New York Film Festival 2019 Noah Baumbach Illyse Singer

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Lens Crafters: New York Film Festival Musts

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Roxy Cinema curator Illyse Singer offers up her top picks and commentary. 

The Goodfellas are back in town! Opening The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 57th annual New York Film Festival with a literal bang—lots of bangs, and bludgeonings, and a stabbing or two, surely—Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited new gangster drama The Irishman is but one highlight of a superlative line-up entailing international narrative features, documentaries, shorts, special event screenings, and revival titles.

Running September 27 to October 13, NYFF includes both premieres and some of the buzziest, award-winning standouts from Cannes, Venice, and Toronto fests plus conversations with Pedro Almodóvar, Bong Joon-Ho, Martin Scorsese, and other auteurs. Venice Golden Lion Award winner Joker will screen followed by an extended discussion with director Todd Phillips, star Joaquin Phoenix, and producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff; French auteur Olivier Assayas will lead a Screenwriting Master Class; Francis Ford Coppola will screen and discuss his restored, acclaimed “Encore” edition of 1984’s The Cotton Club. Meanwhile, experimental and boundary-pushing cinema will be spotlighted in NYFF’s “Projections” section, while “Convergence” features interactive media, VR, and gameplay.

Tickets and passes can be purchased via the website and Film Society app, and the Alice Tully Hall box office. If a particular screening sells out, you can queue for last-minute standby tickets at the film’s venue one hour before showtime. So what to see? Roxy Cinema curator, Illyse Singer, offers up her top picks and commentary.

The Irishman

Martin Scorsese returns to the stylish, camera-swooping, briskly-paced, and violent true crime gangster genre he established with Goodfellas and Casino. Robert DeNiro plays Frank Sheeran, the titular Irish-American assassin who reportedly killed Jimmy Hoffa. Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, and Jesse Plemmons are among the dream team cast in this NYFF World Premiere.

Singer Says: I’m so stoked to see it, even if it is three and a half hours long, and everyone from the other Scorsese gangster films is reuniting. It’s going to be epic. And yeah, I think it’s going to be as violent as Goodfellas and Casino. I would assume so. It would be weird if not.


Making her feature debut, actor-writer-director Mati Diop, niece of late Senegalese filmmaker icon Djibril Diop Mambéty, won the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix for this tale of a seemingly doomed romance involving a 17-year-old girl, her construction worker boyfriend, and the supernatural.

Singer Says: A Senegalese zombie film, it’s haunting me to this day. It’s almost like you’re watching a Greek myth unfold. It’s so beautiful. Everything is so good in that film. It’s a little dark, a little creepy, but not terribly violent.

Zombi Child

Saint Laurent director Bertrand Bonello returns to NYFF with a politically tinged horror film addressing French colonialism in Haiti. Its dual narrative involves modern-day Parisian boarding school girls and a real-life 1962 case of zombification.

Singer Says: Zombies was a bit theme at Cannes this year. This is all about ancient voodoo zombification, and it’s so good. Like Atlantics, it haunted me.

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

Set in late 18th century Brittany, a love affair blossoms between a painter, Marianne, and Héloise, whose wedding portrait she’s been commissioned to paint. Writer-director Céline Sciamma won Cannes’ 2019 Best Screenplay Prize.

Singer Says: It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. It’s like watching an 18th century painting the entire time. A lesbian love story, and the two actresses are very compelling, the lighting and production design amazing—it’s like a perfect film.


Also set in the 18th century, provocateur Albert Serra’s near plotless, twisted costume “drama” tracks a group of degenerate French aristocrats as they enjoy night of Marquis de Sade-esque antics in the woods. 

Singer Says: It won’t be for everyone. It’s really kind of fucked-up. It’s about these libertines in the woods after the French Revolution, and it’s like two hours of them having the most grotesque sex you’ve ever seen. I don’t know that I enjoyed it while watching, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s so layered and nuanced and wild. It’s very hard to explain!

Pain And Glory

Celebrating his 70th birthday in September, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar turns the lens on himself with this semi-autobiographical tale. Antonio Banderas, star of early, essential Almodóvar works including 1989’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! snagged Cannes’ Best Actor award for his turn as Salvador Mallo, an aging gay director wracked with health issues and creative block.   

Singer Says: He tells such dark, complicated stories about other people, so I’m curious to see how he handles his own life. Antonio is perfect to play him. They worked together before in a way that helped each other’s careers, so it’s going to be amazing. A mix of heartbreak and joy, and maybe similar to Fellini’s 8 1/2. A modern take on that.

The Whistlers

An off-kilter, deadpan crime drama from Romania, the film’s title refers to an aboriginal island tribe that communicates via whistling, whose “language” a corrupt Bucharest police detective must learn as part of a scheme involving a money-stuffed mattress.

Singer Says: I don’t even know how to explain it. Like a neo-noir crime comedy. It’s wildly entertaining and all about this guy who needs to use a dead language to communicate with drug dealers and goes to to the Canary Islands to learn it.

Marriage Story

Brooklyn-raised The Squid and The Whale writer-director Noah Baumbach again focuses on a couple grappling with divorce—played impeccably by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson—and the custody of their son.

Singer Says: I love Baumbach’s films. I feel they’re very real, although not incredible stylistically or visual. He takes a look at the disintegration of a marriage, it’s such a common story now.


Twenty-seven-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balgov won the Cannes Film Festival Best Director prize for his drama about a pair of rattled female soldiers, Iya and Masha, who struggle with adjusting to post-WWII life in Leningrad.

Singer Says: It’s a loose adaptation of Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexeievich’s book The Unwomanly Face of War, and the struggle and aftermath for people to rebuild their lives. It’s supposed to be very spiritually bleak, but rich in style and color.

Los Olvidados

Luis Buñuel’s Mexico City-set 1950 classic, aka. The Young And The Damned, about a clique of juvenile delinquents, returns in restored albeit gritty black-and-white glory.

Singer Says: The rights weren’t available to this film for a while, so it’s not easy to see. I love Buñuel and have been curious about his time in Mexico. He’s one of the great surrealist artists, and won best director at Cannes for this film!

WORDS Lawrence Ferber

IMAGERY Courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center 

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