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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


Go Midwest: Nicholson in About Schmidt.
photo: New Line Cinema
Go Midwest: Nicholson in About Schmidt.

Details

40TH New York Film Festival
Lincoln Center
September 27 through October 13

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 Fiction wig. 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 Pleasures is 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)

Bloody Sunday
British soldiers open fire on unarmed demonstrators on January 30, 1972, in Derry, Northern Ireland, and you are there in this dramatic re-enactment of the unfolding catastrophe. Paul Greengrass's jagged montage—a hectic welter of jump cuts, blackouts, and overlapping everything—is a triumph of verité stylization so potent it recalls The Battle of Algiers and even Battleship Potemkin. Paramount Classics opens it next week. October 2, 3. (JH)

The Man Without a Past
The great critical favorite this year at Cannes, Aki Kaurismäki's underdog romance is lyrical, engaging, and relatively light. After Juha (NYFF '99), the last silent movie of the 20th century, Kaurismäki celebrates the Helsinki down and out. "Always ready for compromises," he explained at Cannes, he made a film "which has loads of dialogues . . . not to mention other commercial values." The movie also has passages as tense and spare as any 1950s programmer, but its One Big Union solidarity gets cheapened by an overutilized dog and overly righteous rock band. A Sony Pictures Classics release. October 2, 3. (JH)

My Mother's Smile
Returning to Lincoln Center some 30-odd years after his brooding political satire China Is Near, Marco Bellocchio uncorks a yarn about a secular artist's discovery that his mother is being considered for canonization. (That this beatification is continually presented as an economic bonanza no doubt contributed to the movie's condemnation by the Italian church.) My Mother's Smile opens like a Catholic Kafka story but, increasingly baroque and implausibly posh, deteriorates to the level of a papal thriller. No distributor. October 4, 6. (JH)

Auto Focus
Paul Schrader proposes Bob Crane, the blandly tormented star of the '60s sitcom Hogan's Heroes, for the full Raging Bull treatment. There's plenty of bull but not much rage, although Greg Kinnear embodies Crane with a glibness as tough as tempered steel. Schrader has some fun with hyper-real reconstructions and clearly enjoys the part that compulsive videography played in Crane's joyless swinging. Auto Focus is being spun as a comedy, but it's way too punitive—a sexaholic Lost Weekend set on the celebrity Bowery. Sony Pictures Classics opens it next month. October 4, 5. (JH)

Springtime in a Small Town
In his first feature since The Blue Kite (NYFF '93), Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang confidently remakes a 1948 Chinese classic to marvelous effect. A movie of indefinable moods and subtle emotional coloration, Springtime skews the Chekhovian triangle that develops between a sickly young landowner, his demurely provocative wife, and their childhood friend—an incongruously cheerful doctor who, having fought successfully with the Communists, lands in the couple's doleful midst. The unfulfilled longings evoke a double nostalgia. It's a must-see; there's no distributor. October 5, 6. (JH)

Punch-Drunk Love
Paul Thomas Anderson brought porn (and Burt Reynolds) to Lincoln Center with Boogie Nights (NYFF '97); introducing Adam Sandler (and phone sex) may be an even greater desecration. Placing Sandler between quotation marks is actually a less avant-garde modification of the star's persona than Little Nicky. For much of the movie, in which Sandler plays a Happy Gilmore-type nebbish prone to violent impulses, Anderson demonstrates as uncluttered a visual style as Albert Brooks's. But hampered by a weak script and a absence of chemistry between Sandler and Emily Watson, this elegant vehicle ultimately pulls up lame. Columbia opens it next month. October 5. (JH)

Turning Gate
Wistful and dryly funny, Hong Sang-Soo's mellifluous rondo of indecision and regret finds the South Korean director's customary anomie softening into bittersweet heartache. The callow yet empathetic protagonist, a romantically maladroit out-of-work actor, embarks on successive relationships with two self-possessed women, all the while obliquely plagued by the ancient legend of the Turning Gate—a tale of karmic irony, squandered second chances, and unforeseen abandonment. No distributor. October 6, 9. (DL)

Waiting for Happiness
Abderrahmane Sissako records the comings and goings in a sleepy Mauritanian port of transit with a sure eye and a rueful appreciation for human incongruity. As welcome as a cool breeze on a summer afternoon, this is a movie of understated, refreshing purity. Given the polyglot cast and the unforced, languid beauty of its elemental landscape, Sisako could have justifiably recycled the title of his earlier Life on Earth (NYFF '98). A New Yorker release. October 7, 9. (JH)

Divine Intervention
At once devastating and self-devouring, Elia Suleiman's sardonic psychodrama evokes his own situation as an Israeli Arab in a series of absurd, deadpan, and fantastic vignettes that allow him to wreak imaginative vengeance on Israeli tanks, cops, and border guards. The episodic structure may be familiar from the filmmaker's earlier Chronicle of a Disappearance, but the mood has darkened and Suleiman's riffs go even further in articulating his helpless rage. An Avatar release. October 7,8. (JH)

Safe Conduct
Set in Nazi-occupied France, Bertrand Tavernier's 18th non-documentary feature condenses the Boulogne-based, German-controlled Continental Films studio into a bustling microcosm of cold-eyed pragmatism, full-on resistance, and quite literal collaboration—icy streams that often flowed together. Tavernier barrels through Continental's daily intrigues with his characteristic antic rhythms, prowling camera, and historical acumen; resolutely unresolved in terms of both its narrative shape and moral assignations, the nearly three-hour film maintains a mode of almost improvisatory curiosity at turns infectious and exhausting. Empire will open it October 11. October 8, 10. (Jessica Winter)

Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary
Intelligent, self-aware, and mortified for life, Traudl Junge did a half-century of silent penance for her youthful experience typing memos and taking dictation from the führer. As she approached 80, the dam broke to release a torrent of banal, urgent, precise memories. More than Nazi human interest, Blind Spot is an amazing scoop—Junge died the night her testament premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. A Sony Pictures Classics release. October 10. (JH)

Friday Night
Clarie Denis's blissful waking dream wholeheartedly embraces its fantasy clichés: Stuck in a Paris traffic jam, two strangers in the night get in the mood for love. (Valérie Lemercier is the woman on the verge of cohabitation, Vincent Lindon the roguish enigma she picks up.) The movie is, above all, a sustained swoon of magnified gesture and microscopic detail, kept aloft by Dickon Hinchliffe's expectant score and the tactile caresses of Agnès Godard's camera—alive with possibility whether trained on overheating engines, wet asphalt, or the alien landscape of a naked body glimpsed for the first time. No distributor. October 11, 12. (DL)

To Be and to Have
Adhering closely but not religiously to the Wiseman verité codes for a portrait of a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, Nicolas Philibert's documentary radiates the tranquil watchfulness of an attentive pupil. As the lone, quietly heroic teacher mediates quarrels, demystifies addition, and moderates a penmanship critics' panel staffed by five-year-olds (renderings of "Maman" draw notices ranging from "It's a little bit good" to "It's lots of good"), Philibert's improbably riveting chronicle of becoming takes on an ethereal glow. A New Yorker release. October 12. (JW)

Talk to Her
Pedro Almodóvar, who opened the '99 NYFF with All About My Mother, closes this year's edition with another mature exploration of life and death and the whole damned thing. The suave promise of the first half—featuring Rosario Flores's superbly fetishized female matador—palls, despite the bad-boy insert of a memorable silent movie version of The Incredible Shrinking Man. Almodóvar's new seriousness is all too obviously telegraphed by the ponderous Pina Bausch pieces that frame the movie. Sony Pictures Classics plans a November opening. October 13. (JH)


SHORT FILMS: This year's curtain-raisers hail from 10 countries, and a couple of national traumas loom large. Alexis Mital Toledo's moody, dispassionate Tango de Olvido follows the son of an Argentine refugee on a quasi-noir pilgrimage to the land he never knew, where inconvenient knowledge hemorrhages into deadly denial. (It screens with Friday Night but might well have been called The Man Without a Past.) Spike Lee's rat-a-tat montage We Wuz Robbed (part of the Ten Minutes Older series, aired last summer on Showtime, and paired here with Divine Intervention) revisits (S)election 2000 via testimony from Gore aides and campaign workers; perhaps surprisingly, there's more bitter nostalgia than outright indignation. Equally steeped in salesmanship and public relations, Julian M. Kheel's Exceed (with Unknown Pleasures) drolly tracks the evolution of a TV commercial, from chaotic beach set to media-studies seminar and beyond.

The most eloquent shorts tend to be wordless. Jonathan Romney's wry, economical A Social Call (with The Magdalene Sisters) fashions an absurdist loop from a day in the life of a hit man. Esther Rots's Play With Me (with Talk to Her) infuses a lazy downstream drift with literal and metaphoric undercurrents of menace. Having previously envisioned waterlogged domesticity in The Drowning Room, Patrick Jolley and Reynold Reynolds turn firestarters in the mesmerizing Burn (with Bloody Sunday): A family of pyromaniacs sits around absently swatting flames, peacefully engulfed in an eerie inferno. And in Lifeline (with My Mother's Smile), shot in sublime black-and-white, Victor Erice scrutinizes the siesta rhythms on a Spanish farm. It's June 1940, Nazi troops have just crossed the border from France, and as a bloodstain widens on a baby's blanket, time slows down, stands still, resumes its oblivious march. (DL)


Unavailable for preview: Monday Morning and Love and Diane.

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