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Women Rule at this Year's New York Film Festival

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Oct 9, 2018

Strong female performances dominate this year's New York Film Festival slate that began with the best of the films I saw: Yorgos Lanthimos's darkly comic and deliciously nasty gem, the opening night selection "The Favourite," which features three extraordinarily wondrous feats of acting magic from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. It's hard to recall the last time one film boasted three stunning female lead performances! (And they are all leads regardless of how they break down awards season.)

Based on the reign of the real life British sovereign, Queen Anne (an absolutely incredible Colman), the film chronicles her health-stricken later years, in the early 1700s, as she yields decisions to the Duchess of Marlborough (an astonishing Weisz), her confidante and secret lover. But when the Duchess's ambitious but poor cousin (Emma Stone, never better) comes to court, a rivalry for the adoration and attention of the Queen leads to a power play that must been seen to be believed. "The Favourite" should be relished and cherished as one of the few audacious films of 2018 (and its best to date).

The two central figures in Alfonso Cuarón's beguiling autobio-docu-fiction, "Roma," happen to be strong women from very different economic backgrounds trying to make their way in a Mexico City suburb in the early '70s. The two forge a palpable bond based on circumstance and, eventual, mutual respect. Yalitza Aparicio is remarkable as Cleo, the dutiful maid who cares for the four children of Sofia (an equally potent Marina de Tavira). This is a quiet but epic film from the "Gravity" helmer that harkens back to Italian neo-realism cinema, although every frame seems a bit too carefully thought out. A bit more mess and danger would have been welcome. The two onscreen heroines abandoned by the men they love, however, dominate every frame and leave the audience breathless.

Regina King leads an impressive cast in Barry Jenkins' absorbing, intense and heartbreaking new film, "If Beale Street Could Talk," another Festival standout. King plays the sympathetic and fiercely protective mother of a pregnant daughter whose husband has just been accused of a rape. King is low-key mesmerizing until her character must fight to get the accuser to admit her mistake and she lets loose. The entire ensemble is excellent in a film that wonders just how much a human being can take and still stay strong. Jenkins' follow up to "Moonlight" is a tragic reminder of the injustices in the world, especially towards African-American men. And their families.

Alex Ross Perry's "Her Smell" uses a pretty lengthy opening sequence to establish what a borderline-psychotic mess the protagonist, Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) is. But how can she not be when she exists in the anxiety-fueled world of '90s alt rock? Thanks to Moss we are never less than riveted by Becky and anxious ourselves at whether there is room for redemption in her story. Writer-director Perry ("Listen Up Philip") hits all the right notes and assembles a cracker-jack supporting cast including a fab Virginia Madsen, Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, Amber Heard and Dan Stevens. But it's Moss's showcase. She delivers a balls-out fearless turn as the self-destructive, narcissist who also happens to be as delicate as a flower. Channeling Bette Midler in "The Rose," Courtney Love and Candy Slice (Gilda Radner's rock creation), Moss is a sublime revelation.

Carey Mulligan continues to prove she's one of our best working actors etching a meticulous portrait of a repressed wife living in Montana in the '60s in Paul Dano's superb directorial debut, "Wildlife." Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific as her prideful husband who decides to leave his family to fight the out-of-control wildfires that rage in the mountains. Ed Oxenbould is their 14-year-old son trying to understand his selfish parents. These are confused singular characters trying to get along in a rapidly changing world. Act two of "Wildlife" may be a bit clunky, but the film comes together magnificently in the final third.

"Non-Fiction (Doubles vies)" is a refreshing return to what filmmaker Olivier Assayas does so keenly: meta-satire. "Clouds of Sils Maria" is a perfect example. I was not a fan of "Personal Shopper," but am thrilled to say "Non-Fiction" is a clever and challenging delight. Taking on the publishing world in a no-prisoners-style, Assayas wonders if anyone gives a damn about reading anything longer than a Tweet anymore. Has digital replaced print? And in midst of all the talky (in an exciting way) debate, we also get a relationship dramedy that explores the double life (the French title) that couples often lead. Guillaume Canet is sexy and charming as the head of the publishing house but it is the luminous Juliette Binoche who balances quick-wit with a penetrating honestly playing an actress who is probably so much better than the material she's forced to play. Probably.

Tamara Jenkins' "Private Life" is grounded by the affecting performances of Kathryn Hahn and newcomer Kayli Carter. This wonderful, often funny and decidedly poignant film is about two fairly successful fortysomethings (Hahn and Paul Giamatti) who are trying every way possible to have a child, but are continuously unsuccessful. Jenkins keeps things real never forcing the ridiculous or the pathos, but allowing situations to flow organically. Jenkins is an indie film voice we need right now.

The one overtly gay-themed NYFF entry (besides "The Favourite") is Chrisophe Honoré's "Sorry Angel," which follows the odysseys of two very different gay men in early 1990s France, commenting on quite distinct generations of queer men living in a time when AIDS was still a death sentence. Honoré helmed the amazing musical "Love Songs" several years ago and returns to the NYFF with this devastating and rich new work. Jacques (an absolutely mesmerizing Pierre Deladonchamps) is a jaded 35-year-old writer with HIV who wonders if he's even deserving of happiness. Arthur (a deeply affecting Vincent Lacoste) is a 22-year-old student who is just now realizing his sexuality and is quite excited about it. The two meet and begin a complicated and fascinating romance. The central characters are refreshingly real and never just defined by their sexuality (Jacques has a young son and Arthur is just breaking up with a girlfriend). That said Honoré isn't afraid to explore the sexual side of each character and the fact that sex is an important part of who they are. Hallelujah!

The Festival runs through October 14th and also includes acclaimed work by Joel and Ethan Coen ("The Ballad of Buster Scruggs") Pawel Pawlikowski ("Cold War"), Claire Denis ("High Life"), Alice Rohrwacher ("Happy as Lazzaro") and Hirokazu Kore-eda's Palme d'Or-winner ("Shoplifters"). The Fest closes with Julian Schnabel's "At Eternity's Gate," starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh.

Visit the New York Film Festival website for further information and tickets.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com


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