Tantalizing uses of physical space and the built environment were integral to a wide range of the 44 films from around the world presented at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 54th New York Film Festival. From those that introduce or immerse you in their locales to those where architecture is at the heart of the story, there was a lot to see.

In the category of films with distinctive locates, check out:

  • Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is set in New York’s Chinatown.
  • Neruda follows the poet and politician’s exile in 1948 Chile.
  • I, Daniel Blake takes place in bleak, brutalist Newcastle, United Kingdom.
  • Moonlight is located in Liberty City, the poor, 95% black community in central Miami.
  • Karl Marx City is set Chemnitz (renamed Karl Marx City by East German from 1953 to 1990) and features Soviet-style factories, office buildings, and tower blocks.
  • Certain Women is mostly set in rural Livingston, Montana, a small, central casting Western town with only human-scale buildings and no chain stores.
  • The Human Surge, where viewers walk behind a character traversing Buenos Aires, Argentina through flooded streets and into houses, supermarkets, and tower blocks before flipping to Mozambique and then an ant colony.
  • A Quiet Passion, where poet Emily Dickinson is confined to her 18th century home in Amherst, Massachusetts.
  • 20th Century Women is centered in a 1906 Mission-style Santa Barbara house under constant renovation—the ceiling is taken down to its substructure, there’s talk about plaster and woodwork, sanding the balustrade, repairing the green tile fireplace.
  • The Settlers, which graphically shows, from a drones-eye-view, how the West Bank settlements are deeply—and permanently—entrenched in the infrastructure.
  • My Journey Through French Cinema, whose director and producer Bertrand Tavernier shows us clips of his favorites, including The Things of Life (Les Choses de la vie, directed by Claude Sautet) where Michel Piccoli plays a Paris-based architect.

Other films use architecture more centrally, almost as characters: Paterson, where a bus driver (Adam Driver) navigates his route and walks his dog through this manufacturing town (complete with waterfalls) that was the home of poet William Carlos Williams, artist Robert Smithson, and comedian Lou Costello, half of Abbott and Costello.

All the Cities of the North, an elegy to lost utopias, features abandoned government buildings laid out in star-shaped constellations. They were once a Yugoslav resort complex in Lagos, Nigeria that was transformed by residents for their own use. Then, there is a story about Brasilia, where a second, parallel city was built by the workers for their use during construction and unplanned by architects. When the Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa-designed city was completed, the workers’ city was destroyed by flooding the area to form a lake. The ruins are now under water.

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is an animated feature showing blueprints of Tides High School, perched on a bluff on the Pacific Ocean, with designated floors by year: freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. Permits were falsified—discovered by a journalism student while in detention—so an extension could be built on a fault line. An earthquake causes the sinking disaster as students try to climb to the top of the building to escape.

In the Death of Louis XIV, where we are claustrophobically held in the bedchamber of the dying Sun King during his last days, we feel like real-time witnesses. Louis says to his great-grandson and heir, the future Louis XV, “Don’t imitate me in … the love for the buildings … Instead, make peace with your neighbors.” The candlelit room is decked with gold brocade walls and red silk, and all who are present are festooned with gigantic wigs in elaborate coiffures, even the dying king. The film started as a performance commissioned by the Pompidou Centre.

And then there are those films where place is a primary element.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is an extraordinary film from the maker of Decasia that employs filmmaker Bill Morrison’s trademark use of decomposing archival footage. Here it is used to tell the story of this Gold Rush town in the Yukon, and how the history of early cinema is intimately intertwined with its fortunes.

We get to know the town—its business district burned down and was rebuilt each year for its first nine years, with the population swelling and shrinking along with the gold rush like a fever dream. Its hotels, dance halls, casinos, and restaurants, have names like the Palace Grand, Savoy, and the Auditorium. The personalities connected to Dawson City would make you think it was a vital nexus: Donald Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, ran hotels and brothels, and formed the foundation of the family fortune. Sid Grauman, who went on to own cinemas including Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, was a newsboy; Alex Pantages, a bartender, got the idea for his movie palace empire here. The Guggenheim fortune was made extracting minerals and brothers Daniel and Solomon started the Yukon Gold Company, which came to dominate the field here. The Dawson City of this era was represented in many films, including Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, 1925.



Dawson City was the end of the line for cinemas, and distributors were unwilling to pay return carriage for film prints after screening. Many reels were disposed like all garbage, i.e., dumped in the Yukon River, but others were buried and were unintentionally preserved in the permafrost. During excavation of a site for the construction of a new recreation center in 1978, 1,500 reels of silent-era nitrate footage were unearthed, and through a series of lucky breaks, their importance was recognized and transferred to Canada’s National Film, Television, and Sound Archives, in Ottawa where 522 reels totaling 500,000 feet were deemed salvageable. Morrison weaves together these factual stories using the fictional silent films for a remarkable portrait of a town.

In Aquarius, Clara (Sonia Braga) lives in a small 1940s apartment building directly across the street from the beach in Recife, Brazil. A former music critic, she is the only remaining resident, whereas everyone else has been bought out by a developer that intends to tear it down and build a high-rise. The one thing they will keep is the name, Aquarius. Clara is under intense pressure to move from her children, relatives of those who have sold but can’t yet collect, and from the new owners. Rather than tactics employed by New York City landlords like cutting off electricity or water, the developers throw a wild party, complete with porn-shoot orgy in the apartment directly above, leave feces on the staircase, hold a religious event with queues of people entering the site, and most dramatically, infest the empty apartments with termites who make dramatic patterns across the walls as they destroy the integrity of the building structure. At the Cannes Film Festival, Braga and writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho drew a parallel between the film and the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, which they say was a coup, demonstrating the rampant cronyism and corruption of then country.

There was one film shown that is directly about architecture. Jean Nouvel: Reflections, emphasizes the architect’s use of light and geometry, the bold and the delicate, nostalgia and interpretation. We are taken to the Institute du Monde Arabe, the Philharmonie de Paris, National Museum of Qatar, Muse du Quai Branly, Jane’s Carousel, 40 Mercer St., 53 W. 53 St., Louvre Abu Dhabi, Doha Tower, and the Cartier Foundation, each responding to locale. Nouvel talks about the game he plays between framing and height to allow discovery of the city beyond. The film is directed by Matt Tyrnauer, whose Citizen Jane: Battle Cry for the City on Jane Jacobs will open the DocNYC film festival next month.

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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James, director

Aquarius, Kleber Mendonça Filho, director

All the Cities of the North, Dane Komljen, director

Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt, director

Dawson City: Frozen Time, Bill Morrison, director

The Death of Louis XIV, Albert Serra, director

The Human Surge, Eduardo Williams, director

I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach, director

Jean Nouvel: Reflections Moonlight, Matt Tyrnauer, director

Karl Marx City, Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker, directors

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, Dash Shaw, director

My Journey Through French Cinema, Bertrand Tavernier, director

Neruda, Pablo Larraín, director

A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies, director

The Settlers, Shimon Dotan, director

20th Century Women, Mike Mills, director

For more on the festival, which ran September 16 to October 30, see their website.

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