08 October 2008

At the movies: The 46th Annual New York Film Festival.

Here's my handy-dandy overview of the 46th Annual New York Film Festival. As these films receive some form of Nashville (for All The Rage) or national (for Dish Magazine) release, I'll go in depth. But for now, here's the digest for all to luxuriate in regarding the thirty films and shorts that I saw. A ^ between the film's title and rating indicate that I have discussions with involved filmmakers coming as well.

It was a phenomenal year for both the NYFF, specifically, and film in general. There was not a single thing that I saw that I hated (like last year's Actrices/Actresses), and everything I saw offered up something unusual and interesting and worthy. As the number of distributors willing to take a chance on foreign and independent cinema dwindles with every day that passes, it gets harder and harder to experience film in its proper theatrical context. So for the meantime, places like the NYFF (and our own Nashville Film Festival) become more and more valuable.

ENTRE LES MURS (The Class) ***
It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, and at first feels like a typical Dangerous Minds/Stand and Deliver type film en francais - the young teacher who cares, dealing with students who are stymied by varying levels of bureaucracy and indifference. But as it goes along, it gets weirder and more dialectical, and by the end I was pretty much won over. Sony Classics has it for the US, which means it'll get a week at Green Hills.

One of the two new films from Jia Zhang-ke at this year's NYFF, and this one is pretty much inert. Students in the 90s, currently adults adrift in their own lives, nobody's happy but they do soldier on. There's some nice tracking shots down a river, though.

WENDY & LUCY *** 1/2
Absolutely devastating portrait of isolation and life on the brink- harsh, elliptical, and filled with a pervasive sense of sadness and beauty. Michelle Williams is truly amazing here, and dog lovers, this is the movie for you. Oscilloscope Films (The Beastie Boys' film label) is handling this, so it will more than likely be coming to the Belcourt at some point.

Can you build a film around an extended sick joke? If it's as good and genuinely effective as this one, then yes.

Holy shit. An animated documentary with the urgency of an unquiet witness and the soul of the most imaginative of poets, and structured around the basics of psychic exploration in a way that will infuriate Scientologists, this may also be the film that pushes the evangelical Christian faction in this country into apoplexy. It's a remarkable film, funny and devastating, and featuring one of the most haunting sequences I've ever seen (three men emerging from the sea, to a cello lead that sounds slightly reminiscent of Vig Mihaly's score for Werckmeister Harmoniak- which is a good thing). Again, Sony Classics has it, so be on the lookout for its one-week run at Green Hills.

The best thing I saw during Press Week I, this short from British artist/Pet Shop Boys collaborator Sam Taylor-Wood (whose only other film I had seen was in a segment of the erotic anthology Destricted) is a short and sweet tale of High School lust played out to the sound of the Buzzcocks. With any luck, this might pop up at the '09 Nashville Film Festival in the shorts program.

Simulatneously about the casual violence and horror of life in Chile under the rule of Augusto Pinochet and one man's need to express himself through dance and wanting to be like John Travolta, this film is upsettingly violent, features hardcore sex, and at least one disco dancing sequence in every reel. How could I not love it?

UN CONTE DE NOEL (A Christmas Tale) *** 1/2
A colleague dismissively called this Kings and Queen 2, but I think it's weirder and a bit more incisive than that. Family dramas, insanity, cancer, sexual frustration, and the arduous process of forgiveness- yeah, it's like that. Highly recommended, though. IFC has it, and with any luck, it'll be this year's big Christmas arthouse hit.

A dark, dark French short that is ruthlessly pragmatic and full of the kind of wit that works beautifully here but leaves you wondering if the filmmaker will make the step up to feature-length material.

Kuorosawa Kiyoshi is back, and this time he's made a fairly conventional film- one that takes the issues that form the subtext of his genre material and works with them on the surface. It's a fascinating portrait of this moment in history, and the central cast is pretty damned great. It takes some wide turns in the last half hour, but is still a fascinating development in Kurosawa's body of work.

This film aims to be an expose of what life is really like in the age of voyeuristic video and violated civil liberties, while at the same time getting at what's really going on with these kids today. Every time I was ready to walk out, something amazing would happen, and every time I was ready to love this film, it did something incredibly stupid. Also, it's one of those films that seems to think that shock is a valuable tool when used without context. It's not. This si the kind of film that it's very easy to overrate. I'm interested in what director Antonio Campos comes up with next, and the frame composition is among the best I've ever seen. But still, it's just not all that.

DEMAIN PEUT-ETRE (Maybe Tomorrow) *** 1/2
An exceptional French short about identity, race, and observation. Haunting, and again, with any luck it may pop up in the shorts program at the '09 Nashville Film Festival.

SERBIS (Service) ** 1/2
Family travails, in and around a four-story moviehouse in Angeles City in the Philippines. Lots of betrayal, hardcore sex, transsexual gender shenanigans, and through it all, the inescapable sounds of the modern city. Oh, and an extended plot point about pus. Regent Releasing has this for the U.S., which means it will get a small-scale release in NYC, L.A., San Francisco, and possibly in cities with high Filipino populations and/or Tagalog speakers, then come out on DVD shortly thereafter. So much gets crammed into 93 minutes that you almost wish the director had made a miniseries out of it- the setting and characters are rich, but there's so much left unsaid or seen. But I would love to spend more time with this film's central family.

TIRO EN LA CABEZA (Bullet in the Head) **
This was the screening where a significant portion of the press corps lost their mind. The film is, for all intents and purposes, silent. We hear ambient sounds, consistent with the placement of the camera (almost always far away), but even when we're in the same room as the main characters, they speak but no sound comes out. It's meant to be an allegory about how hard it is to understand what motivates horrifying acts of violence, and it works- sort of. But people HATED this movie. Eh, it's interesting. But it would work better as a short.

HUNGER *** 1/2
Pretty damned amazing, this one. It's a great political film, a savage prison movie, an effective procedural, and rife full of possibilities for theological and political debate. There's a central reel-length conversation that easily ranks among the finest of the year, and it's always interesting to see what happens when artists from other media give film a try. The final half-hour, which depicts the hunger strike that lends the film its title, isn't quite as staggering and transcendent as the first hour, but the film is still a remarkable achievement. IFC Films has this for distribution, and they're aiming for March 09 for a release. I'm not sure when it'll play here, but I'll lay down dollars that it will play in Nashville at some point.

A delight. A frothy (but slightly edgy) comedy from Mike Leigh? Perish the thought. But this film is like a big goofy drunken British hug, and I can't wait to see how audiences take to it. This opens on Halloween at the Belcourt, and mark my words- this is the perfect date movie. If you bring a date/spouse/significant other with you to see this movie, dimes-to-dollars says you'll get some that evening.

THIS IS HER ** 1/2
A snarky but ultimately effective Kiwi short that aims to dig, laterally and figuratively, into women's issues. It gets derailed in its final third by a sappy Lilith-lite ballad, but there's still some interesting moments.

VOY A EXPLOTAR (I'm Gonna Explode) **
If you'd only ever watched Harold & Maude, Romeo and Juliet, and Y Tu Mama Tambien over and over again, then you too could have made this film. The leads are cute and the young-lovers-on-the-run trope never really gets old, but there just wasn't enough of a spark here to make the ingredients properly- explode. Maria Deschamps, the film's star, has a hell of a career ahead of her, making her motion picture debut in a part that feels like 60% Anna Karina, 25% Bjork, and 15% Linda Manz.

A/K/A Che Part I. We were shown what is being called The Roadshow Presentation, which has no credits or specific differentiation of title, so I'm going from the standard titling of the two. This was a cinemascope biopic on the rise of Che, with the occasional high-contrast black & white interlude from his speech before the UN in the early sixties. It jumps around in time a bit, but you're always kept at a distance from the material. It's well-acted, but it's not all that.

GUERILLA ^ *** 1/2
A/K/A Che Part II, when everything gets kind of nuts and handheld and 1.85 and visceral. Guerilla is not quite Tropical Malady, but it's damned close, and both as an extended thinkpiece and an emotionally draining experience, here's what makes it all worthwhile. It's good enough to make me realize and acknowledge that The Argentine is pretty good as well. But in the battle of the Ches, put me down solidly for Part II. IFC Films has this for the U.S., and in Nashville, that usually means Belcourt. So send in your eMails and bloggables if you want to show some Che pride, or are intrigued at exploring the fall of such an absolutist ideology. Either way, there's something here for you.

Cutesy short about love truly being a universal language. Not essential, but not unpleasant.

L'HEURE D'ETE (Summer Hours) ****
Following up his globalization trilogy (Demonlover, Clean, and Boarding Gate), Olivier Assayas turns his focus on the family and makes one of the most beautiful and restrained dramas of the year. One mother, three children, five grandchildren, two dogs, a housekeeper, and an exquisite country house. There are no big scenes, no flare-ups or crying jags, just a rapturous dive into the eddies and whorls of the time we spend as families. IFC has it for the US. Keep an eye out for this one, it will floor you. Bring Mom and Dad with you as well.

An interesting (and non-maliciously deeply misogynist) short from Germany about loneliness and store policies. It would seem to clever for its own good were it not so devastating.

THE WRESTLER ^ *** 1/2
And the Academy Award goes to... Mickey Rourke. The story is conventional, and it appears our boy Darren Aronofsky's been watching some Dardenne brothers films in the past few years. But it's edited like a normal movie, and Rourke (and Marisa Tomei) are just exceptional. The story is pretty conventional, so it plays against Aronfsky's arthouse instincts beautifully. And how can you not love a film whose soundtrack is half 80s hair metal and half trap-rap. The way that Guns 'n Roses's "Sweet Child O' Mine" is used in this movie made me tear up like a damned fool. Fox Searchlight is releasing this in NYC and L.A. on December 19th, with the rest of the country to follow soon after.

A three-minute documentary that is effective and scarring.

The good news is that Clint Eastwood is still an amazing director, Angelina Jolie knocks it out of the park, there are quite a few moments that are of unearthly power, and it starts with the old-school Universal logo from way back in the day. The bad news is that the script is a mess, it's way too long, and there are a few scenes (mostly involving a necessary subplot) that are just embarrassing to behold (though some are apparently taken from historical record). This one makes some of the same mistakes that Mystic River did, and it makes them bigger. Am I jaded because hyperstylized and violent representations of violence against children just don't affect me anymore? I should be horrified seeing axe murders and nonconsensual electroconvulsive therapy, but none of that holds a candle to some of Angelina's scenes with the child-who-is-not-hers. Worth seeing, absolutely. But one of Clint's best? No.

The latest evolution in Mafia movies. A colleague compared it to The Wire and found it wanting. There's some tense moments, and its indictment of blustery machismo is refreshing, but after two-plus hours, I just wanted everyone to get shot in a surprise fashion and for the thing to be over with. That said, a couple of connoisseurs of gangster films said it was a spectacular achievement, so go with that if you're so inclined. IFC has it for the US, so it'll be around. And it's nice, between this and Tropic Thunder, to see "Sadeness Pt 1" get some cinema love.

AHENDU NDE SAPUKAI (I Hear Your Scream) ****
A remarkable single-shot short about the process of loss, told completely in silhouette. Just remarkable.

LA MUJER SIN CABEZA (The Headless Woman) ****
Take the skeleton of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, then send it wandering off into the last half hour of Mulholland Drive but preparing for a Last Weekend at Marienbad, and you have the idea of where this remarkable mindmelter from Argentina's Lucrecia Martel will take you. It is so much subtler than any of those films, though, and filled with so much possibility and tinges of the most visceral dread. This and Synecdoche, NY are proving the films from this northward sojourn that I want to dwell in repeatedly, again and again. If there is any justice, this film will get some kind of further distribution.

C'EST DUR D'ETRE AIME PAR DES CONS (It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks) *** 1/2
A battering ram of a documentary that illustrates the trial of the publishers and editorial staff of French weekly Charlie Hebdo, which printed those infamous twelve cartoons which portrayed the prophet Mohammed. The film has countless things to say about the role of the press and the courts and religious authorities, and all of it is pretty fascinating even if lack of access to the actual courtroom proceedings lends a surreal air to the whole thing. Certainly worth seeing, and as provocative a way as any for me to finish up my time at the 46th Annual New York Film Festival.

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