New York Film Festival: The Hype and the Substance
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 Centers executive director, not even two years into her term) and protected by a canopy of three guaranteed board-, press-, and crowd-pleasersDavid Finchers opening Facebook film, The Social Network; Julie Taymors centerpiece film, The Tempest, with Helen Mirren and Russell Brand; and Clint Eastwoods closing-night supernatural flirtation, Hereafterthe NYFFs 48th edition (September 24October 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 festivals first opening-night world premiere since Robert Altmans Short Cuts in 1993. Still, the NYFFs mission, as well as its mix, remains more or less the same. The citys pre-eminent cinema event arrives each September, laden with the fruit of the past years international film festivals (mainly Cannes), with an emphasis on perennial auteurs: In addition to Eastwood, this years 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 (Okis 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 years Palme dOr winner, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). These regulars are accompanied by a quartet of returning sophomores: South Koreas Lee Chang-dong (Poetry), Chiles Pablo Larraín (Post Mortem), Romanias Cristi Puiu (Aurora), and our own Kelly Reichardt (Meeks 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 NYFFs 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 offer14 out of the 25 main slate films, plus one special eventand in so doing, made last Mays Croisette-crammer look pretty good. Only one film, Benjamin Heisenbergs 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 Yorkalthough by nixing Sofia Coppolas Somewhere, the NYFF snapped a two-year run of picking that fests 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 rejectedsome 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 Parkss 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 Wisemans 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 Dantes 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 toneMy Joy is mordantly humorous, Silent Souls mystically folkloricboth are road films treating the postSoviet Union as a primitive heart of darkness.
For me, the key NYFF stat (and the key to the festivals 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 Leighs fair-to-middling Another Year, Xavier Beauvoiss 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 Graus We Are What We Are.
Also with distributors: Michelangelo Frammartinos austere yet richly pantheist whatzit Le quattro volte, Oliveiras delightful masterpiece The Strange Case of Angelica, Weerasethakuls marvelously eccentric Uncle Boonmee, and Lee Chang-dongs 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, its 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 projectionor indeed, ever appear in New Yorkagain.
Tuesday, After Christmas
A further example of Romanian virtuosityimpossibly long takes, remarkably disciplined actingRadu Munteans 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 dentists office, no less), one member of the triangle still oblivious to the triangles existence. That event is topped by the subsequent 10-minute take, in which the husband drops the bomb on her. You wont see better performances in any film this festival. September 28 and October 1
The thorniest of entries (other than what might be in as-yet-unannounced Views From the Avant-Garde aside), Jean-Luc Godards enigmatic film essay is the NYFFs prime head-scratcher as well as its No. 1 must-show (and -see, for some). The first half is shockingly beautifula 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, Godards 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
Based on an actual 1845 incident, Kelly Reichardts latest road movie (just picked up by Oscilloscope) is a great leap into the void for this talented, quirky New York filmmakera 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
A murder mystery in which the killers identity is known but his motives are not, Cristi Puius Aurora is an experiment, as well as a test for admirers of the directors Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The premise is absurdist, although only occasionally humorous. The compositions are typically underlit or obstructed; the movies 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), theres but a single Sunday-evening showing. October 3
No one who appreciated Pablo Larraíns Tony Manero will be disappointed by its follow-up. Unforgettable as the blank-faced Saturday Night Feverobsessed serial killer in the earlier film, Alfredo Castro returns in Larraíns 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 nations socialist government. Post Mortem shares Tony Maneros 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 havent 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 NYFFs most rarefied treat. Another thats only showing once, on the festivals last day. October 10
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