The 2018 New York Film Festival doesn’t have any major first-time-anywhere feature premieres. This is unusual for the festival, which usually has at least one exclusive up its sleeve, but I wonder if its selections simply took up too much space to accommodate such an addition. Not in the sense that a few titles suck up all the oxygen in the room, blockbuster-style, but because so many of this year’s works by major directors ably function as both immersive big-canvas experiences and finely detailed portraits.
Strangely—or maybe not; maybe this is the new normal—two of the biggest movies are also Netflix-distributed titles that may well turn up in living rooms as soon as they come out in commercial release. Theatrical releases for the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma are coming, but seemingly not yet finalized; few theaters are willing to book something day-and-date with a streaming title, and Netflix has previously been unwilling to back down from offering its acquisitions an exclusive theatrical window. They may yet compromise for the Coens and Cuarón, perhaps aware of just how many people would make a point of seeing these movies on the big screen.
Buster Scruggs was initially described as a possible Netflix series, but the Coens clarified at a post-screening press conference that this was never really the plan for their collection of six short Westerns. The film bears this out; the running time is approximately the equivalent of six 20-something-minute “episodes,” but the shorts themselves are not uniform in length, varying from a relatively brief misadventure with James Franco as an ill-fated (or maybe just evenly-fated?) outlaw to a fairly long film with Zoe Kazan as a “rattled” woman on a wagon train to Oregon.
The format of Buster Scruggs might sound like a comedown in scope, a more formalized version of the vaguely vignette-based Hail, Caesar! But unlike so many anthology movies, the pieces of the Coens’ omnibus build into something more. Part of the movie’s scope has to do with the vast scenic landscapes captured by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (marking his second collaboration with the Coens after Inside Llewyn Davis, and again creating images that feel, paradoxically, rich in faded colors). It’s a gorgeous movie, and frequently a grim one, which is what unites the six parts even more than their impeccable craft. Many of the Coens’ stories involve sudden, terrible twists of fate—and, of course, it’s not news that life in the Old West was cruel and punishing—but the Coens haven’t exactly made a movie about life in the Old West; they’ve made a gloss on stories about the Old West, with a throughline that keeps it moving in one particular direction, until the movie reaches a logical conclusion with a segment that manages to be both one of the funniest, featuring an all-time great instance of a Coen character who speaks at length to the growing irritation of his listeners, and the most elegiac. Going smaller has allowed them to think pretty big.
Cuarón’s Roma is also deceptively big; it’s mostly about Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a housekeeper for a moderately well-to-do family in Mexico City in the early 1970s, and though it doesn’t have the sprawling cast or running time associated with epic sweep, Cuarón, shooting in black-and-white on the digital equivalent of 65mm, captures Cleo’s time and place with a series of stunning sequences. Even in a static first shot, he’s filling eyes; the opening credits play over a shot of soapy water sliding over a floor, eventually reflecting an image of a window in the water. Before any people have been introduced, before the camera has moved, he captures something indelible.
In a way, that signals how the rest of the film will proceed. It’s not that the people of Roma aren’t important to him—Aparicio is terrific as Cleo, naturalistic and affecting—but the characters aren’t always distinctive enough to stand out against the dazzle of the filmmaking. There are astonishing scenes here, where Cuarón will track his camera across a seemingly intimate scene, only to gradually reveal its full scope: the number of people teeming in the background, the endless waves of an ocean shore, or the full tides of history, as when Cleo has a medical emergency in the midst of a deadly clash between would-be revolutionaries. The ensuing sequence is harrowing, heartbreaking, and so devastating that I had to wonder why, exactly, the movie was putting its audience through this wringer.
As an experience, Roma is vivid. As a narrative, it’s more on the familiar side: infidelity, pregnancy, class divisions, without the moments of personal idiosyncrasy that often define material rooted in memory and experience (Cuarón, in his NYFF press conference, repeatedly discussed the film coming together as an amalgam of experiences, his as well as others). The movie never feels quite like a first-person account because none of the characters have much pop; even Cleo, compelling as she is, is more reactive than anything else. It’s a beautiful, often thrilling film that for all its craft sometimes feels observed from a distance. If Gravity, Cuarón’s previous project, underlined its emotional story in the midst of the technical spectacle, this one flips the intimate/epic ratio: the technical stuff isn’t as immediate as unbroken space-cams in IMAX, but the most emotional moments feel reserved, maybe even, sometimes, not especially specific. (Reader, I cried. But for perhaps more personal reasons than involvement in the story at hand.)
The Gravity torch is picked up, meanwhile, by Damien Chazelle’s First Man (which did not play at NYFF but is opening wide today). Chazelle’s movie, about Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk and the trainings and attempts that preceded it, is both more encompassing than Gravity (it takes place over many years) and less (about half an hour of it, maybe less, actually unfolds in space). Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is involved in a momentous operation that transcends mankind’s seeming limitations, yet he is a very Gosling-y character: quiet, reflective, sometimes taciturn bordering on opaque, though we know at least part of what occupies him. Early in the film, the Armstrong family suffers a terrible loss, and if “refreshing” is the wrong word for this heartrending detail, it’s certainly a novelty to see a male astronaut unmoored by personal tragedy.
In a process that would be overly literal if it wasn’t so damn effective, Chazelle shoots on both 16mm film, grainy and handheld, for most of the movie, and full-on IMAX for the moon sequence (the amount of IMAX footage is accordingly small but still probably worth the price of a super-sized ticket—provided a genuine, non-retrofitted IMAX exists in your area. Another reason First Man would have made sense at NYFF is that the only such screen in New York City is just down the street at the Lincoln Square AMC). The moon landing itself is, per the movie, both a glorious technological marvel and a scrappy production that could have (and, in earlier years, did) left bodies in its wake. La La Land and Whiplash are both about the price of glory, and to some extent so is First Man, as Armstrong places stress on his family as he sticks with the mission (and Chazelle does give voice, however briefly, to those who would argue the whole thing is a frivolous, pride-based waste of taxpayer money in the face of genuine suffering). What makes the film special, and especially moving, is Chazelle’s consideration of moments that are bigger than his hero—both in the course of human history, as with the moon landing, and in the case of what Armstrong himself can bear.
Chazelle and Barry Jenkins were pitted as rivals in the 2016 Oscar season when the Best Picture race was said to come down to La La Land and Moonlight (Moonlight prevailed and La La Land won a bunch of other stuff, reinforcing that pre-show hunch). But their strengths as directors are not dissimilar: a strong sense of texture and emotional intimacy, which is certainly the strength of the new Jenkins film, If Beale Street Could Talk, which also played at NYFF. Adapting the James Baldwin novel of the same name, Jenkins is too respectful to jettison some narration that doubtless works better on the page; it sounds a little stilted in his film, because his images tend to speak for themselves, especially with his signature shots of character dead center of frame, staring straight at the camera. Like Roma, the Beale Street story is pretty simple. Alonzo (Stephan James) is falsely accused of rape while his love Clementine (KiKi Layne) is pregnant with his baby. Jenkins doesn’t create false suspense over the outcome of this charge, and is more interested in the dynamics of the investigation than the result, which he tips relatively early. For this reason, Beale Street isn’t as immediate as Moonlight; it doesn’t have that inexorable pull through the characters’ lives. What he retains is his gift for slowing down big moments and blowing up little ones.
Jenkins, Cuarón, Chazelle, and the Coens all do this to varying degrees, and do it so well that you might forget how rare it is.