2021 New York Film Festival Review Dispatch

by Jason Osiason

Welcome to my coverage of this year’s New York Film Festival. NYFF’s ultimate strength is its selectively curated lineup. You can almost guarantee you’re going to watch an objectively good movie. One of the festival’s central highlights was its Opening Night Film, The Tragedy of Macbeth (Grade: A-). Joel Coen directed a grim, menacing, and tightly paced adaptation in his first standalone outings. I am not always the biggest fan of Shakespeare film adaptations, but this will be as good as one can be. Macbeth is a timeless tale of delicious scheming, emotional collapse, and an astonishingly evocative descent into madness. Coen takes a minimalist approach to its highly stylized visual style and matches it with an omnipresent forbidding tone.A very rugged-looking Macbeth played by Denzel Washington is simply the best kind. He delivers a scorching performance of extraordinary range, and Frances McDormand is equally effective as Lady Macbeth. Kathryn Hunter nearly steals the show playing a trio of witches that builds into a performance of terrifying physicality and vocal tenacity that reminded me of Andy Serkis’ Gollum performance minus the CGI. 

Also significant was The Power of the Dog (Grade: B+) by Jane Campion, which is anything, but an average standard. It presents an expert case of showing the audience, not telling.The beautifully crafted film devotes its time to a swooning, wholesome romance centering on Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons’ characters in the first half that made my heart grow three sizes and a cruelly suppressed one hinged on homosexual temptation, toxic masculinity, and mental mind games featuring the ever-shifting dynamic between Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee. There’s not a lot of plot driving the movie. Still, combined with a bashful score by Jonny Greenwood, The tension never stops building despite not a lot of story moving the film beyond a character study riddled with symbolism and visual allusions, both cinematic and literal. Cumberbatch stands out most as Phil Burbank, a repressed homosexual that points his hate inner-hatred outward to inflict pain and humiliation to those who surround him to the point his go-to hobby is to drive his new sister-in-law mad. The type of person who takes pride in lying in his filth to prove a point. It’s a commanding performance of fascinating range. The film’s secret weapon, though, is Kodi Smit-McPhee. It’s a cunning performance that gets under your skin. The character gets his fair share of abuse for his femininity and weak nature. Still, they are no match for his intellect, never entirely sure what’s going on in his head, which is when the performance grows eerie and fascinating.

Surprising was how much I loved The Lost Daughter (Grade: B+). Maggie Gyllenhaal tackles complex subject matter in a stunningly confident way. The film shifts through two periods of time, one played by Olivia Colman, which displays a masterclass of internalizing emotion as she is consumed by the attention of a young mother and fellow beachgoer played by Dakota Johnson, and the other from a period of her life that haunts her played by Jessie Buckley in an equally staggering performance. It’s a bold and highly refreshing character work on the grapples of motherhood, abandonment, and guilt. Maggie Gyllenhaal tackles tricky subject matter in a stunningly confident way that leaves us constantly questioning where the film is going but ultimately leaves us with a satisfying conclusion.

The GKIDS Film Belle (Grade: B) masterfully elevated from the gonzo digital world where you can limitlessly explore what you’re capable of. The animation is stunning, making it one of the beautiful projections I’ve ever seen at Alice Tully. It’s pretty much an engaging and wild riff on the Beauty and Beast format meets cyberbullying meets tale of secret teenage pop star story.

Sean Baker keeps swinging those big candy-colored home runs in an unbelievably hilarious and unbearably tragic Red Rocket (Grade: A-). It centers on a run-out-of-luck Mikey Saber returning home to his Texas town from LA, unable to find a job due to his porn star legacy past. All that you heard about Simon Rex’s sleazily delicious performance is true, but Suzanna Son is the film’s big find! Son lights up every frame with her personality and ginger-distinctive looks. Her post-coitus NSYNC song cover is a scene for the ages.

Don’t let Parallel Mothers (Grade: B) being minor Pedro Almodóvar. It’s still an extremely engaging switched at birth soap opera that contemplates the most difficult decision a new mother could make. The narrative drama is predictable, but the execution of its direction is indeed hailed from a masterful auteur. Penelope Cruz is remarkable in a performance of deep emotional introspection that contemplates oddball performance in her other Venice film, In Competition, quite well.

Benedetta (Grade: B+) is a Paul Verhoeven joint to the highest and holiest order. It’s a blasphemously delicious camp-filled fun that demands an audience experience. On one end, it’s a takedown of the church for all its hypocrisy, cruelty, and plays for power. On the other, the pursuit of pleasure in its most sensual and delectably nasty form. No doubt, there are few movies this year you’re going to have more fun with.

In The Souvenir Part II (Grade: A-), Joanna Hoff unpacks her trauma in the most delicious and meta way possible that’s just my jam. She instruments her first gutting heartbreak and how she can channel it into healing art. Honor Swinton Byrne is a breakthrough performance a million times over, as an artist bravely confronts her past. We are gifted an expanded role for her filmmaker friend, played by Richard Ayoade. The latter once again steals the show in one of the sharpest and funniest performances of the year. It showcases an all-timer closing shot that felt like a high art version of me watching The Hills Series Finale with equal chills down my spine. 

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