Dispatches from the New York Film Festival: Beale Street, Shoplifters, Non-Fiction, and More


The 56th annual New York Film Festival starts today. I’ve been attending pre-festival screenings, and below are my thoughts on five of the movies (ordered by preference) that I’ve previewed so far.

Ray & Liz, U.K., director: Richard Billingham

A domestic drama that mostly takes place in an English flat, Ray & Liz is so intimate in its details, and so unrelentingly bleak that has the effect of eavesdropping someone else’s painful memories. And, in fact, that is basically what it is: The film is based on the upbringing of its director, renowned photographer Richard Billingham, who made a name for himself with a series of photographs of his parents (named… Ray and Liz) living in poverty. But the residual pain is merely inherent, not played up or down for effect—the genius here comes from capturing the moment without dressing it up with sentimentality or humor. The resulting tone is odd: It feels as warm and fuzzy as mold.

Ray & Liz is as matter of fact about its subject of urban squalor as it is the beauty that can be found in the ordinary. It is presented in the intimate but rarely used in cinema 4:3 aspect ratio, and filmed lovingly by Daniel Landin, who lingers on things that most other movies wouldn’t even deign to show like infesting flies, Ray and Liz’s crumbling building, a rabbit hanging out on a couch with a trail of droppings nearby. It crisscrosses between modern day Ray (Patrick Romer) holed up in the bedroom he once slept in with his wife Liz (who’s since left him) and living on home-brewed alcohol, and flashbacks to two scenes from the past when Ray and his family lived in the apartment together. The latter of the two flashbacks, in which prepubescent Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) copes with his existence by fixating on that of animals (his numerous pets and those in the particularly sad zoo he skips school to visit) and then by attempting to flee it all together, is particularly deft in its ability to devastate one minute and whip out restrained quirk the next (after Jason leaves home, he runs into his oblivious parents walking the aforementioned bunny in a buggy in a park).

I saw snatches of the work of Mike Leigh, The Florida Project, and even The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (this is another movie that you can practically smell in the back of your throat), but Ray & Liz is uncommonly frank. When they tell their own stories, people have a tendency to make themselves the hero, but there are no heroes here—none that are any match for the pummeling brutality of life, in any event.

Shoplifters, Japan, director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

There’s a moment in Shoplifters that’s so emotionally complex, it didn’t merely tug at my heartstrings—it ripped them out of my body, strung them onto a violin, and then played the sweetest concerto I can ever recall hearing. Having rescued a small child named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) from what she assumes was terrible abuse, a woman named Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) begins to explain to the child that what she experienced wasn’t love, that love doesn’t yield such mistreatment. As she empathizes with the child’s past, she begins to weep, and the child, empathizing with the woman’s present, consoles the adult. The emotional interplay is astounding.

I don’t want to say too much about Shoplifters but know that it’s about a family of thieves who live in relative squalor, some with odd jobs—Nobuyo works in a laundry mat, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) does a clothed form of fetishy sex work—some who are so adroit at shoplifting, they’ve practically made it an art. Aside from its light sexuality, Shoplifters often feels like G-rated family entertainment along the lines of The Little Rascals or the non-chocolate factory parts of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And then there’s… not so much a twist, but an enlightenment that helps fine-tune the movie’s already incredibly sharp focus on the theme of family and its defining qualities. I’ve already said too much, but so does this movie—after smacking you upside the head, it doesn’t quite know what to do and goes on for about 10 minutes too long. A tighter edit would have made this a perfect film; as it stands it’s just short of that.

(I believe it’s a total coincidence that my two favorite movies from the festival so far are about poverty—but how much do we really know ourselves, anyway?)

If Beale Street Could Talk, U.S., director: Barry Jenkins

How unenviable Jenkins’s task is here: He’s not only following up the Oscar-winning Moonlight, he’s attempting to adapt James Baldwin, whose text already breathes so much life, his book of the same name practically rises and falls in your hands as you read it. Baldwin’s 1974 novel is a marvel; Jenkins’s film is not. It’s unfortunate to realize that Baldwin’s florid prose often sounds stilted on screen, and the effect of Jenkins’s movie is not unlike that of incredibly mannered theater. Make no mistake, If Beale Street Could Talk is Cinema with a capital C, and it knows it (and, by laying on tender strings at virtually every available emotional cue, it wants you to know it). But the formality, the synthetic aftertaste that arises after so many exchanges of dialogue, diminishes impact. Too much is too on the nose here; if Moonlight was lyrical, Beale Street is lyrics.

It’s a shame because the subject matter couldn’t be better chosen. The plot concerns Fonny (Stephan James) being held in jail as he awaits trial for a rape that his fiance Tish (KiKi Layne) knows in her heart that he didn’t commit (scenes toggle between Fonny in prison and flashbacks to his free romance with Tish). I think the movie does a fine job of illustrating the racist hell of our country’s justice system through Fonny’s purgatory, and sensitively grappling with the progressive societal imperative to believe women. That you’re being asked to hold both in your head as valid at once, in fact, isn’t merely refreshingly respectful of viewers’ intelligence, it’s further evidence of Jenkins’s daringness as a filmmaker. He is a discursive maverick as far as the mainstream is concerned.

But only to a point. James and Layne have palpable chemistry, and both are very good at lovingly staring straight into the camera, as though each other’s eyes, but Tish’s character in the hand of Jenkins (who in addition to directing, wrote the script) is woefully empty. She is a mere vessel, her every movement driving the plot from one point to the next. Layne has Tish’s deceptively meek demeanor down but without the accompanying text there’s no sense of her multitudes—in fact, she’s not much more than meek. One of the most wonderful things Baldwin does in the book is illustrating the low self-esteem of Tish (the book’s first-person narrator) by having her qualify her storytelling ability as incompetent and then immediately disprove herself with a jaw-dropping description. (“Daddy’s face changed in a way I can’t describe. His face became as definite as stone, every line and angle suddenly seemed chiseled, and his eyes turned a blacker black.”) It seems that Jenkins, though, is more inclined to take Tish at her self-deprecating word. Readers of the book will know that deserves better.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night, China, director: Bi Gan

Sigh. I have friends who are so militantly anti-cinema snobbery that they are snobs in their own right, and this is the kind of oblique patience-tester that they think all non-commercial movies are like. At one point, a woman in a green satin dress walks down tunnel and remarks, “I want to eat a pomelo fruit.”

I love weird, I love perverting space and time through film just because you can (and because our understanding of space and time, as a species, is so narrow anyway that it seems like fucking with it is the most honest thing you can do), I love dreams. I did not love Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a movie in which everything is wet and nothing is explained. About 30 minutes in, I realized that even if I understood why the protagonist was so consumed by tracking down a woman from his past, with whom flashbacks suggest that he sat unsmiling in several damp rooms, that it wouldn’t be satisfying whenever whatever was going on was finally explained.

It wasn’t explained, and it wasn’t satisfying. The main attraction here, as it were, is a dream sequence that spans the last hour or so of the movie—it’s a single, fluid shot that is impressive in its technical prowess but as opaque as anything else the movie has already presented. Or maybe more so, since you watch it in 3D. It’s a clever use of the technology insofar as it literally makes you see the film differently—it’s not about presenting anything that needs an extra emphasis of depth, per se, but about shifting your perception. I think? I guess? Who knows.

Non-Fiction, France, directed by: Olivier Assayas

Watching this movie was like being dragged to several parties full of people I’d never want to see again by someone whose company I didn’t enjoy very much in the first place. For almost two hours, Assayas’s characters babble in your face about the state of media and communication with no discernible conclusions or insight deeper than what you’d find in any small group of people who care about this stuff (say journalists or people merely who are active on Twitter). People don’t read books anymore, Twitter is very French and also the new haiku, texting is a modern form of writing, public opinion plays out day by day, we’re reached a tipping point, we choose where we read to validate our opinions, algorithms are now doing the jobs of smug critics and that’s a good thing, oh no it’s bad, oh no these people just keep talking about talking.

I didn’t get the sense that these characters, who mostly exist in the world of book publishing, were very much beyond what they said (though they fucked too, and not always their designated partners), which ultimately gave me the impression that Assayas is jacking off here. He seems to think a running gag about a blow job taking place during a screening of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is the funniest thing (get it because it’s a movie about the rise of fascism and what could be less appropriate than accompanying head??). Judging by its uproarious reaction, the audience I sat amongst thought a joke about offering to have Juliette Binoche narrate the audiobook of one of the character’s novels was the actual funniest thing (get it because she’s right there on the screen starring in the movie that just mentioned her by name!!!). When a dissection of binge-watching is trotted out during one of the last scenes you can practically hear Assayas prefacing with, “And another thing!” It’s telling, though, that he never once approaches the widely accepted notion that television has become the elite audio-visual medium of choice and that film, his veritable bread and butter, is now perhaps passe. (Or maybe he does talk about this; I went to the bathroom a few times.)

I know Non-Fiction charms the shit out of people—I’ve watched people become heart-eyed emojis when discussing it with me. I am not one of those people. I can see its potential use one day, for posterity, as a snapshot of how rich white people were talking in 2018, nodding thoughtfully and staring into each other’s eyes as the ship went down. But then again, if civilization is really collapsing and the Earth is overheating as we focus on all this minutiae, will there even be posterity, anyway?

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