States of Grace

Focused more on the small and bracing than the grandiose and oppressive, the 40th edition of the New York Film Festival is a satisfying mix—balanced between the topical and the transcendent, exotic French co-productions and star-driven Hollywood oddballs, Aleksandr Sokurov and Adam Sandler. The year's supreme masterpiece may turn out to be F.W. Murnau's 1926 Faust, but the lineup includes two terrific Chinese movies (Unknown Pleasures and Springtime in a Small Town), as well as a vintage King Hu actioner (Come Drink With Me).

More than any other festival, the NYFF bestows a certain sense of grace. There's no competition and the available slots are limited. To be chosen is a statement. Michael Moore's tantrums notwithstanding, the scandalous omission is not Bowling for Columbine but David Cronenberg's masterful Spider. (For reasons best known to its distributor, Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven was not submitted.) Those companies who used the ahistorical festival exposé in the Observer last month to question the NYFF's relevance might have been more credible had their entries not been rejected. Only slightly more than half the features have distribution—perhaps the malcontents will stand up for those new films by Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, and Manoel de Oliveira that remain, so to speak, in play. —J. Hoberman


About Schmidt
Opening night shows Cornhusker bard Alexander Payne, writer-director of Citizen Ruth and Election, continuing to work Sinclair Lewis territory with this bleak comedy about an unhappily retired Omaha insurance executive. On track for another Oscar, Jack Nicholson delivers his least sarcastic, most controlled performance since he had his head clamped to play Jimmy Hoffa. As the star refuses to ingratiate himself, so the movie resists sentimentality—although the anti-hero's clueless stream of consciousness infuses an uninviting terrain of malls, trailer parks, and historical monuments with hilarious pathos. New Line plans a December opening. September 27. (JH)

The Son
The latest by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is inferior to their estimable Rosetta(NYFF '99) if only because the brothers' stampeding style offers no revelation of their stolid protag's character. (Playing a bereaved carpenter, Dardenne axiom Olivier Gourmet bested Nicholson at Cannes.) Like the movie's camera, its story sneaks up on you. For all its quasi-documentary materialism, The Son is a Christian allegory of one man's desire to return good for evil—it requires a measure of faith on the part of the viewer. A New Yorker release. September 28 and 29. (JH)

Russian Ark
Aleksandr Sokurov dreams of rewinding history and beginning again. For 96 minutes, the uncompromising virtuoso follows a group of dead souls across several centuries through the world's largest museum, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Their fantastic voyage—the longest continuous shot in movie history—has to be seen to be believed. Russian Ark's mind-boggling choreography is matched by its philosophical grace notes. It's a heady and glorious experience. Wellspring opens it next month. September 28. (JH)

Chihwaeson
More spectacle than drama, this portrait of a 19th-century Korean painter's chaotic life has the old-timey feel of a 1960s wide-screen Japanese period epic. Im Kwon-Taek, the director of Chunhyang (NYFF '00) and about 90 other movies, treats his volatile artist as a force of nature, and the movie too has a certain mad energy, sometimes disintegrating into a barrage of shots and vignettes. No distributor. September 28, 30. (JH)

The Magdalene Sisters
Already Vatican-censured, Peter Mullan's devastating howl of outrage ventures behind the bolted doors of the Magdalene laundries, virtual slave camps that the Irish Catholic Church administered until recently for "fallen women." Geraldine McEwan's chillingly irrational villainess does for nuns what Louise Fletcher once did for nurses, and standout newcomer Nora-Jane Noone, all pert retorts and death glares, more than holds her own as the accused temptress whose resolve is only steeled by persecution. Miramax, never afraid of a juicy Catholic scandal, pounced after the film won the Golden Lion at Venice. September 28, 29. (Dennis Lim)

Ten
Abbas Kiarostami addresses Iran's "woman question" in this digitally shot, structuralist countdown—a series of conversations between a car-driving divorcée and her various passengers. The movie is conceptually rigorous, splendidly economical, and radically Bazinian. Unfortunately the first sequence—a prolonged argument between the motorist and her son, 10 years old and already a fully formed little man—is so powerful the rest of the movie feels like an afterthought. Like Russian Ark, Ten could only have been produced with digital video. No distributor. September 29, October 1. (JH)

Unknown Pleasures
Jia Zhangke, director of the extraordinary Platform (NYFF '00), continues to elevate Chinese cinema to a new level. Two unemployed boys vegetate in an ugly provincial city, one of them pursuing a pretty dancer with a Pulp Fictionwig. Everything is crowded, shabby, and despoiled; everyone is mercenary or depressed. Jia's formalist social realism—shot this time with digital video—frames characters in their environment and observes them in real time. A triumphant blend of documentary and drama, Unknown Pleasuresis sensational filmmaking that sets its own pace and agenda. A New Yorker release. September 29, 30. (JH)

The Uncertainty Principle
NYFF perennial Manoel de Oliveira amuses himself with a radical blend of 17th-century compositions, 18th-century narrative conventions, 19th-century stagecraft, and 20th-century ambiguities—sublimely confident that, as a 93-year-old citizen of the 21st century, he can do whatever he pleases. Elliptical but brisk, the lurid, loquaciously explicated plot involves infidelity, prostitution, child abuse, stolen identities, smuggling, and arson (except for the latter, all offscreen). No distributor. October 1. (JH)

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