From left, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Elizabeth Marvel in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Netflix/Atsushi Nishijima)

The recently concluded New York Film Festival screened a number of works by NYFF veterans that audiences have come to rely on for exciting new cinema.  In fact, Noah Baumbach’s debut, Kicking and Screaming, appeared in the 1995 NYFF to critical acclaim. Lucrecia Martel’s  premiere effort, La Ciénaga, screened in 2001, and the fresh efforts of Claire Denis have frequently made their North American debut in the festival over the years.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Noah Baumbach’s most accomplished work to date, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) takes on the world of the New York culturati through the lens of one dysfunctional family, primarily centered around its male members: patriarch Harold Meyerwitz (Dustin Hoffman) and sons Matt (Ben Stiller) and Danny (Adam Sandler).  With themes of power, competition, and interpersonal dynamics, as well as particulars from the real estate, art, and financial worlds, this smart film offers a quintessential insider’s look at the city that never sleeps through the generations of one privileged dynasty. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, it’s a fast-paced emotional ride, with fine acting all around.

Controlling, narcissistic Harold is a retired sculptor who is fading into obscurity despite early success. To the consternation of his kids, he is selling the family’s downtown townhouse to move upstate with his fourth wife (Emma Thompson). Matt, his favorite son, is a financially successful business manager. Danny on the other hand, is an unemployed divorced father. A touching piano duet Danny shares with his 18-year-old daughter (Grace Van Patten) reveals that they are close, despite the bad parenting he himself received. Yet the low-key son is still devoted to his father, even through a lifetime of castigation: “I wish Dad had done one big unforgivable thing that I could be angry about, but instead it’s tiny things every day—drip, drip, drip.”

Realistic dialogue is the hallmark of the fleet drama, with characters often talking at cross-purposes in a masterful fugue. A sudden hospitalization for Harold is a chance for family reconciliation, including with his sad sack daughter (Elizabeth Marvel). As he lies in a hospital bed, the siblings organize a retrospective of his work at Bard College, where he had taught. There, the brothers’ speeches to honor him become surprisingly personal, in effect, ersatz eulogies.

With this companion piece to The Squid and the Whale, another semi-autobiographical film of a father’s dominance, Baumbach returns to male protagonists after a focus on work starring Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America), his off-screen partner and co-writer for those films. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) has secured Baumbach’s place as a vital filmmaker who can entertain while providing a knowing perspective on family from his distinctive perch.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is now streaming on Netflix.

A scene from Zama (The Match Factory)

Zama

In a sunbaked seaside town in 18th-century Argentina, an official of the Spanish crown finds himself in an absurd scenario as he waits in vain for a long-promised transfer. With its period setting and story of colonists and Natives, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama echoes The Mission starring Robert De Niro, from 1986.

Exceptional cinematography and sound design as well as an epic literary source, though, help make the film one of a kind. Zama is Martel’s first adaptation (from a 1956 Argentine novel by Antonio di Benedetto) and her first film in almost a decade, following festival favorites La Ciénaga, The Holy Girl, and The Headless Woman, all set in the modern day.

The story revolves around Don Diego de Zama (Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho), who in tricorn hat and uniform, is a formal presence in the hinterlands. In the existential tale, he administers to his functionary duties and seeks sexual gratification as he waits for the transfer to join his wife and children.

Zama’s nemesis is an elusive fugitive, Vicuña Porto, whose notoriety as a ruthless killer and enemy of Spanish rule create a mythology of outsized proportion. He is executed, and Zama’s superior wears his shriveled ears as trophies around his neck, but then he is rumored to be alive, and Zama is back in pursuit.

Unfortunately, over the course of the two-hour film, Giménez Cacho is an unremarkable presence, and his character’s languor translates to a dull leading man, marring the otherwise fine film. Exceptional images by Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças include painterly shots of indigenous warriors in red body paint and a single file of horses wading through a swamp. Sound designer Guido Berenblum captures subtle noises from the natural world full of insects and animals, as well as atmospheric sounds, to heighten the sweltering ambience.

Zama is Argentina’s submission for the best foreign language film Oscar and will be released by Strand Releasing in 2018.

Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In (Sundance Selects)

Let the Sunshine In

From French auteur Claire Denis comes a fascinating but modest new work. The talky film stars the reliable Juliette Binoche as Isabelle, an alluring yet troubled middle-aged divorced painter. The movie will be satisfying for fans of Binoche.

Denis collaborated with Christine Angot on the screenplay, inspired by the 1977 nonfiction book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, in which Roland Barthes explores the philosophical side of love. Through a series of episodes, primarily with lovers or potential love interests, Isabelle seeks the answer to attaining a satisfying connection. The interest she sparks in men comes as no surprise, given the lively artistic life she leads and the short skirts and sexy boots in her wardrobe. Intimate scenes are played out realistically and sexual politics abound. “L’amour” is certainly a favorite theme in French cinema, with women “of a certain age” well represented. 

Isabelle’s 10-year-old daughter is on the sidelines and currently staying with dad, who has a complicated relationship with his ex. The post-divorce succession of the men in Isabelle’s life include a pompous banker (Xavier Beauvois), whose callousness she finds compelling, a self-involved actor who is a boozer, and a lowbrow stranger ready to embrace her on a nightclub dance floor while Etta James’s poignant “At Last” plays. Well-suited but otherwise entangled is her curator friend (Denis regular Alex Descas), who could have been an ideal match. Descas starred in 35 Shots of Rum, a more involving story of relationships by Denis that is on the level of her other world-class works, such as Beau Travail and White Material.

Let the Sunshine In will be released by Sundance Selects in 2018.