loudest. It is sure to be the first of many immersive Dunes to come, though hopefully many more will pass before they start cracking smiles and trawling for laughs.

The best all-around films I saw at NYFF, neither the most audacious nor the most awaited but simply the most commendable to a general audience, were Sean Baker’s Red Rocket and Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road. Both played at Cannes prior to this (Baker’s was in Official Selection while Panahi played the Quinzaine), and both are defined by a vicious, unsettling humour, which makes you guiltily complicit in your proximity to the characters. Baker’s vision is of Texas as Trumpland, where a down-and-out porn star (the wonderful Simon Rex) returns home from L.A. for a little R&R. Though he has shacked up with his estranged wife, it’s not long before he finds a barely-legal teenager (Suzanna Son) to dote on, all the better because she is naïve enough to believe the fantasies he spins to keep his life afloat. Baker is about the only American director I would trust to set a film on the eve of the 2016 Presidential election, and he gets away with it because he has deep empathy, and real investment, in the characters that populate the down-and-out places most coastal elites spurn. His exuberant political incorrectness is a rare vicarious thrill for deplorability, and every liberal-intellectual critic in this country (not to mention the actual tastemakers, like those on the Academy board), will be challenged this year over whether to accept such a noble and winning film that includes instances of pederasty on the part of the protagonist (which are, even worse, portrayed as completely consensual).

Red Rocket, courtesy of A24

The humour in Hit the Road is boisterously black, and revolves around the open animosity and expressive cruelty felt by a family in close quarters; they share a small car on the drive to the Iranian border. The father (Hassan Madjooni), confined to the backseat in a full leg cast, deadpans about his interest in cannibalism. He and his wife (Pantea Panahiha) have no qualms about informing their youngest that he is the first they will eat. The love with which such threats are flung is quietly obvious, and slowly grows into the backbone of the film as we learn the reason for their voyage. This is a tragic, arresting feature, whose real subject is the dissolution of national and familial ties in the face of migration and exile – a perennial topic for festival films, most of which are unable to do much besides wring their hands and cry. To choose to laugh instead, and to keep the true subject of concern repressively at bay, is the heartfelt and realistic option for so many who have no choice but to endure such dissolution, and by foregrounding their perspective in the plot, rather than those of the guilty masses who flock to see such films, Panahi has made the bolder, better choice.

The closing film of NYFF, Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, was a joyful, graceful return to form, and a fitting end to a festival whose ultimate effort was to reinstate cinema as usual. Few directors today work as consistently as Almodóvar, who spoke quite frankly about using the exigencies of lockdown (particularly brutal in Spain) to cut out distractions and return to some long-awaited scripts. The very first film which inaugurated the reopening of limited capacity theatres in New York this past spring was his Human Voice (2020), which premiered before Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) at Film Forum in May. To be back in the stiff folding seats watching such a panoply of colour on the screen was soul-warming, but it was, like the reopening itself, not a full return. The Human Voice, after all, is merely a short, shot on the El Deseo lot in the midst of lockdown, and rather than a new direction for Almodóvar it was merely a more direct adaptation of the Cocteau play he adapted Women on the Verge from years before. 

Parallel Mothers

There was, in fact, some hanging doubt that we would ever see a bona fide “pelicula de Almodovar” again. When his self-reflexive Pain and Glory (2019) opened at Lincoln Center in 2019, critics largely hailed it as the inauguration of the auteur’s “late period” – another way of saying that the whip-cracking delights we have come to expect from his work have been replaced by nostalgic frailty. Parallel Mothers, though, is vintage Almodóvar, and it makes Pain and Glory seem premature by comparison. Penelope Cruz stars as Janis, a fashion photographer who has an affair with one of her subjects (oddly enough, he’s a forensic anthropologist), within the first five minutes of film. She becomes pregnant, and shares her hospital waiting room with Ana (Milena Smit, a newcomer, who so perfectly fits Almodóvar’s aesthetic that I was sure I’d seen her in something of his before). Montage of back-to-back birthing pains. 

What happens next I won’t reveal, but it contains many resemblances to a telenovela, serves as an uneasy platform for a polemic about historical memory and the Spanish Civil War, and gives Titane a run for its money in terms of embodying the concept of “chosen family.” In short, it is an Almodóvar film, and not a late-period one. This director is in his prime, and seems to have wasted little time letting the problems of political upheaval, a global pandemic, and a radically shifting film industry get in the way of making exactly the type of movie he wanted to make. These were obstacles to be hurdled, not bowed to, and while it may have involved waiting a little longer than anyone wanted, you could hardly say that we have waited long. 

This festival felt complete, at full capacity in terms of both audience and content, and while the smart and “critical” thing to do was to simply take this as a given and get to work, it is hard not to feel shocked, and unduly grateful, by the simple miracle of its continued existence. After a year and half of lockdown, cinema is back, every inch as strong as it should be. The only thing that’s changed is us.

New York Film Festival
24 Sept 2021 – 10 Oct 2021
Festival website: https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2021/


  1. Much of Richard Brody’s output in the early months of the pandemic was dedicated to the “aesthetic benefits” of “a small laptop screen” over the “charmless and poorly maintained multiplexes (that) don’t so much recall the glory days of Hollywood studios as the soulless grottoes of Penn Station,” which I took as the announcement that he was looking for a new line of work. I’m sure television would be happy to have him. Meanwhile, in an essay called “How Much Do You Really Miss Going to the Movies?” the Times critic A.O. Scott described “the pleasure of sitting in the dark among friends and strangers and partaking of a collective dream…as idealized if not downright ideological, a fantasy of film democracy that has rarely been realized,” pointing instead to the not-at-all imaginary scourges of “theater(s) full of crying babies…Talkative senior citizens…Unruly teenagers.” Strangely enough, I did not see either of them at press screenings this year.
  2. See, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UrhX1ilwwc
  3. https://www.indiewire.com/2021/10/memoria-apichatpong-weerasethakul-neon-nationwide-tour-release-1234669107/
  4. https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2021/festival-reports/brave-new-world-the-2021-cannes-film-festival/
  5. https://www.sfu.ca/~decaste/OISE/page2/files/HarawayCyborg.pdf
  6. https://9to5mac.com/2021/07/13/report-apple-exploring-potential-acquisition-of-indie-film-studio-a24-for-3-billion

About The Author

Nolan Kelly is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Brooklyn, New York.

Related Posts