2003 – 41st Festival

It may be due to the times we are living through, but, for whatever reason, the recently ended 41st Edition of the New York Film Festival was the most unremittingly dark and generally angriest collection of films I can remember.  The two films with the lightest and most humorous feeling were BARABARIAN INVASIONS and THE FLOWER OF EVIL—the former about aging and death and the latter about incest and murder.  Nevertheless, there was, as always, an wonderful array of fascinating films—and the incredible joy of the NYFF is opportunity to discover great films you have to no reason to expect would be good. (I once again urge all of you in the NYC area to join the Lincoln Center Film Society and attend the NYFF next Fall.)  Here are descriptions of the films we saw, and a heads up about films to be on the lookout for—and, in this regard, the two you should most definitely see when they are released in the next two months are BARBARIAN INVASIONS and THE FOG OF WAR (see below). 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 2003 NYFF program and the Film Society descriptions of each film can be found at   My reviews of past years of the NYFF can be found at .)

MY FAVORITES (wonderful, well-made, enjoyable films):

BARBARIAN INVASIONS.  (“Les invasions barbares”; Canada; to be released 21 November by Miramax)  This film was the major surprise of the Festival:  it was simply wonderful!  We laughed out loud, we cried—and even sobbed.  Denys Arcand has written and directed a masterpiece about aging and death—and life and love, family and friendship.  Using the characters from his 1986 film, “The Decline of the American Empire,” Arcand explores his themes through the experience of the dying Rémy, unsuccessful as an academic, as a father, and as a husband—but highly adept as a philanderer.  Arcand, himself, explained at the screening that the “barbarians” are simply “others”—that everyone is a “barbarian” to someone; and the “invasions” explored or at least alluded to in the film are multiple and many-layered.  Although it seems at the outset to be an exposé of socialized medicine in Canada, the film ultimately succeeds in raising a myriad of questions on a multitude of levels; and, while one may disagree with or not even approve of some of the philosophical world view, it is incredibly successful as a work of art.  The humor is trenchant and hilarious:  when a caring nun warns Rémy that he may end up in the afterlife roasting in the fires of Hell, he retorts that she may end up floating on a cloud in Heaven between the Pope and Sister Theresa—eternally caught “between a surly Pole and a slimy Albanian.”  The characters are deep and rich, the story compelling, and the banter totally absorbing.  But there is also an unexpected level of emotional poignancy.  This is a must see.

FOG OF WAR: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.  (Centerpiece; USA; to be released 19 December by Sony Pictures Classics).  This is a most important and totally wonderful documentary by Errol Morris (“Fast, Cheap & Out of Control”) about Robert S. McNamara, who was, assuming you don’t hate him enough to still remember, Secretary of Defense under both Kennedy and Johnson, and the man most identified as the architect of the Vietnam War—or, at very least, its main spokesman.  This film is mostly footage of McNamara talking about his life and public life in particular (filmed using Morris’ “interatron,” a system he invented using two cameras and two teleprompters—the teleprompter on the camera focused on the interviewee showing the feed from the camera focused on the interviewer, and vice versa—thus allowing the interviewee to be looking directly down the lens of the camera while seeing the face of the interviewer).   McNamara comes off as an almost sympathetic and likable, dedicated and certainly intelligent person—which, in the end, actually heightens the sense of the evil he was involved in.  McNamara in his 80s is reflecting back on life, apparently trying to come to terms with things, but at the same time justifying and defending the very choices he is questioning.  The film moves through McNamara’s roles in World War II, the Cuban missile crisis, and, its main focus, the Vietnam War—about which it is an extremely important explication; but it is the deeper question of evil and its subtleties that this film is ultimately about.  As striking as are his comments about the Vietnam War and his role in it, his comments about his role during WWII, and about the decision—apparently largely at his suggestion—to use incendiary bombs on 67 cities in Japan are even more unsettling.  There is a shocking sequence about the fire bombing of Tokyo (which resulted in the death of 100,000 civilians and the destruction of half of the mostly wooden city in a single night) and of the many other Japanese cities that received similar treatment, that leads to McNamara’s concluding that he and General Curtis “Bomb them back to the Stone Age” Le May would have been tried as war criminals had the US lost WWII—a particularly powerful idea, given that this was a war considered to be just by most people, at least in its underlying rationale.  Although the project was begun and most of the filming completed before the events of September 11, the ideas in the film seem incredibly pertinent to our current situation in the world.  The question of how power is used, and, in particular, how its use is supported by governmental deception, is put in high relief. For example, McNamara says of the Vietnam War that the fact that none of our allies and other like-minded countries supported our actions in Vietnam should have given us reason to reassess our thinking—but didn't.  The score by Phillip Glass (whose work I am not particularly partial to) is extremely effective in this film:  as Errol Morris noted, “No one does ‘existential dread’ as well as Phillip Glass.”  The “eleven lessons” in the title (they are from Morris, not McNamara) give a not-totally successful framework to the documentary, but the film nevertheless works incredibly well as a gripping cinematographic experience, as well as being an important historical document.  It is something every American ought to see.

GOOD MORNING, NIGHT.  (“Buongiorno, notte”; Italy;)   Marco Bellocchio has created a powerful  and beautifully compelling masterpiece in this unusual film about the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro, who had been the five-time premier of Italy.  Aldo Moro was a law professor deeply committed to the theory of historical compromise:   from the beginning of his political career in the late 50s, he was responsible for moving his Christian Democratic Party away from its more right wing extremes—inviting the Socialists into the coalition government he formed when premier.  In 1978, no longer in government office, Moro was the President of the Christian Democrats and was in the process of pushing for the formation of a solidarity government that would include the Italian Communist Party.  He was kidnapped by members of the radical Red Brigade (Brigate Rosse), held for two months, and eventually murdered by his captors.  Bellocchio’s film, however, takes place entirely within the apartment in which he imagines Moro to have been held prisoner—and it creates an almost domestic feel to the drama.  The focus is on the experience of the one female terrorist, wonderfully portrayed by Maya Sansa.  While perhaps a little politically simplistic, the film nevertheless succeeds in creating a gripping human drama.

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):

PICCADILLY.  (NYFF Retrospective Presentation; World Premier of the restored print and score; UK; to be released by Milestone Films, and, after a spring run in theatres, on DVD and VHS).  Directed by German expatriate E. A. Dupont in 1929, this classic British silent film was made just at the point that the industry was turning to talking pictures, and there are moments in the film when one can feel the intense desire for dialogue.  The story line is dated and fairly silly, but the performances, the sets, the camera work, and the brilliant visual sense of the director make PICCADILLY an intensely wonderful experience and a cinematographic treasure.  There is a magnificent sequence of Charles Laughton (in his feature debut) unhappily and demandingly eating in a Piccadilly club that alone would justify finding a way to see this film. (I am going to purchase a copy of this movie the moment it becomes available and watch this scene over and over again.)  There are fascinating performances by Cyril Ritchard, Jameson Thomas, and American Gilda Grey—and even an uncredited appearance by the young Ray Milland.  But it is the Chinese-American Anna May Wong who steals the show.  Born in Los Angeles in 1905, by the age of 19 she had appeared with Douglas Fairbanks in the 1924 silent film, “The Thief of Bagdad”; and by 1928, she had become one of the few non-white movie stars.  Due to Hollywood’s rigid racial codes, however, Ms. Wong abandoned her successful American career for more adventurous roles abroad.   In PICCADILLY, she  brings depth and intensity to the role of Shosho, the Chinese dishwasher turned dancer.  Her performance is no mere racial stereotype:  she  is beautiful, sexy, and complex—even though at one point she does a rather erotic dance in what seemed to be a stripped-down Balinese costume, in a style that is most reminiscent of a hula.  There is a level of sensitivity and complexity to the racial portrayals and issues in this movie that are far beyond anything one imagines could have been part of any American film of the time—or for some time to come.  At the NYFF’s world premier of the British Film Institute’s magnificently and lovingly restored print of PICCADILLY, the newly composed score for the film was played live by a seven-piece ensemble, led by composer Neil Brand.

GOODBYE DRAGON INN.  (Taiwan)  Tsai Ming-Laing, whose WHAT TIME IS IT THERE was one of our favorites from the 2001 NYFF, returns this year with this most unusual and riveting film.  It is certainly not for everybody:  it has very little action, a series of extremely long, unbroken shots, and only four lines of dialogue.  Nevertheless, it is an eloquent, funny, evocative work that is sure to please those who have the taste for such things.  The film takes place within an aging movie theatre on a stormy night in Taipei.  On screen is DRAGON INN, a classic martial arts film of thirty years ago by the legendary King Hu.  In the audience are a collection of people, including two older men who are actually the actors who starred in the film on the screen, although this is never explicitly mentioned.  The experience is about the passage of time, aging, and the darkened world of the movie experience—and of life in general.  The movement and silent interactions of the people in the theatre are sad, comic commentaries on human interaction in general—with repeated violations of spatial conventions (e.g., people sitting down right next to each other in a huge, nearly empty theatre; and a scene in the men’s room that is one of the most quietly hilarious things on film).  At moments the men wandering the back corridors of the theatre quite directly evoke the world of gay men cruising.  And, all through it, a female employee who walks though the corridors of the building at an incredibly slow pace, dragging her crippled leg as she goes.  While bizarrely unusual, the film is a tour de force.

THE FLOWER OF EVIL.  (France; released 10 October)  In this, his fiftieth movie, Claude Chabrol demonstrates the masterfully firm hand of a brilliant and experience film maker: it is a beautifully done piece.  In his typical style, Chabrol deftly and humorously skewers the mores of the French provincial bourgeoisie and French political life.  The back story is that there is an accident in which the husband in one of two couples who were friends and the wife in the other are killed together in an accident, and their spouses subsequently marry each other.  In this story, the wife is entering politics, and the husband hates it.  The actors are wonderful, especially the man’s son, Benoît Magimel, who has just returned to the family after a long sojourn in the US, and the woman’s daughter, the very beautiful Mélanie Doutey, who, somewhat predictably, is in love with him.  Suzanne Flon, who plays the aging Aunt Line, all but steals the show, however.  Hints of betrayal, murder, adultery, incest, and wartime collaboration play in and out of this multi-generational family plot.  But, in the end, it is an engaging story, lightly told, despite all of its darkness. 

CRIMSON GOLD.  (Iran)  The latest film by director Jafar Panahi (whose film THE CIRCLE was a very successful entry in the last year’s NYFF) has a screenplay written by another NYFF Iranian film maker, Abbas Kiarastomi (last year’s TEN, and, earlier, THE WHITE BALLOON).  It is ostensibly about a botched jewelry store robbery, but it is really a film about the problems of Iranian society, told through the story of the main character Hussein.  At the story unfolds, we learn that Hussein is a veteran of the Iraq-Iran war, a victim of chemical warfare still acutely suffering from its debilitating effects.  But his life also throws into high relief Iran’s economic stagnation and inequities, the cruelty of its class distinctions, its deadening bureaucracy, and the presence of its police state controls.


21 GRAMS. (Closing Night; USA;  to be released 14 November by Focus)  In 2002, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu came to the NYFF with his first feature, the powerful and disturbing AMORES PERROS, which, like this new film, was written by Guillermo Arriaga .  There are things about 21 GRAMS that are very good (and it was in my opinion much better than the NYFF’s opening night film), but there are many things that are not; and while many will find this movie excellent, I thought it was very disappointing.  Culminating the dark mood of this Festival’s films, 21 GRAMS is about the suffering and intolerable loss involved in death for those who are left behind.  The portrayal of the grief, disorientation, pain, guilt, and even insanity attendant to such traumatic loss is clearly the film’s biggest achievement—and Iñárritu’s directorial abilities in this regard are very impressive.  The acting is good:  Sean Penn gives an outstanding performance—playing a seriously ill academic who is soft and (for the most part) compassionate in a way that I do not remember him ever successfully doing before, even though he does revert to type at moments; Naomi Watts is convincing—and beautiful (but nowhere near as versatile as she was in Mulholland Drive); and Benicio Del Toro is wonderful, as always (if you haven’t seen it recently, go back and look at his fabulous work in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).  But Iñárritu attempts to cover the weaknesses of the plot by cutting up and confusing the time sequence of events in a way that only almost works; and the ‘positive message’ at the end (connected to the reference in the title—the ‘21 grams’ that supposedly represents the amount of weight the human body loses at the moment of death) is particularly hokey and unsatisfying.  I would like to believe that he was aware of the pathology in both Sean Penn’s character and that of Naomi Watts, and the craziness of their relationship with each other, but I fear that he sees it far more romantically than that.  There are things about the film that are gripping and successful, but overall its integrating vision leaves much to be desired.

MYSTIC RIVER.  (Opening Night; USA; 8 October by Warner Brothers)  I am certainly going  to be in the minority on this one, but I did not really like this latest film by Clint Eastwood.  (One thing that has to be taken into consideration here is my strong prejudice against a lot of violence in films, although it is far from the only problems I had with this movie.)  Billed as a “crime thriller,” MYSTIC RIVER is set in a working-class Boston neighborhood (Chelsea?) near the Mystic River Bridge.  It begins with a traumatic event in the childhood of three friends, and then shifts to the ways their lives intersect as adults around another traumatic event.  The three friends are magnificently played by Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn, and Tim Robbins—and, in fact, the main redeeming feature of this film is the splendid acting of virtually all members of the cast.  The two main female roles are similarly well acted by Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden.  Tim Robbins turns in a particularly spectacular performance in the midst of what is an incredibly well-acted movie.  The problem here is the story, and the pretentiousness with which it is treated.  Ultimately, the plot is rather trite, melodramatic, and shallow, while at the same time being treated as profound.  There are a myriad of artificially introduced coincidences and contrived interrelationships that add an almost laughable level of unnecessarily complex meanings to many of the plot’s turning points—while, in the end, one of the most important occurrences is not given any meaningful explanation at all (although it easily could have been).  While not the film’s fault, the worst thing was that many commentaries about the film that called it “tragic” or, worse, compared it to “Greek tragedy.”  There is currently a terribly unfortunate tendency to confuse pathos and even melodrama with tragedy:  tragedy (and particularly with the modifier ‘Greek’) is not about terrible or sad things happening to people, but about people of great stature confronting the meaning of life in extreme situations and with tremendous courage.  (For those more interested in my thoughts on this subject, see my old paper, “Psychoanalysis and the Tragic Sense of Life.” ) There are some good moments in the film, but there are also too many embarrassingly bad ones; and, on the whole, it does not effectively hang together in an integrated way.  [And just one psychoanalytic observation I can’t restrain myself from making:  I’d suggest that Kevin Bacon rethink the domestic decision he makes at the end of the movie: boy, is he making a big mistake!]

RAJA. (France)  Jacques Doillon has produced a film that is quite interesting in moments, but disappointing in its overall vision.  Fredérique, a wealthy Frenchman living the life of ease and luxury in Morocco, becomes fixated on a local, young Arab woman, Raja, who comes to work in his garden.  Does Fred love Raja?  Is Raja just using him?  At times it seems like a love story that is painfully running amok because neither really can speak the other’s language.  But Raja is a deeply damaged person, an orphan who has suffered the harsh inequities and degradations of her impoverished, male dominated world; and, it turns out that Fred is an even more inadequate person—infantile and narcissistic in the extreme.  Even this could possibly have made for an interesting (if depressing) story; but, unfortunately, it is not clear that Doillon is fully aware of the pathology of his characters and therefore tends to treat them—and the story—far too romantically.

PORNOGRAPHY.  (“Pornografia”; Poland)  This film by Jakob Kolski is an adaptation of a novel by Polish author Witold Gombrowicz, which Gombrowicz described as “a descent into the dark limits of the conscience and body.”  It is set in Nazi-occupied Poland, and it is most effective in the way it captures the feeling of that time—the darkness and despair of the intelligentsia, the German soldiers roaming the woods shooting people, the moral dislocation.  The texture of the cinematographic style wonderfully and effectively reflects the darkness of the situation being portrayed.  The two main characters,  a writer, Witold, and his strange theatre and film director friend, Fryderyk, end up at the country home of a third friend, Hipolit.  Their relationship, and Fryderyk’s weird infatuation with a young woman seem quite involving; but, eventually, the story takes an even darker manipulative twist that is too unpleasant to be supported successfully by the story, and it becomes trite in a rather dreary way.

YOUNG ADAM. (Scotland)  This film by David Mackensie is a picturesque, beautifully photographed, and well-acted work—with a particularly strong performance by Tilda Swinton, and a good, if unappealing, performance by Ewan McGregor.  The action takes place on a barge working the canals of Scotland.  The problem resides in the fact that the film is full of rather graphic sex—all of which is angry and destructive, at the very minimum, and violent and sadistic, at its worst.  The result is that the film is far more upsetting and disconcerting than it is worth. 


MAYOR OF SUNSET STRIP.  (USA)  This documentary by  George Hickenlooper about the ‘career’ of Rodney Bigenheimer—a pathetic figure from the fringes of LA’s music industry—is a depressing and painful exploitation of a sad and dysfunctional man that should never have been glorified by inclusion in the NYFF.  It was a complete embarrassment.

AND ONE  WE SPECIFICALLY CHOSE NOT TO SEE (and, from what I’ve heard, we made the right decision):

DOGVILLE.  (Denmark/Sweden/France)  I have never forgiven Las von Trier for making BREAKING THE WAVES, and I don’t think I ever shall.  Mercifully, that means we were spared watching the three hours of this film.

SHORT FILMS  One of the treats of the NYFF are the short films that often accompany the main features.  They are sometimes wonderful, sometimes weird.  The following are what we found to be the good ones:

LITTLE CLUMPS OF HAIR. (UK; 11 minutes)  Jim Hosking’s wonderful piece about a group of young people’s reaction to their friend’s new moustache—and to differences in general. (How could I not be partial to this one?)

THE SHADOWS COMPANY. (“La Compagnie des ombres”; Switzerland; 12 minutes)  A totally marvelous piece by Christophe Perrierabout what appears at first to be a prostitution service.

DESTINO.  (USA/France; 6 minutes)  Directed by Dominique Monfery, this is the realization of a project jointly undertaken decades ago by Walt Disney and Salvador Dali, using Dali’s original storyboards.  It is wonderful at moments, but at times it is a little too clearly “Salvador Dali meets Snow White”—although even the bizarreness of that is fascinating.

TWINS.  (USA; 16 minutes)  Martin Bell’s footage of interviews with a series of identical twins at a ‘twins convention’:  exploitive, but at time hilarious.

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