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Carnal Knowledge: The 2009 New York Film Festival

‘Chaos reigns!’ says an animatronic fox approximately halfway through Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (), groaned as if by some demon troll from Tolkien lore. It is the film’s one moment of complete, unbridled lunacy; a bold declaration for a film that features a close-up of clitoral castration and a penis that ejaculates blood. And yet, it is the quintessential statement to describe 2009, the year thus far in film as well as von Trier’s chosen career path. Just as von Trier proclaimed Antichrist as his most important film to date, 2009 has offered many of the watershed moments of the closing decade, though perhaps not the most hopeful.

As it has in past years, the 47th Annual New York Film Festival offered a reflection of these maddening, fractious times even if it was, by and large, the most auteur-driven festival in recent memory. Programmed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s head programmer Richard Peña, Village Voice chief film critic J. Hoberman and staff critic Melissa Anderson, LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas, and New York Times columnist and erstwhile Voice editor Dennis Lim, the festival offered less American fare than it has in the last two years and focused on more seasoned, foreign hands. Hotly anticipated properties like the Coen brothers’ ludicrous A Serious Man took a backseat to Alain Resnais’ latest cinematic shape-shifter Wild Grass () and 100-years-young Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira’s excellent Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (). For a moment, 80 was the new 40.

That’s not to say there wasn’t any fresh meat. Of the half-dozen or so NYFF debutants screened, the centerpiece Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (), an unexpected crowd pleaser, drew the biggest audience. But it’s since been widely agreed that the most substantial of these new works was Everyone Else (), the brilliant and devastating second feature by German filmmaker Maren Ade. Photographed and edited with a preternatural sense of intimacy, Ade’s film tracks a few days in the life of German couple Chris and Gitti (Lars Eidinger and Birgit Minichmayr, both great), whose relationship begins to disintegrate while on vacation in Sardinia. The quiet, introverted Chris’ attempts at getting all alpha-male on rambunctious Gitti results in a war of emotions that is played with unnerving honesty and a startling knowledge of the inner mechanics of a dedicated, committed couple.

At 50 years old, Samuel Moaz was perhaps the most unlikely debuting director on the slate but the Tel-Aviv-born filmmaker’s Lebanon () was easily one of the strongest films screened and one of the few films that the selection committee was in complete agreement on. Set almost entirely within a tank (nicknamed Rhino), Lebanon is a deeply personal and rough war film that unfolds like a chamber play during the opening days of the Lebanon War. The men inside the Rhino wouldn’t be out of place in a Sam Fuller film, but the confusion and chaos that swell within the claustrophobic set build an existential undercurrent that gives Moaz’s film nuance. Having already been awarded the Golden Lion at Venice, Lebanon was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics — who are also handling distribution on Michael Haneke’s disquieting, oddly elegiac The White Ribbon () this December and Wild Grass next year — and heads my list of films I’m most looking forward to revisiting in 2010.

Though many of the films at NYFF had already premiered at Venice, Cannes, or Toronto, the festival supplied something of a coming-out party for the handful of foreign picks and scrappy indies that secured distribution since their premieres. Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal (), a rightfully infuriating look at the poaching of Philadelphia’s beloved Barnes Foundation in the name of profit, was picked up by Sundance Selects while Magnolia took up distribution duties on Mother (), Bong Joon-ho’s haunting murder-mystery follow-up to The Host. IFC, as expected, picked up several titles including The Red Riding Trilogy (), a moody triptych of films revolving around nine years of police corruption in Yorkshire, featuring some very good turns by Paddy Considine, Andrew Garfield, David Morrissey, and Peter Mullan. IFC also picked up Hadewijch (), a startling comeback from Bruno Dumont, and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (), one of the best films of the year and another great work from Romania’s emerging New Wave that I will have much more to say about when it is released this December.

Word has no doubt already spread of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (), a work so hideous in aesthetic that even IFC seems hesitant to pick it up. Speaking as someone who has always thought of Korine as a wannabe provocateur, too lazy to be anything but abrasively manipulative, his latest comes as nothing short of revelation. Fitted with geriatric masks, a group of demented outsiders ramble around a nameless town, immersing themselves in wanton destruction, acts of extreme perversion, and even a murder or two. Compared often to Korine’s risible Gummo, Trash Humpers is more in the vein of the French horror mockumentary Man Bites Dog; a dark, exceedingly disturbing peek into the abyss of what one destitute poet calls the byproduct of consumerism. Shot on VHS and blown-up to 35mm, it’s as complex and discomfiting as modern horror gets.

Lastly, there was João Pedro Rodrigues’ To Die Like A Man (), another completely unpredictable work from a promising young artist that has been snubbed thus far for distribution. A noticeable step forward from Rodrigues’ previous works, To Die Like A Man follows Tonia, an aging drag queen who resists getting a complete sex change for her volatile lover as she nurses a leaking breast implant, attempts to connect with her violent and confused son, and pampers her beloved puppy. What may have been exhausted, self-serious melodrama rather ends up being an exotic slice-of-life with lovely, melancholic musical asides and one seriously trippy walk through the woods with ‘grand dame’ Maria. Notes of Fassbinder, Lynch, and Almodovar are noticeable throughout, but Rodrigues invests his film with a unique, beautiful sense of sadness and strikes a consistent though not overwhelming tone of dread. We never see Tonia on stage, but her very life seems to be a grand, operatic performance, and, like the best films that have screened over the years at NYFF, To Die Like A Man has a more impacting emotional force for knowing that the real show rarely makes it to the main stage.

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