New York Film Festival: The Hype and the Substance

This year's NYFF manages both. Plus: Our best of the fest

New York Film Festival: The Hype and the Substance

NYFF 2010 package: Fincher's "Social Network", Scorsese's mash note, Godard's long argument, Hoberman's picks, and fest first-timers

School bells ring and critics sing, it's back to Tully Hall again: The New York Film Festival opens Friday.

Under new management (Rose Kuo having replaced Mara Manus as the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s executive director, not even two years into her term) and protected by a canopy of three guaranteed board-, press-, and crowd-pleasers—David Fincher’s opening “Facebook film,” The Social Network; Julie Taymor’s centerpiece film, The Tempest, with Helen Mirren and Russell Brand; and Clint Eastwood’s closing-night supernatural flirtation, Hereafter—the NYFF’s 48th edition (September 24–October 10) is positioned for more media-friendliness than its immediate precursor. A soupçon of terror, a bit of freak-show exploitation, an instance of cannibalism, but no flaming breakdowns or anguished self-mutilation in the lineup, at least as far as I know.

Already the subject of a bazillion blog posts and a front-page New York Times article, The Social Network is the festival’s first opening-night world premiere since Robert Altman’s Short Cuts in 1993. Still, the NYFF’s mission, as well as its mix, remains more or less the same. The city’s pre-eminent cinema event arrives each September, laden with the fruit of the past year’s international film festivals (mainly Cannes), with an emphasis on perennial auteurs: In addition to Eastwood, this year’s crop includes Olivier Assayas (Carlos), Jean-Luc Godard (Film Socialisme), Mike Leigh (Another Year), Manoel de Oliveira (The Strange Case of Angelica), Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy), Hong Sang-soo (Oki’s Movie, but not the film he showed at Cannes, Ha Ha Ha), Raul Ruiz (back with Mysteries of Lisbon after a 12-year absence), and this year’s Palme d’Or winner, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). These regulars are accompanied by a quartet of returning sophomores: South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong (Poetry), Chile’s Pablo Larraín (Post Mortem), Romania’s Cristi Puiu (Aurora), and our own Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff), directors respectively of past Lincoln Center hits Secret Sunshine, Tony Manero, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Wendy and Lucy.

Based on what I saw at Cannes, the NYFF’s selection committee (festival director Richard Peña, Voice critic Melissa Anderson, Voice critic emeritus and current Film Society staffer Scott Foundas, onetime Voice film editor Dennis Lim, and former Variety critic Todd McCarthy) took the best that festival had to offer—14 out of the 25 “main slate” films, plus one “special event”—and in so doing, made last May’s Croisette-crammer look pretty good. Only one film, Benjamin Heisenberg’s thriller The Robber, was plucked from Berlin, nothing from Sundance, and another five main-slate features turned up at Venice after being chosen for New York—although by nixing Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, the NYFF snapped a two-year run of picking that fest’s Golden Lion winner in advance.

Coppola was not the lone NYFF veteran passed over this year. Erstwhile fest favorites Woody Allen, Darren Aronofsky, Catherine Breillat, José Luis Guerin, Lodge Kerrigan, Julian Schnabel, Abderrahmane Sissako, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Bernard Tavernier all had films that were either unavailable or rejected—some for good reason. On the other hand, in addition to Fincher and Taymor, a dozen or so directors will be making their NYFF debuts; the best-known is the French-Tunisian maker of The Secret of the Grain, Abdellatif Kechiche, whose Black Venus, drawing on the same historical material as Suzan-Lori Parks’s 1996 play Venus, namely the exploited freak-show attraction “Hottentot Venus,” has the strongest buzz of any movie in the NYFF to appear post-Cannes.

Most of the documentaries (including Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym and A Letter to Elia by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones) can be found in the catch-all special-events section, which also has sci-fi stalwart Joe Dante’s unreleased adventure in stereo-vision, The Hole 3D. And where there were four female filmmakers last year, this year there are two (plus two of the 10 directors in the Mexican omnibus film Revolución). Geographically, however, the main slate confirms current trends with six American movies (including two docs), six from Old Europe (France, Italy, Switzerland), plus a pair from Portugal, four from South America, three from East Asia, and two from the U.K. Romania is still going strong with two features in the main slate and another (the excellent found-footage assemblage, Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu) showing as a special event. Adding to the Eastern European presence are My Joy, a first feature by the Ukrainian documentarian Sergei Loznitsa, and Silent Souls by Russian filmmaker Alexander Fedorchenko. Although wholly different in tone—My Joy is mordantly humorous, Silent Souls mystically folkloric—both are road films treating the post–Soviet Union as a primitive heart of darkness.

For me, the key NYFF stat (and the key to the festival’s significance for local film culture) is the number of movies that arrive at Lincoln Center without distribution. Naturally, the three canopy flicks are all studio releases and, as of this writing, 10 of the main-slate films have been picked up. Sony Pictures Classics has tried-and-true Mike Leigh’s fair-to-middling Another Year, Xavier Beauvois’s well-made but underwhelming hostage drama Of Gods and Men, and Inside Job, the new financial meltdown documentary by Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight). The more exciting IFC slate includes two surprisingly fine must-sees, the globe-trotting terrorist epic Carlos and tricky Juliette Binoche vehicle Certified Copy, as well as the mildly outré Mexican art-horror flick, Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are.

Also with distributors: Michelangelo Frammartino’s austere yet richly pantheist whatzit Le quattro volte, Oliveira’s delightful masterpiece The Strange Case of Angelica, Weerasethakul’s marvelously eccentric Uncle Boonmee, and Lee Chang-dong’s well- (if over-)written Poetry. All four are estimable selections and, along with Carlos, opening in just a few weeks, and Certified Copy, highly recommended. Paradoxically, it’s the movies with distribution that tend to sell out first. Four of the following six fest picks are still looking for buyers with no guarantee that, once unspooled at Lincoln Center, they will ever receive so fine a projection—or indeed, ever appear in New York—again.

Tuesday, After Christmas
A further example of Romanian virtuosity—impossibly long takes, remarkably disciplined acting—Radu Muntean’s domestic melodrama, just acquired by Kino, has the tension of a thriller. Tuesday, After Christmas is a succession of scenes in which, almost always living a lie, the unfaithful hero alternately interacts with his wife and mistress at length. The turning point brings all three together (in a dentist’s office, no less), one member of the triangle still oblivious to the triangle’s existence. That event is topped by the subsequent 10-minute take, in which the husband drops the bomb on her. You won’t see better performances in any film this festival. September 28 and October 1

Film Socialisme
The thorniest of entries (other than what might be in as-yet-unannounced “Views From the Avant-Garde” aside), Jean-Luc Godard’s enigmatic film essay is the NYFF’s prime head-scratcher as well as its No. 1 must-show (and -see, for some). The first half is shockingly beautiful—a dense, highly fragmented analysis of recent European history as allegorized by a Mediterranean cruise ship. The second is a bit rocky. The footage (which may or may not have been shot by the 79-year-old Godard) integrates all manner of video, digital, and online material; the dialogue mixes French with Russian, Arabic, and German. Interpolated titles are a form of concrete poetry offering little clarity to non-Francophones. Still, the first screening promises some instant illumination, or at least intellectual vaudeville: Once the lights come up, Godard’s biographer Richard Brody, former Cahiers du cinéma editor Jean-Michel Frodon, and cinema studies doyenne Annette Michelson will be on hand to puzzle it out. September 29 and October 8

Meek’s Cutoff
Based on an actual 1845 incident, Kelly Reichardt’s latest road movie (just picked up by Oscilloscope) is a great leap into the void for this talented, quirky New York filmmaker—a minimalist Western with intimations of frontier surrealism and manifest destiny madness. The members of an Oregon-bound wagon train (including a severely bonneted Michelle Williams) are misled into the desert by their bombastic, wrong-headed guide (Bruce Greenwood). The movie has a spacey, tranced-out quality, but the political implications, regarding trust given and abused, are unmistakable. October 8 and 9

Aurora
A murder mystery in which the killer’s identity is known but his motives are not, Cristi Puiu’s Aurora is an experiment, as well as a test for admirers of the director’s Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The premise is absurdist, although only occasionally humorous. The compositions are typically underlit or obstructed; the movie’s characteristic shot has the action glimpsed through a half-open door. That Puiu stays resolutely outside his protagonist is all the more fascinating since he plays the role himself. Although one would have to watch this three-hour movie twice, if one were going to understand it (or not), there’s but a single Sunday-evening showing. October 3

Post Mortem
No one who appreciated Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero will be disappointed by its follow-up. Unforgettable as the blank-faced Saturday Night Fever–obsessed serial killer in the earlier film, Alfredo Castro returns in Larraín’s more overtly political and even more disturbing Post Mortem, playing a blank-faced, purposefully enigmatic Chilean morgue employee obsessed with the nightclub dancer who lives next door even as a coup unfolds against the nation’s socialist government. Post Mortem shares Tony Manero’s shabby atmospherics and viscerally awkward mise-en-scène; it builds in intensity as Chile moves toward martial law and the protagonist is drafted to help perform the autopsy on deposed president Salvador Allende. October 4 and 5

Mysteries of Lisbon
I haven’t actually seen this, but I plan to. If Raul Ruiz, master of the artfully convoluted narrative, is on track, this four-hour-plus trip through the house of fiction, adapted from a 19th-century classic of Portuguese literature, could be the NYFF’s most rarefied treat. Another that’s only showing once, on the festival’s last day. October 10

jhoberman@villagevoice.com

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