In 1963, the pop artist Larry Rivers mounted a scaffold at Broadway and 65th Street and painted a billboard announcing that something new was coming to New York City. On a Tuesday that September, scarcely a year after Lincoln Center’s opening night, Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel filled what was then Philharmonic Hall, and America’s first major film festival was off to the races. The program of 21 movies—19 international, two American—was curated by Amos Vogel, who passed this year, and Richard Roud, American-born film critic for The Manchester Guardian; the slate included Alain Resnais’s Muriel, Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai, and Knife in the Water, the feature debut of Roman Polanski.
The film canister on the cover of that year’s program might be going the way of the dodo, but in its 50th go-around—the last for program director Richard Peña, to be replaced by the highly capable Kent Jones—the noncompetitive NYFF has remained true to its original mission, to assemble “the best of the year’s best films selected from other festivals.” These greatest hits have brought lapping onto our shores the successive New Waves of the French, Poles, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Latin Americans, Chinese, South Koreans, etc.
There is no national standout in this year’s 32-film main-slate lineup, augmented by a selection of “masterworks” and special screenings—for the festival has expanded with the Film Society complex’s four-screen capacity. One new subheading is “Midnight Movies,” a quarantine for genre works, deemed lowlier than the worst festival-circuit Xanax; entrants include The Bay, Barry Levinson’s unexpected eco-hysteria entry into the reality-horror sweepstakes, and Peter Strickland’s absorbing 1976-set headphones movie, Berberian Sound Studio, which visualizes the sound studio as a torture chamber, its culture-clash premise introducing shy English pleasantry to the tenebrous universe of Italian Catholicism, on much more intimate terms with those essential things, sex and death. Toby Jones’s meek Anglo sound engineer, Gilderoy, accustomed to working on pastoral documentaries, leaves Dorking for Rome, where he discovers he’s to do the mix on a fantasy-horror á la Argento called The Equestrian Vortex. The film-within-a-film remains unseen, though Gilderoy’s squelching Foley effects urge the imagination to run wild as to the images that are exacting such a psychological toll on our rapidly unspooling hero.
With its fetishization of Revox reel-to-reels and magnetic tape, I cannot recall a movie so wrapped up in the appurtenances of sound-on-film since Brian De Palma’s Blow Out—and lo and behold, here is De Palma’s latest, Passion, sleek as a Cartier catalog, in the main slate! At an ad agency’s Berlin office, boardroom brinksmanship is sparked by a kerfuffle over credit for an “ass-cam” campaign—and ends in murder. The game’s color-coded players include blonde Rachel McAdams, brunette Noomi Rapace, and redhead Karoline Herfurth, but emerald and ruby pumps do nothing to discriminate good witches from bad.
Barbara, set in East Germany, 1980, evokes another fraught workplace. Vibrating with tense self-possession in the title role, Nina Hoss is a dissident doctor driven from Berlin to a provincial hospital where she can more easily be kept under observation. Christian Petzold’s anxious minimalist thriller habituates the viewer to stand to attention at the merest crunch of gravel in a driveway. It’s a good year for leading ladies: Noémie Lvovsky directs herself in Camille Rewinds as a middle-age alcoholic actress and the character’s teenage self when, after a blackout, Camille awakens back in high school, with a mulligan on life. Lvovsky aims for maximum crossover accessibility, while one’s enjoyment of another arrested-development case, Noah Baumbach’s “Overheard in New York” blackout-sketch character study Frances Ha, will be directly proportional to one’s tolerance for the maladroit screen presence of starlet and co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig, playing “a faded but still lovely woman of 27,” to poach from Fitzgerald.
The days when American studios with big-budget product disdained the upstart NYFF are long gone—Fox/Ang Lee’s Life of Pi opens the fest, Paramount/Robert Zemeckis’s Flight closes, and in between is Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson, a lightly likable drama comparing the affair of convenience between Bill Murray’s Franklin Roosevelt and Laura Linney’s fifth cousin “Daisy” Suckley to games of diplomatic footsie with the British royals.
More likely to stir up debate is Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s first feature in 13 years, reuniting him with his Les Amants du Pont-Neuf star Denis Lavant, who plays a mysterious character squired between Parisian “appointments” which require him to don a succession of disguises and perform scenes ranging from violent acte gratuit to tender chamber drama, street theater before invisible cameras for an invisible audience, the non sequitur leaps approximating contemporary channel surfing by way of the ’20s surrealists’ theater hopping. The best sequences rely on Lavant’s dynamic physicality, such as one that dresses him in a motion-capture suit to perform a series of gymnastic action postures, then engage in squeaky sex play with a vinyl-suited contortionist. The cumulative effect is, however, less than such peaks, the tone lowered by failed feints like a saccharine Kylie Minogue musical number whose emotional impact pales in comparison to De Palma’s reunion with composer Pino Donaggio or Broadcast’s excellent Berberian Sound Studio score.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, like Holy Motors, is “about” acting, and its Orpheus and Eurydice tale has its own remote kinship to Jean Cocteau—though 90-year-old NYFF vet Resnais might have seen Cocteau’s work first-run. A group of aging thespians are assembled in a remote house, as in a detective novel, to hear the will of dead playwright “Antoine D’Anthac,” but instead find themselves watching a new performance of one of his works that they had at various times appeared in—the play is in fact Jean Anouilh’s 1941 Eurydice, appropriately about the tether of memory, as the play’s alumni are drawn to participate in the recital as their cues are jogged, slipping into parallel scenes that offer bifurcated readings of the text. (Along with Passion, Resnais’s film proves that split screen isn’t dead.)
A lifelong love affair is at the heart of the Portuguese Miguel Gomes’s third feature, Tabu, destined to be “a cult object for its rarity and its simplicity,” as a 45 EP is described therein. A broke-backed, diptych film—its namesake is the Janus-faced F.W. Murnau/Robert Flaherty collaboration of 1931—Tabu abandons a downbeat present-tense narrative in Lisbon for an extended flashback to an unidentified Portuguese colony around 1960 that occupies the film’s second more-than-half, as the surviving participant of an ill-starred affair narrates a sort of formal silent-film home movie depicting his romance with a married neighbor. Befitting the banner anniversary year, this NYFF lineup is much concerned with memory, reminiscence, and antique formats—both Tabu‘s present and its problematic lost Paradise are in old-fashioned Academy-ratio black-and-white—but Gomes’s film, like all great works, acts above all as a validation of the present.