NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
2002 - 40th Festival
The recently ended 40th Edition of the New York Film Festival was even more uniformly interesting and worthwhile than usual. (I once again urge all of you in the NYC area to join the Lincoln Center Film Society and attend the NYFF next Fall.) While there were fewer blockbuster hits than in some years, there was an unusually wonderful array of fascinating films—US and foreign, some that will be released and some that will not, and all rewarding viewing. Here is a description of some of the highlights and films to be on the lookout for. I have placed in bold type the films that already are scheduled for release in the US and have given release dates where they are currently available. (For those who are interested, the entire 2002 NYFF program and the Film Society descriptions of each film can be found at www.filmlinc.com/nyff/nyfffilms2002.htm)
MY FAVORITES (wonderful, well-made, enjoyable films):
TALK TO HER. (Closing Night; Spain; to be released 22 November by Sony Pictures Classics). This was my very favorite of all the films in this year’s NYFF. Pedro Almadóvar, whose “All About My Mother” was one of the great films from the ’99 Festival, has created a mature masterpiece in this latest film. “Talk to Her” is funny and moving, sad and uplifting, perverse and loving, sensual and surprising—and all without the jarring shifts of many of his earlier films. Almadóvar moves back and forth in time and imagery, exploring love and connection, frustration and isolation. We are led to see and feel the beauty in what we would be certain we would find repulsive, and the humor in what we would expect to find only heartrending. The story languorously revolves around Benigno (Javier Cámara), a male nurse lovingly caring for a young dance student, Alicia (Leonor Watling) who is in a coma, and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), a writer in love with Lydia (Rosario Flores), a female bullfighter. At the beginning of the film, in one of its many chance encounters, the two men are seated next to each other at a dance performance, and then their lives proceed to repeatedly intersect. In addition to the beauty of the cinematography, Almadóvar has created a deeply gorgeous artistic tapestry, using the singing of Caetano Veloso and the dance of Pina Bausch—and the wonderful silent film-within-the-film adds yet another, comic dimension to the fabric he has woven. “Talk to Her” is incredibly well-acted, beautifully photographed, and a totally engrossing artistic experience.
ABOUT SCHMIDT. (Opening Night; USA; to be released 13 December by New Line) Alexander Payne (“Election” and “Citizen Ruth”) has done an impressive job of bringing to the screen the script he and Jim Taylor wrote, loosely based on the novel by Louis Begley. It is the story of Warren Schmidt, a just-retired insurance executive in Omaha (the setting for all of Payne’s films), whose already limited and constricted life (he urinates sitting down because his wife has insisted that he always do it that way) becomes increasing devoid of anchors and meaning. He sets out on a voyage in a huge mobile home (which he hates), partly to go to (or perhaps to prevent) the marriage of his somewhat-estranged daughter to someone he totally disapproves of—and partly to find himself. While not perfect, the movie generally succeeds in blending the struggle and pain of this pathetic main character with an unexpectedly warm, comic counterpoint in his correspondence to a six-year-old African orphan he has taken on as a long-distance foster child. What makes the film extraordinary, however, is the incredible performance by Jack Nicholson in the title role. Looking sad, bloated, pathetic, and totally without the spark of devilishness so typical of his other roles, Nicholson gives what many (himself included) have called the performance of his career. His toast at his daughter’s wedding is a true tour de force. Kathy Bates is also wonderful—and incredibly daring—in her role as Schmidt’s daughter’s mother-in-law to be. Schmidt’s isolation and disconnection from life comes to a curious point in the film’s effective ending.
A wonderful moment from opening night: after Alexander Payne spoke about the film, he introduced the cast, ending with Nicholson. Nicholson came on stage—looking his handsome, devilish self, walked up to Kathy Bates and kissed her hand while making the most overdone courtly bow imaginable. He then moved to the next actor in line, embraced him, bent him over backwards, and proceeded to kiss him passionately. Then, declining the offer of a microphone, he proceeded to address the vast audience at Avery Fisher Hall, saying, “Before you watch this movie, I want you to take a good look at me so you’ll remember how good-looking I really am!”
CHIWASEON. (South Korea) An absolutely achingly beautiful film by Im Kwon-Taek (director of “Chunhyang,” one of our very favorite films from the 2000 festival—which is now available on DVD). Constructed around the life of Jang Seoung-Ub, a 19th artist who is one of Korea’s most renowned painters, the story is a bit like a Korea version of Ed Harris’s movie, “Pollock,” in that Jang was an alcoholic, womanizing, rather inarticulate man who was known to become violent towards both women and children. Nevertheless, the paintings he produced were exceedingly beautiful; and while we are carried along by his story, we are also led through an exploration of the process of artistic creation. In “Chiwaseon,” Im has created a film that is both about and is an example of the creation of art and beauty. His director of photography, Jung Il-Sung, has one of the most artistic eyes in cinema today: the landscapes he captures at times reflect the beauty of the paintings of the main character, and at other times express an abstract beauty that transcends even that sublime beauty. I shall make it a point never to miss any future work by Im, and “Chiwaseon” is a film I sincerely hope finds a distributor.
THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST. (Finland; to be released Spring 2003 by Sony Pictures Classics) Aki Kaurismäki’s filmmaking reminds me of Jim Jarmusch—and to me, that is the very highest compliment: it is a somewhat bizarre, dark, strangely funny, off-beat film that succeeds in being hilarious and heart warming, without ever becoming in any way sentimental. The story is about a man, known only as “M,” who has completely lost his memory after a brutal, random robbery and beating. The character sets out to create a life for himself, along the way finding generosity, imperious disregard, passion, and love—and always from the most unexpected sources. And, under the surface of this entertaining and riveting film, there is a subtle exploration of what a person’s character is really about.
-and one film we didn’t see, but heard was superb:
TO BE AND TO HAVE: (France; to be released Spring 2003 by New Yorker Films) [Film Society Review:] One of today's most sensitive and expressive documentary filmmakers, Nicolas Philibert crafts works that have the elegance and emotional breadth of great fiction. TO BE AND TO HAVE, which recounts a year in the life of a one-room schoolhouse in northern France, is his most exquisite film yet. Philibert makes something momentous of each interaction between the children and their ineffably gentle teacher, each in his or her own way coming to terms with the reality of change. Tender, wise, and lyrical, TO BE AND TO HAVE is heartbreakingly beautiful and uplifting in the best sense of the word. Assigned viewing for anyone who has ever set foot in a classroom.
FILMS DEFINITELY WORTH SEEING (while not the complete, all-around successes of the films listed above, these films are wonderful in their own right and worthy of your attention):
THE MAGDALENE SISTERS. (United Kingdom) Directed by actor Peter Mullan, this film (his second as a director) is a gripping and powerful story about the for-profit laundries run throughout Ireland until the mid-90s by the Sisters of the Magdalene Order. Ostensibly institutions for wayward girls, these laundries were essentially prisons, utilizing the young women as slave labor. The film follows the stories of three such women on their journey through the bondage, degradation, oppression. Just beneath the surface of this horror story lie questions about the role of the Church and its ‘moral’ position.
BLOODY SUNDAY. (UK/Ireland; released 4 October) Paul Greengrass’s film recounts the massacre of Irish protestors by English paratroopers in what was supposed to be a peaceful civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland, on 30 January 1972. The film movingly and disturbingly captures the sense of the inexorable movement of the forces towards their horrible conclusion. Although a touch too long, it is still a powerful, gripping, and well-done work. (And, as I write this, an inquiry is currently taking place in Great Britain in which testimony confirming the view presented by the film is being given by at least one of the British paratroopers who took part that day.)
TURNING GATE. (South Korea) Written and directed by Hong Song-soo, “Turning Gate” is simultaneously a story and an allegory, based on the Korean legend of the turning gate. An unsuccessful actor sets out on a journey in which he joins an old friend and becomes involved with two beautiful women. It is a story of friendship and betrayal, longing and rejection, love and despair—all intertwined, and far more complicated than they appear on the surface. There is a comic sensibility in this work, as well as a mystical one; and fate comes out a resoundingly strong factor in the face of human striving.
FRIDAY NIGHT. (France) Claire Denis (“Beau Travail,” NYFF ’99) has created an intensely sensual, engaging story about unexpected pleasure. Valerie Lemercier plays a woman who is first seen packing up the belongings in her apartment in preparation for her move to the apartment of her boyfriend (whom we never meet in the film). She proceeds to get stuck in the worst traffic jam in the history of Paris. In the midst of the rich tapestry of the sights and sounds of traffic in Paris, she has a chance encounter with a stranger, Vincent Lindon. Perhaps the most striking thing about the picture is how erotic Ms. Denis makes the experience without ever becoming overly explicit. It is languorous, visual, tender, and sexy—perhaps reflecting the fact that was created from a woman’s perspective?
MONDAY MORNING. (France/Italy) Georgian-born Otar Iosseliani has written and directed a wonderful, comic exploration of the life of a welder in a factory—a middle class drone whose repetitively patterned and controlled existence is an unbroken series of dreary activities, punctuated only by the occasional cigarette, smoked in stolen moments amid the non-smoking environments in which he exists. One day he decides not to enter the non-smoking factory to which he commutes each day, and, leaving behind the children who ignore him and the wife who seems mostly to assign him tasks, he suddenly leaves his home in France and heads for Venice—where the fairytale feel of that city supports his foray into the world of the pleasurable, at least for a time.
INTERESTING, IF FLAWED:
THE SON. (Belgium/France; to be released 13 December by New Yorker Films) The latest film by the Dardenne brothers (“La Promesse” and the controversial and much reviled winner of Cannes, “Rosetta”), is an interesting if somewhat trite exploration of revenge, forgiveness, compassion, and redemption. The carpentry teacher in a program for recently-released young offenders decides to take on a new apprentice—one with whom he clearly has some unknown but highly charged relationship. The boy, who knows nothing of the underlying relationship, looks to the teacher as a father figure. There are some very gripping moments in the story, but in the end it remains rather pedestrian and shallow.
RUSSIAN ARK. (Russia/Germany; to be released 6 December by Wellspring Films) Russian director Alexander Sokurov filmed this 96 minute movie in one single, unbroken, unedited, continuous take. The film is a dreamy journey through the spectacular halls of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, accompanying two ghost-like presences—the one a 19th century diplomat whom we see on camera, and the other the eye through which the experience is seen (in reality the voice and eye of the cinematographer, Tillman Büttner); but it is at the same time a journey though Russian history, moving back and forth between current time and scenes from the past, including appearances by the likes of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and culminating in a grand ball given by Nicholas and Alexandra on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Unfortunately, as novel as are both the format and premise of this film, it ultimately does not work all that well. As one of our guests remarked, “This movie actually underscores the fact that there is a strong case that can be made for editing!”
TEN. (Iran/France; to be released Spring 2003 by Paramount Classics) Written, directed, and photographed by the Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami (“Taste of Cherry,” “TheWhite Balloon”), “Ten” takes place entirely in the car of the main character—a woman who ferries her son, her sister, and other random female passengers from place to place in Teheran. In the emotionally over-heated confines of her automobile, we are led to feel an intense array of emotions—including, “Get me out of this car!” The relationship between her and her young son—with her incessant narcissistic haranguing of him (often centering on her insistence that he acknowledge the badness of his father, from whom she is now divorced) and his desperate but aggressively hostile yelling at her and venomous rejection of her—is the most painfully difficult and provocative facet of the film. Even with the progress she makes over the course of the film and the apparent character development that occurs, she is unable to keep them from slipping back into their old pattern. Under this mother-child struggle, however, is the hauntingly disturbing question of the role of women in Iran, and the attitudes of Iranian males—very problematically embodied in the character of the young son.
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. (Centerpiece; USA; released 11 October by Columbia Pictures) I must first confess that I am not a great fan of P.T.Anderson (although I liked his “Magnolia” better than his “Boogie Nights”—both interesting films, but neither completely my cup of tea), because I very much disliked “Punch-Drunk Love,” while several people I respect very much felt the opposite. This movie stars Adam Sandler (which also did nothing to help my opinion of it) as a terribly insecure and out-of-control social misfit who falls in love with the female main character, Emily Watson—and, for no reason that is anywhere apparent in the film, she falls in love with him as well. (As little character development there is in the film in general, this lack is particularly egregious with respect to her character.) Although there were some interesting moments and some off-beat views that were intriguing, I basically I found the film shallow, trite, and generally annoying.
WAITING FOR HAPPINESS. (Mauritania/France; to be released Spring 2003 by New Yorker Films) African filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako wrote and directed this beautifully photographed but hard to follow montage of life in a small, seaside West African village. Some of the characters Sissako depicts are extremely fascinating, and there are moments of real humor, emotion, and pain. Nevertheless, it was ultimately amazing how slow this experience felt, given that it was only a 95 minute movie.
DIVINE INTERVENTION. (France/Palestine; to be released Spring 2003 by Avatar Films) I really wanted very much to like this film written and directed by Elia Suleiman—and I did like it very much at moments. It is at its very best when it is most impressionistic and free, comically commenting on the surreal nature of Palestinian existence under Israeli occupation: the scenes of the angry absurdity of mundane life (like the neighbor throwing garbage in another’s back yard, or the struggle over the maintenance and destruction of a narrow roadway, with its bottle-throwing stand-off), or the marvelous beginning of the scene in which the main male character, “E.S.,” played by Suleiman himself, releases a helium filled balloon emblazoned with the face of Yassar Arafat to float past an Israeli check point and into the city of Jerusalem. The hand-holding scenes between E.S. and the female lead, Manal Khader were incredible. It ran into trouble, however, where the surreal and the literal become uneasily juxtaposed (as when the more caricatured version of oppression is paired with the all too realistic scene of an Arab ambulance being stopped and searched at the check point, while Israeli vehicles speed though in both directions). Moreover, the apparent subtlety of the fabric that was being created faltered at moments when all of the negative forces—including the people coming to repossess automobiles and household items—were a bit too simplistic portrayed as Israelis. The film was most problematic where it succumbed to arrogantly simplistic political triteness: the highly touted scene in which a female Palestinian ninja takes on several armed Israeli rangers, amidst a surreal array of religious symbolism, rather becomes something else when, after she kills them one by one, the ground becomes a triumphant Palestinian flag. Despite the artistry of parts of the film, it ended up feeling at times dangerously like a political tract—and was reacted to as such by the audience.