What’s the story with the 2008 New York Film Festival? I’ll cop to being co-conspirator. I helped pick the films, as did my colleague Scott Foundas. For better or worse, two of the festival’s five-member selection committee work for Village Voice Media. (For the record, the other three are Richard Peña—marking his 20th year as NYFF program director—Kent Jones, also of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and critic Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly.)
Anybody who has ever done this sort of thing will tell you that a festival can only be as good as what’s out there and, this year, there was plenty of action. Cannes, as usual, was the prospector’s mother lode. Sixteen NYFF features premiered on La Croisette, including a number of winners: Laurent Cantet’s opening night The Class (Palme d’Or), Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (Grand Prix), Steven Soderbergh’s Che (Best Actor for Benicio Del Toro), Steve McQueen’s Hunger (Caméra d’Or for best first film), and Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan (Prix Un Certain Regard). Other festival winners include Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, for which actress Sally Hawkins was awarded a Silver Bear at Berlin, and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which won the Golden Lion at Venice and—speaking as someone who found Aronofsky’s previous film, The Fountain, ludicrous—my admiration as well.
The NYFF has an understandable interest in showcasing the highlights of the big three international festivals but, to my mind, a greater mission in showcasing those movies yet to land U.S. distribution—and this year, there are many. Both Che and The Wrestler have been acquired since the NYFF slate was announced, but the remaining orphans include such notable auteur films as 24 City, the latest docu-fictional conundrum (showing but once) by China’s vanguard indie Jia Zhangke, and the dark comedy Four Nights With Anna, a terrific comeback by the onetime prince of the Polish new wave, Jerzy Skolimowski. The Headless Woman, the third feature by Lucrecia Martel, leading director of the Argentine renaissance, is her strongest to date—at the very least, this brilliantly edited, purposefully disorienting comedy about a middle-aged woman’s post-car-accident confusion is the movie I’m most looking forward to revisiting.
Among the other undistributed films, this cinephile would like to direct your attention to the following: For the first time in its history, the NYFF has not one but two—and two very different—movies from Kazakhstan. Chouga, directed with characteristic precision by Central Asia’s leading Bressonian, Darezhan Omirbaev, is an austere and affecting adaptation of Anna Karenina (showing only once, for you cognoscenti); Tulpan, a first feature by the poetic ethno-documentarian Dvortsevoy, is a spectacular, unclassifiable immersion in the daily life of nomad sheepherders working the awesome emptiness of the Kazakh steppe. Nearly as exotic and no less predictable, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero is a portrait of the Pinochet dictatorship, taking one nut’s obsession with Saturday Night Fever for its ruling metaphor. Another eccentric political thriller by a director without local name recognition, Catalan filmmaker Jaime Rosales’s Bullet in the Head is the NYFF’s main section’s most experimental movie (think last year’s In the City of Sylvia—but different). It’s showing only once in the capacious Ziegfeld—and is highly unlikely to ever receive such a magnificent projection again.
On the other hand, Afterschool, a strong first feature by 25-year-old Antonio Campos unaccountably overlooked by Sundance, seems destined for distribution—the backstory is intriguing (more on that in next week’s issue), as is the movie’s exposé of privileged preppies whose truth is in the iPhone of the beholder. I have a hunch that the festival’s Mexican equivalent, Gerardo Naranjo’s self-consciously neo–new wave and triumphantly tragicomic I’m Gonna Explode, involving two dissolute high-school students on the road to nowhere, will also attract some discerning distributor. I didn’t much care for Naranjo’s previous Drama/Mex, but for my money, I’m Gonna Explode is this year’s sleeper. Let the games begin!