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The Best of the 2018 New York Film Festival – /Film

Global cinema lives at the New York Film Festival. The recently concluded 56th edition ran two straight weeks (four, if you’re press) at the prestigious Lincoln Center, offering everything from experimental shorts to director talks to virtual reality films, though, as one might expect, the wide array of features is undoubtedly a central highlight. I’ve been attending the festival for five years running, and having caught a good majority of the 2018 slate— 27 films, the most I’ve seen at any festival — I can safely say it’s one of the best lineups I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

NYFF56’s Main Slate alone boasted films from 22 countries, a number that only grows once you factor in its experimental “Projections” section, its various shorts programs and numerous revivals — if you weren’t around when Mother India played on the big screen in 1957, this would’ve been your chance — though what’s especially commendable about the fest each year is its ceaseless commitment to showcasing boundary-pushing work. Mariano Llinás’ La Flor for instance, a 14-hour Argentine genre-medley that goes from B-horror to musical to spy drama to meta-narrative (and beyond), was programmed in both three and eight parts over the course of the festival. 

I’ve reviewed a handful of this year’s films already, though if it were feasible, I’d have written about every single thing I’ve seen. Of the those that I did manage to elaborate on, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight follow-up If Beale Street Could Talk stunned with the beauty of its filmmaking, while Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, his first film since Gravity, became a reminder of why the very act of going to the cinema is so transformative. Netflix reached deep into the past to resurrect Orson Welles, completing his mockumentary The Other Side of the Wind, while Jonah Hill painted the uncomfortable parts of nostalgia with Mid90s, his directorial debut. Ali Abbasi’s Swedish genre mash-up Border pushed the possibilities of modern fairytales through its twisted metaphors, while worlds apart in Taiwan, Ling Yiang’s A Family Tour captured the deafening reality of China’s crackdown on outspoken filmmakers. The festival also played host to what may well become South Korea’s first Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, a mesmerizing mystery, while its “Projections” section fittingly showcased Diamantino, a raucous mish-mash of contemporary issues wrapped in magical (sur)realism and the weirdest thing I’ve seen all year.

As you can no doubt tell, the fest is a joy to attend, showcasing cinema from all across the world and on all points of the stylistic and genre spectrums. Apart from the ones I’ve already written about (and those reviewed by Marshall Shaffer: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and American Dharma) here are 11 more films — who needs round numbers? — that represent the very best cinema put on display by the New York Film Festival.

1. 3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

In what feels like an ode to the late Abbas Kiarostami (Panahi’s frequent collaborator), Iran’s premier banned filmmaker downplays the self-reflexivity of recent projects like Taxi and This Is Not a Film — each made illegally, and about their own making — and turns his camera away from himself, even though he’s a major character. Upon receiving a video in which a young village girl, Marziyeh, appears to commit suicide after being barred from attending an acting conservatory, Panahi contacts actress Behnaz Jafari (also playing herself), for whom the video was originally intended. As the duo road-trips to Marziyeh’s backward, mountainous town, they begin with the intention of solving the mystery of her disappearance. However, they soon find themselves on a bizarre journey of cultural discovery, immersing themselves in distant languages, customs and beliefs in order to find answers, like reconnecting with roots they didn’t know they had lost.

2. Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

Jia Zhangke is a journeyman, and the journey he takes us on in Ash is Purest White is one of an evolving nation, grounded in the rocky relationship of two criminal characters. Beginning in post-industrial Datong at the turn of the century, Qiao (Tao Zhao) and her boyfriend Bin (Fan Liao) stake their claim over their locale, until a moment of sacrifice puts Qiao behind bars. Bin abandons her; years later, she begins her search for her former lover and for a new sense of self, exploring the new world she finds herself in as she hustles her way across China (and, in some instances, is hustled in the process). Led be immensely pained performances from Tao and Fan, who carry the weight of guilt, betrayal and a rapidly changing society on their shoulders, the film brings in to focus the ways in which forces larger than ourselves end up molding our lives.

3. At Eternity’s Gate (Julian Schnabel)

Julian Schnabel, director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film in which a singular perspective feels limited before eventually finding freedom, is the perfect person to tell this iteration of Vincent van Gogh’s story. We see through the eyes of the tortured artist and hear through his ear(s). His vision is skewed, refracted in ways that make the bottom half of the frame feel immersed in water, like he’s drowning in his own obsessive need to create. His aural reality is strung together from multiple, contrasting, overlapping takes, as if he can’t even be certain of what’s truly being said. Even more effective than the film’s technical mastery however — including a fitting yellow tinge, making every frame feel sickly — is Schnabel’s actor of choice. Willem Dafoe (The Last Temptation of Christ) is a storyteller as befitting of this tale as Schnabel himself, a tale that frames van Gogh the way van Gogh does Jesus: a man mocked for being ahead of his time. Alongside Rupert Friend as his brother Theo and Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin, Dafoe’s van Gogh searches, desperately, for ways in which to share his visions of the world and its eternal secrets, in a film that could not be more uniquely conceived.

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