New York Film Festival: Week One

Ethan Sapienza
A still from the film “I, David Blake” - one of the works to be screened at 54th New York FIlm Festival.

Every fall brings with it a run of film festivals that set up the conversation for the Oscars, and the New York Film Festival, now in its 54th year and running from Sept. 30 to Oct. 16, is always one of the biggest players. We’ll be providing coverage of the some of the films as they screen for critics, letting you know what movies are going to make the biggest impact when they hit theaters in the coming months.

Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival kicked off the festival. The film’s topic is rife with relevance: working-class Britons whose frustrations with their bureaucratic government essentially ruin their lives. While likely not intentional, “Blake” gives viewers a chance to sympathize with those who voted to leave in Brexit, seeing so many blue-collar workers get tossed aside by their government and society.

However, Loach’s inherently didactic approach prevents the film from achieving any semblance of depth. Its intentions are clear; they leave no inference for the viewer, only a feeling of being beaten over the head. A tendency for melodrama is unnerving as well, threatening to undermine meaningful performances from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires that act as the real beating heart of the film.

With a name like “The Son of Joseph,” writer-director Eugene Green seems to clearly display his intentions to allude to the Bible, but it never quite adds up. It has its core set of ideas, mostly hinged on love and parenthood as a boy (Victor Ezenfis) tries to discover who his father is, but the possibility of having substantial religious allusions ends up as more of a MacGuffin (a trick on the viewer). Indeed, the uncomfortably dry, occasionally funny film seems to derive joy from jostling the viewer, and eventually it became too much self-pleasure. “Joseph” never mounts an honest story, instead favoring humor for its own sake.

Is it too early to declare the best film of the festival? How about the best movie of the year? Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” is intricate and nuanced, beautifully constructed and emotionally crippling. It depicts the life of a gay black man from Miami in three parts, as 10-year-old “Little” (Alex Hibbert), high schooler Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and the grown up “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). Its narrowly focused story captures universal themes in an honest, naturalized manner, working as a definitive text on loneliness, masculinity, sexuality and blackness in contemporary America.

The chapters progress in a layered manner flowing from one to another, with each of the incredible performances adding remarkable depth to Chiron, making him devastatingly human. Ingenious tragedies befall him, the likes of which are effectively presented as commonplace, including father figure Juan — played by a remarkable Mahershala Ali — being revealed as the drug dealer to Chiron’s crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris, whose complexity cannot be overstated).

It’s difficult to select the best portion of “Moonlight.” The film features limited yet always insightful dialogue, a lyrical, observational camera and moving orchestral compositions. Still, Rhodes may already be worthy of the distinction. His take on the older Chiron requires some of the most taxing, powerful work in the film, all of which he carefully delivers in a tangible, never sensationalized manner. Rhodes carefully balances character developments with older tendencies, revealing them in ways that are precise and telling of Chiron’s state. It’s the final piece to a film that fires on all cylinders — a masterpiece that informs and devastates.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 26 print edition. Email Ethan Sapienza at [email protected] 

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