I wish I could say I saw all of the movies featured in that trailer. School, alas, prevented me from doing so, but at least I did squeeze some good ones into my schedule. Here, in order of when I saw them, are the movies I watched at the 49th New York Film Festival.

Melancholia – R
Lars von Trier writes and directs this eerie story about the end of two worlds. The first collapse is an intangible one, of a bride (a moving Kirsten Dunst) losing her mind over the course of a disastrous wedding reception. The second and better half shows the bride, her sister (a wonderful Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law (a potent Kiefer Sutherland) witnessing the imminent collision of Earth with the planet Melancholia, brought to life through simple yet entrancing special effects. The uniformly superb cast successfully maintains von Trier’s sad and gloomy tone even in the film’s more jovial moments. From its artful opening montage to its beautifully terrifying final shot, Melancholia works very well as both science fiction and as a personal drama.
This review was originally published by The Fordham Observer.

A Separation – PG-13
When an Iranian couple (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami) divorces, the husband hires a woman (Sareh Bayat) to help care for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is stricken with Alzheimer’s. A terrible incident sparks an endless parade of accusations and revelations that turns employee against employer, spouses against spouses and children against parents. Asghar Farhadi’s deeply involving drama withholds many details in this affair to let each viewer debate the facts long after the movie ends. This film is subtly tense, deftly puzzling and tenderly human, creating an impartial mystery in which even characters who do not appear deserving of sympathy earn it.

Miss Bala – R
Gerado Naranjo has fashioned a genuinely exciting action film about a beauty pageant contestant who is forced into the world of Mexican drug trafficking. Every single scene is told from her perspective, which works thanks to Stephanie Sigman’s appealing performance. Naranjo uses long takes throughout the film to build an impressive amount of suspense. One major shortcoming is the escalating sexual advances the gang leader (Miguel Couturier) makes on the girl. These scenes are distracting and somewhat plodding, adding little to her already humiliating situation. The film is much more stirring when it focuses on the girl acting alone as hostage and forced accomplice.

My Week with Marilyn – R
Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn is a biopic whose adoration for its subject, Marilyn Monroe, is so strong it renders the film a little insufferable. Set during the production of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), it has so many moments that exclaim, “Wow, what a beautiful and tragic star she was” that there are too few introspective scenes. Michelle Williams gives a fine performance as Monroe, but the real treat is Kenneth Branagh’s highly entertaining take on Sir Lawrence Olivier. The actors are good enough to warrant a slight recommendation, but if you want a real tribute to Monroe’s talents, just watch Some Like It Hot (1959) if you haven’t seen it before (or lately).

Goodbye First Love – NR
Mia Hansen-Løve’s story of a young French girl’s loss of her first love and how she moves on with a new one is the only movie I saw this year that I would unreservedly say is bad. It is full of dull, mopey characters whose self-centered demeanors failed to earn any of my sympathy; I suppose it may have been Hansen-Løve’s point to paint a picture of how childish first love can be, but painting a picture so thoroughly sullen does not build solid interest. As I watched the movie, there were times when I would much rather have followed the horses in the background than spend any more energy focusing on the drab humans.

The Descendants – R
In Alexander Payne’s first film since Sideways (2004), George Clooney plays a father who must reconcile with his family after his wife goes comatose in a boating accident. This is Clooney’s best performance since Michael Clayton (2007), mixing frustration and heartbreak with a despairing hope that things will get better. The rest of the movie does not match up, for it fails to integrate drama and comedy into a cohesive whole. While the comedy in Sideways is an extension of the drama, the jokes in The Descendants feel more like bald, inorganic relief from the surrounding sadness. The overall film is competent yet uneven, but Clooney makes it absolutely worth seeing.


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