New York Times Continues to Backpedal on 'Grimmest' NY Film Festival

A few months back, we noted an interesting discrepancy in the New York Times coverage of the last New York Film Festival.

While critics A.O. Scott and Stephen Holden were unusually harsh in their characterization of the festival as a whole -- the "grimmest in memory," "a high-minded form of self-punishment" -- the movies, by and large, were favorably reviewed in the paper upon opening. Only two, Lars von Trier's Antichrist and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, were really slammed; nine of the 11 others released were deemed worthy of a "New York Times Critics Pick."

Since then, another seven movies have opened theatrically and been reviewed by the Times.

Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers was assigned to and genially dismissed by free-lancer Jeannette Catsoulis as "a film that cries out for its maker to be bloodied, perhaps unfairly, by critics and audiences alike." The other six were reviewed by Messrs Holden and Scott. Stephen Holden wrote approvingly that Alain Resnais's Wild Grass was "enchanted by the ability of cinema to seduce and play mind games." A.O. Scott opined with equal enthusiasm on Jacques Rivette's Around a Small Mountain ("a minor gem... as transporting and graceful as a ride in a balloon"); he also found the documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno "tantalizing and frequently beautiful" if ultimately anti-climactic. Not too punishing at any rate. Although Life During Wartime, one of the NYFF's tougher movies, received a thoughtfully ambivalent Scott review ("it is all perfectly dreadful and at times appallingly funny"), its worthiness was confirmed by a "Critics Pick."

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Readers of this past Friday's Times found Stephen Holden comparing Manoel de Oliveira's "exquisite but peculiar" Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl to Shakespeare and A.O. Scott concluding his praise of Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, arguably the NYFF's panorama of pessimism's grimmest movie, by noting that "in its creative audacity, the precision of its psychological portraiture and, above all, in its uncompromising moral seriousness, Lebanon accomplishes about as much as any war movie can."

Twenty out of the 28 movies included in the 2009 NYFF have now been released. I'd say that 14 of these have received favorable reviews, with only two truly panned -- not a bad percentage by any standard, and comparable to my own feelings about the slate as a member of the festival's selection committee. Two more fest movies -- White Material, Claire Denis's fierce vehicle for Isabelle Huppert as a beleaguered European colonial in chaotic black Africa, and Hadewijch, Bruno Dumont's wacky meditation on faith and terrorism -- are scheduled to open this fall. We'll be watching to see how they're judged, though by then, there will be a whole new NYFF slate to kick around and, this time, as a former member of the selection committee, I won't take it personally.


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