“All things are possible in cinema,” Agnès Varda said back in 1966. This was at the New York Film Festival, during a conversation about form and content with Pier Paolo Pasolini and other cine luminaries. Over the decades — even as directors like Ms. Varda traded in their film cameras for digital ones and moviegoers turned into homebody binge-watchers — she and many of the world’s other greats continued to present work at this festival. Now, the New York Film Festival is 55, Ms. Varda is 89 and she’s back with “Faces Places,” a movie that — like this event — retains a near-holy belief in cinema as art.
For many, the New York Film Festival remains synonymous with the main slate, the two dozen or so titles programmed by its committee, now led by the festival’s director, Kent Jones. These movies attract most of the attention, partly because of their stars and auteurs. This year, you can watch Kate Winslet in 1950s costume in “Wonder Wheel,” the latest from Woody Allen and the closing night selection; on another day, you can be moved to tears by Mary J. Blige in “Mudbound,” a 1940s drama from Dee Rees (known for “Pariah”). Noah Baumbach is back at the festival with “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”; and Richard Linklater gets the party started with “Last Flag Flying.”
Like other such events, though, the New York festival shows enough work that it contains multitudes. This year includes 99 features and 69 shorts, fiction and nonfiction, from around the world, which gives movie lovers the chance to roam widely, to affirm their taste and sometimes to have it challenged. At its simplest, the festival is a celebration of movies and an 18-day advertisement for its owner, the Film Society of Lincoln Center. As always, it is also a continuing exercise in canon formation. So it’s notable that the 2017 edition includes a substantial number of female directors — a third of the main slate — which can be read as a political statement, but is fundamentally an acknowledgment of excellent work.
Since I saw “Faces Places” at its premiere at Cannes in May, Ms. Varda’s latest documentary has cemented itself on my running list of the year’s best titles. Made with the French artist known as JR, the movie is a delightful, tenderly heart-pricking meander through art, life, history, memory and the countryside. As is often the case with Ms. Varda’s movies, this one folds in assorted detours, including a stopover in a Swiss village that poignantly brings her face to face with some of the ghosts that haunt her. Like most of the selections in the main slate, this one will receive an American release. But at the festival you can also see the directors in person; like many featured participants, Ms. Varda and JR will be at their screenings. (The movie opens in New York on Oct. 6.)
“Spoor,” one of the best titles in the festival, doesn’t yet have a domestic distributor so try to grab a ticket. Directed by the veteran Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (“Europa Europa”) and her daughter, Kasia Adamik, “Spoor” opens on a dark fairy-tale note with a series of spookily beautiful, mist-wreathed landscapes. It soon settles in on Janina (a fantastic Agnieszka Mandat), a retired engineer who lives in the countryside in near-isolation with the two dogs she considers her surrogate children. When they go missing, she sets off on a weird, occasionally funny and increasingly violent journey into assorted hearts of darkness — hers and others’ — that is as emotionally powerful as it is political.
Like “Spoor,” Valeska Grisebach’s “Western” doesn’t lead with its politics, but sneaks them into a deceptively modest tale. The setting here is a construction site in rural Bulgaria where German workers, all male, are building a hydroelectric plant. It isn’t long before the bored, isolated workers are behaving badly — they harass female swimmers, hoist the German flag — pushing against locals who push back. One German (Meinhard Neumann, a long drink of water), however, increasingly stands apart in a story that can feel as familiar as a John Ford movie, if one attuned to dislocation and discontent in contemporary Europe. Ms. Grisebach has a feel for mood, place and real, lived-in faces.