It has happened. Manhattan has become the capital of movies for serious filmgoers. With the addition of the new Quad Cinema, bought and completely renovated by the Cohens (the real estate family with a love of film), the family has acquired the U.S. distribution rights to many festival films from around the world. Now there is a jewel-like venue in which to show them—four screens and a plush, full-service lounge and bar to chat and discuss films (oh boy)!
Epix is a new multiplex on the waterfront downtown. Metrograph is located on the border of Chinatown and the very Lower East Side. The latter, like the Quad, is a beautiful theater complete with a restaurant. Both venues take film very seriously. They join the IFC Center in the West Village with their multi-screens—a sort of multiplex for art and indie films from around the world. The Film Forum, with its three screens and delicious pastry counter, is the Grand Dame of Art Houses. Its programing features a wide range of genres, from festival films to restored masterpieces, to series that provide everything but a master’s degree in film studies. Uptown, there’s the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater (the best of all the theaters to sit, watch, and listen to a film), its two new spaces and an amphitheater for live discussion. There is also the MoMA, which is still trying to find its balance in programing since the departure of Sally Berger.
In addition to the multiplexes, you have the Rose Cinemas at BAM. Queens has the Museum of the Moving Image. Each venue has excellent programs and very smart curators. There is a world of choice if you yearn to leave your four walls and the small-screen streaming experience. I am hoping that with all of these theaters competing there will soon be a reduction in movie ticket prices.
I have one serious note on why you should actually see certain films in theaters, in the proper ratio. Movies made for theaters with large screens actually look better than screenings on an iPhone or a digital monitor, unless you have one of those $20,000 digital home screens that duplicate a theater. If you do, please invite me over.
Okay, it’s July and you are on Fire Island, in the Hamptons, in the New Jersey Pine Barrens or staked out in the Hudson (I am jealous of all of you). It’s hot and you just want to relax. There may not be any art houses near you but you’re jonesing for good storytelling and you feel like getting out. Suggestion: Turn on the fans and catch up on some of the quality work now streaming on cable. It is like we are living in a moment of reinvention—the golden age of television fifty years later. So, I suggest you binge watch the following: House of Cards (what seemed like fiction about politics in D.C. is today too close to reality (Showtime/Amazon Prime); the excellent The Night Of miniseries on HBO (this might be the high point of the season for me); The Young Pope (Amazon Prime/HBO now); and Homeland (HBO). Binge away because you can watch a whole season in one very long sitting if you are so inclined.
Let’s Go to the Movies…
En el Séptimo Día (On the Seventh Day)
Director: Jim McKay
The 2017 BAMcinemaFEST was full of U.S. independent films. Some were picked up from places like Sundance and many were just home grown in places like Brooklyn. I was thrilled to discover films and filmmakers I had never heard of until I went to BAMcinemaFEST. But I want to tell you about the most exciting film I saw. It was the work of a director returning to filmmaking.
Jim McKay became partners with REM’s Michael Stipe in a small film company called C100 about 20 years ago. He made films about young people growing up who rarely ever saw themselves on screen. McKay concentrated on first generation immigrant kids whose parents were very connected to their homeland while their children, born here, were immersed in American youth culture, as much as they could afford to be (e.g., immigrant teenage girls in high school who were in the marching band, kids who thought the American dream included them).
I remember McKay’s Girls Town and Our Song. Both films were authentic representations of young people’s lives in a way that universalized them. They portrayed the immigrant experience as a journey of becoming an American while trying to maintain allegiance to parents’ and grandparents’ origins. McKay was also involved in the emerging independent film community here and across the country. He was, people say, the heart and soul of The Independent—a film magazine for filmmakers who identified with the freedom of making film their way. But life caught up with McKay when he married and began a family. So he moved to Hollywood and for 13 years has been involved in the best of television productions, the kind that has turned cable streaming into a festival of quality.
McKay has now made his first film in 12 years, and it may be one of the best films of the year—En el Séptimo Día (On the Seventh Day). The bilingual subtitles are a very important part of the film because they are in both English and Spanish. (It is a little like listening to nearby conversations while riding the subway.)
It was the 2017 BAMcinemaFEST Centerpiece Film and it sold out almost immediately. (McKay made sure that everyone involved was present to take their premier bows.) The principal characters are young men, mostly undocumented, who make their way to Brooklyn and work as delivery boys in the restaurants of the City. I was immediately drawn in because when I walk my dog around 11:00 p.m. in the West Village, when the restaurants have closed (for the most part) and the workers are going home, I have see them on the sidewalk and have, not too successfully, tried to make friendly contact. I have tried to express solidarity and let them know that they are seen and cared for by people like me who live here. In the present anti-immigrant political climate, it has become more important to see these workers as real, dimensioned people and not just as statistics and bodies scurrying to get from one place to another.
McKay created that environment where we see the workers at rest in their safe, shared, usually crowded, living spaces. We also see how the bounds of friendship are so important in a strange and sometimes unwelcoming city. McKay is skilled at capturing them having fun on their days off, playing and competing in an immigrant soccer league. We begin to experience them as individuals without the heavy hand of the director high signing us.
Sunday is their day off. The film’s title is a reference to the biblical quote when God too has the day off from work. Set in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, McKay captures the feel of a neighborhood in the middle of gentrification by hipsters and digital start-up geeks. We see it best in the places the workers deliver food. What is remarkable in the storytelling is how McKay does not play the politically correct card but simply reveals human beings. Almost all the characters are played by amateur actors who work hard. The lead character plays hard in the soccer game and is the pivotal player needed as they advance to the finals. We learn through an intimate phone conversation that he is married, that his wife is five months pregnant, and that he wants to bring her to NYC for the birth of their baby. En el Séptimo Día is on my short list for best film of the year.
Here are some other films of merit:
City of Ghosts (Director: Matthew Heineman): In this film, we are in a city in Syria, which is under siege and just about destroyed by the fighters on both sides—the ISIS and the “Freedom Fighters.” Amazingly, a handful of anonymous activists who banded together after their homeland was taken over by ISIS in 2014 became citizen journalists as they faced the realities of life undercover, on the run, and in exile.
500 Years (Director: Pamela Yates): This was the one of the standout films in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Lincoln Center last month. This is the third and last segment of a three-part history of the struggle in Guatemala. I highly recommend it even if you have not seen the first two parts.
The Big Sick (Director: Michael Showalter): This is a comedy about the clash of cultures and how it affects the secularized grown-up orchid of middle class Indian parents in suburban America. Kumail Nanjiani plays the son caught in the middle who cannot tell his parents that he has fallen in love with a non-Indian woman played by Zoe Kazan (excellent). Throughout the film, his mother keeps arranging for him to meet with candidates she approved of to be his wife. It is hilarious, but never condescending nor cynical in the way it packages the clash of cultures.