The first weeks of press screenings for the 45th annual New York Film Festival proved to be a restless haul and a real mixed bag. The selection committee, headed by The Village Voice‘s superlative tandem of Scott Foundas and J. Hoberman along with Entertainment Weekly‘s Lisa Schwarzbaum, expectedly took their cues from the mack-daddy of film festivals, Cannes. Directors just beginning to make a name for themselves (Christian Mungiu, Carlos Reygadas) laid claim with seasoned pros (Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, Hao Hsiao-hsien) and living legends (Eric Rohmer, Sidney Lumet, Claude Chabrol) in a tidal wave of cinematic abandon. It’s the best four weeks of my year.
My first day started with an ominous disappointment: Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding had been pushed back in the press schedule. In its place was Masayuki Sou’s I Just Didn’t Do It (), an entertaining judicial procedural that marks Sou’s return to filmmaking after a 10-year hiatus. Fluidly mapped out with both absurd and frustrating intimations on the Japanese court system, Sou’s breezy but effective dramedy investigates a court where everyone’s guilty and government employees wash each others backs at the expense of innocent citizens, in this case a young nobody who is accused of molestation on a packed transport train on the way to an interview.
Earlier that day, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly () screened, followed by a press conference with the plaid-shirt-wearing, gloriously-pretentious artist-of-all-trades. You could so easily hate Schnabel if the man didn’t know how to make a great film. As it turns out, he knows all too well. Jean-Dominique Bauby’s evocative biography, which gives the film its name, was written by the author from a wheelchair using only blinks and a specialized alphabet after a stroke left him a paraplegic. Brakhage-type swells of fractured light and imagery formidably frame the great Mathieu Amalric, who plays Bauby, and give this biopic a welcome sense of disorientation. Faithfully adapted, Schnabel’s form shows maturity and restraint and a fresh foot forward from his promising Before Night Falls.
A night of heavy work thwarted my attempt to catch musical experiment Fados but nothing short of the taking of Astoria N, R, W was going to keep me from Wes Anderson’s boundless The Darjeeling Limited (). The review can be found on the front page but let me reiterate the fact that Anderson fully recovers from the woozy Life Aquatic with this boisterous, patently hilarious trip through India with the Whitman brothers (marvelously played by Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Anderson newbie Adrien Brody). Anderson’s first steps out of enclosed habitats are astoundingly assured and revealing; perhaps that adaptation of The Fabulous Mr. Fox isn’t a half-bad idea after all.
New efforts from Rohmer, Lumet and Chabrol were admirably lined up one-after-the-other, although for the life of me I can’t understand the absence of Jacques Rivette’s new film. The best of the lot, unpredictably, comes from the American: Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead () holds a panorama of contrivances and a jump-cut that could cause epileptic seizures, but it’s also insanely well-acted, overwhelmingly visceral, and endearingly clear-eyed; who knew the old kook had it in him? Top-lined by a uniformly brilliant performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dead revolves around the botched robbery of a mom-and-pop jewelry store by the proprietors’ two spoiled sons (Hoffman and Ethan Hawke). Lumet orchestrates a dazzling and dark family drama that spills black blood over the filmmaker’s well-touted love of Eugene O’Neil, bringing the family of monsters together in a shattering climax involving the brothers and their father (the great Albert Finney).
The same praise does not befit the other two auteurs, although Rohmer’s The Romance of Astree and Celadon () is so absolutely ludicrous that you almost have to commend it. But while Rohmer (reportedly) bows out of the business by going over-the-top, Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two () belies his recent resurgence by turning in one of his most bland features to date: a love triangle stricken with ennui rather than scintillation. Though boosted by the appearance of the enchanting Ludivine Sagnier, Girl has neither the venomous pur of The Bridesmaid nor the stinging wit of Comedy of Power and seems to have effectively ended Chabrol’s recent winning streak (the latest in a career of dizzying highs and lows).
Thanks to a faulty alarm clock (damn you, Virgin Mobile!), I missed out on Ira Sachs’ Married Life but arrived on time for the geeky high point of the festival: the this-is-it-we-promise cut of Blade Runner, referred to as Blade Runner: The Final Cut (). Though its original incarnation has been largely dismissed, following cuts of the film have revealed it as the blueprint for the rare type of no-nonsense sci-fi films (recently: Children of Men, A Scanner Darkly). Inspired by Philip K. Dick’s meditation on death, persona, and reality in the guise of a film noir, Blade Runner‘s visuals feel as relevant as ever and Ridley Scott, who has yet to make a better film, shows deft sensibility and restraint in a genre that almost demands overbearing melodrama.
Monday brought the biggest surprise of all: The young Mexican director Carlos Reygadas has delivered a film that proves his first pair of raging eccentricities (Japón, Battle in Heaven) were just a warm-up. Set in a Mennonite community of farmers, Silent Light () turns Carl T. Dreyer’s Ordet into a beautiful and complex study of people ruled by faith and privacy but bewildered by strong emotions (it’s the first time the Mennonite dialect has been heard on-screen). Bookended by bravura landscape shots that swoop down from the heavens into the emerging daylight of a wheat field, Reygadas will surely be both praised for his daring and condemned for his (arguable) pretension, but you can’t deny the film’s haunting imagery. I’ll talk more about this stunning work next week.
What else could follow a mesmerizing piece of art but a brazenly-trashy New York fantasy? From the respectfully ragged Abel Ferrara comes the illicit stage antics of Go Go Tales (). Though it takes the guise of a displaced reevaluation of Cassavetes’ Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Tales could be read in any number of ways from its melancholic commentary on NYC gentrification to its bemoaning of the death of perversity. Willem Dafoe stars as the patron saint of Ray Ruby’s Paradise, one of the last bastions of sleaze in New York City, which is on the edge of being foreclosed and mutated into a Bed, Bath and Beyond. Though Dafoe plays his rueful character to often grotesque heights, it’s the pulverizing gaze of Asia Argento as she makes out with her dog and seduces Ray’s brother (a creepy Matthew Modine) that turns a decrepit comic fantasy into a rotting bookmark in the tome of New York City cinema.
Those who know the work of Hao Hsiao-hsien know what the man is capable of but no amount of preparation quite settles you in for the transcendent beauty of his first foray into French cinema, The Flight of the Red Balloon (). Easily the best reevaluation of a French classic by a Chinese auteur in the history of film, Hao does away with the plot of Albert Lamorisse’s beloved The Red Balloon, keeping only the titular inflation and the child who yearns to possess it. The balloon travels through the homey environs of France as a mother (an astonishing Juliette Binoche) desperately tries to hold onto her sanity as she kicks out her downstairs neighbor and hires a film student (Song Fang) as a nanny. Hao not only rebuilds Binoche and coaxes out her best performance since Kieslowski’s Blue but he completely rethinks France in terms of its cinematic potential with help from the brilliant Mark Lee Pin-bing’s radiant cinematography. Picked up by perhaps the most forward-thinking distribution house working today, IFC First Take, Balloon has already a secured spot on my top ten for 2008.
A similar spot will be reserved for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (), the debut feature from Romanian commercial director Christian Mungiu. Adorned with the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Mungiu’s account of two girls attempting to secure a black-market abortion in 1980s Romania validates the theory that Romania has a new wave on their hands. Bundled with the devastating The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and this year’s fantastic 12:08 East of Bucharest, Mungiu’s shattering portrait of life during Ceausescu’s regime is a paradigm of Bazinian theory; an engaging and unrelenting personal drama with a sublimely realistic aesthetic. When interviewed, Mungiu expressed his wanting to simply tell a story but he’s done that and then some with his two brilliant actresses, Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu. A generous piece of cinema, 4 Months is one of the best debuts I’ve seen since Lazarescu.
Later I waded through Ed Pincus & Lucia Small’s The Axe in the Attic (), a misguided documentary about the aftermath of Katrina as seen through the eyes of two white liberals, but quickly regained my composure with Lee Chang-dong’s novelistic Secret Sunshine (). An apt follow-up to the Korean filmmaker’s riveting Oasis, Sunshine focuses on Shin-ae, a widowed mother who quickly finds herself sinking into delirium when a tragedy strikes her in her new home in Miryang. As with Oasis, the film hinges on its two leads and Chang-dong again proves himself an extraordinary director of actors. As the man in love with the mother, Song Kang-ho, a force of nature in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, brings pathetic adoration to the level of grandeur as he follows Shin-ae from terminal depression to religious devotement to brazen hysteria. But it’s ultimately Jeon Do-yeon’s once-more-into-the-breach performance as Shin-ae that turns Chang-dong’s humid melodrama into a sublime and essential study of reactionism in the face of inexplicable tragedy.
Hungarian maestro Bela Tarr returns to the fold after a six year absence with The Man from London (), a contemplative thriller based on a mystery by late, great Georges Simenon. Though shot in the same long takes that have adorned all his work, London acts more like the cumbersome stuffed whale from his masterwork Werckmeister Harmonies. Beautifully shot, Tarr’s latest simply doesn’t go anywhere and doesn’t seem to have any idea why its actions and transactions are taking place, made all the more strange by the appearance of Tilda Swinton. It’s a failure for sure, but London strangely befits the director’s work to date and, if nothing else, reminds one of how unique and uncompromising an artist he is.