2023 New York Film Festival opens with Natalie Portman-Julianne Moore spellbinder “May December”

The New York Film Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious and entertaining celebrations of cinema, returned to Lincoln Center for its 61st edition tonight, and to screens across New York City, with films starring Emma Stone, Nathalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Adam Driver, Saoirse Ronan and Michael Fassbender. [Not even today’s torrential rains that paralyzed New York City transit could put a damper on the event.]

With more than 100 films from 45 countries, this year’s festival includes new works by such renowned directors as David Fincher (“The Killer”), Michael Mann (“Ferrari”), Todd Haynes (“May December”), Agnieszka Holland (“Green Border”), Sofia Coppola (“Priscilla”), Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (“Evil Does Not Exist”), Wim Wenders (“Perfect Days”), Pedro Almodóvar (“Strange Way of Life”), Richard Linklater (“Hit Man”), Alice Rohrwacher (“La Chimera”), Jonathan Glazer (“The Zone of Interest”), and Aki Kaurismäki (“Fallen Leaves”).

Among the films featured are this year’s top prize-winners at Venice (Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” a black comedy starring Emma Stone as a dead woman brought back to life by a mad scientist) and Cannes (“Anatomy of a Fall,” Justine Triet’s procedural about a woman accused following the mysterious death of her husband). Also showing: the documentary prize-winner at Sundance, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project.”

The lineup includes Bradley Cooper’s latest film as both director and actor, following his acclaimed remake of “A Star Is Born.” “Maestro” features Cooper as famed conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein, in a biopic that explores Bernstein’s marriage, which endured decades of public success and private infidelity.

There are new films starring Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal (the sci-fi “Foe”), Léa Seydoux (“The Beast”), Talia Ryder (“The Sweet East”), and Juliette Binoche (“The Taste of Things”). In addition to “Poor Things,” Emma Stone has teamed up with Yorgos Lanthimos for “Bleat,” a silent black-and-white drama presented in 35mm to be accompanied by live music from an ensemble and choir. The festival is also presenting three episodes of Stone’s darkly comic TV series, “The Curse.”

Also showing: “The Boy and the Heron,” the new work from legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”), who has promised, and fortunately failed, to retire.

[See below for some reviews of this year’s highlights.]

Gala screenings

Friday’s opening night presentation, “May December,” stars Natalie Portman as an actress digging into the psychology of a woman she is about to portray on screen, a one-time piece of tabloid fodder (Julianne Moore). Directed by Todd Haynes (“Carol,” “Far From Heaven”). [See review below.] 

Coming on the heels of last year’s “Elvis” is the festival centerpiece directed by Sofia Coppola, “Priscilla,” which tells the story of Elvis’ romance and marriage from the point of view of Priscilla Presley. Starring Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi.

Michael Mann, whose films include “Heat” and “The Insider,” directs the festival’s closing feature, “Ferrari,” starring Adam Driver as Italian sports car maker Enzo Ferrari. Co-starring Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley, Patrick Dempsey and Jack O’Connell, it examines how Ferrari maneuvered seismic shifts in his business while his marriage fractured over his infidelity and the death of a child.

A late addition to the festival lineup is the new film from David Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Seven”). Adapted from a graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent and Luc Jacamon, “The Killer” is a study of a hired assassin (Michael Fassbender) going about his profession with cool precision. 

Documentaries

Errol Morris’ “The Pigeon Tunnel” features an interview with British-Irish spy novelist David Cornwell, best known by his pen name, John le Carré, recorded shortly before the writer’s death in 2020; the similarly elegiac “Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus” looks back at the life and works of the Japanese composer, who died earlier this year.

Frederick Wiseman’s latest four-hour-long opus, “Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros,” is a deep-dive fly-on-the-wall look at the inner workings of a three-star Michelin restaurant in rural France; “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen offers his even longer documentary, “Occupied City,” which reflects on Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation and today; Kleber Mendonça Filho, who directed the revenge flick “Bacurau,” which was a hit at the festival four years ago, returns with “Pictures of Ghosts,” in which the Brazilian filmmaker looks back at his lifelong love of movies, and the ruins of cinemas; and if you’d like extreme close-up images of moths, “The Night Visitors” will flutter in for showings.

Revivals and restorations

Nancy Savoca’s acclaimed 1993 comedy “Household Saints” has been restored and is being shown with the director’s 1982 short film, “Renata.” Also: a restoration of Manoel de Olivera’s 1993 “Abraham’s Valley,” in which the story of “Madame Bovary” is translated to 20th-century Portugal; and Bahram Beyzaie’s 1974, “The Stranger and the Fog,” which was banned in his native Iran following the 1979 revolution.

A 4K restoration of Abel Gance’s 1923 “La Roue,” a seven-hour silent study of a doomed love, will be screened as both a two-parter, and in a single marathon showing. There are also screenings of Jean Renoir’s 1947 film noir “The Woman on the Beach”; Lee Grant’s 1978 “Tell Me a Riddle”; and a collection of short films by the surrealist artist Man Ray.

Free talks

The festival will host discussions with director Todd Haynes (“May December,” September 30), writer-filmmaker Paul B. Preciado (“Orlando, My Political Biography,” October 4), actress Sandra Huller (“Anatomy of a Fall,” October 8), and director Catherine Breillat (“Last Summer,” October 12). Also: Conversations with “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” star-director Joanna Arnow with Nancy Savoca (October 2), and “Janet Planet” filmmaker Annie Baker sitting down with fellow director Raven Jackson (“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” October 10).

The festival runs through October 15 at Lincoln Center, with additional screenings at the Paris Theater in midtown, and the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, as well as at venues in Staten Island (Alamo Drafthouse), Brooklyn (BAM), the Bronx (Bronx Museum of the Arts), and Queens (Museum of the Moving Image).

Click here for program descriptions and ticketsClick here for availability of rush and standby ticketsEarly highlights

Of festival entries screened at press time, a few highlights are reviewed below. [More reviews will be published as the festival continues.]

“May December” (North American Premiere)

With a deft and multilayered screenplay by Samy Burch, director Todd Haynes (“Far from Heaven,” “Carol”) offers an insightful and often hilarious look into the psyche of an actress and of the real-life tabloid-figure from the 1990s she is studying in preparation for a movie role. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is about to star as Gracie (Julianne Moore), who gained fame in her 30s by having an affair with a seventh-grader, a scandal that destroyed her family but didn’t preclude her from building a new life with her much-younger second husband, a life that from the outside looks serene today.

But Gracie’s self-awareness – of her motives and of her place in the cultural zeitgeist – is a mystery to Elizabeth, who spends an inordinate amount of time uncomfortably trying to pierce the protective skins of Gracie and of her husband, Joe (Charles Melton), while also interviewing Gracie’s friends and family. Boundaries are crossed and confidences broken as Elizabeth becomes obsessed with recreating the psychology of Gracie.

The three leads give sterling performances in which role-playing and role-reversals are as vital to uncovering some kind of truth as they are in covering it up. Though the cast is funny, what they derive from their characters is more painful and, in the story’s “Peyton Place”-like atmosphere, potentially damaging. Particularly affecting is Melton, the young father of college kids, who is disoriented and frightened by the dramatic life changes he now finds himself facing at the youthful age of 36. Screens Sept. 29, Oct. 7, Oct. 14. 113 minutes. A Netflix release. Opens in theaters November 17, and begins streaming December 1.

To watch a trailer for “May December” click on the video player below:

“Poor Things”

Five years ago Yorgos Lanthimos directed “The Favourite,” a biting and brutal comedy about politics, ambition, betrayal and lust in the court of 18th century English monarch Queen Anne. Stars Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz both earned Academy Award nominations, and Olivia Colman won an Oscar.

In Lanthimos’ darkly comic new film, Stone plays Bella Baxter, a woman who is revived from the dead by a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe). Possessing a new brain, Bella must learn from scratch such things as walking, talking, and having wanton sex.

But this “Frankenstein”-like creation is also learning about empowerment, the cruelty of mankind, the boundaries of social behavior, and the vices of men. With awkwardly-floundering limbs, rude noises, and a gradually-increasing vocabulary, Bella explores the world, a phantasmagorical steam-punk creation, through which she is shepherded by a lothario (Mark Ruffalo). He comes to discover his designs upon Bella don’t take into account the pride of an independent woman, even one with stitch marks on her skull.

Stone’s performance is brazenly uninhibited as a child in a woman’s body taking on the world. It’s a wonderfully kinetic showcase for her gifts of bearing wide-eyed wonder to an audience. The audience can’t help but reflect wide-eyed wonder back. Contains a heavy dose of adult themes and sexual material, along with ridiculous mutant animals (courtesy of the afore-mentioned mad scientist). Screens Sept. 30, Oct 1, 12, 15. 141 minutes. A Searchlight Pictures release. In theatres December 8.

“All of Us Strangers”

Director Andrew Haigh’s moving ghost story is a tale of grief and isolation impacting a despondent writer, Adam (Andrew Scott), one of only two tenants residing in a brand-new, high-rise apartment block in London. After meeting the building’s other occupant, Harry (Paul Mescal), the two begin a passionate affair. But for Adam, the specter of death seems ever-present. In his melancholy he embarks on a trip back to his hometown, where he communes with his dead mother and father (played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) about a childhood shattered by the parents’ death in a car crash, coming out, and living without the support of family or meaningful attachments. Adam regresses in some respects while reconnecting with his mom and dad, experiencing the love that was stolen from him, but he also learns to see beyond loss and his own withdrawal from humanity. The actors are superb in a chamber piece about the expectations that parents and children have of each other, and the fear that comes from extending yourself in an unprotective world. Adapted from Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel. Screens Oct. 1, 2, 8, 14. 105 minutes. A Searchlight Pictures release. Opens in theaters December 22.

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” (U.S. Premiere)

Writer-director-editor Joanna Arnow nakedly displays a bright new comedic talent in her narrative feature film debut, after directing shorts that poke fun at sexuality and social inhibitions. In her latest, which debuted at Cannes, she plays Ann, a 33-year-old with a stultifying office job whose personal life is devoid of direction or ambition. And so, she throws herself into a series of casual submissive relationships in order to (at the very least) be told what to do when. With exquisite deadpan timing, Arnow plays off the boredom of living a feckless existence, with the hope that following even the most ridiculous directions from partners will help her find meaning, and maybe even intimacy. Fat chance. Costarring Arnow’s own parents as Ann’s parents. Contains mature themes, nudity, and Zoom meetings with HR. Screens Oct. 5, 7. 88 minutes. A Magnolia Pictures release (date not yet announced).

To watch an interview with Joanna Arnow by the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, click on the video player below:

“Here” (U.S. Premiere)

Perhaps the quietest film of the festival, Bas Devos’ drama, set in Brussels, is a contemplation of two souls connecting in unexpected ways. Stefan (Stefan Gota), a construction worker from Romania who is set to return home on an extended trip, says his goodbyes to friends and family and clears out his refrigerator. But his plans are waylaid after crossing paths with Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), a researcher studying plant life in a nearby park. Their brief sojourn together communing over, of all things, moss has the effect of erasing time. The film’s conclusion is one of remarkable grace: bonding over a mystery. Screens Oct. 8, 9, 10. In Dutch, French, Romanian and Mandarin with English subtitles. 82 minutes. A Cinema Guild release (date not yet announced).

“The Sweet East” (North American Premiere)

Talia Ryder, so good in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” is sparkling as an Alice falling through the looking glass into an absurdist adventure that throws her in with conspiracy theorists, anarchists, white supremacist academicians, indie filmmakers and dancing Muslims, with a bag of stolen cash in the mix. Ryder plays Lillian, a high school student on a field trip in Washington, D.C., who figuratively falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself remaking her identity time and again in order to escape from, or into, some decidedly sketchy circumstances stretching through several states on the East Coast. Director Sean Price Williams and screenwriter Nick Pinkerton’s comic-drama about a lost girl consistently one-upping expectations never veers into predictable or trite territory, which makes the story’s constantly swerving directions, cartoonish violence, and self-conscious attitude (Ryder even sings to the camera for no apparent reason) that much more puckish. Screens October 10, 11. 104 minutes. A Utopia Release (no date announced).

In this scene Lillian (Talia Ryder) has a chance encounter with a pair of aspiring filmmakers (Jeremy O. Harris, Ayo Edebiri):

Watch a trailer for the 61st New York Film Festival: 

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2023 New York Film Festival opens with Natalie Portman-Julianne Moore spellbinder “May December”