The New York Film Festival’s opening night film — Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” — isn’t technically on the fest’s opening night. That means the first weekend is a little skimpy on big titles, coasting on shorts and the interactive-heavy sidebar known as “Convergence.” (Plus an advance screening of Ridley Scott’s giddily pro-science movie “The Martian.”) Still, the two solitary Main Slate offerings are nothing to ignore.
Sun., Sept. 27, 3 p.m.
The latest from Nanni Moretti opens with what looks like a complete departure: handheld cameras stir up a lather as a worker’s protest turns rowdy. Then someone yells cut and we see it’s a movie-within-the-movie — yet another social realist drama from our hero, film director Margherita (Margherita Buy). But this isn’t quite a “Sullivan’s Travels” from a filmmaker who does serious (the still wry grief movie “The Son’s Room”) but not political, even when making a film about the Vatican (“We Have a Pope”). Margherita’s filmmaking woes — not just worrying about repeating herself but dealing with an outsized, fatuous American film star (John Turturro, game) — fight for space in her head with the looming death of her mom (Giulia Lazzarini).
Sometimes Moretti can’t decide which is more important, and the jumping back and forth between two A plots can make for stuttered viewing. But his humor — sometimes mordant, sometimes amusingly banal — helps to glue it together. The commentary on filmmaking can be both broad and specific, as with Margherita’s impenetrable common direction to actors to both be in character and stand “next to the character,” or telling Turturro’s hellbeast, playing a loathed factory head, not to worry about believing his dialogue. Meanwhile her mom is a grouchy spark of life right up to the end, complaining about how her prolonged hospital stay is making her dumber. Sometimes Moretti’s observations straddle the line between funny and tragic, as when Margherita’s brother (Moretti himself, typically dry and minimalist) points out that inviting too many friends to see their mom may tip her off that she’s in fact on her death bed. Even if the overall feel can be a bit mushy, it’s the little things that count.
Sun., Sept. 27, 6 p.m.
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos made a scorcher debut with “Dogtooth,” which depicted young adults who’ve spent their lives in a remote estate, believing their parents’ bizarre lies about the outside world. “The Lobster” too is about an absurd form of oppression. Set in some vaguely futuristic, or at least alternate, world, it depicts a society where anyone who’s single — say, the sadsack played by Colin Farrell, the head of a sprawling all-star international cast — is whisked off to a swank hotel, where they have two months to pair off. If they fail, they’ll be transformed into an animal, though charitably one of their choice. (Most people pick dogs.)
It’s tempting to read this as Lanthimos’ takedown of the social enforcement of love as well as marriage. But he’s also getting at something about how every form of society oppresses, to the point where we come to accept them. In the second half Farrell’s character escapes one stifling world for another, joining up with a band of rebels, who only wind up having their own set of restrictive rules. It’s a worldview at once hilarious and bottomlessly depressing, usually at the same time, and Lanthimos’ still, clinical frames yield both deadpan yuks — from the likes of John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw and Olivia Colman, as a proper old school English harridan who rattles off tut-tutting speeches to her wards — and life-sucking despair. In other words it’s fantastic.