By Matt Neglia
The 2019 New York Film Festival has now come and gone. There was a major premiere with Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” There was the secret screening of the Safdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems.” There were a number of foreign language film celebrating the best in world cinema including the Palme d’Or winner “Parasite.” There was even a special screening and Q&A for “Joker” before its official release with heavy security from New York’s finest. Suffice to say, it was a few weeks worthy of remembrance as always.
I saw 18 films in total this year at the festival which was a new record for me (crazy considering I thought this year would be my lowest output yet due to new day job commitments). Overall, I saw some films I loved, some films I enjoyed and some films that weren’t for me. And that’s the most important thing to remember with this ranking: even the lowest ranked film, might not have worked for me, but I have no doubt it worked for someone else. There is a degree of unpredictability with any film festival, of not know what it is you’re going to walk into that is always exciting. This year’s pleasant and unpleasant surprises were no different.
Click below to see my ranking of the NYFF57 films I saw this year.
18. Vitalina Varela
Listen, I’m sure Pedro Costa’s latest film worked for a lot of people. It’s certainly an acquired taste. Shot in almost complete darkness with barely any light shining through in a deprived part of Lisbon, the film follows Vitalina Varela (a non-professional actor who the film’s name is based off of) as she returns home for her husband’s funeral. It’s an agonizing watch, devoid of any strong momentum behind its narrative and features very little dialogue. There’s a lot to project onto this film if that’s your thing, but for me, this was not my sup of tea.
Speaking of not my thing, there were many moments during “Synonyms” where it almost had me. Wild, unpredictable and never boring, the film takes a lot of risks and big swings. As a result, not all of them pay off. Filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s look at identity and patriotism through the eyes of a disenchanted Israeli living in Paris has many memorable moments. However, once again, the actual story is not that strong as it feels like a collection of random scenes which were put together to try and say something important. Once again, I know many who really enjoyed this film and there were certainly scenes where I did (the opening featuring a naked Tom Mercier frantically running through a large abandoned house immediately grabs your attention) but on the whole, “Synonyms” just wasn’t for me.
16. Zombi Child
Somewhere between life and death, was my experience watching “Zombi Child.” I went into this one at 9:15pm, very tired, hoping its genre elements would jolt me to life. Instead of a blood and guts zombie horror film told through the eyes of world cinema, I instead received a much more realistic look at bringing someone back from the dead using Haitian voodoo that both transfixed me, gave me a lot to think about and nearly put me to sleep. Traveling back and forth from Haiti in 1962 to present day France where a teenage girl befriends a schoolmate who has connections to the past that involve bringing one of her ancestors back from the dead, “Zombi Child” was not at all what I expected, but I didn’t necessarily love it either.
15. The Traitor
On paper, Marco Bellocchio’s “The Traitor” should’ve been a slam dunk for me. I absolutely love gangster films (as you’ll see in a bit). Diving into the world of crime around the Cosa Nostra, with a story that spans decades of a high ranking member who turns informant and rats on his closest confidants for protection, Bellocchio’s film is sprawling and is packed with a lot of content. And that’s exactly the problem. Even at nearly two and a half hours long, the story he’s attempting to tell here is too big for one movie to hold and would’ve benefited from being a mini-series instead. Character development is all but extinct as the first act quickly introduces us to characters with little to no emotional attachment. Pierfrancesco Favino gives a great performance and the film really comes alive during its courtroom scenes. But oh, what could’ve been.