2008 – 46th Festival
The 2008 NYFF once again was a wonderful
experience. There were no films in this
year’s NYFF we were specifically looking forward to, but this is the sort of NYFF which Nancy and I enjoy most: the kind that
provides the excitement of viewing films about which we know virtually
nothing, and the joy of discovering unexpected gems for ourselves. The NYFF is unique
among film festivals in that it is not a commercial or industry event: there are no
prizes except the honor of being selected to be part of the Festival; and it is
not a marketplace for selling films, so there is no requirement that films
screened in it have any particular commercial potential. Consequently, there are films in the Festival
that one will see nowhere else. While there are also films that have
significant commercial potential, this Festival was light in that regard—and
the ones that fit into this category were not ones we liked. There were extremely few American films—and
almost as many films from
This year, due to the
We were scheduled to see 20 of the films in this year’s NYFF and two of the Directors Dialogues; and I have reviewed below the ones I actually got to see. (For those who are interested, the entire 2008 NYFF program and the Film Society descriptions of each film can be found at http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff/program/films/program.html .) We ended up missing one of the films (Serbis) and the dialogue with Jia Shangke, although we loved his film My reviews of past years of the NYFF can be found at www.rlrubens.com/nyff.html.
For those of you who over the years have not noticed my subtlety in this—and who can be blamed for not looking for me to be subtle about my judgments about anything—I thought I might mention this year that I have always placed my reviews of these films in approximately descending order of how much I liked them.
[For films whose release dates I know, the dates are given underlined and in bold after identifying information. All films are dated 2008 unless otherwise noted.]
THE FEATURE FILMS IN THE FESTIVAL
Let It Rain (Parlez-moi de
City (Er Shi Si Cheng Ji, China/Hong
Kong/Japan, Cinema Guild) This film by Jia Zhangke was
an unexpected treat: what does one
expect from a fictionalized documentary about workers in a munitions plant in
Tokyo Sonata (Japan/Netherlands, Regent Releasing, to be released 13 March 2009) This is a tough movie given what is currently going on in the world’s economy: it centers around a man in Tokyo whose department is being outsourced to China and who is displaced from his long-time job—like so many other unemployed men in Tokyo who move in and out of the story. This father and husband, who seems to leave his job on principle rather than to preside over the dissolution of the department he has run, has pride that at first seems to be admirable; but his pride leads him to maintain the illusion to his wife that he is still employed, and eventually results in a lying, angry, violent downward spiral in which his entire family begins to disintegrate. Kiyoshi Kurosawa weaves the different strands of what is going on in this family—in the lives of the wife, the talented younger son, and the older son who enlists in the US Army (it may be hubris, but I think the film would have been more effective without this son being in it at all)—into a beautiful emotionally charged tapestry that is at times humorous, often desperately sad, sometime surreal, but always riveting. The film has a wonderful reference to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and it is quite full of the feel of Bergman in places; but it is at every turn original and creative. It is a masterpiece. And given that, I do not know why I would ever risk this comment: after its traumatic descent into oblivion, the family is reborn into a new life—and this apparent total regeneration, including its emotionally climactic final scene, is a bit too optimistic for me, in a way that is reflected by what I have always felt to be the emotionality of the Debussy that is played in its final scene; there is what for me is an amazingly poignant and powerful climax when the wife and younger son—the two characters whose rebirth I can more fully accept—return to their home, which would have made for a subtler and more satisfying ending for me. But my quibbles are minor; this is a must-see film.
The Headless Woman (La Mujer sin Cabeza, Argentina/France/Italy/Spain) Very different from her 2001 La Ciénaga or her 2004 The Holy Girl (La Niña santa), this latest work written and directed by Argentine filmmaker Lucretia Martel floats through scenes and themes without a clearly defined, linear and logical reality. We are ostensibly following a middle-aged Verónica (played by the captivating Maria Onetto) through the aftermath of her having had an automobile accident in a moment of distraction: she has hit something while driving—we are presented with it as having been a dog (which we actually see dead on the road, in the distance behind her car once she stops, some time after the accident), but she is afraid it was a person (and events suggest that perhaps this was what happened, whether it or not it actually was she who hit a boy who turns out to have drowned in a flood nearby the scene of the accident); and we follow her through a hospital emergency room experience (of which there later turns out to be no record), and then through a series of dazed interactions, in which she is drifting disconnectedly through her life with family, social, and work life (including a family member that she has sex with—although it seems like she was not at the hotel the night we supposedly saw it happen). The uncertainty of the fabric of the reality was reminiscent of Alain Resnais’s 1961 Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad). It is a haunting, powerful, and very odd film; beautifully done, and extremely evocative. Ms. Martel was “found” by Pedro Almodóvar (and her films are produced by him and his brother Augustin through their El Deseo film company), and her aesthetic, while radically different from his, is also somehow deeply resonant with it.
Happy-Go-Lucky (UK, Miramax released 10 October 2008) Mike Leigh (who brought Vera Drake to the NYFF in 2004 and Topsy-Turvy in 1999) wrote and directed the wildly energetic romp through the London world of Poppy Cross, a 30 year-old kindergarten teacher in the north of London, wonderfully played by Mike Leigh regular Sally Hawkins. Poppy is irrepressibly upbeat—happy, brimming with energy, always joking, never serious. Weaving throughout her life, however, are characters who are repressed, dark, violent, and even dangerous. Poppy interacts with these characters in an apparently caring, loving way; but the interactions have results that are often far from pretty—and it becomes subtly but increasingly evident that the presence of these people in her life and the outcomes of their being there are neither accidental nor without meaning about who Poppy herself is. One finds oneself laughing with Poppy at her situations and the people in them: it all feels like raucous good fun—most of the time. But eventually the viewer is led to realize an extremely dark underside to Poppy and what one is watching, and one starts to feel very uncomfortable and threatened. Whether it be the uptight book salesman Poppy makes a totally unsuccessful pass at in the beginning of the film (and where we are more drawn to see his neurotic inability to respond to her good will), the schizophrenic homeless person she tries to be caring toward (alone, in an isolated place under a highway, late at night—where we are far more drawn to feel her danger), or the damaged, obsessed driving teacher (whose ultimate tirade, while violent and crazy, is a remarkably on-target indictment of Poppy’s character flaws), Poppy’s apparent good will and light-heartedness reveal a much darker side. The general experience of watching this film is delightful fun; but the underbelly of the whole things adds a very meaningful and disturbing depth to that experience.
A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël), France, IFC Films, to be released 14 November 2008) Starring the wonderful Catherine Deneuve as Junon, and the even more wonderful (at least in this film) Jean-Paul Roussillon as her husband Abel, A Christmas Tale is a complex weaving of various aspects of a French family’s history over the years (including its almost mythic prehistory involving the young first son Josef who died from leukemia), and the various intersecting story lines of its present moment in time—eventually revolving about a Christmas celebration in the family home. The talented director, Arnaud Desplechin has imbued the tale with multiple levels of meaning and of philosophical import and of Biblical and classical references (the names alone are dauntingly redolent with association)—perhaps even too many and too profound for the film completely to succeed as cinema—all told in a light-hearted way reminiscent of silent films of old, with title pages for each of the many acts and music utilized not in a simply background way, but rather actively to convey what is sometimes left unsaid in the dialogue. In some ways A Christmas Tale is a comedy; but in some ways it is a dark tale of anger, jealousy, and intense resentment in a painfully charged family context. The great Mathieu Amairic plays Henri, the black sheep of the family, banished from the family by his sister Elizabeth (played by Anne Consigny, who played opposite Amairic in Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the sensation of last year’s NYFF) for reasons that seem self-evidently justified, but which in fact may mask other issues unspoken. Janon discovers that she has a potential fatal leukemia, and Henri returns to the family for Christmas with a Jewish girlfriend in tow. One of the film’s many intricate sub-plots involves Janon’s anti-Jewish feelings, although Abel seems to be Jewish, and it is an open question as to whether the entire family is (there is an inexplicably hilarious moment when the family sits down, after their elaborate Christmas meal and some of them attending Midnight Mass, to watch on television Charlton Heston and Cecil B. DeMille part the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments; and there is an equally wonderful exchange between Janon and Henri, in which she calls him “her little Jew,” and Henri plays with the fact that “le petit Juif” is also a French expression for “elbow”—long one of my own favorite pieces of French trivia). It is a beautifully directed film, with a superb cast; but does all the complexity, explicit and implicit really work? There is an intense and very effective moment when Elizabeth tearfully confronts her father and asks why things are so wrong for her in the family, and her father says that it is because of her feelings about her brother—and he means to refer to Josef, the who died in childhood, and she takes it to mean Henri, whom she had banished from the family. But in that critical moment in the narrative, there is present layer upon layer of meaning: Josef is the lost brother of the story, but in the Bible he is the thought-to-be-lost but really banished (and sold into slavery) brother of Genesis, while Abel is the lost brother of Genesis, killed by his brother Cain, who is then banished and sent out in the world marked to be an outcast hated by all others—and, is it going too far to think that it is far from accidental that Desplechin (who is knowledgeable about and fascinated by the Bible) often films Henri with some cut or scar on his face? It is not at all clear that the film can actually support this deep a philosophical complexity and this intricate a set of allusions. I liked the film, but I fear it had a couple of themes too many and went a couple of levels too deep.
Summer Hours (L’Heure d’été, France, IFC Films) Olivier Assayas tells us the story of three siblings dealing with the death of their mother. The matriarch, played by Edith Scob, has lived alone in the family’s country home. She has spent much of her life—and virtually all her time and emotional energy—presiding over the legacy of her dead artist uncle, to whom her devotion seems quite inexplicably intense—particularly in contrast to the rarely mentioned dead father of her children. She also frets about what will become of the house and the art in it after her death. Not surprisingly, she suddenly dies, and her children are left to figure out how to deal with what she has left behind. These grown children have totally different relationships to their family life, their inheritance, and to the family country home: the eldest one, Frédéric (played by Charles Berling), who lives in Paris, wants to keep the house and preserve what he can of the art he and his family have grown up with; the daughter, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), lives in the US, and, in good American style, wants to dispose of everything as soon as possible; and Jérémie (played by Jérémie Renier), the youngest, who has been living in Shanghai and is about to take a position which will keep him there for years, is less cutthroat about it, but has little interest in keeping this property which he will be unable to use, and the money from the sale of which he could sorely use. There is both a painful sadness in the film and a lighthearted sense of humor about the realities involved in all of these life-cycle issues. It is a quietly insightful, gently provocative look at these serious issues in a not too depressing way. In a way I did not like, the film moves briefly on to the next generation and the granddaughter’s relation to the house; but, since all of the young people we took to see it (and Nancy) actually liked this ending, I have to conclude it had more merit than I felt this element to have had; but, one way or the other, it was a wonderful film.
and Day (Bam Guan Nat, South Korea) Long-time NYFF
regular, South Korean director Hang
Sang-soo, has once again created a powerful,
entrancing look into the life of human foibles and interactions. The story begins with the main character, a
young married painter named Sung-nam, running off to
Waltz with Bashir (Israel/Germany/France, Sony Pictures Classics, to be released 26 December 2008) Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman has written and directed this almost totally animated autobiographical film. I at first had trouble with the style of the animation; but I became acclimated to it, and eventually thought it was a quite effective device in the telling of the story. Presented with the flashbacks that a friend of his had been having of his experiences when the two of them were young adults in the Israeli army during the 1982 occupation of Lebanon, the main character begins to wonder what his role was in that experience—and he realizes he cannot remember anything about it. He starts travelling about to talk to his friends who were there with him during the occupation, and he begins to remember pictures of it—but they are basically what we psychoanalysts refer to as “screen memories”: false placeholders for memories that are too unacceptable themselves to be admitted into consciousness. A therapist friend suggests to him that the problem is his own family’s connection to the Holocaust, and the fact that in this memory Folman finds himself in the role of the Nazis. Eventually he comes to remember that the lovely picture he has remembered of calmly floating in the sea off a beach watching fireworks actually refers to the fact that he was part of the Israeli involvement in the Shatila massacre in Beirut: that he was part of the encircling ring of Israeli troops that permitted the Christian Phalangist militias to go into the refugee camp and massacre countless numbers of civilians (in part in revenge for the assassination of their leader, President-elect Bashir Gemayel—and thus the name of the film), and that the “fireworks” were actually Israeli launched flares to help the militias locate the people they were slaughtering. I was at first put off by the fact that I thought the film let the Israelis off too easily (in reality, they were not only complicit in permitting the massacre as the film indicated, Sharon actually had ordered it; and it was not only a single night as portrayed in the film, but rather two nights and the day in between); but, in the end, I was soothed by the fact that the young people who saw it with us and had no real knowledge of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, got a pretty clear sense from the film of the Israeli role—and, even more importantly, I learned that the film is a big hit in Israel…which more than justifies some watering down of the full strength of the accusations. In reality, though, the film is much more a sensitive portrayal of the horrors of being a near-child in an occupying army—exposed to violence and death themselves and required to take actions that inflict the same on others—than it is about these atrocities themselves. In the final analysis, while flawed, it is n excellent and important film.
Tulpan (Germany/Kazakhstan/Poland/Russia/Switzerland) Directed and co-written by Kazakh documentary-maker, Sergey Dvortsevoy, this was one of two films in the NYFF this year from Kazakhstan—I believe almost as many as from the US this year! And it was both a surprise and a joy! Set in the dusty, forbidding emptiness of the Kazakhstani Steppe, Tulpan is the story of young man named Asa who has returned to his brother-in-law’s yurt and is tending the sheep with him. The tale centers on his attempt to get a bride for himself. Asa and his brother-in-law go many miles to the next nearest yurt to try to talk the family of a young girl named Tulpan—which means “tulip,” and whom we never see, as she is always hidden from our view and his by a curtain. Tulpan is a totally engaging, earnest, and sympathetic character; but Tulpan and her family rejects his offer of marriage, ostensibly because of his unusual ears, which do stick out in a quite unusual way. (There is a quite wonderful and funny sequence in which Asa tries to convince everyone that his ears are really very stylish and attractive by comparing himself to a picture of Prince Charles.) The bleakness and beauty of the steppe, and the harshness of its winds and weather, and the bitterness of its life are every bit as major characters in this film as are the actors; and their bleakness plays against the warmth and good spirits of Asa and his friend and sister. The question of what life in this environment can mean, and whether it is, in fact, livable, are the underpinnings for this winning film
Argentine (Che –Part I); although they are slated to be released as
two separate movies, The Argentine
and Guerrilla were screened at the NYFF as one 4½ hour movie in two parts, with an
intermission in between] (France/Spain, IFC Films, to be released 12 December 2008) Although I had not expected to, I liked The Argentine, the first section of Steven Soderberg’s opus about Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. Che is played remarkably well by the fabulous Benicio del Toro. The film opens with Fidel Castro and Che, an Argentine physician, meeting together in
The Class (Entre les murs. Opening Night. France, Sony Pictures Classics, released on 25 September 2008) I had a lot of trouble with this film on
opening night of the Festival: it was
not what I expected to see that evening, nor was it what I particularly wanted
to see; and my immediate reaction was not to like it at all. As time passed, I reacted more kindly to it;
and, ultimately, I though it was reasonably
interesting—although in no way good enough for opening night of the NYFF. The screenplay
and the book upon which it was based were written by François Bégaudeau, who also plays the
main character in it. It is the memoir
of Bégaudeau’s experiences actually teaching high
school in a tough, multi-ethnic neighborhood in
Nights with Anna (Cztery Noce z
Changeling (Centerpiece, USA, Universal Pictures, to be released 31 October 2008) The very best thing I can say about this film is that it kept me awake, even though it was the third film we had seen that day and it went until well after midnight. But that was only because the story itself was rather compelling. Based on a true story having taken place in Los Angeles, starting in1928, Angelina Jolie (who, while not terrible, certainly cannot support being the center of attention on screen for almost 2 ½ hours) plays a single mother whose 10 year old son disappears one day. After a nationwide manhunt, a boy is returned to her whom the police insist is her son—although it is far too clear, far too immediately, that it is not. (It might have been interesting had there been some real ambiguity as to whether the boy was really not her son or whether she was in fact delusional in her rejection oh him—but there was virtually none.) The police have their nefarious reason for quelching her protestations and further efforts to find her actual son; and what ensues exposes—with the help of a minister played by John Malkovich—many moral problems within the City’s government. O that the film had been done by a good director! I have never liked Clint Eastwood’s directing: it is slow, heavy-handed, and painfully out of touch. Some of the scenes in this films that could have been incredibly powerful were all but eviscerated by his plodding and simplistic style. And his moral vision has only two settings: black and white—no character in the film has any subtlety or moral nuance or complexity. The level of gore and violence in the film did not help my opinion of it, of course. Given the sophistication level of the general American movie-going public, Changeling is likely to be a big hit; but I’d suggest you avoid it like the plague!
The Windmill Movie (USA) Written and directed by Alex Olch, this film is an attempt to make sense of the unfinished—never seriously started, actually—autobiographical film project of Dick Rogers, Olch’s film teacher at Harvard. Olch waded through endless footage that Rogers had shot of himself, his friends, and his family—much of his rather monstrous and imposing mother—and of the world he inhabited, largely in the Hamptons. Olch actually succeeds in making a rather watchable—if somewhat fanciful (some of its impact was retroactively diminished for me upon learning after seeing the film that the “diaries” that were used to narrate much of the later parts of Rogers’ life and experience were fictions created by Olch)—version of Rogers and his project. The main problem is that it just didn’t seem to me that Dick Roger’s life or work was important enough to warrant the effort. Nothing in the film did anything to suggest to me that he had been anything other than a self-centered, spoiled fellow who had inherited his way into the rarified life of Georgica Estates in Wainscot in the Hamptons. He obviously must have been intelligent, and, judging from the quality of his friends (Wallace Shawn was one of his intimates, and he plays an important role in this film), he may have been a quite interesting, charming guy. Nevertheless, I could not stop myself from thinking that the real reason he never assembled his autobiographical attempts into a film was that he correctly did not believe that there was enough in it to warrant it.
The Guerrilla [Che –Part II; although they are slated to be released as two separate movies, The Argentine and Guerrilla were screened at the NYFF as one 4½ hour movie in two part, with an intermission in between] (France/Spain, IFC Films, to be released 12 December 2008) I found myself disliking Guerrilla almost as much as I had liked The Argentine. It was a slow, tedious telling of the failure of Che’s attempt to export the Revolution to the mainland of South America and overthrow the government of Bolivia—the movie seemed to last longer than did Che’s insurgency, which was over in the brief span of 11 months. I guess the point of the film was, “The Revolution didn’t work elsewhere”; nothing much else seemed to happen or to be said in the film. I hate to give away the ending, but Che gets killed in the end. I’d suggest you miss this one—even if it is playing as a double feature with The Argentine and your ticket gets you into it for free.
The Wrestler (USA, Fox Searchlight, to be released 17 January 2009) I hated this film. I had heard—incorrectly, it turned out—that Darren Aranofsky had created a masterpiece. It is actually a dreary, trite, senselessly violent mess. I suppose it will be said that Mickey Rourke turned in an excellent performance as the over-the-hill professional wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson; and I suppose that is in some way true. But I could not tolerate looking at his steroided-up, middle-aged body. And Marisa Tomei, whom I usually like a great deal, not only was not particularly good in the role of the stripper/single mother Cassidy, she even did not look good (although her naked chest was much more appealing to me than Rourke’s…nipple rings aside)! I found the triteness of much of the film unbearable: the entire attempted relationship between “The Ram” and Cassidy was almost of comic book mentality; and “The Ram’s” attempted relationship with his daughter was laughable; but it was the predictability and triteness of the ending that was literally the final straw. Nevertheless, it was the violence and gore that pushed me over the edge: I have trouble with it in any film, but here there was absolutely nothing to justify or mitigate its horribleness.
Tony Manero (Chile/Brazil) Set in the very most vile years of Pinochet’s violent and repressive regime in Chile, Pablo Larrain tells the story of a middle-aged, psychotic, violent man obsessed with Saturday Night Fever, and John Travolta’s character in it—Tony Manero. This main character (played by one of the co-authors of the screenplay, Alfredo Castro, who looks not a little like Al Pacino) is putting together a homegrown stage production of Saturday Night Fever, and is stealing and killing to get materials to stage the show. I can best give a flavor of the film by describing the following scene: the main character goes to the movie theater everyday to see Saturday Night Fever, but, one day when he shows up it is no longer playing; it has been replaced by Grease; the ticket seller tells him, “It’s the same guy,” and he goes in, sits for about 15 seconds, gets up, sneaks up to the projection booth, and beats the projectionist to death against the projector. Now, it has been claimed that this is all an allegory for the senseless violence of the Pinochet era—and even of its connection to the US and to American culture. Tony Manero is a well-made film, but is simply too violent for me—and I did not feel enough power to the allegory to justify that violence.
The Northern Land (Acorte do norte, Portugal) This was without a doubt our least liked film in this year’s NYFF. It was an almost completely unsuccessful attempt by Portuguese director João Botelho to create a film based on a novel by Augustina Bessa Luis, in which a young woman searches for the true story of a distant noblewoman ancestor. Although the film is beautifully photographed, the acting is stiff and wooden, the story dull, and the result pointless and pretentious. It left me feeling I had just seen a beautifully filmed but dreadful high school play.
Lola Montès (France/West Germany, 1955, Rialto Pictures, already in limited release at NYC’s Film Forum) This was Max Ophül’s final film, and his masterpiece by all accounts. After decades of existing only in versions badly butchered by the producers, Cinémathèque Française has produced this excellent newly restored version using all the available footage. Told in flashbacks from a circus performance about her life, the film tells the story of Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert, known as “Lola Montès,” a dancer and courtesan who was the mistress to men as varied and famous as Franz Liszt and Ludwig I of Bavaria. Lola is played by Martine Carol, and her co-star is Peter Ustinov, who is the ringmaster of the circus—the producer of the show, and yet another man in Lola’s life, along with the likes of Oskar Werner (who plays a young student who becomes infatuated with Lola, and figures in and out of the story). The film is visually magnificent, beautiful in the opulent richness of every detail of every carefully filmed moment, filling the screen in all of its CinemaScope glory. The camera moves luxuriantly along with Lola, creating a sense of motion and progression that basically serves to move the film forward. Unfortunately, it does so somewhat better than the storyline itself, which is rather mawkish and melodramatic. It is a profoundly satisfying visual experience, but I certainly can in no way agree with the conclusion of film critic Andrew Sarris (who introduced the film at its NYFF screening on the occasion of his 80th birthday) that “Lola Montès is…the greatest film of all time.”
I once again encourage all of you in the NYC area to join the Film Society of Lincoln Center and attend the NYFF next fall. As some of you may know from personal experience, getting tickets for this incredibly popular NYC event can be extremely difficult—and, once one has realized how wonderful the Festival is, it can be extremely frustrating not to be able to obtain tickets. I therefore refer you to the short Primer on Membership in the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Obtaining Tickets for the New York Film Festival I put together to discuss strategies of how successfully to get tickets for the NYFF. The short story is this: you either take your chances on being able to get scalped tickets (often available during the NYFF from people selling them outside the theater) or returned tickets (at the box office) at the last minute, or you improve your chances by becoming a member of the Film Society. But N.B.: membership only gives one a relative advantage (in that you get to put in your requests before it is opened to the general public—which means you are likely but not guaranteed to be able to get tickets to all but the most sought-after films); the only way to guarantee you will get tickets to all of the films you want—particularly immensely popular ones—is to become a donor. Being a member does not guarantee anything!