I left Todd Haynes’s May December not really sure how I felt about it, and in retrospect, that’s one of the things I like about it most. The opener for this year’s New York Film Festival, it serves to remind us that even an established and respected modern master like Haynes (with Netflix writing his checks!) can still thrill us by taking big swings and making unexpected turns; he initially seems to be making a broad satire, of both the vulgar and voyeuristic sex scandals of the early/mid-1990s and the TV movies that dramatized them, but he pushes harder and drills deeper, telling an unexpectedly poignant story of self-deception and arrested development.
Natalie Portman is especially good as the actress who’s researching a role by spending time with the woman (Julianne Moore, doing a very odd lisp) at the center of one such scandal, and Samy Burch’s screenplay has a real ear for the way actors talk – she’s spent so much of her life talking buzzwords and soundbytes that she speaks in inanities (“I want you to feel seen and known,” “It’s a very complex and human story,” that kind of thing) without even thinking about it. Moore has fun exploring the gray areas of her controlling narcissist, prone to melodramatic crying jags. But the real find is Charles Melton, whose scenes of confusion and regression are initially hilarious, and then heartbreaking. Same goes for the movie.
It’s been a minute or two since Wim Wenders had a narrative feature worth talking about, but you cannot count that guy out, and Perfect Days is a marvelous movie, sweet and seemingly simple, and then not that, at all. Koji Yakusho stars as Hirayama, who spends his days doing the honest and earnest work of cleaning toilets in Tokyo’s public parks — and it tells you all you need to know about him that he not only takes pride in this work, but enjoys it. When work is done, he’ll take some photos, or read, or ride his bike, or go out to dinner; he lives a life of familiarity and routine, and much of Perfect Days lives that life over his shoulder. But disruptions eventually present themselves, of course, though not in any kind of pat or predictable way, and it speaks highly of both Wenders’s filmmaking and Yakusho’s acting that they are able to hint at the pieces of his life that he chooses not to dwell on without prying them out of the character. They simply seem to care about him too much to impose.
Richard Linklater adapted a story by Texas journalist Skip Hollandsworth to make one of his best films, Bernie, back in 2011; his latest, Hit Man, adapts another Hollandsworth piece into, per the opening titles, the “somewhat true story” of schoolteacher Gary Johnson (Glenn Powell, who also co-wrote), whose electronics surveillance work for the New Orleans Police Department turned him into an undercover operative, posing as a contract killer to catch would-be clients. The first act is broadly comic, especially as the disguises and identities become more intricate; Fletch vibes abound. But Linklater shifts gears when Gary meets a potential client (Adria Arjona) and sparks fly — their heat is off the charts, but their genuine affection for each other is also believable. Linklater nimbly navigates the tonal shifts from cop comedy to romance to thriller, and both Powell and Arjona come out of this thing looking like razzle-dazzle movie stars.
The opening line of Justine Triet’s thorny Palme d’Or winner Anatomy of a Fall is “What do you want to know?” It’s a casual question, at the beginning of a semi-formal interview, but it becomes the key inquiry of this riveting drama; it is asked by Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller, staggering), a novelist whose husband dies a few minutes into that grabber of an opening. He fell from a high window, so maybe he killed himself, or maybe he was pushed by his wife; Triet pointedly does not tell us, and Hüller’s performance is similarly enigmatic, creating quiet yet searing suspense throughout the investigation and trial that follows. Acting is tip-top across the board, not just from Hüller but from young Milo Machado Graner as her son, who has secrets and reserves of his own.
Hüller is also an unnervingly steadying presence in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, which caused a similar stir at Cannes (it won the Grand Prix). It’s easy to see why — the subject is Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz. Yet Glazer’s focus is not on the horrors of that concentration and extermination camp, which his cameras do not penetrate; he spends his time in the adjoining, picturesque home and gardens of Höss’s family. So it’s real Banality of Evil shit: wife Hedwig (Hüller) fussing with a new fur coat as distant gunshots are heard, ash and smoke filling the sky as Rudolpf enjoys his post-dinner cig, unnoted distant screaming as an engineer sits in the parlor and goes over his blueprints for a streamlined gas chamber (“So burn, cool, unload, reload”).
Any filmmaker who works with this kind of meticulous precision is going to get compared to Kubrick, and Glazer earns it; the crispness of the visuals, the sharpness of the compositions, and the blunt force of the sound design do a number on the viewer. He only falters when he tries to get cute, with contemporary flourishes (photo-negative photography, Mica Levi’s aggro score) that subtract more than they add, and ultimately prove too stark a formal contrast, distancing and distracting when we want (need, perhaps) to be pulled in.
Strange Way of Life is a bit of an oddity, a 30-minute Western presented by Saint Laurent, starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal, written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. The idiosyncratic filmmaker finds a style and tone that merges his own melodramas with the Western tradition smoothly, and the picture’s (necessary) visual efficiency is impressive. But he’s been writing novels for so long, he doesn’t know how to write a short story, and this one doesn’t have the narrative simplicity necessary for short-form storytelling. It feels less like a short film than a proof of concept, a compression of a feature (albeit one I’d really like to see), three pounds of flour poured messily into a one-pound bag.
Per the opening credits, Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando: My Political Biography is “freely adapted” from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and that’s an honest credit; the film is a freewheeling fuzzing of the documentary and narrative binaries (see what I did there?), combining readings, dramatizations, and interpretations of Woolf’s novel with to-camera interviews with the trans people bringing them to life. Preciado’s updates and transpositions are witty, and the picture is rowdy and frequently playful, though the filmmaker’s maximalist impulses also create some monotony as particular ideas and theses are stated and restated.
Frederick Wiseman ends his new documentary Menu Plaisirs Les Troisgros with a casual conversation in which primary subject Michel Troisgros lays out exactly who everyone around him is, and the history of the Michelin-starred restaurant and country inn he runs. This is a scene most filmmakers would open with; Wiseman — this king, this wizard, this absolute madman — puts it at the end of a four-hour subtitled documentary, like an afterthought, oh yeah, here’s this explainer, if you somehow still need it.
When you describe Wiseman’s work to those who don’t know it, it sounds insufferable; he makes loooooong films about institutions and processes, with extended scenes of meetings and planning and execution, but rarely with the kind of clean, identifiable conflicts that are the lifeblood of contemporary non-fiction filmmaking (to say nothing of its redheaded stepchild bastard offspring, reality TV). There’s none of that here; much of Troisgros’ expansive running time is spent on scenes of watching people prepare food. And it’s riveting, intricate processes of exacting, meticulous detail, without even the crutch of music — they’re scored only by the pleasant hum of minimal movement and very occasional, hushed chatter. Wiseman’s films are about the pleasures of watching pros work, and his latest is proof positive that at 93, he is still a singular artist, each film a rare and spectacular gift.