One of the best and most exhausting things about being a film critic is the festivals. At some shorter festivals (like Sundance) you can see five or six movies a day, if your coffee is strong enough. But it’s over relatively quickly. At others, like the New York Film Festival—which just concluded its 53rd year—the screenings for press begin long before the festival opens. So by the time you get to the end you can barely remember the beginning, almost a month ago.

Whether it's a sprint or a marathon, though, the good thing with all those things bouncing and echoing off each other in your brain, you make discoveries about movies, and also about yourself.

I saw fourteen films at the New York Film Festival this year. But it was only this morning, as I walked out of my final screening and across the plaza at Lincoln Center, that I realized what I’d learned. It was this: the movies I kept thinking about tried something audacious and failed in some way.

It’s hard to find ways to restate the essence of the most common movie review I have to write: “It’s fine, I guess.” Marvel may be everyone’s favorite whipping boy these days, but that’s because they keep turning out passably watchable, increasingly forgettable films that we all keep seeing anyhow. In many corners of Hollywood, that’s the M.O.—figure out what people will pay to see and then just make a lot of it. It's an industry. There are bottom lines and profits to be considered. Romantic comedies did it for a long time, as did movie musicals, and action thrillers, and the genre I think of as “tangentially Christmasy movies,” and the faith-based film industry seems to have gotten on board, too.

On the other hand, the fun thing about a movie like Steve Jobs or Miles Ahead or Les Cowboys is that it’s practically experimental, though not what anyone would call avant garde. In these three, for instance, the screenplay is more interested in evoking a feeling in the viewer than in explaining everything that’s going on in a strictly linear fashion. Miles Ahead intercuts brief flashes of images that never hook into the story itself. Other movies I saw took place in alternate universes or under the ocean.

'Steve Jobs'

'Steve Jobs'

Most left ample space for wincing. But they were shooting for the stratosphere, and even if they landed closer to the top of the Empire State Building, what they tried entertains and intrigues me. Those movies spark conversations. They anger some people; others fall in love. But isn’t that what art does best? And shouldn’t our biggest public art form do that for us?

Article continues below

So finally: since we can’t review every film we want to here at CT, here are some brief notes on some of the movies I think you’ll want to know about, even if you don’t want to watch them. (As always, please check MPAA ratings and content advisories before watching a film to see if they’re a good fit for you and your family.) We also reviewed The Walk and Steve Jobs, both of which played at the festival, and reviews of Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, and Carol are forthcoming.

Les Cowboys (Thomas Bidegain)—This looks like it’s going to be a Western, at first, with hands pulling on cowboy boots and a bolo tie. But it quickly startles us, because it turns out those hands and boots belong to rural French people at a festival celebrating the culture of the American west. That’s unfamiliar enough to be unsettling, and the rest of the film keeps us on our toes, sprawling across decades and continents and exploring both religious extremism and intimate family love. The film is a contemporary take on The Searchers, ambitious and original.

'Les Cowboys'

'Les Cowboys'

The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin)—I can’t imagine most CT readers (or viewers generally) enjoying this movie, but it’s worth knowing about. Canadian director Guy Maddin has the most loosely-associative mind I’ve ever seen on screen, and in this film he pays homage to a host of old pulpy films. I barely figured out what was going on, but that’s kind of the point—each plot is nestled into another like a dream or a nightmare, and by the end you feel like you’re sinking in and out of layers. It’s patently weird, but definitely interesting.

Mia Madre (Nanni Moretti)—In this Italian film, a movie director is shuttling back and forth between shooting a film (which stars John Turturro as an American actor with a not-terribly-great grasp on Italian) and caring for her dying mother. It’s a movie about trying to deal with life in the midst of inescapable crisis, and it sat with me for a while after it was over.

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)—I’m surprised by how many people asked me about this film after I saw it, so let me be up front: most people will hate this movie, or just shouldn’t see it. It’s either a deeply funny but incredibly dark (and sometimes very wince-inducing) take on modern dating culture, or it’s just manipulative and exploitative. The film takes place in some kind of alternate reality where single people are forced to go stay in a hotel till they find a mate or until their time is up, whatever comes first, after which they will be turned into the animal of their choice. Obviously not everyone likes this plan. I really hated Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, and did not hate this, but the language and violence is startling at times and, as I said, it’s incredibly dark.

Article continues below
'The Forbidden Room'

'The Forbidden Room'

Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)—The first two acts of this film are so lovely that it’s okay that the last one sort of falls apart; the ambition is enough. Each segment takes place decades apart but concerns the same characters. It’s a film about the changing nature of a society—and in particular, Chinese society, as Western influences increase and the world becomes more globalized. It’s also about what we lose when generations disconnect from one another.

The Witness (James D. Solomon)—Though I don’t think it’s a spectacular documentary, I think it’s an important one. In this film, William Genovese tries to hunt down the truth about the death of his sister Kitty Genovese in 1964. That case is famous for the oft-repeated “fact” that 38 people listened to her as she was stabbed and cried out for help on the street, but nobody called the police. Well: it turns out that might not really be what happened. The descriptions of the crime can be disturbing, but the story the film tells is both riveting and revealing of how we think about truth and a good story.

Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle)—This isn’t a biopic, exactly; the film self-consciously skips over most of Miles Davis’s life, as he blows off the question from a would-be Rolling Stone profiler. What Cheadle crafted instead (he directed, co-wrote, and stars in the film) is a movie that’s hard to describe, a little bit of a dreamscape of two specific periods in Davis’s life, with wall-to-wall music, some caper-like scenes, a romance, and a lot of humor (and also drugs and profanity, given the subject). It’s all over the place sometimes, but it sure is interesting. In a Q&A after the film, Cheadle said that All That Jazz was an influence on the film, and that seems exactly right.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College. She tweets @alissamarie.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
Previous Watch This Way Columns: