Golden anniversary approaching, the New York Film Festival maintains a singular position. Because it’s curated rather than competitive, the annual Lincoln Center bash is a yearly bulletin on the state of world film culture—heavy on festival winners and critical favorites. The NYFF programmers order à la carte from abroad and bring it back home, garnished with a few crowd-pleasing treats for its board and the local media.
The quality varies from year to year, but the 2011 edition is solid. Building on a strong Cannes, which premiered 11 of the NYFF’s 27 Main Slate selections, the festival’s selection committee (Richard Peña, Scott Foundas, Dennis Lim, Todd McCarthy, and Voice critic Melissa Anderson) has created a mix of the hyped and the obscure, the familiar and the new, the tough and the tender, a soupçon of fluff and no less than three movies (Abel Ferrara’s 4:44: Last Day on Earth, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse) visualizing the end of the world.
Although impossible to equal the news value of last year’s opening night, the world premiere of The Social Network, this NYFF has a number of star-enriched, commercially viable, name-brand tent poles. Roman Polanski’s Carnage (adapted from Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning God of Carnage) kicks off the fest Friday night with the director’s first NYFF inclusion, if not appearance, since Knife in the Water, 47 festivals ago. Michelle Williams’s Monroe turn, My Week With Marilyn, the first feature by British TV director Simon Curtis and a world premiere, is the designated centerpiece, while Alexander Payne’s George Clooney vehicle, The Descendants, closes the festival October 16.
Two more movies are flagged as galas: The Skin I Live In by Pedro Almodóvar, whose biannual presence at Lincoln Center is pretty much a given, and, from a director who has never been so honored, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method—a deeply fascinating Freudian love story for the Jung at heart. It’s also—along with the doomsday trio, Gerardo Naranjo’s terrific Miss Bala, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s magisterial Once Upon a Time in Anatolia—one of the festival’s standout standouts.
Nothing this year from East Asia (a retro for the Japanese B-movie factory Nikkatsu aside), but there are two excellent entries each from Israel (The Footnote by Joseph Cedar and Policeman by Nadav Lapid) and Iran (This Is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and A Separation by Asghar Farhadi). The two Israeli films evoke the nation’s fierce insularity from very different perspectives while, each in its way, the Iranian films are legal thrillers.
Bean-counters will further note the Main Slate is evenly split between vets and rookies. Polanski aside, the 13 returnees include Almodóvar, Ceylan, the Dardenne brothers (back to neo-neorealist form with The Kid With a Bike), Ferrara, Aki Kaurismäki (the mordant heart-warmer Le Havre), Steve McQueen (the much-hyped Shame), Naranjo, Panahi, Payne, Martin Scorsese (with a documentary portrait of George Harrison), Tarr, von Trier, and Wim Wenders (the Main Slate’s other doc and first 3-D picture, Pina). (Majorly snubbed: Aleksandr Sokurov, whose typically eccentric version of Faust won the Golden Lion in Venice.) Along with Cronenberg are a dozen first-timers: Cedar, Curtis, Sean Durkin (making his debut by evoking the Manson family in Martha Marcy May Marlene), Farhadi, Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye First Love), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist, likely the NYFF’s biggest crowd-pleaser), Ulrich Köhle (Sleeping Sickness), Lapid, Julia Loktev (The Loneliest Planet), Santiago Mitre (The Student), Ruben Östlund (Play), and Alice Rohrwacher (Corpo Celeste, a/k/a Heavenly Body, a slyly understated verité-style comedy in which a 13-year-old girl confounds the Catholic Church).
What to see. Twenty-one of the Main Slate films already have distribution, and nine of these—The Artist, Carnage, A Dangerous Method, The Descendants, Le Havre, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Melancholia, Pina, and A Separation—are scheduled to open in New York before year’s end. (Shame is likely to join them, if only for an Oscar-qualifying run, and George Harrison: Living in the Material World will be telecast on HBO the day after its festival screening.) Here, then, in alphabetical order, are five to line up for. Two still lack passports as of this writing; the other three are gutsy festival films for which the cognoscenti (you know who you are) won’t want to wait.
The Loneliest Planet
Julia Loktev’s follow-up to her brilliant exercise in terror, Day Night Day Night, is an equally unsettling experiential experiment in directing the audience. Led by a native guide, a frisky pair of backpackers—sensationally embodied by Gael García Bernal and Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg—venture into the ruggedly beautiful Caucasian outback. It might also be the land of allegory. Like Day Night Day Night, which tracked 24 hours in the life of a would-be suicide bomber, The Loneliest Planet has a two-part structure, the hinge being an enigmatic threat and an all-too-human response. No distributor, showing October 1 and 4.
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
Turkey’s finest filmmaker, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, has made his finest movie to date. Ceylan seems to have taken a long, profitable look at two recent Romanian movies—Aurora and Police, Adjective—before making this bravura meditation on the inscrutable cosmos. Runner-up to The Tree of Life at Cannes, Once Upon a Time’s bleakly comic, superbly crafted, highly rigorous epistemological treatment of a police investigation conducted in the dark emptiness of the Anatolian night confirms its maker’s international status. The movie runs 157 minutes and is showing but once, October 8.
Nadav Lapid’s first feature, a multiple award winner at last July’s Jerusalem Film Festival, is an eccentric corollary in ultra-insularity to The Footnote (the most Jewish father-son drama since The Jazz Singer), presenting an Israel that is even more balkanized. Two violent, violently self-absorbed tribal groups—one a highly disciplined elite police unit, the other an anarchic band of left-wing Jewish terrorists—find each other at a billionaire’s wedding in contemporary Tel Aviv. It’s ultra-macho muscle Jews versus fanatical neo-narodniks. No distributor, showing October 15 and 16.
This Is Not A Film
Made under house arrest and smuggled out of Iran in a loaf of bread, banned filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s home-movie essay (put together with the help of Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and, in some sequences, a cell phone) is an act of political bravery as precisely tuned as it is affectingly modest. Prevented from making films, Panahi thinks them through. One screening, October 13.
The Turin Horse
Béla Tarr might have been musing over This Is Not a Film when he characterized his latest and, according to him, his last feature (co-credited to his longtime editor Ágnes Hranitzky) as “something more than a movie . . . or maybe less.” The Turin Horse devotes 146 minutes to a week’s worth of an elderly father and his grown daughter’s mind-numbing daily routine—a morning shot of pálinka, an evening potato—as an apocalyptic wind blows away the world outside their cabin. A death-haunted masterpiece of sensory underload, with a surging hypnotic score, The Turin Horse is Tarr’s most fully achieved, challenging movie since his 1994 epic, Sátántangó. One screening, October 9.