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What Comes After: The 46th New York Film Festival

We were in the storm last year. Whether it was a rampaging force of evil named Anton Chigurh, the plague of corruption that consumed the world of a fixer named Michael Clayton, or Brian DePalma’s battalion of cackling hyenas, last year was all about spilling blood in America or, in some cases, to feed it. It came as little shock then to see that 2007 was one of the strongest recent years for American filmmaking. P.T. Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Todd Haynes all topped themselves while the Coen brothers, David Fincher, and Sidney Lumet reclaimed their relevance with staggering force. And that’s not even mentioning Southland Tales.

Five of the films in those ranks premiered at the 45th Annual New York Film Festival. This year, perhaps expectedly, the English-speaking entries were lower in number but the quality, as witnessed so far, has been keen-eyed as always. It’s only been one week and I’ve already taken in 13 new films, 14 if you count the newly-restored print of Max Ophuls’ illustrious swan song, Lola Montes (). I’ll write more about Mr. Ophuls and this majestic piece of cinema in a few weeks, but it’s already obvious that no other filmmaker in attendance has anything on the German master.

If last year was all about the storm, 2008 takes on the aftermath. Considering the unnamed, doomed creatures of Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World or the world of wide-load humans and liquidated food that outlined Wall-E, sights seem to be set on the aftermath of political and sociological crimes, both psychologically and physically speaking. All this, and we haven’t even breached Fernando Meirelles’ sporadic Blindness nor, more importantly, John Hillcoat’s much-anticipated adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Perhaps we’re not yet prepared to fully delve into the wasteland of what the last eight years have brought us here in America but, across the ocean, several filmmakers are revisiting past political atrocities and finding inarguable relevance.

The most substantial and brilliant of these works thus far has been Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (). This ‘animated documentary’ tracks the director’s slowly-reforming remembrances of his times during the Lebanon War, specifically what hand, if any, he played in the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, in which approximately 3,000 Palestinians were slaughtered by Christian Phalangists in West Beirut after the assassination of Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel. Perception and memory are the key components to Folman’s austere work, and by animating the tales of his comrades, he visually remarks on his own inability to fully remember what happened in the refugee camps. Director of animation Yani Goodman’s mixture of Flash, classic, and 3D animation liquefies Folman’s experiences into a menagerie of surreal set pieces and wartime necrosis, complimented by Max Richter’s propulsive score, Israeli pop tunes, and PiL’s ‘This is Not A Love Song.’

Not unlike Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, the argument might be made that the animation could have been done away with, that it subverts the violence. This might be true if Bashir was simply a war film, but this would disregard Folman’s central rumination. The filmmaker’s hallucinatory nightmare means to cogitate how we view war just as much as the immeasurable dread manifested in the wake of war. Essential and furious, Waltz with Bashir hasn’t left my thoughts since its mid-day screening last week, and it’s unquestionably one of the best films of this year.

Horrors of a different color loom in Tony Manero (), the second film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain. The title, which comes from John Travolta’s character’s name in Saturday Night Fever, also serves as the alias of Raul (stage actor Alfredo Castro in a blazing performance), a low-life nobody who dreams of mounting a small stage reinterpretation of the ’70s disco classic. Raul beats the elderly to death, lusts after his girlfriend’s daughter, and spends a dubious amount of time watching Travolta in a local movie house. Set in 1978 Santiago, Manero manifests the terror state developed by dictator Augusto Pinochet and the obsession over American culture that meant to subvert the corrosive world the General sustained from the early ’70s until 1990. It’s a coal-black dark comedy that hits its caustic peak when Raul defecates on the pristine Manero suit recently purchased by Goyo, the man who loves his would-be daughter-in-law.

The antithesis of Larrain’s handheld wasteland, art-world staple Stephen McQueen took no time announcing his cinematic talents with Hunger (), a highly-aestheticized dramatic account of IRA figurehead Bobby Sands’ hunger strike inside the infamous Maze prison of Northern Ireland in 1981. Shot brilliantly by Sean Bobbitt (Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland, The Situation), the filmmaker doesn’t even introduce Sands (the excellent Michael Fassbender of 300 fame) until halfway through the proceedings, beginning instead with the introduction of incarcerated IRA members Davey Gillen and Gerry Campbell and prison guard Raymond Lohan (a brilliantly under-expressive Stuart Graham) during Sands’ Blanket and No-Wash protests.

Gillen and Campbell’s cell, covered with excrement, piles of disregarded food and homemade levees used to funnel urine into the cell-block, is just the first of many areas in which McQueen studies the body in its most radical use. Punctuated by audio snippets of Margaret Thatcher’s thoughts on ‘political crime,’ Hunger forgoes dramatic weight, opting instead for an elongated discussion on belief between Sands and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) in a single static shot, enlivened only by speech and lingering swirls of cigarette smoke. Fassbender’s emaciated body becomes the dramatic equivalent of Sands’ corpse: the last bastion of revolution in a country that’s never been known to go quietly.

Cultural schisms of the psychological kind have been just as plentiful as those of the physical, none more celebrated than Laurent Cantet’s Palme D’Or winner The Class (). Set in Paris, Cantet adapts sections of François Bégaudeau’s Entre les Murs, the writer’s memoir about his years working as a teacher in an inner-city junior high
school, and placed Bégaudeau as his central character. Using real students, Cantet and Bégaudeau have created a very entertaining contemplation on modern education and school politics. Focusing on a single school year, Cantet derives drama from the simplest of confrontations: a student’s possible expulsion over behavior, another over his mother’s pending deportation and his own imbroglio stemming from calling two students ‘skanks.’ The camera hardly ventures outside the school, regulating personal lives only to small bursts of gossip and whispers. Not content to paint Bégaudeau as a saint in a land of savages, the filmmaker allows for a more fertile debate over the relevance of classic education.

Similar assimilation becomes the dividing factor among three siblings deciding what to do with the art collection of their departed mother in Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (). Played dutifully by Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, and Jeremie Renier, the siblings agree to sell off a good portion of their mother’s belongings while donating a few key pieces to the Musée d’Orsay but not without dissent from Frederic (Berling), the eldest offspring. Frederic stays in France while his sister moves to New York City to become an art-world name and his brother becomes a corporate supervisor for Puma Sneakers in Asia. There’s a breezy, steady tone to Assayas’ film that hasn’t graced the versatile director in some time; it’s his strongest work since the acidic demonlover. Nevertheless, Hours has a hard time locating the urges that lead Francs away from their homeland, but it’s a well-paced, genuinely fascinating work that means to question the weight of familial history versus national culture, especially when considering the dilapidated state of the latter.

Another fascinating exercise in cultural displacement, Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day () stands as the director’s most ambitious work to date. Too long by a solid 20 minutes or so, Sang-soo’s latest follows Kim Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho), a painter who flees for France after a friend rats him out about some marijuana use. For a director who has often been compared to Woody Allen and, more rightly, Eric Rohmer, France holds a myriad of classic visuals but Sang-soo’s film stays faithfully dialectical, detouring from his characters only at the most arbitrary of moments. Sung-nam slowly strays from his wife back in South Korea with a young artist named Yu-jeong (Park Eun-hye), who he obsesses about for most of this epic-length anti-romance. Women manipulate, men act like morons and the streets of Paris never looked so claustrophobic. Sang-soo handles the common misdeeds and anxieties of life with blunt honesty and beguiling delicacy.

Jia Zhang-ke’s exquisite 24 City () continues the auteur’s 13-odd-year run as China’s leading practitioner of metaphysical film objects. The latest follows the demolition of Factory 420 of the Chengfa Group as it prepares to become the titular condo high-rise. Zhang-ke documents not only the interiors and landscapes of the factory but also the workers that have scattered since its destruction, ghosts rising from the graveyard of their one-time employer. Using both actors and real workers, the filmmaker investigates the Maoist notions that correlate with the lifetimes that have been built into the factory, hitting its heartbreaking peak as a woman describes her history of being the factory’s ‘Little Flower,’ a name given because of her resemblance to Joan Chen. The joke is that it is actually Chen in the role. Punctuated by lines from W.B. Yeats, himself a figure of organized workers, 24 City solidifies Zhang-ke’s rank as one of the modern masters of his craft.

The biggest disappointment of the festival so far, though by no means a true debacle, has been Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata (), a transitional work that steps away from the Japanese director’s spectral, frightening oeuvre to study domestic disturbances very much in the real. The central intrigue of this drama, which follows a family’s disintegration after the patriarch is downsized, is the procedure of a dinner prepared by the mother. The eldest son joins the American military, the youngest reveals a prodigious ability with the piano, and the mother, after an outburst at said dinner, goes road-tripping with a thief. Kurosawa basically invented J-horror and venturing away shows ambition, and for most of the film, he sustains a scintillating mood of domestic tension. But with the introduction of the thief and a chance encounter with a small fortune by the father, the film trails off into fickle and erratic movements that seem out of place in a film, like Laurent Cantet’s brilliant Time Out, that is about the ties that bond employment and masculinity. It’s an interesting work from a stellar director but the melodramatic bumps seem unfocused in an otherwise firmly concentrated film.

All this being said, the major triumphs in the festival, with the exception of Waltz with Bashir, have been the ones seemingly unencumbered by politics and focused rather on cinematic vernacular, style, and storytelling. The most humble of this set has been Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (), the follow-up to the New-York-based director’s lovely Old Joy. As with that film, the semblance of plot is minor: Wendy (Michelle Williams) wanders around Portland trying to locate her dog Lucy while her car gets fixed for a planned trip to Alaska. She talks to a Walgreens security guard, haggles with an auto mechanic (Will Patton), and takes shelter at a gas station bathroom. Fashioned, like Joy, from a story by Jon Raymond, Wendy and Lucy is a work of quiet heartbreak that is often so modest that one forgets how contemplative and singular a director Reichardt is. Williams generates and expresses a deep inner dialogue that is never released, lending a heavy emotional tension to the film. It might be early to call, but Williams has certainly given the best screen performance that I have witnessed so far this year.

Agnes Jaoui’s third feature, Let It Rain (), signals a lack of the flamboyance and intimacy that drove Jaoui’s last film, the excellent Look at Me. Two would-be documentarians (Jean-Pierre Bacri and Jamel Debbouze) take it upon themselves to make a short video portrait of feminist writer and politician Agathe Villanova (Jaoui) while she visits her sister at the family home. The sisters fight, the documentarians engage in buffoonery, and the maid (Mimouna Hadji) watches in constant grief. Jaoui’s eye for the countryside is still spot-on, bathing the picture in soft light and sharp laughs. But the interplay is less flavorful and the balance of storylin
es, which include Agathe’s emasculated boyfriend and her sister’s Sarkozy-bourgeois husband, feels off-kilter. There’s a lack of purpose in all the good humor.

Where Jaoui’s family squabbles dulled, the troubles of the Vuillard family in Arnaud Desplechin’s magnificent A Christmas Tale () cut like a straight razor. Rambunctious in its cinematic vernacular, employing all manner of narrative and filmic theatrics, Desplechin’s latest charts the happenings as the three grown children of an ailing mother (Catherine Deneuve) and their boisterous father come together for the holidays and to check whose bone marrow matches the matriarch’s. Richly constructed, this ensemble piece, led by the ever-genius Mathieu Amalric as the enfant terrible middle child, is endemic of Desplechin’s work so far. But, both aesthetically and narratively speaking, this is much more complex terrain.

Bearing more than a passing resemblance to The Rules of the Game, this candied bouquet of family myths and eccentricities defamiliarizes the dysfunctional family film from its quirks, playing towards more grandiose purposes. The kinetic pacing belies Desplechin’s dark central themes (medicine, mortality, disease, betrayal) but a work of such brilliant concentration and versatility depends on an ambidextrous tone. And yet it’s such a sustained film of intoxicated jubilee. I’ll write more about this masterpiece when it gets a proper release in November but let me say that in a year that has seen Gallic cinema both sharpen its old habits and take up new ones, A Christmas Tale is the crown jewel.

Of the dozen or so film’s screened within the last week, two first-time features have caught major attention from critics, if little interest from distributors. The first comes from 25-year-old native New Yorker Antonio Campos, a Fred Wiseman fanatic and graduate of both NYU and the Cannes Residency Program. Campos’ stunning debut, Afterschool (), has been dismissed by some as a rip-off of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant or, as one colleague put it, a remake of said film by German provocateur Michael Haneke. It’d be ignorant to dismiss the similitude between Van Sant and Campos’ imagery (static, elegantly constructed compositions) but it’d be equally ignorant to dismiss Campos’ irrefutable ability.

Robert (Ezra Miller), a student at an East Coast boarding school, becomes the sole witness to the violent overdose of two of the school’s most popular students, twin girls from a prestigious family. An amateur-video obsessive and would-be filmmaker, Robert catches the overdose on camera but, as with Campos, has only a passing interest in blame or school politics. Opening with a chorus line of online clips that range from a giggling baby to an abusive porn site, Afterschool takes on observation and perception in an age where one can see a grainy, blurry account of everyone’s experiences if they so wish. It’s through a YouTube darkly for Campos’ preppies and the effects are mesmerizing and often haunting.

The other selection was Tulpan (), the first narrative feature from Kazakh documentarian Sergei Dvortsevoy and winner of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section this past May. Settled in the world of a family of sheep-herders, Dvortsevoy’s film is sensationally naturalist and an intimate, uncomplicated look at the forge for modernity, even in a world that feels incommunicable with anything but tradition. At the center of this fable is Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), a young herder who yearns for his own piece of the steppe, as well as the affections of the titular young bride who wants nothing to do with him. Amply helped by his startlingly natural cast, Dvortsevoy’s film can be extremely funny at times (there’s a constant gag about Asa’a enormous ears) but it is mainly a study in cultural balances and trade-offs. If the choice is between dopey reggae pop coming from Asa’s buffoonish friend’s busted radio or the excruciating off-key traditional singing of Asa’s niece, the right answer doesn’t reveal itself easily.

It’s made evident that tradition has little to do with the corroded slums of Italy in Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (). Adapted from Roberto Saviano’s controversial exposé of the same name, the film offers a total immersion into the lives of the slum’s inhabitants, from the initiation of a young gangster to a dyad of moronic wannabe Scarfaces to a tailor who betrays his greedy boss for a job teaching a warehouse of young Chinese seamstresses and tailors. Ruthless and unsentimental, Garrone’s work emphasizes a world that took all the goodies from it’s history and decided against all its lessons, the result being very much in the vein of its biblical namesake. The director wisely dismisses the humanism of works such as City of God but then it also is a less focused work than Meirelles’ gangland epic. Nevertheless, Gomorrah is an urgent, acerbic celluloid nightmare that speaks more to Italy’s chaotic social climate than any film in recent memory.

Another restoration of sorts, Ashes of Time Redux () reclaims Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai’s most indecipherable work, Ashes of Time, after some key restorations, digital colorizing, and new solos from Yo Yo Ma. What once seemed like a fractured oddity in an otherwise vital career might now become a defining work, more in line with Fallen Angels and Chungking Express than Days of Being Wild and As Tears Go By. Based on Louis Cha’s four-volume martial-arts novel The Eagle-Shooting Hero, this still-frenetic work contemplates a set of sword-wielding heroes and the women who love them and/or want them dead. Filled with characters who forget their loves and obsess over them in equal strides, Kar-wai’s fourth effort carries all the auteur’s idiosyncrasies into a desert-set period piece. It’s also a film that has to be experienced, taking in Christopher Doyle’s gyrating camerawork in full scope. The entire film has a whirling, cyclical nature to it, accentuated by the appearance of a huge globe of a birdcage in the center of a conspirator’s lair. In its parts, Kar-wai’s martial-arts whatsit remains just a stitch less cryptic than its original incarnation, but the overwhelming effect renders what was once murky now mystical.

The world is still a cold place in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (), his follow-up to Vera Drake, but it is still redeemable. Residing in London’s Finsbury Park, an ever-chipper Poppy (Sally Hawkins) teaches elementary school, goes for drinks with her girlfriends and coworkers and takes driving lessons from a latter-day punk-racist named Scott (the excellent Eddie Marsan). A romance blooms with Tim, a social worker, and a boy comes to Poppy with a report of abuse, but neither weighs heavily in Leigh’s elegant narrative. In fact, little weighs heavily other than Poppy’s driving lessons with Scott, a man of dire seriousness whose face is stuck on sneer. Leigh orchestrates a roll of encounters between Poppy and the odd inhabitants in and around Haringey, most effectively with a homeless derelict who might be an elderly manifestation of Johnny from Leigh’s Naked.

What some might dismiss as unrealistically cheery, Poppy embodies an exact world view, one that only falters at the most extreme moments (scared by the hobo, fearful of Scott’s escalating obsession). Ms. Hawkins gives a lovely, nuanced performance but more important is Leigh’s lively craftsmanship. The world constructed by Leigh is one of great emotional complexity and yet the narrative moves breezily. The opening of the film, in which Poppy’s bike is stolen while she’s in a bookstore, nods to De Sica and for whatever else it might be, Happy-Go-Lucky strikes me as an essentially realist parable; For cynics, it might come off as an open wound in dire need of salt.

As Leigh leaned towards lighter tones, one-time Polish troublemaker Jerzy Skolimowski returned from a 17-year self-imposed cinematic exile with Four Nights with Anna (), a winsomely-composed dark comedy. A painter and poet when not directing, Skolimowski uses dour colors to enrich this exceptional piece of gloom involving an ex-con/current-cremator names Leon (Artur Steranko, a deft artist at bumbling and lurching) who becomes obsessed with Anna, the nurse who lives across the way from him. The Lodz-born director, who you might remember as Naomi Watts’ uncle in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, plays hopscotch with the timetable but the work remains exact and focused, creating less of a character portrait than a murky, perverse miasma. Forever rainy and covered in a thin veil of snow, the dreary setting provides a perfect haunt for Skolimowski’s fine imagery.

An oddly lackadaisical effort from an American icon, Clint Eastwood’s Changeling () seems to have earned its place as the fest’s centerpiece solely on the legend of its director. Based on the Wineville Chicken-Coop Murders and the ensuing investigation that caused major embarrassment for the corrupt LAPD, any effort to keep concentrated on this story of a missing son, his mother, and a campaign to sweep the investigation under the rug is thwarted by lead actress Angelina Jolie and her thick, rubicund lips. The transitions of this split-narrative come on like speed bumps, no thanks to a meandering script by television/comic book writer J. Michael Straczynski. Eastwood, a high artist in his use of color and tone, too often lets his camera swoon around his leading lady and the whole production smells of Oscar baiting rather than sincere revisionism. Though helped by two great supporting turns from John Malkovich as a hard-left, radio-broadcasted preacher and Jeffrey Donovan, of USA’s Burn Notice, as the detective assigned to the case, Dirty Harry’s ’50s melodrama retread has less to do with composition than it does with pageantry.

The antithesis of Jolie’s perfunctory showboating, Mickey Rourke’s thumping, visceral central performance in The Wrestler () could either be considered a swan song or a resurrection of Lazarus-like proportions. The one-time Brando-to-be plays Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a washed-up ’80s wrestler who now makes minuscule dough at amateur matches, signings and extreme-fighting events. After a heart attack leads him to a job at a supermarket deli counter, Robinson attempts to patch up things with his lesbian daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and starts a rocky relationship with a stripper (Maria Tomei in a sharp supporting turn). But as the relationships dim, a final match against his old nemesis, The Ayatollah, grows tantalizing.

Singular in vision and thoughtfully self-reflexive, this elemental, existential work is the fourth film by the otherwise spastic Darren Aronofsky, whom we last saw trying to get his metaphysics on with Hugh Jackman in The Fountain. For every narrative turn Aronofsky and screenwriter Rob Siegel could have taken, they constantly take the path of dramatic weight, and the ending, as tragic as any I’ve seen in the last decade, hits like a steel pipe to the chest. This is classic, classy filmmaking told through an aesthetic lens that is reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers. Fox Searchlight will release The Wrestler in mid-December and though God knows what guides an Oscar council that awards swill like Crash, I cannot foresee any other male performance making the sort of impact that Rourke’s does this year.

Finally, there were two works that typified the spirit not only of the festival and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, but also the ambition of the selection committee which, as it was last year, is fronted by programming director Richard Pena, assistant programmer and Film Comment editor-at-large Kent Jones, Village Voice senior critic and columnist J. Hoberman, L.A. Times critic Scott Foundas, and Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum.

The first comes from Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who was last seen with 2005’s The Holy Girl, a film of such assured poise and atmosphere that one forgets that it was only Martel’s second feature. Her latest, The Headless Woman (), is even more assured and cements Martel’s status as one of the most fascinating young directors working today. Disorienting in content yet steady in its formalism, Martel’s hypnotic third feature follows Veronica (an astounding performance from Maria Onetto), a woman who finds herself defamiliarized with her surroundings when she accidentally hits a dog with her car… or was it a young boy? The viewer, like Veronica, grapples with the actions of the other characters and, devoid of exposition, we ar
e relegated to a barrage of effects with no cause. Martel sets a spell of discombobulation, focusing on Onetto’s blonde cloud of hair floating atop her lost head. Opening beautifully with a juxtaposition of shots of young kids playing around a canal and Veronica and her friends corralling kids into several cars, Martel’s film is a work of concentrated daze, an unclassifiable trip through the ether.

But as exciting and forward-thinking as works like Woman, Waltz with Bashir, A Christmas Tale, and The Wrestler were, none of them had the concentrated power of the festival’s towering giant: Che (). Bifurcated by a 30-minute intermission, Steven Soderbergh’s epic anti-biopic chronicles both the Argentine Marxist’s triumphant Cuba campaign and his doomed Bolivia campaign, registering in at just about five hours. Acting also as a mirror to the turmoils of guerilla filmmaking, Soderbergh opens on a quiet dinner where Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (a brooding, brilliant Benicio Del Toro) meets a cigar-smoking chap with a thin mustache named Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir, who you might know as Mary Louise-Parker’s drug kingpin boyfriend from this past season of Showtime’s Weeds).

A structuralist dreamscape? A hulking revolutionary procedural? Both parts of Che (the first half named The Argentine, the second Guerilla) are stubbornly didactic and stealthy in their academia. Yet, while the first half offers a more accessible template in the revolutionary’s unfathomably successful Cuba campaign, the works need to be seen together to fully comprehend their cumulative philosophical/cerebral weight. Conjoined twins nipping at and lacerating each other’s histories and mythologies, Che is one of those rare moments of cinema that has to be experienced fully in marathon viewing (think Bela Tarr’s Satantango). Beautifully pictorial, Soderbergh’s grand triumph is also a breakthrough technically: It was filmed using a prototype of the RED One, an ultra-light digital camera that brings every blue sky, swaying branch, and dust storm into peerless clarity. Thankfully, Soderbergh will unveil Che in its full glory for a ‘Road Show’ version that will hit all major cities in mid-December. Like few other modern films, it demands to be witnessed on the big screen.

See you next year.

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