Is it time for movie lovers to return to Manhattan theaters for the 59th New York Film Festival (Sept. 24 to Oct. 10)? The director of the extremely influential event, Eugene Hernandez, thinks so — especially after a pandemic pivot to virtual screenings in 2020.
“We’ve all spent the last 18 months watching fantastic movies and TV series in the comfort of our own living rooms, with our pods, the people closest to us,” he tells AARP. “But nothing beats the experience of being in a room with a whole bunch of strangers, a giant screen, and putting everything else aside for two hours.”
To keep things as safe as possible, all attendees need to show proof of vaccination and must be masked the entire time. (No concessions this year, so no pulling masks down even for a bite of popcorn.) For those film fans who can’t make the trek to Manhattan this year, Hernandez handpicked a short list of great-for-grownups films for AARP readers to keep an eye on and to watch when they come to streaming or hit theaters closer to home.
Bookmark these five NYFF films for your fall movie plans.
The Lost Daughter
When to catch it: In theaters Dec. 17 and on Netflix Dec. 31
What it’s about: Based on a novel from My Brilliant Friend’s Elena Ferrante, now 78, this dark and intense drama follows divorced, middle-aged academic and empty nester Leda (Olivia Colman), who becomes obsessed with a young mother (Dakota Johnson) while on a solo beach holiday.
Why it’s a director’s pick: At the Cannes Film Festival, the film won best screenplay for actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who makes her directorial debut here. Hernandez notes that Gyllenhaal, a mother of two daughters, like Leda, “has reached a mature stage of her career. It’s going to resonate so deeply, such a complex exploration of a mother who is navigating big questions in her own life, has a past and a family, and is grappling with her life decisions. With The Lost Daughter, there’s the story of an ambivalent, intellectual mother on-screen. And, also, we recognize the behind-the-screen parallel: We’ve known Maggie as an actress, and while it’s her first film as a director, there’s such a maturity to her approach — and the career moment she’s in.”
Jane by Charlotte
When to catch it: In French theaters Oct. 27 and in U.S. theaters in 2022
What it’s about: This star-driven documentary could be in conversation with The Lost Daughter because it unpacks mother-daughter relationships. Melancholia actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, 50, directs a documentary with and about her famous English singer-actress mother, Jane Birkin, 74, after whom the famed Hermès bag is named.
Why it’s a director’s pick: According to Screen Daily’s Cannes review, “the film offers a tender and quite illuminating portrait of a mother-daughter relationship seen both within, and far away from, the public sphere of celebrity.” Like Gyllenhaal’s debut, Hernandez says, “this is a movie by a maturing artist who we’ve known on the screen as an actress, grappling and examining her own life and family and very famous mother. In ways we didn’t force, movies about mothers, daughters, family and the wisdom that comes with age is a theme running through the festival.”
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When it’s coming: In theaters Nov. 19
What it’s about: The thematic thread continues with Céline Sciamma’s vivid Petite Maman, or Little Mother. This engrossing story follows 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who accompanies her parents to empty her late grandmother’s house. While playing in the nearby forest, she befriends a mysterious 8-year-old (Gabrielle Sanz). Their bond grows as Nelly realizes her new playmate’s true identity and how they can help each other through challenging times.
Why it’s a director’s pick: From the director of the sensational Portrait of a Lady on Fire, this is “another strong female directorial voice, an evolved exploration of family, motherhood, kids and parents,” Hernandez says. “When I first watched it with a friend, the emotional experience that she and I both had in reaction to our own lives — how do you watch that movie and not think about parents, relationships, life — over 50. Wow, I took a lot from that movie. There’s power and gravitas to the filmmaking and story, and yet it’s so deceptively simple.”
When it’s coming: In theaters Oct. 27, streaming later on Netflix
What it’s about: Based on Nella Larsen’s powerful novella about two high school friends who reunite as young women in New York, the movie is a “black and white portrait of late '20s Harlem Renaissance era, anchored by two really strong performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga."
Why it’s a director’s pick: Like Gyllenhaal and Gainsbourg, writer-director Rebecca Hall has been known as an exceptional actress (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Hernandez, who first screened Passing at the Sundance festival, was “blown away” by the British actor’s shift to director. “The drama navigates identity, race, in New York in that era, and sexuality. And it’s all orchestrated, directed, managed and contained through the work Rebecca brings to the period drama because of her own experience,” Hernandez says. “It’s her first film as a director, but it’s not her first film. There’s a depth, nuance and texture; again, she’s lived a life and is transitioning to a new stage in her career. She’s a new filmmaking voice.”
The Power of the Dog
When it’s coming: In theaters Nov. 17, streaming later on Netflix
What it’s about: Oscar winner Jane Campion, 67, won best director at Cannes this year for a movie that appears bound for the 2022 best picture short list. This period Western set in 1920s Montana stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a rancher whose life is disrupted by the arrival of his brother and his family.
Why it’s a director’s pick: “Campion explores the roots of toxic masculinity woven through the genre of the Old West,” Hernandez says. “We’re scratching deeper into the stories of homosexuality and masculinity and the Old West and the conventions of cinema, of men on the prairie and out in the wilderness. Jane is peeling the onion of that story, creating a fully realized movie for the big screen, on a big canvas.”
Need a nudge to book a (safe!) trip to New York for the festival? While seeing movies at home is “special, and it’s what got us through the pandemic,” Hernandez says, “the experience of walking into a movie theater and feeling that energy — this is what artists and audiences have been craving for 18 months.”
The 59th annual New York Film Festival opens on Friday with The Tragedy of Macbeth and runs through Oct. 10 with Parallel Mothers.
More NYFF standouts to look out for
Want more expert recommendations? Here are five more New York Film Festival movies soon to be scheduled for a screen near you:
The Tragedy of Macbeth with Denzel Washington, 66, and Frances McDormand, 64 (in theaters late 2021)
Bergman Island (in theaters and on demand Oct. 15)
Parallel Mothers by Pedro Almodóvar, 71 (in limited theaters Dec. 24)
The Velvet Underground, a documentary from Todd Haynes, 60 (in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+ Oct. 15)
Thelma M. Adams, the former film critic for Us Weekly and the New York Post, is a novelist who writes on film for AARP, The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.