The 10 Most Important Films in the 56th New York Film Festival

This year's cream of the crop combines artistry with insightful sociopolitical commentary.

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New York Film Festival
Photo: Netflix.

The 56th edition of the New York Film Festival is well underway, with 30 new feature films from all over the world comprising its main slate, as well as a number of restorations and special events that remind us why this time of year is like Christmas for NYC cinephiles. The NYFF is arguably the most expertly curated film festival in the world; all of this year’s selections were previously screened in other festivals across the world, which means they come with stamps of approval in the shape of critical consensus or awards.

Even though the NYFF never has a theme, the more films I sat through this year, the clearer it became that films that speak to this precise moment in time were much more important than the latest nihilist Western by the Coen brothers. (Can you believe that in 2018, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has an all-white cast? Or that the only people of color in it are Native Americans — who are referred to as “savages”?) These are films even more important than Yorgos Lanthimos’ delightful but vapid The Favourite, which takes us back to 18th century England, where a powerful Queen Anne (an exceptional Olivia Colman) throws tantrums over court pettiness as her subjects are taxed and sent to war.

The NYFF is usually a great showcase for Asian cinema, and this year is no exception. Considering the craving for Asian storytelling in American cinemas, kickstarted by the unparalleled and much-deserved success of Crazy Rich Asians over the summer, one can only hope subtitle-fearing audiences as well as adventurous distributors will note films like Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (a dreamlike essay that goes 3D halfway through) and Ying Liang’s endlessly moving A Family Tour, which deals with the limbo-like existence of political exiles without romanticism or easy lessons.

Among the NYFF’s Spotlight on Documentary selections, highlights include Ruth Beckermann’s The Waldheim Waltz, which eerily feels like it was ripped from contemporary headlines, and Tom Volf’s life-assuring Maria by Callas, which grants the opera diva her rightful role as creator of her own myth.

But as in every film festival there’s also the cream of the crop. Here, listed alphabetically, are the 10 most important films playing at the New York Film Festival:

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Ash is Purest White

After the majestic Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhangke continues his chronicle of modern life in China with a film that goes from gangster drama to intimate character study, as it spans a decade’s worth of storytelling. Zhao Tao shines as Qiao, a woman who starts off as a trophy girlfriend and then becomes witness to the ever-changing industrial and social landscape of China. Touching on issues the director addressed in his remarkable Still Life, like the displacement of entire communities to make way for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, Ash is Purest White reaffirms Zhangke’s position as one of the most socially conscious filmmakers in the world.

Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival.

Burning

After more meditative works like Poetry and Secret Sunshine, Korean director Lee Chang-dong takes an aim at genre filmmaking with a provocative examination of female oppression and upward mobility in South Korea. Jeon Jong-seo is terrific as Shin Hae-mi, the manic pixie dream girl-turned-femme-fatale-turned symbol, who transcends the overtly masculine traits of suspense films.

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Cold War

In his follow up to the Oscar-winning Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski chronicles what happened to Poland after World War II. At first glance, the film seems an acutely observed romance as it follows a free-spirited singer and her pianist-conductor lover as they fall in love, fight and make-up repeatedly. Slowly, however, the film reveals itself to be a heartbreaking account of what it’s like to be unable to shake off the idea that the country where you were born has stopped being your home.

Happy as Lazzaro

Director Alice Rohrwacher becomes heir to Roberto Rossellini with her affecting tale of sainthood in modern days. The title character, played by newcomer Adriano Tardiolo, selflessly tries helping both the aristocrat exploiting his family and his own kin, who constantly take advantage of his innocence. Rohrwacher’s inspiration came from a real-life story which had a wealthy Italian woman conveniently forget to mention modern law to the sharecroppers she exploited in thanks to the isolated location of her estate. With her characteristic folk-tale storytelling and Pasolini-esque aesthetic, Rohrwacher makes us wonder if we are worthy of having saints amongst us?

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If Beale Street Could Talk

In his stunning follow-up to Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins takes on James Baldwin’s most famous novel. At the center of it, there’s a sweeping romance between two African-American youths who decide to spend their lives together, despite the desires of their families. On a larger scale, however, Jenkins addresses the constant presence of police brutality in African-American history, the inefficiency of the criminal justice system, and the way in which the white patriarchy turns oppressed people against each other. The final shot poetically encompasses what America is today.

The Image Book

At 87, Jean-Luc Godard is putting filmmakers half his age to shame with what might be one of the most irreverent, playful films released this decade. Godard looks at “the Arab world” through its depiction in Western culture. From Marlene Dietrich to Joan Crawford to Pier Paolo Pasolini, Godard poses many questions about our own misconceptions and bias when it comes to a part of the world where he thinks everyone is a philosopher.

Photo: Courtesy of El Pampero.

La Flor

Don’t let the 807-minute running time (yes, that’s almost 14 hours) of this Argentinean masterpiece deter you from engaging with it. After his remarkable Historias Extraordinarias, director Mariano Llinás spent an entire decade crafting a multi-genre epic anchored by the work of four extraordinary actresses who play chanteuses, B-movie scientists and spies, among others. If nothing else, La Flor should serve as a reminder that “Latin American cinema” isn’t a genre; artists from all over the continent are delivering groundbreaking work in different styles. Binge watchers will likely get a kick out of this one.

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Monrovia, Indiana

One thing you can never say about Frederick Wiseman is that he’s predictable. After his celebration of progressive institutions like London’s National Gallery, Berkeley and the New York Public Library, he now gives a look at “heartland” America that’s more scathing and unromantic than any of the so-called think pieces published since the 2016 election. His ever-reliable camera takes in the “ignorance as bliss” status of a town that went completely red in the election, but rather than questioning its citizens as to why they voted against their economic and social interests, Wiseman allows them to come through impartially. The film is scary for its lack of people of color — in a town with under 1,100 inhabitants, Wiseman’s film features around three or four Black people, suggesting minorities might just pass through and move onto more inclusive pastures.

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón might have borrowed the title from Federico Fellini’s ode to his favorite city, but this is his Amarcord all the way. The Mexican director looks back at his childhood through the eyes of a Mixtec woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) very much like the nanny who raised helped raise him, and to whom the film is dedicated. Even though it’s shot in breathtaking black and white (each composition contains layers and layers of information, assuring this film will be studied by scholars for generations) this isn’t a nostalgia trip. Instead, by giving the role of narrator to an indigenous woman, Cuarón reminds us of the way in which Latin American countries continue the process started by conquistadors more than 500 years ago, not to mention the devastating effects of American intervention in the region.

Too Late to Die Young

Dominga Sotomayor’s coming-of-age tale features an astounding performance by Demian Hernandez, who plays a young woman adapting to her new life in a commune-like, improvised village on the Andes in Chile, where intellectuals and bohemians intend to create a safe space as Augusto Pinochet’s reign of horror comes to an end. Asking questions about the role of nature and how much urbanity affects our political beliefs, Sotomayor’s autobiographical film dares to imagine a world where ideals matter more than money, where the possibility of a better world is a dream shared by people from all walks of life.

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Jose Solís
Jose Solís has been writing about film and theater since 2003. His work has appeared in major publications including The New York Times, American Theatre, TDF Stages, TimeOut, and Backstage. He is the co-host of Token Theatre Friends and a producer/host on the Maxamoo podcast. He is a member of the Drama Desk, the Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and the Online Film Critics Society. When he's not at a show, a screening, or writing about all the art he loves, you can find him singing along to any cast recording featuring Kelli O'Hara.