In New York City, there are certain things that hint that fall is rearing its autumnal head. The smell of the silver carts carrying heated nuts and kebab meat start soaking into the air as 9 am commuters grab their hoodies, sports jackets, and light winter coats and head down to the lower depths of the NY Metro. Then there’s the crowded Starbucks with NYU students toiling away on laptops to finish their finals in film studies and intro to Biology with tall soy latte cups strewn around them. In the film world, however, the coming of fall means one thing: The New York Film Festival is in full swing.
Unlike years before, the 2006 NYFF found its lineup extremely varied and not just a skim-off-the-top of the Cannes Film Festival, although six of the featured films did premiere there. Where last year brought about surefire winners like George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck and Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, the curators got a little dangerous this time around, picking films ranging from a boisterous anime fantasy to a no-bull monster movie to David Lynch’s disastrous follow-up to Mulholland Drive. There was room for much argument amongst the online critics, the print critics, and the staff of Film Comment, who serve as curators and interviewers for the fest. Thus is the price of being daring.
The first film I saw was Sofia Coppola’s cream puff Marie Antoinette (). Covered in pastel dresses and huge amounts of sweets and shoes, the film covers the young Austrian queen-to-be (Kirsten Dunst) as she is transplanted into French royalty with a life of unending luxury in tow. This piece of ‘apple strudel,’ as parts of the royal court refer to her, has only one job: to birth a male heir to the throne. For the first half of the film, we watch her clunky love life with her husband unravel until her brother (a rather brief Daniel Huston) gives the king an analogy that perks him up, simply saying ‘you’re fond of keys, aren’t you?’ Coppola’s casting of her suicidal virgin might seem a strange choice for some, but Antoinette is simply the epicenter of this icing-laden hurricane. The film plays like a dream of no consequence that brims with wit and visual intrigue. Then, for no reason whatsoever, Coppola attempts to make Antoinette a real character, effectively waking us up from the rather pleasant dream and vying for a rather insipid stab at integrity. Up to the last quarter, however, the film’s cotton-candy atmosphere, accented by stabs from New-Wave heroes Gang of Four and The Cure, is pure bliss.
Thailand was represented by the ever-maniacal Apichatpong Weerasethakul (I still don’t know how to pronounce that), who debuted his follow-up to last year’s Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century (). Prefaced as an ode to his parents and their initial meeting at a hospital, the film starts in a time period reminiscent of when the filmmaker would have been born, the second half of the film takes place in present day. Though not as dreamy as the filmmaker’s last exercise, Syndromes is still breathlessly hypnotic with its expert ponderings on love, lust, and religion. Weerasethakul uses varied imagery and characters (an orchid expert, a lounge-singing dentist) to muster up feelings of transcendence. It wouldn’t sound like much to say that an extremely slow track into the mouth of an industrial vacuum feels spiritual, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t pull it off.
Surefire Oscar bait, Stephen Frears’ The Queen () might end up being the vastly underrated maestro’s swan song. Helen Mirren’s earthshaking performance as Queen Elizabeth dealing with the backlash when the Royal Family refuse to show their grief publicly when Princess Di was killed in the infamous car accident is the absolute best performance I’ve seen this year with Meryl Streep’s Prada-wearing Devil nipping at her thick heels. Mirren aside, Frears orchestrates the tension and drama of tradition vs. modernity with a rare sense of humor and a style that shows Frears as a director who would never let anyone figure him out completely. From My Beautiful Laundrette to Dirty Pretty Things, Mr. Frears has constantly changed himself up and honed his abilities into a precise tool of storytelling and visual daring. It’s a class act in every way.
Todd Field, returning from a five year absence, finally followed up his masterful In the Bedroom with Little Children (), a whole new kind of suburban fever-dream. Following the unlikely affair between a stay-at-home father (a brilliant Patrick Wilson) and mother (Kate Winslet, genius as always) who is dealing with a husband addicted to internet porn, Field explores social panic and fear with an expert eye for the nuances and paranoia that placid existence creates. There’s also the problem of a ‘reformed’ pedophile named Ronnie, played to perfection by Jackie Earle Haley, who lives with his mom in the quiet upper-east-coast town. Stitches bursting with great scenes, Little Children walks hand-in-hand with Marie-Antoinette as they both go unbelievably awry in their last quarter. Here, Field turns from provocateur to peripheral artist and ends his film with a placid whisper that begs for a bigger uproar. Still, the Oscar talk isn’t completely unfounded.
Culminating yet another seven-year anniversary for his pack of school chums, Michael Apted’s 49 Up () returns the floundering series to the glory of its original few installments. As if we needed a reminder of how depressing mid-life can be, the last two installments of the Up series didn’t seem to make the leaps and bounds that their predecessors did. Apted’s questions have now become a tad more confrontational and all involved seem to look back on themselves and the process of the series with a newfound fascination and insights that question the ideas behind documentaries, but the film is nothing if not entertaining. If nothing else, 49 Up proves that Apted, like his subjects, is still growing and maturing, as a human and as an artist.
Chang Chen, still radiating from his excellent performance in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times, matches his work there in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Go Master (). The film tells the story of Wu Qingyuan (Chen), an early 20th century genius at the game of Go, a more philosophical version of Chinese Chess. Qingyuan lives through the most important moments in Chinese/Japanese history including Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s and the Pacific War of the 1940s. Living in war-stricken times also makes Qingyuan turn to religious fanaticism with his wife Nakahara (the effective Itou Ayumi). The Go Master isn’t as full-bodied a study of history and character that his classic The Blue Kite or 2003’s acute Springtime in a Small Town were, but his poetic style and work with actors still work to create a moving portrait of a complex individual.
A Cannes favorite and possibly the most promising work from a relatively new filmmaker, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates () takes the dissolving of a marriage and turns it into a haunting, insular portrait of loneliness and emotional confusion. When Isa (Ceylan himself) and his wanting wife, Bahar (Ebru Ceylan, his wife off-screen as well) split up, Isa goes from the beautiful sunny coast where the split occurred to the drab rainy dystopia of his college professor life and finally to the snowy mountains of Turkey to find Bahar working at a remote TV station. Ceylan, as he did with his breathtaking first feature Distant, lets his camera study people’s faces and actions, as well as places and climates. Whether filming the beautiful towns covered in thick white snow or capturing a rough sex scene with galvanic energy, Ceylan doesn’t rush anything and makes Climates one of the most acute studies of emotional folly and relationships that you’re likely to see this year.
What you hopefully won’t see this year is David Lynch’s Inland Empire (), a misfire the likes of which I’ve never witnessed. One holds off using the word ‘catastrophe’ but it’s pretty damn close as Lynch throws us headlong into his digital nightmare about an actress (Laura Dern) who gets in trouble when she sleeps with her co-star (Justin Theroux) against the wishes of her husband and a flinty director (Jeremy Irons). The first hour is patented Lynch, skewing noir ideals and theory and punctuating it with brief twists into mind-bending psychedelia. However, at 180 minutes and seriously lacking any sort of spine, Lynch has let his mind run amok with this monstrosity. Where Mulholland Drive was scary and poetic in Lynch’s mold (if it’s possible that he even has one), Inland Empire plays like experimental noise rock: abrasive, insane and utterly vacuous for what seems to be the sole purpose of getting people to call it ‘original.’ For those who thought Terry Gilliam’s Tideland was the work of an artist allowing himself and his style a little too much freedom, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The unofficial champ of NYFF was Korea. The country offered two near-perfect, career best films from two of the most talented directors working today. The first was Woman on the Beach () from auteur Hong Sang-soo. While working on the script for his new film, a director falls for two women. The first, a cute, quirky girl who is the object of his DP’s affections, leaves to go home to Seoul where it becomes obvious that neither of them can handle their one erotic night together. The second is more conservative and shy, but still falls for the directors charm. Woman on the Beach, the wiser, disjointed ying to Climates‘ yang (see review above), shows relationships in a much more honest and breathtakingly blunt light than any other modern director, Korean or otherwise. Sang-soo will no doubt be compared to high-end Woody Allen, but his concentration and meditation on the flirtatious moments between the characters gives off a resplendent charm and a strangely comforting sense of melancholy. The film is currently without distribution. Any takers?
Another huge letdown was Jafar Panahi’s Offside (), the follow-up to his fantastic Crimson Gold. Panahi’s latest concerns a pack of young girls who are caught and held when they try to enter a sports stadium, which is illegal in Iran. Based during Iran’s soccer win over Bahrain, Panahi still uses his neo-realist style with an accurate tone, but he no longer shows the wit and danger that he showed in Crimson Gold. Offside has a little too much Western ideology mixed with its piquancy with feminine rights in Iran. For a film that was supposedly sparked by an interest in the history of female rights through the years, it just goes down a little too easy.
Candy-coated and full-to-bursting with quirks and perversities, old master Alain Resnais returns to the game with Private Fears in Public Places (). It’s a pleasure watching Resnais slowly age and allow his style to bloom from the utter brilliance of his early films (Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Providence) to his more subdued but no-less-sublime latest films (Not on My Lips). This winter wonderland of a film uses snow as a transition effect and intertwines the lives of six French citizens as they try to find love. It’s a more concentrated Love Actually, given, but Resnais uses colors and space in such interesting ways that make your eyes pop with glee. The bar where a major part of the action takes place is straight out of A Clockwork Orange and is awash in dreamy oranges, pinks, and blues.
Mafioso (), originally released on a limited basis in 1962, was the fest’s unequivocal high point. Pre-dating The Godfather and most other influential Mob films and directed by Fellini collaborator Alberto Lattuada, Mafioso transplants Antonio (the late, great Alberto Sordi), a Fiat factory foreman, and his family from their comfy Northern Italy home to Sicily to visit his family and his family. What follows is a rousing mix of dark humor, sweaty palms, and gangster mentality that consistently stretches the boundaries of the mob film and the id
ea of family dynamics as Antonio is asked by his Don to possibly consider getting back into his old profession. What becomes key throughout the film is its use of humor and caricature to attack the normal conventions of the mob film (Antonio’s family is a lively mixture of overbearing narcissism and heartwarming loyalty). Lattuada died before he could come out of Fellini’s shadow, but Mafioso stands as a testament to a great director who was never recognized for his mastery and skill of the celluloid dream.
Even dreamier was the fest’s most audacious pick, Satoshi Kon’s beguiling anime Paprika (). Opening with a blast of Japanese techno-pop, Kon’s film wraps the audience in a sci-fi freak-out of a story that could have been the love child of Philip K. Dick and Takashi Marukami. Dr. Atsuko Chiba is the leading expert of a treatment called PT that uses a device called the DC Mini to go into her patient’s dreams as her alter-ego, Paprika, and tries to solve their problems through detective work. When a DC Mini is stolen from its creator, people start committing suicide and hurting themselves, believing they are living in a waking dream. Chiba (Paprika) and a patient who happens to be a detective begin to investigate who could have stolen the DC Mini and caused these deaths. Kon, though not as inventive and concentrated as Mamoru Oshii or Hayao Miyazaki, throws us into the wild, blue yonder of this refreshing dreamscape and never lets his imagery and imagination overpower his acute sense of story (even when Paprika encounters the villain in forms that range from a huge water beast to a 100-foot-tall god of fire and brimstone). It’s a fantastic explosion of creativity and potent action.
Lino Brocka, the first Filipino director to be screened in competition at Cannes, was raised from the dead with a gritty print of his infamous Insiang (). It sounds pretty normal: Insiang (Hilda Koronel) begins to carry on an affair with her mother’s disgusting boyfriend (slime-incarnate Ruel Vernal) when she tires of his come-ons and her mother, Tonia (Mona Lisa), begins to become suspicious and her resentment of her daughter grows. A fantastic portrait of life in the slums, Insiang uses its seemingly normal constructs to talk about femininity and poverty in ways that were pretty rambunctious when it was originally released in 1976. Its rough-hewed style, however, makes its presentation almost as ugly as the souls that inhabit it.
Last, but certainly not least was Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (), the best new film at the festival and one of the best films of its kind ever conceived. When hundreds of liters of aged Formaldehyde are dumped down the sink and dispensed into the Han River, it breeds a creature of unimaginable horror. Not long after the Formaldehyde is dispensed of, a creature that best resembles a giant mutant tadpole with a long tail and a gaping huge mouth starts to attack the nearby community around the Han River and its bridge. After the initial attack drags away the youngest daughter in a very dysfunctional family, the family bands together to save the girl and kill the beast. The side-plot concerning a speculative disease the beast carries and the cure, called Agent Yellow, are obvious metaphors for the current American political state (the carrier of Agent Yellow looks exactly like the beast when it is hanging from the bridge). Joon-ho has already staked his claim as a genre-hopping madman of considerable talents with his last film, the brooding, brilliant Memories of Murder, but here, his talent blooms into whole new areas of intricate metaphors, storylines and characters. Not unlike Memories of Murder, The Host ends on a note that would never fly in American cinema, but the storytelling here, fusing monster movie to social comedic drama, is undeniably reviving and rigorous. In all honesty, this is the best monster movie to land on our shores since Spielberg and Bruce dragged Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss into the depths. It’ll no doubt prove a great start to next year’s movie season.
Unfolding before viewers’ eyes like a luxuriantly blooming nightshade, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth () is a dark treat that delivers a powerful sting. In 1944, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a bookish 12-year-old girl arrives with her pregnant mother at an isolated farmhouse in northern Spain where her new stepfather, an army captain, has set up base to harass leftover anti-Fascist rebels from the Civil War. While the adults are fully enmeshed in their own pungent drama — there are rebel spies in the base, and a final battle seems just around the corner — Ofelia has her own, otherworldly problems. A small, fluttering fairy takes her to an ancient labyrinth, where she meets a faun who tells her that she is the reincarnation of the underworld kingdom’s long-dead princess and that if she only completes three tasks, she’ll become an immortal, magical being once again. While the captain’s brutal insurgent campaign sputters bloodily in the thickly wooded mountains, and her mother’s pregnancy turns dangerous, Ofelia pursues her mythological tasks (retrieving a key from the stomach of a giant frog, stealing a dagger from a child-eating monster’s lair) with the single-minded ardor of a child with nothing to lose. Possessing both a rich sense of the pulpy fantastic and a realistic view of the evils of war, Del Toro entwines his two stories with an unexpectedly emotional context that lifts the film far above the level of his Hollywood comic book concoctions (Hellboy and Blade 2). The excellent cast also includes Y Tu Mamá También‘s Maribel Verdú as a woman with rebel ties and Sergi López playing Ofelia’s sadistic stepfather as a villain straight out of the darkest Grimm’s tale.
Another great film from a Spanish master is Pedro Almodóvar’s witty and woozy Volver (), which also deals with the fantastic, albeit in a more roundabout and light-hearted manner. Penélope Cruz (stronger and more assured here than normal, shrugging off the blank sex goddess mantle) stars as Raimunda, a fiercely stubborn woman from a small Spanish town now living in Madrid with a drunk husband and sullen 12-year-old daughter. There’s a lot of Mildred Pierce in the comic noir that follows, with a tragedy and some fortuitous accidents resulting in Raimunda setting up shop in a briefly-vacated restaurant next doo
r, enlisting many of her neighborhood friends in the process. Meanwhile, her somewhat dotty sister Sole (Lole Dueñas) is seeing the manifestation of their dead mother (the wonderfully, comically serene Carmen Maura), which, not surprisingly, stirs up some long-repressed emotions. As in many Almodóvar films, there is a fine line here between melodrama and naturalism, with most scenes played at a high-intensity, comic pitch, yet never collapsing into absurdity or farce. Somewhere in that tightly-wound space between the real and the surreal, populated with all these generations of strong and idiosyncratic women, lies that unique touch which is Almodóvar’s, only improving with each passing film.