School is in, and this year’s edition of the New York Film Festival, which runs from September 23 through October 9 at Lincoln Center, is nothing if not educational. History lessons abound, ranging from ’50s America and ancient Israel to post–World War II Japan and post-’68 France. The Dardenne brothers, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Aleksandr Sokurov are on hand to give (very different) master classes in filmmaking—although The Death of Mr. Lazarescu , by hitherto unknown Cristi Puiu, may be the most impressive tour de force.
The lineup includes several eccentric literary adaptations and more than a few movies pondering the tortured ethical relationship between art and life. Trend spotters may also note that, out of five East Asian films, three are from South Korea, and of the 16 titles that have distribution, no fewer than five belong to Sony, including the director’s cut of Antonioni’s The Passenger. Undistributed must-sees include Hou’s Three Times, Sokurov’s The Sun, and Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle. There may even be tickets. J. HOBERMAN
David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in director George Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck.
photo: Melinda Sue Gordon
Good Night, and Good Luck
The NYFF opens with a classy, credible docudrama—George Clooney’s restaging of the 1954 vid-screen prizefight in which urbane newsman Edward R. Murrow vanquished roughneck demagogue Joe McCarthy. Taking its title from Murrow’s trademark sign-off, the movie is shot in crisp black-and-white, makes clever use of vintage footage, and celebrates the fraternity of the newsroom with a strong ensemble cast. David Strathairn’s smartly stylized Murrow is admirably ascetic—and so, for the most part, is the movie. It’s an intelligent re-creation with a lesson that has scarcely dated—one need only think back a year to the fall of Dan Rather. Warner Independent, opens October 7.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
[September 24 and 25]
The second feature by 38-year-old Romanian ex-painter Cristi Puiu is an ode to mortality, albeit not without a certain grim humor. An old drunk awakes with a headache and, after a day of self-medication, calls 911. The ambulance takes over 30 minutes (film time) to arrive, and from the limbo of his squalid flat, Mr. Lazarescu enters hell—transported from hospital to hospital for the movie’s remaining two hours, to be variously diagnosed, browbeaten, and ignored by a harried succession of brilliantly acted doctors and nurses. As filmmaking, it’s a tour de force, with Puiu simulating the institutional texture of a Frederick Wiseman vérité. Tartan, opens early 2006. J.H.
Michel Negroponte continues his slow-moving career project of documenting New York’s underground heartbeat with this intimate video essay, produced for HBO, about a methadone clinic and its cast of desperate clients. The filmmaker’s narration is alive with moving metaphors about life under addiction and its inescapable misery, and the individuals he focuses on (many over 50 and surprisingly articulate even as they’re nodding off) are stirring cases of struggle against internal monstrosities. But the surface seems only scratched, and thanks to the film’s brevity (88 minutes), we remain tourists, looking in from the outside. HBO, airs October 6. MICHAEL ATKINSON
L’Enfant (The Child)
[September 24 and 25]
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s hot streak continues. By now, the brothers have a style and set of interests as instantly recognizable as any filmmakers in the world—visceral camerawork, impeccable performances, a concern with Belgium’s dispossessed, an unlikely affinity for Robert Bresson. As their first Palme d’Or winner, Rosetta, remade Mouchette, so their second, The Child, revisits Pickpocket. Typically, it’s structured as a series of tasks, culminating in a chase that, both metaphoric and intensely physical, is also a descent into the depths. The remarkable thing about the Dardennes is their complex single-mindedness. Each film is an odyssey (toward grace?) in a world that could hardly seem more material. Sony Pictures Classics, opens March 2006. J.H.
Avenge but One of My Two Eyes
Scenes from an occupation: Israeli documentarian Avi Mograbi plays tourist, juxtaposing camcorder images of furious Palestinians queued at various checkpoints with those of expansive Israeli guides explicating the shrine of Masada (or teachers holding forth on the cult of Samson). His unstated, heretical thesis is that the Palestinians have adopted the suicidal heroism that is a cornerstone of right-wing Zionism. To add to the pathos, the action is interspersed with telephone transmissions seemingly triggered by the filmmaker’s TV. Mograbi’s first-person film was seemingly chosen to provide a counterpoint with the Palestinian drama Paradise Now (see page 35) and is no less appalling. No distributor. J.H.
[September 25 and 26]
Waiting perhaps for Ocean’s 13, Steven Soderbergh experiments—venturing into deepest America (small-town Ohio) to direct a cast of nonactors in an outrageous, if deliberately uninflected, melodrama. Bubble is set largely in an underpopulated doll factory (get it?) and is so aggressively disorienting in its banality that it begins to resemble science fiction.
Magnolia, opens January 2006. J.H.
The Squid and the Whale
[September 26 and 28]
Noah Baumbach’s cine-memoir dramatizes his parents’ separation. Cruel and tender, this is a richly detailed, rarely sentimental, and even revelatory child’s vision of a particular Park Slope haute boho milieu. The movie is often funny, but despite the Salinger-esque overtones, it’s far from cute—least of all in its mortifying view of teenage sex. The camera may seem casual, but the period mise-en-scéne is beyond fastidious. Samuel Goldwyn Films, opens October 5. J.H.
[September 27 and 29]
Tracing the rough footprints of both Mouchette and The 400 Blows, Dorota Kedzierzawska’s adroitly executed ballade follows an elfin Polish boy with a gimlet stare and quick reflexes (the remarkably confident Piotr Jagielski) who, after being rejected by his deranged-party-animal mother, escapes from an orphanage, returns to his barren hometown, and exists scrounging on the edges of others’ lives and property. The details are exact and dire, but the romantic Michael Nyman score and swooningly lovely autumnal cinematography—peach-misted mornings, sulfurous leaf-strewn forests—muddle the thrust. Childhood suffering shot like a Hallmark card is difficult to take seriously. No distributor. M.A.
[September 27 and 28]
Dust off the Oscar—it’s the Philip Seymour Hoffman show. The star and co-producer of Bennett Miller’s account of how Truman Capote came to write (or perhaps be written by) In Cold Blood and thus achieve the status of America’s most famous author, Hoffman nails Capote’s querulous drawl and pudgy hauteur. He plays the writer as a vain and peevish monster of self-absorption—accurate perhaps, but a performance that uses up the oxygen for the rest of the cast. Rare is the movie in which Catherine Keener, as Harper Lee, is the warmest presence. Sony Pictures Classics, opening September 30.
Something Like Happiness
[September 29 and October 1]
The equivocal title is instructive: Czech director Bohdan Sláma’s minor-key slice of life is so muted and oblique it takes a while to suss out its tangled relationships and its abiding faith in the basic decency of ordinary people. In a hideous industrialized suburb, a young man and the unavailable young woman he not so secretly loves find themselves serving as proxy parents; the role-play, needless to say, leaves its mark in subtle, indelible ways. The movie’s studious modesty makes its last-minute melancholic surge all the more surprising.
No distributor. DENNIS LIM
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
[September 30 and October 2]
Park Chanwook keeps his singular ball in the air with this capstone to his so-called vengeance trilogy, in which a ravishing convict (Lee Yeong-ae) is released after 13 years for killing a child and reveals (slowly, to us) an elaborate payback plot for the real murderer. Essentially a mirror image of the far superior Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance that lifts its story philosophy from The Shawshank Redemption, the movie’s a vicious and entertaining entry in the Korean New Wave’s pulp grinder—that is, until the moral bomb drop of the last third, when the Parkian questions of guilt, grief, and justice surface with inexorable anxiety. Tartan, opens early 2006. M.A.
[September 30 and October 1]
Lars von Trier’s disappointing Dogville sequel follows Grace, now played by a flustered Bryce Dallas Howard, to an Alabama plantation where slavery is still in effect. The road to hell is paved with good intentions: Grace sets out to right a wrong, using her father’s gangsters for muscle. The movie has something (but not too much) to say about race; more resonant, although soon dropped from the schema, is the parallel between Grace’s enforced lessons in democracy and George Bush’s Iraq adventure. Stunt-meister that he is, von Trier shouldn’t repeat himself. The filmmaker uses Dogville‘s formal devices to lesser effect and his boredom is contagious. IFC, opens winter 2006.
A/k/a Fuck, this once notorious, banned-in–New York late–Andy Warhol opus—showing, for the first time in years, as part of the festival’s “Views From the Avant-Garde” sidebar—preserves an October 1968 afternoon in all its hipster glory. Factory superstar Viva and her straight man Louis Waldron hang out, talk about the war in Vietnam, eat lunch, take a shower, and have sexual intercourse—not necessarily in that order. The camera is static; the affection seems genuine. The couple may be too self-conscious to suggest Adam and Eve, but as Warhol movies go, Blue Movie is transcendently good-natured. J.H.
The quasi-snuff DV equivalent of a Poe poem, Shinya Tsukamoto’s 50-minute
featurette—screening once, at midnight—largely consists of a terrified man (the director himself) writhing around in a dark and extremely confined space. He doesn’t remember how he got there and has no clue how to get out. Visceral and merciless, Tsukamoto’s film painstakingly details a convincing psychosomatic response to a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare. Fake blood is freely spilled, but the most terrifying moments are when there’s nothing to see.
No distributor. D.L.
Breakfast on Pluto
[October 1 and 2] J.H.
Neil Jordan waxes literary in this overwrought confection—a mélange of sentimental magic realism, political blather, and painfully bad pop music based on a novel by Patrick McCabe (author of The Butcher Boy). Cillian Murphy’s one-note performance amplifies the movie’s excruciating longueurs. As the flirtatious androgyne Kitten, he peaks way too early with an eye-batting turn as a glam-rock squaw. Sony Pictures Classics, opens November 18.
Tale of Cinema
[October 1 and 2]
NYFF regular Hong Sang-soo returns for the third time with another melancholy comedy about an ineffectual, clueless, good-looking lout. In this case, Hong’s protag is a former film student who believes that his hapless love life has been appropriated as material by a more successful classmate. Tale of Cinema is at once more structurally rigorous and more relaxed than its immediate precursor, Woman Is the Future of Man. No distributor. J.H.
The President’s Last Bang
[October 3 and 4]
Perhaps the most audacious movie in the festival, at least on its home territory, Im Sang-soo’s satire treats the 1979 assassination of longtime South Korean dictator Major General Park Chung-hee as the occasion for a bloody farce. The ruling elite stages a geriatric drunken orgy as the monumentally incompetent Korea CIA puts its conspiracy into action. It’s not always easy to follow, but the attitude is unmistakable. Kino, opens October 14. J.H.
Who’s Camus Anyway?
[October 3 and 4]
Back in the mid 1980s, Mitsuo Yanagimachi was one of the young stars of Japanese cinema. Then he went AWOL. To judge from this unexpectedly Altman-esque ensemble comedy, he’s served a bit of time teaching college filmmaking. An energetic satire of youthful self-importance, filled with crushes, complications, and long tracking shots, it’s clever, entertaining, and awfully familiar—up until the particular narrative preoccupation that had been the young Yanagimachi’s own comes suddenly to the fore. No distributor. J.H.
Beyond the Rocks
A minor miracle, this long-lost 1922 silent was discovered, nearly complete, in a Dutch collection and is notable mainly for the dream pairing of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino. She was by far the bigger star at the time and seems a bit of a hard-faced floozy for the role of the ingenue; he’s a bit soft by contrast, but a total natural. Swanson’s outfits aside, this sub-DeMillean romance of adultery (not) isn’t vintage ’20s exotic, but set mainly in a succession of English drawing rooms and country gardens, it does end with everyone converging mid Sahara. Milestone, opens late 2005. J.H.
[October 5 and 6]
Hou Hsiao-hsien presents the same romantic couple in a trio of historically charged situations—a Kaohsiung billiards parlor in 1966, a Dadaocheng brothel in 1911, and a Taipei rock club in 2005. Recapitulating something of his own development, the result is high middling Hou: His version of silent cinema is fascinating, not least because it plays to Shu Qi’s limited strengths as an actress, but the movie’s implicit themes of time travel, eternal recurrence, and the transmigration of souls are largely dissipated in the confusion of the final present-day section. No distributor. J.H.
[October 5 and 6]
Contrived but chilling, Hany Abu-Assad’s second feature tells the tale of two Palestinian auto mechanics from Nablus whose suicide mission in Israel goes unexpectedly awry. The movie may not succeed in inspiring sympathy for these hapless terrorists, but it does compel an appreciation for their sense of desperate, bitter humiliation. Paradise Now is often didactic and takes a few too many narrative curves, but when these human time bombs go wandering off in their “wedding suits,” it packs a powerful existential wallop.
Warner Independent, opens October 28. J.H.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
[October 7 and 8]
Nothing if not unpredictable, Michael Winterbottom cracks the NYFF with this suitably eccentric adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s unfilmable masterpiece of 18th-century postmodernism. The movie is appropriately self-reflexive and compulsively digressive—although, made literal, many of Sterne’s japes cease to be funny. For all the on-set antics, appropriated Fellini music, inside baseball, and throwaway gags, the movie is most successful when Steve Coogan and his foil Rob Brydon are aimlessly riffing on the color of Brydon’s teeth (“How about Tuscan sunset?”) or trading Al Pacino imitations. Picturehouse, opens October 11. J.H.
[October 7 and 8]
Adapting Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Return” with the help of two superb actors, Patrice Chéreau reinvents the period chamber drama. The world caves in on a smug, wealthy publisher (Pascal Greggory) when his wife (Isabelle Huppert), in the course of an afternoon, leaves him for another man, then abruptly reverses her decision. Title notwithstanding, Gabrielle monitors the husband’s minutely shaded reaction to his spouse’s outbreak of passion—going from humiliation and bafflement to a terrified comprehension. Unfolding in crepuscular, sumptuously upholstered interiors, amid silently bustling servants and stiffly poised dinner guests (the cinematographer is the great Eric Gautier), this wildly stylized film is at once robust and ethereal, an existential ghost story with fresh blood pulsing through its veins. No distributor. D.L.
photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center
Aleksandr Sokurov brings his dictator trilogy to an unexpected conclusion with this intimate portrait of Emperor Hirohito at the moment where he has to surrender his divinity. Issey Ogata is on-screen throughout; twitchy and stuttering, he gives what could be the performance of the festival as the divine nerd—whether discussing the nature of the northern lights, examining his photo albums, or nibbling on a Hershey bar (a gift from Douglas MacArthur). When he emerges from his room, the emperor reminds the American G.I.’s of Charlie Chaplin; his nightmares seem to presage Godzilla. No distributor. J.H.
More muted in its nastiness than most Michael Haneke films, Hidden nevertheless reworks many of his favorite themes—video surveillance, childhood guilt, the family under siege. A smug TV personality (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife (an intense Juliette Binoche) are terrorized by a series of mysterious VHS tapes left on their doorstep. Haneke doesn’t resolve all the mysteries—this is an art thriller after all— but he effectively grounds a sense of personal menace in a larger historical framework. Sony Pictures Classics, opens December 23. J.H.
Also screening: Regular Lovers (September 24), Through the Forest (October 2), The Passenger (October 8).