@ The 2021 New York Film Festival — Part One

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 22, 2021

The poster art for the 2021 NYFF
The poster art for the 2021 NYFF  (Source:NYFF)

One of the joys of the fall season is the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual celebration of cinema, The New York Film Festival. In this, its 59th year, the Fest will feature in-person screenings, as well as select outdoor and virtual events running from September 24th thru October 10th. However, the Festival will not offer virtual screenings, a controversial decision considering the current COVID variant climate.

The Main slate will comprise 32 films from 31 different countries, including new works by directors such as Pedro Almodóvar, Jane Campion, Joel Coen, Mia Hansen-Løve, Todd Haynes, Nadav Lapid, Céline Sciamma, and Joachim Trier, to name a few.

"Taken together, the movies in this year's Main Slate are a reminder of cinema's world-making possibilities," said Dennis Lim, NYFF Director of Programming and chair of the Main Slate selection committee. "They open up new ways of seeing and feeling and thinking, and whether or not they refer to our uncertain present, they help us make sense of our moment." 

The NYFF59 Opening Night selection is Joel Coen's "The Tragedy of Macbeth," Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog" is the Centerpiece, and Pedro Almodóvar's "Parallel Mothers" will close the festival.

The Spotlight Series will offer Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch," Denis Villeneuve's "Dune," and Maggie Gyllenhaal's "The Lost Daughter," among others.

The following are just some of the gems I was able to see so far, mostly virtually — some at TIFF. More to come.

"Bergman Island"

Every frame is a wonder in Mia Hansen-Løve's deeply affecting "Bergman Island." Bergman fans will love it but so will cinephiles. The film constantly surprises in the most tantalizing ways. Ostensibly, the film is about two married filmmakers, perfectly portrayed by the gifted Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth, who journey to Fårö, the Swedish island where the writer-director extraordinaire created many of his iconic films, including "Scenes from a Marriage" — the film "that made millions of people divorce." It's an inspirational retreat, which turns into an exploration of much more as the lines between art and life begin to blur.

Bergman was a brilliant artist, but could be a cruel person. Should that matter? The film asks many current questions, never trivializing by forcing pat answers. It is ultimately a profound valentine to filmmaking itself.

"Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn"

Wow! Where to even start? Romanian helmer Radu Jude is certainly a provocateur, but he's also a brilliant satirist of our current culture. Winner of the Golden Bear at this year's Berlinale, "Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn" begins with a literal bang, the sexual kind, a very explicit scene of copulation and fellatio. It turns out the moments of ecstasy were recorded and uploaded to the internet. This one action begets a series of events that are then put on hold while the film takes a total detour and the audience is given a contemporary history lesson that lasts about 30 minutes. Why, you may ask? Well, it will make sense when we return for Part Three, where a teacher must defend her job in a room filled with representatives of current society. You are not likely to see anything as audacious, as bold, as exasperating, as bracing or as illuminating. And the final moments are a lunatic triumph of female empowerment. Romanian with English subtitles.

"Unclenching the Fists"

Russian director Kira Kovalenko has crafted a truly gripping tale about a young woman (Milana Aguzarova, excellent), who is literally bearing the scars of her country's past. She is smothered and kept under lock and key by her domineering father (Alik Karaev), and is infantilized by her brother (Khetag Bibilov). She finally sees a possibility to rid herself of her shackles when her older brother returns and does everything she can to seize it. This is a mesmerizing tale that could not be timelier.

It helps to know a bit about the conflict that gripped the region the film is set in, where, in 2004, Chechen terrorists created a hostage situation at a school, demanding Russian withdrawal from their country. It ended in mass murder. Putin used the tragedy to further his power, as does the father in the film.


Bruno Dumont's "France" could be called "Broadcast News 2021," with the truly astounding Léa Seydoux playing an amalgam of both the William Hurt and Holly Hunter characters.

Seydoux, quickly becoming the next Huppert and/or Binoche, plays the most recognizable superstar TV journalist in the business (I don't believe we have an equivalent in the U.S. today, but imagine a Kardashian doing TV news) who carefully manipulates her "dangerous" on-air segments to her greatest advantage. One day she accidentally runs down a poor young motorcycle courier and retreats inward, decidedly done with her old life. Or is she?

I was completely captivated by France, the character as well as the film, and the cleverness of naming the heroine after the country. Dumont's sly satire pokes fun not just at tele-journalism today, but also cinema's melodramatic portrayals of films about the upper class reevaluating their lives. I cannot praise Seydoux enough. It's a masterful performance: Hilarious, heartbreaking, mad, and poignant. And Emanuele Arioli excels in a pivotal role. In French with English subtitles.


Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean has crafted a riveting mediation on compassion, empathy and good will with "Întregalde," which follows three Bucharest aid volunteers who hit the road in their SUV to deliver food packages to the less fortunate in the rural hinterlands of Transylvania, in an area known as Întregalde. They are waylaid when they attempt to help a babbling old man looking to get to an old mill. What happens next is a terrifying study in the idea that "no good deed goes unpunished." The trio must withstand a series of moral and ethical dilemmas as they try and survive the night. Muntean, ultimately, shows us that one life always matters — no matter what. In Romanian with English subtitles.

"Hit the Road"

"Hit the Road," Panah Panahi's Iranian road movie of sorts, is sneaky, dense, and so absorbing that you find yourself invested in the lives of the four relations who are on a journey. By the time they have reached their destination, you, as the viewer, find it difficult not to consider yourself one of the family. Two middle-aged parents are traveling with their two sons (and a sickly dog) in a borrowed vehicle. Where they are going is part of this enigmatic and spellbinding ride. The familial interaction is both loving and bizarre, and there is always a sense of danger in the air. Pantea Panahiha is a standout as the mother, but it is Rayan Sarlak as the younger son who runs away with the film; the kid is just terrific. I mean, he's annoying as hell, but so good at being annoying!


Three of Italy's most gifted and socially-conscious directors, Pietro Marcello ("Martin Eden"), Francesco Munzi ("Black Souls"), and Alice Rohrwacher ("Happy as Lazzaro"), took to the Italian countryside to ask the nation's youth questions about the future. The answers from Gen Z prove quite startling and rather promising, touching on concerns about issues ranging from the familial to the political (LGTBQ+ issues, racism, seeing social networks as a plague). Oh,, and every other male teen wants to be a football (that is to say, soccer) player! In the midst of the trio's chats with these young adults, COVID struck, and the future seemed less bright. This doc is quite moving and rather transcendent. In Italian with English subtitles (that could use more scrutiny).

"Ahed's Knee"

Writer-director Nadav Lapid's follow-up to "Synonyms" is just as provocative. "Ahed's Knee" follows a lauded filmmaker (Avshalom Pollak) to a small desert village for a screening of his latest film. (He is also in midst of making a film about 16-year-old Palestinian girl that had the audacity to hit an Israeli soldier, which is where the title comes from.) In the village he is asked to sign a document by a local Ministry of Culture rep (Nur Fibak) declaring he will only speak about certain government-approved topics at the Q&A. The growing censorial, hypocritical, and cancel-culture climate does not sit well with him, and things build to an explosive scene between him and the rep — a most extraordinarily primal and powerful moment that brims with truths and warnings. But then, just as we have made up our minds, Lapid has the audacity to turn the tables and have us question our own notions of right and wrong. In Hebrew with English subtitles.

"Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy"

In his sometimes elegiac, thoroughly engrossing triptych, "Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy," Japanese helmer Ryûsuke Hamaguchi examines perception and misperception and relationship power dynamics in three separate shorts. In the first and best, a young woman decides to seek out her ex after hearing a colleague speak about the new man in her life. The second tale involves a plot to entrap an older professor into an inappropriate sexual situation. And the third, and most poignant, involves two women, a high school reunion, and a case of mistaken identity. Hamaguchi excels at character development and has assembled a marvelous cast. The film asks fascinating questions about destiny and how the decisions we make shape not just ours, but those we interact with, as well. In Japanese with English subtitles.


Rebecca Hall's feature debut, "Passing," is a moody, mesmerizing film based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larson that boasts emotionally rich and thoughtfully nuanced performances by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. Thompson's grounded Irene is a remarkable creation, and Negga's gloriously showy Blanche DuBois meets Daisy Buchanan turn made me long for more of her every time she wasn't onscreen. She deserves awards consideration. Attention should also be paid to the truly gifted Alexander Skarsgård, who is fearless in his willingness to portray despicable characters. Shot in lush black and white, with a standard flat Hollywood aspect ratio, the film is a beguiling meditation on race, friendship, jealousy, trust, and perception.

"The Velvet Underground"

Todd Haynes's work has almost always proved hypnotic and engaging from the vastly underrated, "Velvet Goldmine" to his masterwork, "Carol." So, it isn't a surprise that his taking on an ambitious doc about a groundbreaking band, The Velvet Underground, would yield a fascinating cinematic concoction that bombards the viewer with so much vital info about the band and the milieu they emerged in that I felt I needed (and craved) footnotes! With a new interview with John Cale and archival footage of Nico, Andy Warhol, and the Factory, as well as what little exists of the band — and the enigmatic Lou Reed — Haynes has crafted a celebration, as well as an exploration of a time and a sound that changed the world. My one major disappointment was that Haynes did not explore Reed's love life further (especially his gay life). It can be argued that the doc is about the music, but we all know that one influences the other — just ask Fleetwood Mac!

"The Girl and the Spider"

At first, I wondered where this seemingly simple story of two young friends, one in the process of moving out of a shared apartment, was going. But soon Ramon and Silvan Zürcher's "The Girl and the Spider," had me trapped in its web (I had to), as more characters are introduced and the relationships become more and more tense, complex, and potentially dangerous. The performances are all wonderful, and, in the end, the filmmakers achieve something transcendent. In German with English subtitles.


Julia Ducournau could very well be the female Lars von Trier. Her provocative cinematic concoction "Titane" is about a female serial killer who fucks a car, gets pregnant, and has to hide out. Noticing she resembles a boy who disappeared a decade ago, she shears her head, breaks her nose, and pretends to be the boy. Never predictable and always challenging notions of gender and identity, "Titane" will definitely elicit a reaction from you. And you will not be able to forget Agathe Rouselle, the lead. In French with English subtitles.

"What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?"

Georgian director Alexandre Koberidze's "What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?" is certainly a one-of-a-kind film that has its enchanting moments. I also enjoyed how strange and idiosyncratic it was. My issue is that in setting mood, capturing minutiae, and insisting on too much whimsy, he's created a wanna-be epic (150 minutes) that is too often tedious, where a 90-minute film might have been sublime. The crux of the feature follows the bizarre romance of Giorgi and Lisa, and how someone (or something, you never know in this film) has cursed them. They now both look different, and can no longer recognize one another. We know where it's going and know where it will end. Koberidze tosses in a ton of World Cup stuff (too much), including an infectious sequence that perfectly utilizes Gianna Nannini and Edoardo Bennato's "Un Estate Italiana." But, in the end, I felt more exhausted than exhilarated.

Films I did not connect with:

"Neptune's Frost"
"Neptune's Frost"  

"Naptunes' Frost" — Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's film was certainly visually stimulating and inventive in its musical storytelling, but after a while the dazzle began to overwhelm and confuse. Still, it's worth a look.

Petit Maman — I knew the twist way too early and was wholly unmoved by the narrative when I should have felt the opposite. A complete let down for me, since I absolutely loved Céline Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire."

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Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute