This year’s New York Film Festival opens with Look at Me, and that title might well be the festival’s proud motto. The 42nd edition is one put-together head-turner, with no shortage of sex, violence, or weirdness. A restored version of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One jostles for attention with fellow auteur Ingmar Bergman’s octogenarian comeback. The lineup features the strongest movies in years from Ousmane Sembene, 81, and Pedro Almodóvar, as well as first-rate movies by comers Arnaud Desplechin and Lucrecia Martel. There’s a Middle Eastern cluster and a quartet of hotshot American indies, but the festival’s foundation rests on three outstanding and altogether disparate Chinese movies—Hou Hsiao-hsien visits Japan, Jia Zhangke explores a Beijing theme park, and Zhang Yimou outperforms Hero. Unclassifiable experiments include Tropical Malady, Tarnation, Godard’s Notre Musique, and perhaps Eric Rohmer’s Popular Front-era political thriller, Triple Agent. J. HOBERMAN
LOOK AT ME
Agnès Jaoui improves on her 2000 debut, The Taste of Others, orchestrating an abrasive, bittersweet ensemble comedy in an arty haute-bourgeois Parisian milieu. More amusing than funny, the movie, which won best screenplay at Cannes, is talky, but the tone is more pop than Rohmer, lighter than Arcand, and less narcissistic than Woody Allen—although Jaoui shows herself an accomplished comedienne, playing the unloved heroine’s supremely self-absorbed music teacher. There’s a niche, and Sony Classics has it scheduled for a February opening. J.H.
THE BIG RED ONE
Sam Fuller waited most of his life to tell his World War II yarn in which Lee Marvin’s stoic god of war leads a platoon of callow recruits through a series of grotesque (or grotesquely corny) adventures. Now 50 minutes longer and somewhat smoother than its 1980 release cut, the movie is based on Fuller’s infantry experiences. At once highly personal and wildly allegorical, it’s all the more horrific for the often obvious make-believe. An influence on (and reproach to) Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One tempers sentiment with cynicism. Fuller’s stand-in concludes that surviving is war’s only glory. A Warner Bros. release, at Film Forum November 12. J.H.
Thailand’s international man of mystery Apichatpong Weerasethakul has garnered a growing cult for his jungle pastorale Blissfully Yours. The enchanted forest is even more pronounced in Tropical Malady. This less explicit but equally eccentric love story involves a soldier boy, a peasant lad, and a variety of spirits, both human and animal. It’s unlikely to make Weerasethakul a household name, but it confirms his status as a giant of fourth-world cinema. A Strand release, 2005. J.H.
October 2 and 3
Earnest oddball regionalist David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls) goes gothic. Set in backwoods Georgia, Undertow starts like Smokey and the Bandit but soon turns Night of the Hunter. The hillbilly kooks, flopsy-mopsy kids, and odd line readings can be tough on the nerves, but however precious, Green’s fairy tale is surprisingly visceral—at times almost thrilling. UA plans an October 22 release. J.H.
October 3 and 4
Too touchy-feely for some hardcore Godardians, this is scarcely the least of JLG’s elegies—for 20th-century Europe, the cinema, and himself. The adventure begins in hell with a sensationally edited found-footage montage, proceeds through the purgatory of a writers’ conference in Sarajevo, and ends in the U.S. Marine–occupied heaven of an Israeli Jewish suicide bomber. Has Godard become reconciled? That is the question that underlies this serene and moving meditation on Europe’s landscape after battle. Wellspring will open it at Film Forum November 24. J.H.
IN THE BATTLEFIELDS
October 3 and 4
In this Lebanese drama of culture-specific irony, set during the civil strife of 1983, a 12-year-old girl (Marianne Feghali) has more difficulty dealing with her self-cannibalizing, extended Christian-Arab family—writer-director Danielle Arbid’s take on the clan borders on So-Goth—than with the daily bombings. Virtually apolitical, the movie paints a compelling if somewhat customary portrait of childhood bled dry by a self-concerning and inept adult world. No distributor. MICHAEL ATKINSON
OR (MY TREASURE)
October 5 and 6
An ungainly 16-year-old Israeli girl (Dana Ivgi) works like a dray horse to keep her wretchedly egoless prostitute mother (Ronit Elkabetz) off the streets in this riveting, naturalistic urban nightmare. Keren Yedaya constructs her movie from long, motionless shots, some hold-your-breath traumatizing, many possessed of an almost unbearable intimacy. The scalding critique of masculine privilege is unarticulated but crystal clear, and Ivgy’s undemonstrative yet robustly physical performance is a sight to behold. No distributor. M.A.
The word dysfunctional does not do Jonathan Caouette’s family justice. This precocious memoir—a mad, shock therapy assemblage of Super-8 home movies, photo booth portraits, and answering machine messages—is a tale of sadness and hysteria so raw that it bleeds. Wellspring, at Film Forum next week. J.H.
KINGS AND QUEEN
October 6 and 7
Unlike Jonathan Caouette, Arnaud Desplechin plays mental illness for comedy—or rather, excessive theatricality. The maker of film maudit Esther Kahn has created a movie of large gestures and outsize performances. As a single mother lumbered with her weathered stick of a dying father, Emmanuelle Devos (the deaf heroine of Read My Lips) gets to express every emotion; her all-out performance does everything but upstage Mathieu Amalric’s manic turn as her lunatic ex-husband. Although this extravagant family melodrama runs two and a half hours, it’s moment-to-moment enthralling. No distributor. J.H.
WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN
October 8 and 9
Like his 2002 Turning Gate, avant-pop Korean director Hong Sang-Soo’s latest film is a deadpan erotic comedy both blunt and elliptical. The movie feels like a retread, but that’s its theme: A pair of thirtysomething urban intellectuals go off in search of the woman that each loved and lost. Hong is good on postcoital tristesse and caustic in representing male stupidity. No distributor. J.H.
October 8 and 9
Set in post-World War II London, Mike Leigh’s social drama packs a devastating wallop—this is a tea cozy designed by Sue Coe. The personification of working-class solidarity, Imelda Staunton is all pluck and bustle as a middle-aged mum who cleans houses by day and cheerfully performs the odd abortion after hours. Building up to a shattering conclusion, Vera Drake is both outrageously schematic and powerfully humanist. Fine Line, opens October 10. J.H.
THE 10TH DISTRICT COURT: JUDICIAL HEARINGS
Photographer-filmmaker Raymond Depardon turns his lens on the theater of the law. More ethnographic than voyeuristic, his static camera extracts a series of fragmentary dramas from a Paris courtroom presided over by a briskly efficient female judge. It’s an austere pageant in which the defense attorneys are surprisingly chic and the defendants always appear guilty. No distributor. J.H.
October 9 and 10
Pedro Almodóvar’s strongest film in two decades is a noirish, deftly convoluted, boldly anti-clerical melodrama that harks back to the sexual and narrative pyrotechnics of Matador and Law of Desire. Gender blur Jackie Curtis would have fit snugly into this universe; the cross-dressing star is Gael García Bernal, as a ravishing femme fatale hired to play out his filmmaker friend’s childhood trauma. Sony Classics, opens November 19. J.H.
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
October 9 and 10
Unencumbered by narrative or nationalist politics, Zhang Yimou’s follow-up to Hero is abstract and magical, an action dance musical predicated on acrobatic impossibilities and continual reversals of identity. With his intimations of grand opera, Zhang seems to have added something to the wuxia tradition. So jaw-dropping it’s almost monotonous. Sony Classics opens it December 3. J.H.
THE HOLY GIRL
October 10 and 11
Working against the grain of her potentially lurid story, talented Argentine director Lucrecia Martel uses an accumulation of small scenes, moments, and interactions to map the religious obsession that a wonderfully sullen 14-year-old girl develops when a middle-aged doctor takes advantage of a street performance to rub himself against her. As with Martel’s La Ciénaga, the narrative is deduced through a densely textured welter of details, complicated family relations, and convoluted connections that are only gradually resolved. The active viewer will be splendidly entertained. HBO/Fine Line, early 2005. J.H.
October 11 and 12
Pablo Trapero’s bittersweet road movie piles a willful matriarch and her sprawling Buenos Aires clan into a battered motor home for a cross-country trip; in no time, the engine is overheating, along with long-suppressed tempers and libidos. Frothier than Trapero’s taciturn character portraits (Crane World, El Bonaerense), this brisk, hectic film humorously captures the claustrophobic chaos of intense familial proximity—in particular the irreparable rifts and resigned reconciliations it can provoke. No distributor. DENNIS LIM
October 11 and 12
After three underground productions, Jia Zhangke goes global. The latest dispatch from the world’s greatest filmmaker under 40 revisits the themes of Unknown Pleasures and Platform: a hesitant romance, the growing pains of modernization, the urge for flight in a culture of inertia. Jia’s rootless young adults are finally in the big city—and in a dizzying Baudrillardian irony, employed at a Beijing theme park that, with its replicas of global tourist attractions, promises “a new world every day.” From the sensational opening tracking shot to the flurry of animated punctuation, Jia’s first government-sanctioned film is his most flamboyant yet—and also his most conventional. Still, no distributor. D.L.
October 13 and 14
Up for wildly picturesque, blatantly feel-good agitprop on the subject of female circumcision? Drawing on the expressive gregariousness of a West African village, Senegalese master Ousmane Sembene makes his point through a “naturally” Brechtian combination of declamatory speech, intermittent musical numbers, and socially constructed characters—as an old-fashioned Marxist, however, his apparent folk cinema is scarcely naive. New Yorker will release it October 15. J.H.
October 13 and 14
Lodge Kerrigan revisits the almost first-person style of Clean, Shaven in his third and strongest feature to date. Introduced stalking Port Authority in search of the daughter he recently lost, the title character (viscerally embodied by Damian Lewis) replays the traumatic event obsessively, as if hoping to change its outcome. Deploying agitated handheld close-ups that force the viewer into the personal space of a troubled protagonist, Keane builds to a stunning climax, seizing a grace note of provisional redemption from a state of inconsolable grief. No distributor. D.L.
October 15 and 16
He’s back. Thirty years later, Ingmar Bergman reunites the long-sundered couple—Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson—of Scenes From a Marriage as active kibitzers in another lacerating family drama. This, so the 86-year-old Bergman says, is his final film. Once it engages, this ultimate Ingmar is a story about (im)mortality—in both expected and highly unexpected ways. Score another for Sony Classics. Opening 2005. J.H.
October 15 and 16
Courageous moralist or the indie maestro of mean? In burlesquing the travails of a pregnant teenage refugee from deepest New Jersey, Todd Solondz has constructed a tale designed to affront smug liberals and fanatical right-to-lifers alike. This equal-opportunity offensiveness is tied to a would-be universalizing metaphor in which the heroine is played by a half-dozen actresses. It doesn’t work, but who’s to say that Solondz’s discomforting take on abortion didn’t vouchsafe Vera Drake‘s Venice triumph. Distributors are circling. J.H.
THE GATE OF THE SUN
A Leon Uris–y Mideast jeremiad, this four-and-a-half-hour generational epic by Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah seems familiar to U.S. eyes in almost every sense except one: History unfolds from the p.o.v. of Palestinians killed, bulldozed, exiled, tortured, and disenfranchised by the Israeli state. Feverishly melodramatic but capable of painfully poetic moments (a starving Arab squeezing milk out of a dead cow, wandering refugees discovering they’d passed into Lebanon and then looking mournfully back), Nasrallah’s outraged saga has the full-throated voice of a freedom fighter’s anthem text. No distributor. M.A.
Like Millennium Mambo, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s new masterpiece monitors the inner transformation of a young woman (Japanese singer Hitoto Yo)—the shift barely registers moment to moment but by film’s end is blissfully palpable. Conceived as an Ozu tribute, Café Lumière is scaled and paced accordingly. It’s a film about the tenuous comfort of friends and family, the magic of Maurice Sendak, the clattering lullaby of railway sounds, the joys of home cooking and coffee (or warm milk) in the afternoon. There’s not exactly a happy ending, but the cumulative effect is one of muted rapture. No distributor. D.L.
Alexander Payne leaves his native Nebraska to stage a hilarious excellent adventure in which Paul Giamatti’s depressed eighth-grade teacher treats his skirt-chasing best friend (TV actor Thomas Haden Church playing a TV actor) to a bachelor week in the California wine country. The performances are superlative—über-nebbish Giamatti defines a genre, but Church steals the movie. The comedy is more than poignant—it’s actively painful. Fox Searchlight will release it October 20. J.H.
Unavailable for preview: Triple Agent
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 21, 2004