Tonight, the 52nd edition of the New York Film Festival kicks off with the world premiere of David Fincher's Gone Girl; other major premieres include the world debut of Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice next week and the American bow of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman. All those films are garnering top-tier Oscar buzz. But there's a host of other players screening – the festival lasts until Oct. 12 – that range from fascinating-if-flawed curiosities to must-see masterpieces.
Yann Demange's '71 throws emerging star Jack O'Connell (Starred Up, the upcoming Unbroken) into the war zone of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles; he plays a British soldier lost behind "enemy lines" in Belfast as right as the IRA is fracturing into more militant, violent splinter groups. It's a fascinating period of history that's rendered with a little too much hero/villain slightness; O'Connell is suitably steely and Demange's gritty on-the-ground, urban-warfare filmmaking is effective. But the fascinating, muddled morals of the period (and of British military intervention into Ireland in general) are dealt with glancingly and frustratingly.
Actress Asia Argento (daughter of Italian horror-master Dario) directed two fascinating but very flawed films (Scarlet Diva and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things) while back but hasn't been behind the camera in ten years; her third effort, Misunderstood, is easily her best yet, using her over-the-top approach to mostly charming effect. A day-glo '80s coming-of-age tale set in Italy, Misunderstood boasts a heartfelt performance from a saucer-eyed young girl (Giulia Salerno) who shuttles between the homes of two famous, self-involved parents (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gabriel Garko). It's remarkable that a tale of such unending woe can be so funny and charming, but you have to roll with Argento's hysterical plotting and heavy helpings of extreme melodrama. It's not essential viewing, but it's at least a buzzing, energetic take on a tired formula.
New York-set junkie drama Heaven Knows What, from the lo-fi, much-hyped young Safdie Brothers, arrives at NYFF with a lot of hype having premiered to raves in Venice. It focuses on new actress Arielle Holmes, who is making her screen debut having been discovered by the Safdie Brothers; the film is inspired by her real life as a heroin addict living on the streets, and her work is undeniably scorching to watch. But the emphasis on day-to-day realism boils the plotting down to a number of screaming arguments or rambling conversations between its homeless ensemble; I struggled to find places to emotionally connect, while remaining impressed with the piece's commitment to the brutal truth of its heroine's situation.
The same goes for Abel Ferrara's biopic Pasolini, although that film – about the Italian director's last night on Earth before being tragically beaten to death under somewhat mysterious circumstances – otherwise has little in common with the Safdies' grimy realism. Ferrara tries to do a lot in 86 minutes, and has a stunning lookalike for Pasolini in star Willem Dafoe, but doesn't manage to get deep enough on the director's fascinating life. An attempt to weave in an interpretation of the next film Pasolini was planning before his death is at least fascinating; but every time we swing back to our main character, Dafoe's jarring American accent (among a sea of Italians) keeps his performance at quite a distance.
It's not coming out in the States until Spring 2015, but if you can get tickets, try to get to Eden, the latest and greatest effort from French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love, which our Joe Reid talked about in his Toronto wrap-up. A sweeping but powerfully intimate look at the French electronic music scene, spanning from the mid-90s to the present day, it's an incredible meditation on the fleeting and softly destructive power of minor fame and artistic achievement, an involving personal tale (inspired by that of Hansen-Love's brother) and an authentic-feeling glimpse into a world I barely understood.
If you've ever seen a film by the Dardennes Brothers before, you won't be shocked when I tell you that their Two Days, One Night is another brilliant piece of work by the Belgian filmmakers, while entirely on-brand for them. If you haven't, it's a great place to start, a gripping tale of a woman (Marion Cotillard) struggling to resurface after wrestling with a bout of serious depression and personally petitioning her co-workers to reject a company bonus so that she can keep her job at a small factory. It's quiet, avoids any kind of histrionics, and leaves you quietly shell-shocked with every subtle story turn; it's also probably Cotillard's best work in a sterling career.
Finally, there's Damien Chazelle's electrifying Whiplash, which won the audience and Grand Jury awards at Sundance this year but is bound to polarize. It's a gripping two-hander about a driven young jazz drumming student (Miles Teller) who wants nothing more than to play in his school's studio band and impress an imperious teacher (J.K. Simmons); once he gets in, the stakes are quickly raised to psychotic, abusive levels, but the story never progresses quite as you think it should. There's a couple of lurid twists that don't quite work and a shudderingly powerful denouement that absolutely does; it's a film about the kind of personality that would respond to Simmons' relentless, violent, bullying attitude towards teaching, while still pondering whether there should be any room in the universe for such life-draining behavior. Whiplash had me shivering as I exited the theater; we'll see what other upcoming delights (also including Mr. Turner, Clouds of Sils Maria, Listen Up Philip and Foxcatcher) at NYFF can match it.