Who’s afraid of Nicole Kidman? Perhaps your retinas are burning from lights bouncing off that shimmery jumpsuit. A stiletto barely splashes in the puddle, and a chill runs through your whole body as you anticipate Kidman's canned monologue opener, "We come to this place for magic"—a pre-movie ad in sheep's warm, fuzzy clothing orchestrated in service of filling seats at one of the nearly thousand AMC theaters near you. Luckily, the screenings at Lincoln Center for the sixtieth edition of the New York Film Festival (NYFF) did not come with any such introductions. That's not to say I didn't have my own shimmer suit moment (albeit in combat boots) approaching the multi-block arts complex of Lincoln Center, ascending the steep staircase to a balcony overlooking the landscaping and architecture that comes together in the form of a Cubist masterpiece, then settling into a seat in Walter Reade Theater amongst the anticipatory murmurs of the crowd. Don't get me wrong: I'm here writing this because I've spent my whole life buying into the very magic of the movies that I'm a little tired of AMC selling me. What else do we go to the movies for?
On the momentous occasion of a storied festival's sixtieth anniversary, it's hard not to reflect on history. At the dawn of cinema, when audiences sat down for the Lumière brothers' Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, legend has it that folks panicked and raced to leave the theater at the sight of a train barrelling towards the camera. In 1896, the new technology might have seemed like witchcraft, but in the precise moment of the locomotive hurtling towards the screen, it was probably mostly frightening. On the other hand, that story may not be true at all, what film scholar Martin Loiperdinger calls “Cinema’s Founding Myth.” Whether to feel fear or to expose yourself to something new or to become a player in a greater story, the movies have an ability to challenge the boundaries of our worlds. That experience is not always magical. Nor should it be.
Kelly Reichardt's Showing Up (2022) is an insistently not-magical film. And yet, it haunted me for days after seeing it. Showing Up follows Lizzy (Michelle Williams), a sculptor preparing for an upcoming gallery show while also dealing with family tensions, balancing a day job and her art career, mediating an ongoing fight with her friend/landlord, and healing an injured bird. This quiet day-in-the-life film captures an insular world whose pains, passions, and points of humor are familiar to anyone in the arts, even if this isn't your art or exact experience of the art world. While Michelle Williams delivers a fully immersed and compelling performance, the Oscar should really go to Ricky the Cat (who may or may not have something to do with the injured bird distracting Lizzy from her art).
Reichardt’s attention to the artistic process and her focus on the work gives Showing Up some serious ASMR vibes. The opening credits roll over lingering shots of Lizzy’s paintings that mesmerize. In other moments, the film is so observational, even divorced from its characters, it’s more like a prayer to the small moments that inspire our art. We don’t see Lizzy and her friend looking for their convalescing bird towards the end, we simply see shots of looking up, devoid of people or subjects.
Art and artmaking are both sources of humor (the intense concentration artists give to works that sometimes seem silly or incomprehensible) and reverence (everyone is being true to their own artistic callings). At Lizzy’s show, the camera focuses on her sculptures’ faces, achingly emotional. Earlier when removing the sculptures from the kiln, one comes out partially burned, and the film makes space for us to deeply feel that small tragedy.
So many things could have happened or fallen apart in this film, but they don’t. Somehow, that’s more right for the story than any complex plot maneuvers could have been. Reichardt revels in the careful crafting of relationships: the competitive jealousy between friends, a mentally ill brother whom Lizzy needs as much as he seems to need her. Nothing is going to change these characters or their lives. This commitment to the reality of conflicts we all face and never resolve on a daily basis could be heartbreakingly sad, but a subtle, deadpan humor forms a gentle satire in Showing Up that reminds us to pause and soak up these small moments and details.
Now let’s take the next hard left from Artistic Realism Street to Historical Drama Lane. In a NYFF press conference for Till (2022), producer Whoopi Goldberg said that many people are "scared of this movie," but perhaps that’s exactly why you should go see it. Directed by Chinonye Chukwu and starring Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley, this film follows the true story of the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and his mother’s grief and eventual role in civil rights activism. Echoing issues of present-day racially motivated violence, this film is scary and acts as a call to fight for justice.
Though focused on the aftermath of a specific event in Mamie's life, Till largely falls into the biopic genre, which, when artfully done can be an epic adventure in character study but can often fall flat. There are many pitfalls of the biopic: overly educational, characters that feel sanitized for the purposes of teaching a history lesson or supporting a cause. While Till does not always escape these issues of the genre, it does seem self-conscious of them, and some choices in the film make it a particularly interesting example of the biopic.
Chukwu stays hyper-focused on Mamie and her emotional development, and she avoids showing unnecessary violence on Black bodies. We never see Emmett’s murder. By not showing violence, the story unfolds on Mamie's terms: We see Emmett’s body when Mamie wants the public to see Emmett’s body. And during the trial when Mamie tells the story of how she recognized Emmett’s mutilated body, the camera never leaves her face for the entire length of a powerful and impassioned monologue delivery from Deadwyler.
While the way the script and camerawork empower Mamie with the agency to tell this story, the slow opening messes with the momentum of the film and its greater purpose. The emphasis on Emmett's sweetness, the loving mother-son relationship, and the family’s stately social status feel overly sentimental in a way that undermines Mamie’s agency by depicting a controlled image of her life when the inherent tragedy of the film is enough to speak for itself. On the other hand, the vivid colors, indulgent fifties costuming, and vibrant set are also reminiscent of the melodramas of the decade, a genre that could seem superficial on the surface but that often served as a tool for critiquing social ills.
And now we’ll veer onto Comedy Cul-de-Sac where the harsh reality of Ruben Östlund's social critique in Triangle of Sadness (2022) makes it an absurdist satire that manages to avoid absurdism. An ensemble cast, the tale primarily follows Carl (Harris Dickinson), a model hopelessly in love with Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek), a self-proclaimed "manipulative" person and also model. The two attend exclusive fashion shows, dine at opulent restaurants, and live off the perks of Yaya's influencer lifestyle, such as a free luxury cruise on a yacht captained by an alcoholic and self-proclaimed failed socialist Woody Harrelson. On the yacht, we meet a motley international crew of one-percenters and witness the various ways they torture each other and the staff as they indulge in the height of luxury. That is until the yacht is attacked by pirates while Harrelson espouses leftist ideology over the loudspeaker. Stranded on an island, the few remaining survivors, including Carl and Yaya, remake a society under a new order that privileges those who work over those who don't.
The movie could essentially be summed up by a scene in which a helicopter throws a small floating suitcase of supplies into the sea near the yacht. Fished out of the water and brought to the kitchen, we learn the suitcase contains a few jars of Nutella.
Funny and rife with biting observations, the film manages to be over-the-top (a lady insists that the entire crew stop working and go for a swim because guests and staff are all equals, or the stormy scene during which the entire yacht becomes a vomitorium and climaxes with an erupting chocolate fountain situation in one of the toilets). At the same time, the humor is subtle and never strays too far from what must be some folks' ritzy reality. Anyone who has worked in the service industry before knows these personalities and that their strange requests are not far from the truth.
Triangle of Sadness is ultimately a distant story, evading too much investment in or sympathy for any of the characters or their values. Though it has its humorous moments, this distance leaves us with the uncanny sensation that we are either loftily laughing at others or that we are in fact laughing at ourselves. Its slow pace throws off the comedic timing, and I’m unconvinced the film ever quite lives up to the complexity of social criticism its premise suggests. Ending with a boulder of a question mark, it never quite answers any of the questions it posits nor does it solve any of the problems it gloried in for its two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
Each of these movies' endings evade expectations. It's not clear where Showing Up is going throughout the film, and the ending seems resigned to or accepting of its character’s circumstances. Chukwu explained that she thought of Till as a love story and wanted to end the movie with love—not the approach typically taken with this type of film. While Till rightfully leaves us with the sense that this film has no conclusion because so much more work needs to be done, Showing Up and Triangle of Sadness force us to acknowledge all that is unresolvable in our lives. Most importantly, these films ask us to observe, to think, to meditate. So, this Friday night, leave the magic at home and go see a movie that makes you a little uncomfortable.