2009 – 47th Festival

The 2009 NYFF just  ended on11 October.  As a warm-up for this year’s Festival, on 23 September the Film Society hosted the premiere of Oliver Stone’s new documentary, South of the Border.  It was a momentous, rather incredible event, attended by Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales (the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia, respectively), who joined Stone and the Film Society’s Richard Peña for a Q&A after watching the film.  Nevertheless, while I fundamentally agreed with the point of the film—that U.S. policies towards South America have been and continue to be misguided and shamefully bad, and that there are many important populist movements there that we ought to be friendlier towards—and while it is actually very watchable for a political documentary, the level of its naïveté was hard to take:  it was essentially a praise poem to Hugo Chavez!  Now, one can legitimately point to many things that are good about Chavez, and it is completely reasonable to note that he has been unfairly demonized in the U.S. media; but the idea of a movie centered on him without a single criticism of any aspect of his policies and what he’s done is bizarre.  The next night, Warner Bothers threw a fun party at Tavern on the Green for the upcoming 70th anniversary release of the newly re-mastered print of The Wizard of Oz, which was to premiere in the NYFF during its first weekend.  And after these two preliminary event, the next night was Opening Night of the Festival…


With the exception of Alain Resnais’ brilliant Opening Night film, Wild Grass (Les herbes folles), this year’s Festival had a relatively slow start, and many of the films were unusually dark, some even brutal; the quality, however, was in general amazingly high and grew better and more rewarding as the Festival progressed.  Closing Night was the major, total stand out:  Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos), which was fantastic on every measure—including being a completely enjoyable viewing experience.  There were other great films by Claire Denis, Todd Solondz, and Lee Daniels; and quite excellent ones by Michael Haneke, Bong Joon-Ho, and Jacques Rivette.  Half of the films were quite difficult experiences, even when they were wonderful, and even beautiful.  Mothers took a particular beating in the way they were represented in some of the films:  we saw one mother hack someone to death with a machete, one bludgeon someone to death with a monkey wrench, and another throw her daughter and newborn grandchild down a flight of stairs and then drop a television on them—and, on a lighter note, we heard one explain to her twelve year old son how she got wet on her first date with a new boyfriend when he touched her on the elbow.  There were two absolutely marvelous films from the 1930s that were completely joyous experiences.  And, as always, there was the array of incredibly beautiful, moving films one would never have the opportunity to see anywhere else which we have come to expect from the NYFF.  All-in-all, it was another great Festival.

We were scheduled to see 20 of the films in two weeks of this year’s NYFF and one Special Event (a conversation with Pedro Almodóvar on the history of cinema); and I have described below the 19 films I actually got to see.  (Nancy saw the one I missed, Henry-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno [L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot] by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, [France], and she thought it was very good.)  For those who are interested, the entire 2009 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; and there is an online version of this year’s NYFF available at

 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 that I have always placed my reviews of these films in approximately descending order of how much I liked them.

All films are dated 2009 unless otherwise noted.


Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos).

Wild Grass (Les herbes folles).

The Wizard of Oz

White Material.

Life During Wartime.

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire.

Crossroads of Youth (Cheongchun’s Sipjaro).

The White Ribbon (Das weiße band).

Mother (Maedo).

Ghost Town.

Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup).

Everyone Else (Alle Anderen).

The Art of the Steal.


Min Yè... (Tell Me Who You Are).

Sweet Rush (Tatarak).


Trash Humpers.

Police, Adjective (Politist, adj.).

Ne change rien.

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos).  (Closing Night, Spain, Sony Pictures Classics)  Pedro Almodóvar has created yet another masterpiece!  The latest in a long series of wonderful Amodóvar films to premiere at the NYFF, Broken Embraces is also one of his finest; and it was far and away the best, most enjoyable and rewarding film in this year’s Festival.  Harry Caine (Lluís Homar, from Bad Education), a blind screenwriter, learns of the death of a wealthy businessman (José Luis Gómez); and this initiates a journey back 14 years into his past, to a time when he was directing his final movie, and before he abandoned his real name, Mateo Blanco.  At the center of this journey is the ravishingly beautiful, sexy Lena (the incomparable Almodóvar star, Penelope Cruz), who is the love interest and who ends up starring in the movie Mateo was making.  The journey moves through many incredibly rich landscapes—in the physical world (travelling from Madrid to the moon-like cratered volcanic fields of the Canary Islands, to the sea coast, and ultimately back to Madrid), in the emotional world (moving through comedy, drama, romance, and thriller), and ultimately through the world of cinema itself (Almodóvar’s story progresses through the cinematic world he creates, thence into the world of the film created by the characters within it, and eventually moves recursively back into the film world of the auteur himself).  The marvelous cast is rounded out by Blanca Portillo (from Volver), Tamar Novas, and Rubén Ochandiano.   Broken Embraces is a riveting, moving, exciting, entrancing experience.  At 128 minutes, it races by all too quickly—not something I often feel about films.  It is sublimely fabulous, and a must for all who love Almodóvar’s work.  See it as soon as it is released!

Wild Grass (Les herbes folles).  (Opening Night, France, Sony Pictures Classics)   I have always loved the films of Alain Resnais (including Same Old Song [On connaît la chanson] from the 1998 NYFF), and this latest of his creations (at the age of 87) is no exception.  Seeing M. Resnais in person for the first time when he appeared on stage opening night, I fell in love with him:  he is an elegant, vibrant, somewhat impish man, with a shock of longish white hair, whose personal presence was so strong, endearing, and warm that we wanted to take him home with us!  Wild Grass is an engaging, beautiful voyage into the convoluted territory of obsession.  Not obsessive-compulsiveness, but rather the tortured confusion of guilt and anxiety over inner badness that may or may not be real—over events that may or may not have occurred.  The film’s mélange of shifting realities, alternative memories, and multiple speculative ruminations spins and mutates in a way strongly reminiscent of the multiple realities of Resnais’ 1961 Last Year at Marienbad (L'année dernière à Marienbad).  Resnais regular, the magnificent André Dussollier, is incredible as Georges Palet, a middle-aged man who finds a stolen wallet, and then proceeds, after returning it, to become obsessed with its owner.  The moment—repeated multiples times throughout the film—when Georges first touches the bright red wallet (Resnais’ intense use of color has an almost symbolic feel throughout the film) has all of the electricity, ominous import, and danger that obessives so characteristically experience in the act of touching a meaningful object.  Georges either has or has not committed some crime or shameful deed—which may or may not have involved violence against women; and his intentions toward Marguerite Muir, the enigmatic woman whose wallet he has found (wonderfully played by Sabine Azéma, another familiar player in Resnais’ recent repertoire) may or may not be malevolent—but they are certainly obsessive.  The story is further complicated by the dichotomies in Marguerite’s character:  she is a solitary, rather sad woman, who lives a strange, limited existence, except in that she has an intensely joyous side related to her seemingly unintegrated activities as an airplane pilot; she seems rather passive and submissive, except she is also a dentist who seems to inflict more than an expectable amount of pain on her patients.  Add for wonderfully good measure the marvelous Mathieu Amalric, who plays Bernard de Bordeaux, the somewhat bewildered police officer who is the original conduit through which the wallet is returned, and one has a terrific ensemble that generates the tremendous energy and vitality of the film.  There is a powerful feeling of danger and foreboding throughout the film, yet it is counterbalanced by intensely satisfying humor and a lightness of touch, and by the visual beauty and richness of filming—and the juxtaposition of these moods reinforces the other tensions in the plot and within the personalities of the protagonists.  One never knows for sure what has happened, what is happening, or what it all means—but this is Alain Resnais, after all; and one is always propelled forward through the experience by the careful hand of the master.  The sense of duality—and it is the irresolvable tension between good and bad, clean and dirty, maleness and femaleness, etc., that is always at the very core of all obsessive rumination— resonates throughout the film:  the repeated image of Marguerite’s bright yellow handbag “flying” through the air in slow motion at the moment it was stolen is a visual pun on one of these dualities (“voler” in French means both “to steal” and “to fly”); and even the film’s title, Les herbes folles, which properly translates as “rank weeds” (although the English title Wild Grass certainly is valid, as “folles avoine” is “wild oats”) contains the duality of “folles” (a feminine plural of “fou”), having the connotation of “wild” in the sense of “out of control” (as descriptive of  “weeds”), but also more directly of “mad” or “insane”; and there even is another statement of the duality in the visually beautiful images which open the film and are repeated at moments throughout—of grass pushing up through cracks in the far less attractive manmade environment of the pavement and roads—spontaneous life, “wild” and “crazy,” emerging without plan, but beautiful and vital.   If I had one discomfort about this most absorbing and successful masterpiece, it was in relation to the extreme strangeness of  its impossibly unintegratable last scene; but I am told that Resnais has said that it is there because it is true to the novel by Christian Gailly upon which the film was based; and, given the tremendous sophistication and mastery of Alain Resnais, I am more than willing to accept as meaningful in his work things I cannot immediately integrate and to simply enjoy their presence.  In summary, Wild Grass is a rich, deep, beautiful, complex, psychologically sophisticated, and powerful experience, and I loved it.

The Wizard of Oz.  (1939, USA, Warner Home Video)  The NYFF featured the premiere of the 70th anniversary release of a newly re-mastered print (and DVD edition) of.  What more is there to say?  The Wizard of Oz is a triumph of the filmmaking arts, and it is one of the iconic films of all times. Viewing it was a delight—as always; but the opportunity once again to see this masterpiece on the big screen was thrilling.  A piece of trivia we learned as part of its presence in the NYFF was that there were actually three directors involved in making the film.  The two uncredited ones were King Vidor (prolific in the teens and 20s, directed Stella Dallas in 1937), who did all the black and white Kansas scenes, and Mervyn LeRoy (best known for his directing in the mid-50s films like Mr. Roberts and The Bad Seed); while the one with the director credit, of course, was Victor Fleming, who directed Gone with the Wind that same year (interestingly, also with two uncredited other directors—in this case George Cukor and Sam Wood).

White Material.  (France)   Claire Denis has written (along with Maria N’Diaye) and directed a devastatingly powerful tale of the collapse of French colonial control in an unspecified African country.  Filmed in Cameroon (quite wonderfully, by her new cinematographer, Yves Cape), the visuals are as magnificently beautiful as the story is profoundly ugly.  The central character Maria Vial, the capable, indomitably determined former daughter-in-law of the French Plantation owner Henri Vial (a relatively minor role for Michel Subor), is played by the stunning, incomparable Isabelle Huppert.  She valiantly and stubbornly attempts to keep the family coffee plantation going amidst the crumbling of the society around her:  the French soldiers are abandoning the country; the local army and the rebel forces are in open conflict; there is fighting between the old rebels (represented in the quietly understated but immensely powerful presence of “The Boxer,” Isaach de Bankolé) and the new rebel elements; the schools have closed and the youth of the country are armed and running amok; violence is breaking out everywhere—and there is little more disconcerting than seeing a 10 year old with an automatic weapon, or even a machete.  Maria’s family is falling apart as well:  her ex-husband André Vial (played by Christophe Lambert) is trying to sell the plantation and flee to France; their late adolescent, ne’er-do-well son Manuel is going off the deep end; the relationship between Maria and Lucie, André’s current black wife, and her child by him, José, turns bad; and Henri is sick and apparently dying.  Maria’s entire world is disintegrating, despite her apparently heroic efforts to hold it together.  Slowly every participant in the drama reveals himself in all the horror and problematic negativity in the position and soul of each:  there are ultimately no good guys in the collapse of this society.  One by one, even the apparently angelic José turns out to be destructive and ugly.  And finally, as the entire fabric of the social contract disintegrates and fails, we are confronted with the futility and misguided essence of even Maria’s role in the whole drama.  White Material is a masterpiece of filmmaking—powerful and successful, and beautiful in the horror of the brutality it is exploring; but it is a profoundly upsetting experience.  We staggered out of Alice Tully Hall, the stuffing having been knocked out of each of us.

Life During Wartime.  (USA)   I actively disliked Todd Solondz’s Happiness (from the 1998 NYFF), so the fact that Life During Wartime is essentially a sequel to Happiness did not bode well for me.  It turns out that I found Solondz’s latest film to be terrific!  I don’t know whether it represents a shift in my perspective—or a reaction to the current state of the world—but I thought it was a completely successful movie:  it was coherent, sophisticated, and wonderfully funny.  The same strange characters from the same dysfunctional Jewish family—played in Life During Wartime by a totally different, and quite excellent cast—while now centered mostly in Florida instead of New Jersey, continue to struggle with the same unhealthy issues and relationships.  The twist of plot and storylines are too confusing to summarize fully: suffice it to say that the baby-voiced Joy (Shirley Henderson) is still joyless, now with the ex-con she stopped rehabilitating in her prison job and then married—but with hallucinatory visit from her dead former lover interest, Andy (Paul Reubens—“Pee Wee Herman”?); Joy’s sister Trish (Allison Janey) is dating the recently divorced Harvey (Michael Lerner), who, while older than she,  “is fantastic! Well, he voted for Bush and McCain, but only because of Israel, and he really knows they are idiots”; Joy’s about to be bar mitzvahed son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) isn’t sure he wants another man in the house, as the kids at school think he’s gay and tell him his father raped little boys; Timmy’s father, Bill (Ciarán Hinds), who Timmy has been told is dead,  is actually just getting out of jail and heading for Florida;…get the direction of all this?  But, it is wonderful!  There is even a rather deep set of questions running through the film about the nature of love and forgiveness, remorse and atonement—and the role in all that of forgetting (and of lying, to oneself and others).  Nevertheless, in the truest classical sense of comedy, all of this is engaging and thought-provoking, while at the same time profoundly humorous.  Add in other supporting cast members like Ally Sheedy (as the third sister) and Charlotte Rampling (as Bill’s one night stand), and the result is a really great piece of cinema, which I most highly recommend to you for your viewing pleasure and edification!  (By the way, the music supervisor for the film was our talented friend and neighbor, Doug Bernheim; and so, predictably, the music was also a very successful part of the overall experience.)

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire.  (Centerpiece, USA, Lionsgate)  Everything about this film sounded completely off-putting:  the story—about an extremely obese African-American teenager, pregnant for the second time with her father’s child, abused in the extreme physically and mentally by her mother—had sounded like it was going to be so melodramatic as to be unwatchable; the actors were not people I have any innate interest in seeing; and the fact that the Executive Producers included Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry also added nothing to my enthusiasm.  But Precious is nothing like what one might expect:  it is a moving, involving, and even uplifting—albeit painfully difficult—experience.  It is only the second film directed by Lee Daniels, but with it he has demonstrated enormous talent—especially in getting such incredible performances from the young people, most of whom have little film experience, and some, like Gaboubrey Sidibe, who plays the title role, having no prior experience acting in films at all.  Sidibe was rivetingly wonderful.  Paula Patton was very good as the teacher who takes an interest in Precious; Lenny Kravitz was good as the young nurse, although his role was rather thin; and Mariah Carey, as a social worker, was surprisingly competent.  Mo'Nique so convincingly played Precious’s monstrous mother that it is hard not to hate her personally—although I guess that means she did a wonderful job acting the role.  Although it is emotionally difficult for the viewer to deal with the horrible situations depicted in the film—and no less so because of their reality in our world— Precious does work extremely well as a movie and as an involving dramatic experience.  There are aspects of it that are at times simplistic and emotionally manipulative, but the film succeeds—and it does so in an emotionally powerful and intellectually satisfying way.  You should see it.

Crossroads of Youth (Cheongchun’s Sipjaro).  (1934, Korea)  Co-presented with the Film Society by the Korea Society and the Korean Film Archive, this 1934 silent film—the oldest existing example of Korean cinema—was the pleasant surprise of the NYFF!  An Jong-hwa’s melodrama about a young man who leaves a country life for the big city—“where all the young people want to be”—after his promised bride has been stolen by a “wicked man” is a tale of such men (all of whom subversively have a decidedly Japanese look about them—this being a period of Korea’s having been occupied by Japan—as opposed to all the heroes, who look archetypally Korean) taking unfair advantage of noble but weak young women, and the cruel twists of fate that come close to saving them but do not.  Nevertheless, as one might imagine in such a tale, young virtue triumphs in the end, if not in time to prevent the orgy of suffering.  The film itself was in itself a successful version of such a melodramatic tale, although that, in itself, would not have been so outstanding.  What made the experience so fabulous, however, was that it was presented as it would have been in 1934:  with a live musical accompaniment (in this case provided by a four-piece ensemble), two actors (representing the main male and female protagonists) who sang and acted out parts before, during, and after the film, and, most importantly, a pyonsa—a narrator—who put words into the characters’ mouths, added description and color to the scenes, made jokes and comic asides, and who generally added an amazing vitality and thrilling energy to the experience that I found unique.  In conversations with the Film Society’s Director of Programming Richard Peña and the Korea Society’s President Evans Revere before and after the screening, we were assured that this is precisely how such films were presented back then—including all the modernist touches added by the pyonsa.  Richard Peña told us that the model for this genre was that of Japanese silent film, where the benshi (Japanese for “narrator,” and written with the identical  kanji Chinese characters which in Korean are “pyonsa) was so central to the film-going experience, that it was the benshis who had tremendous followings rather than the specific movies themselves (apparently Japanese movie posters from the ‘20s list the name of the benshi in large type at the top, with the name of the film listed way below in far smaller print, it being the personality of the benshi that inspired a following.).  Richard told us that it was the extreme popularity of this particular benshi format that lead to silent films coexisting with talkies in Japanese cinema right up until the 50s—in a way unparalleled in any other country.  It was an unbelievably fun, rewarding experience.  (The only thing I can even begin to compare it to is the way The Rocky Horror Picture Show was sometimes presented in midnight screenings; but this experience was far beyond that.)  I only hope they present Crossroads of Youth again in this format so I can alert everyone I know to go see it next time!

The White Ribbon (Das weiße band).  (Germany/Austria/France/Italy)  Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year (not always a good omen, but on target in this instance), Michael Haneke’s film  about a small German village just before the outbreak of World War I is a powerfully gripping and successful drama.  The town’s young schoolteacher, played by Christian Friedel, is a central observer/participant in the drama, all of which is cast as him narrating his reminiscences of the events of 1913 from his current day perspective many years later, when he is an old man.  Beginning with the mysterious, life-threatening injury to the village doctor in a trap maliciously set to cause a horseback riding accident, a series of tragedies and crimes befall some of the residents of the village, including the torture of two children, both outcasts—one by virtue of being the son of the Baron, the other by having Downs syndrome.  In an unflinching way—reflected in the beautiful but stark black and white cinematography—Haneke takes us progressively deeper into the fabric of the village and the psyches of its residents, revealing levels of anger and suffering, sadism and humiliation, domination and submission.  Unremittingly, each person—with the notable exceptions of the school teacher and his love interest, the young governess Eva—reveals himself to be darker and more odious; and, eventually, the teacher begins to suspect his eerily emotionless pupils.  The dénouement—at least, to whatever extent any resolution exists—coincides with the outbreak of the War, and it is hard not to feel the implicit suggestion that we are being shown the generational origins and psychological underpinnings of the authoritarianism and Fascism that is so profoundly to shape the next thirty years in Germany.

Mother (Maedo).  (South Korea)  This film by Bong Joon-Ho feels at the outset to be a rather light, comic look at a 27 year old man, Do-joon (Won Bin),  who seems goodhearted, albeit mildly retarded, and his doting mother (the renown Korean actress, Kim Hye-ja), with whom he lives.  The troubles Do-joon gets into at first seem minor, and his mother’s ministrations to him seem only comically extreme in their maternal devotion and over-involvement.  As the film progresses, however, Do-joon ends up in jail, accused of murder; and his mother’s efforts seem progressively more heroic.  Toward the end, we are forced to confront what we have been subliminally aware of throughout:  there are disturbingly problematic aspects to this mother—and, in the end, it becomes increasingly impossible for the viewer to deny the potential horror of how some of them fit together.  Contributing to the depth of the film, there is a theme about efforts to remember and efforts to forget that permeate the very fabric of the story.  Moving from amusing to deeply disturbing, Mother is sophisticated and extremely well done throughout—and Kim Hye-ja is incredible in the title role.

Ghost Town.  (China)  We intensely enjoyed this documentary by Zhao Dayong about Zhiziluo, a dying town in the mountains of southwestern China.  Despite its almost three hour length—and yes, it would have been far better were it to have been 2/3 of that duration— Ghost Town was and deeply absorbing, hauntingly beautiful experience, in which the visual beauty and life of the green, mountain gorge setting plays against the harshness and ugliness of the realities of life in the dying town.  The film is divided into three sections, each containing some version of the life forces remaining in this dying place.  The first, “Voices,” is primarily focused on the Christian community and its pastor and his father:  they are struggling to understand and apply the teachings of the Gospels and of the long-departed missionaries who brought them their religion—the father more rigidly and shallowly (and he proudly talks about how they used to spend their time dealing with ghosts [literally, not figuratively], and now they have their Christianity which has freed them from that; and he then goes on to deal with a woman and her sick child in a way that sounds awfully much like he is attempting to exorcise ghosts and demons…), the pastor with a far more human and humane touch.  The second, “Reflections,” seems primarily populated by cats and dogs (and I did enjoy the cats and dogs more than I liked the Christians…), but really focuses on a series of deteriorating relationships, all deeply affected by the economics of the town.  The third, “Innocence,” revolves loosely around the story and the activities of a 12 year old boy who has been abandoned by his parents and his making his way in this dying town.   And all takes place against the cold stone presence of a stature of Chairman Mao, staring out over the town and the valley.  It is gorgeously filmed and entrancingly constructed.  Ghost Town was pleasantly reminiscent of Jia Zhangke’s documentary 24 City (Er Shi Si Cheng Ji), which was an unexpectedly wonderful treat in last year’s NYFF.

Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup).  (France)   Two giants from La Nouvelle Vague (the French New Wave of cinema from the late 50s and 60s) in this year’s NYFF!  This one, the 81 year old Jacques Rivette (who was one of the editors of Cahiers du cinéma) brings his lively, entrancing, yet complex film that begins with a chance encounter between heavy-hearted Kate (Jane Birkin), a middle-aged French woman returning to the circus she left years earlier and whose car has broken town on a country road, and the lighthearted Italian Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), who, after speeding by in his Porsche, comes back to help.  This opening sequence is a total joy, by the way:  essentially silent and restrained, the interaction between them is deeply funny, and results in Vittorio following Kate to the town where the small, dying circus is performing.  Like the quintessential Rivette film it is, Around a Small Mountain contains many themes and connections which at least partially reveal themselves from within the complex tapestry into which they have been woven; but unlike the typically long, rambling format of most his movies, it is amazingly short and compact, weighing in at a mere 85 minutes; it has as much going on it in as any Rivette film, but at an incredibly higher density.  Despite the fact that so much is ‘going on’ in the action as Vittorio becomes progressively involved with the circus and with Kate, what is happening is not what really matters.  What is really crucial are the emotions and ideas which are brought into the ring of this sparsely attended circus—the ring being, in this case, Rivettes’ familiar, all-important stage, which is always presented as a transformative space:  as Vittorio puts it, it is “the most dangerous place on earth…but also where everything is possible.” 

Everyone Else (Alle Anderen).  (Germany)  Writer-director Maren Ade has created an unusual film wherein a relationship is the subject and the expression of the story.  While it is rare for this to be the entire focus of a film, it is even more uncommon for it to be as successfully so as it is in Everyone Else.  The film’s two young lovers—Chris, a young architect played by Lars Eidinger, and his girlfriend Gitti, played by Birgit Minichmayr—are as mismatched as they are alike:  Chris is a sulky, taciturn, self-doubting but self-important architect living in his wealthy parents’ villa in Sardinia, and Gitti is a flighty, mercurial, apparently rootless, fun-loving, person who at first seems to have no professional commitments at all; but they are united in an immaturity that is deeply a part of each, albeit in startlingly divergent ways.  In ways that are at times humorous and at times are painful, but always are riveting and illuminating, the film progressively reveals the workings and dysfunctions of their relationship.

The Art of the Steal.  (USA, Sundance Selects)  This documentary by Don Argott explores the history of the Barnes Foundation and the forces that conspired ultimately to break the trust agreement established by its creator, Dr. Albert C. Barnes.  Dr. Barnes, a physician who made a fortune inventing and manufacturing the antiseptic Argyrol, assembled an extensive collection of primarily Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early Modern painting, which he housed in his Beaux-Arts mansion in Merion, PA.  Before going further, allow me to say that this documentary worked as a film:  it was engaging, interesting, and generally successful as a viewing experience in a way that few documentaries are.  Having said that, however, I have to note how much I was annoyed by the naïveté of its completely biased perspective.  Starting with the fact of Barnes’ working class origins in Philadelphia, it casts him as a populist who fought against the conservatism and social elitism of old line Philadelphia society; and it paints the movement to break the carefully designed trust he created as a capitalist plot to exploit his collection.  The reality, of course, is much more complex than that:  Barnes did put together an important collection—with the help, by the way,  of a former classmate, William Glackens (a painter who was a founder of the Ashcan School)—that, when a major selection from it was exhibited at The PA Academy of the Fine Arts in 1923, was scorned by the Philadelphia art establishment because they indeed were not open to its modernity; but his reaction to the establishment, and his lifelong battle with it, was anything but populist.  He actually made his collection all but inaccessible to the public for many years; and, even after its restrictions were changed to allow for some public access, it was always incredibly difficult to arrange to see the collection—even for those of us with the level interest that made us willing to travel to the northern suburbs of Philadelphia to do so (in all the years of wanting to see it, Nancy and I only once actually were able to arrange to do so).  And, contrary to the repeated insistence of the film, it is not the “greatest” or “largest” or “best” collection of such art anywhere:  the collection contains many incredible masterpieces, which it insists on exhibiting interspersed with works of far less worth—and some that are frankly mediocre or even bad; nor can I sympathize with the attempts to glorify the way Barnes had the works presented—its densely crowded hanging of work I found a quite poor choice (it was actually incredible to watch the footage of a show in Paris of some of the paintings from the Barnes collection: presented by the film as a travesty of ignoring Barnes’ sense of how they should be exhibited, but striking all of us as being the most wonderful and correct presentation of the works we had ever seen, giving important pieces space to be seen and appreciated for the masterpieces they are.)  One definitely can make the point that there is something wrong with contravening a person’s clear intent in establishing a trust; and, indeed, this is precisely what has happened in the case of the Barnes Foundation.  But this is an argument about the sanctity of private property, not of populism.  (One wonders what the reaction would be to a carefully designed trust that ordered the burning of historically important works of art upon the death of the owner…)  The ‘evil conspiracy’ of the museum and foundation world to move the Barnes collection into Philadelphia proper and to create a more reasonable public access for viewing it actually does have some things to be said in favor of it; nor is it clear why it is surprising or horrifying that these ‘conspirators’ employed money, power, and even political influence in achieving their ends.  There are many serious issues that could have been raised by this film—including even the whole question of whether it is acceptable that historically important masterpieces be owned by super wealthy individuals in the first place; but, due to the one-sidedness of the perspective of The Art of the Steal, that does not happen.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting piece of filmmaking.

Kanikosen.  (Japan)  Sabu  (as the actor/director/writer Hiroyuki Tanaka calls himself) has taken a piece of 1929 leftist muckraking/propaganda by Takiji Kobayashi, via a recent manga (Japanese graphic novel) version of it which made it popular among Japanese youth, and based on this he has written and directed a highly unusual and rather successful film.  Kanikosen translates as “Crab Canning Ship.” Indeed, it is the story of the dreadfully oppressive conditions of workers onboard just such a ship in the period between the Wars:  replete with a monstrously evil company official—a man who beats, intimidates, in every way exploits the workers, and even shoots and kills one of them, who orders the ship to continue fishing when the captain believes it to be in danger from a storm, and refuses to allow the captain to bring the ship to the rescue of another canning ship which is foundering in that storm, and which ultimately sinks with the loss of the lives of all those onboard;  officers of the Imperial Japanese navy who completely back the actions of the company and its official.  It would be the worst sort of melodrama, were it not for the cartoonish, absurdist spirit of Sabu’s film, with its modernist touches (e.g., according to the others, one of the workers is described as having flipped out and thinking of himself as being a crab—shift to a shot of a worker, alone at the end of a passageway, walking sideways, crab fashion; or the hilariously funny [yes, really!] attempted mass suicide the workers decide to commit to escape their suffering):  it is actually fun!  There are two main problems with the film: first, its political naïveté—even granting its lampooning and tongue-in-cheek spirit—is extreme (to wit: the crucial turning point in the plot happens when two escaping workers are picked up by a Russian trawler, and are transformed by their exposure to the individuality and personal freedom of the Bolshevik system); and, second, the film is far too long for what it is—it would have been hugely more successful at 80-90 minutes rather than 109.  But Kanikosen is an entertaining, engaging, and humor-filled absurdist fantasy, in which dream and hyper-reality merge in a wonderful way.  To hell with Manohla Dargis’s total dismissal of it in her New York Times review!

Min ... (Tell Me Who You Are).  (Mali/France)  In Souleymane Cissé’s rollicking commentary on marital relations and social mores in Mali, Mimi, a spunky, 52-year-old, high government official (wonderfully portrayed by Sokona Gakou), is married to a filmmaker Issa (Assane Kouyate), who has another, younger wife. When Issa confronts Mimi with the fact that she is having an affair with another man, Abba (Alou Sissoko)—who has two wives of his own—she explodes at his socially sanctioned hypocrisy, serving him with divorce papers, a move that Issa counters by accusing her of adultery.  Mimi’s cavalier flaunting of her adultery seems insensitive and outrageous, except for the fact that one is continually  reminded that it is happening against the backdrop of the polygamy that this society accepts on the part of  its men.   At 123 minutes, the film is far longer than is completely sustainable; nevertheless, it is a basically enjoyable and successful view into this society and its mores.

Sweet Rush (Tatarak).  (Poland)  Andrzej Wajda had long wanted to make a film starring Krystyna Janda (the star of his earlier films) based on a short story by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz.  After his earlier attempt to do so was scuttled by the death of Janda’s husband, Edward Klosinski (Wajda’s cinematographer), Wajda developed the idea for Sweet Rush (Tatarak):  it is a multi-layered movie about the filming of the original movie—and the original story is the movie within the movie we are watching.  The embedded story is about the wife of a doctor who has just diagnosed her with an aggressive terminal disease, but has chosen not to tell her; the two of them are still recovering from the loss of their two sons in World War II; and then she becomes absorbed in her confused feelings—maternal as well as romantic—towards a handsome working-class youth.  Most of the time, we are simply watching this movie within the movie; but some of the time the point of view draws back, and we are presented with the filming of this movie.  And, interspersed with all that, we are in a stark hotel room, listening to Krystina’s long monologues (actually written by Janda herself) about the death of her husband, and a meta-view of the way it affected her life, her art, and the production of the movie.  It is a very clever idea, and a potentially elegant construct; but I did not find it particularly successful.  I found the embedded film to be the best part of the movie—albeit not all that wonderful; and I found Krystina’s monologues, while poignant, to be dull and tiresome, and actually not all that profound.  Had I known that it was her real life story that she was soliloquizing about, I suppose I might have been more sympathetic to them; but I do not feel that they actually worked.  I should mention that Nancy like this movie much more than I did, and felt that it did work as intended.

Vincere.  (Italy)  Written and directed by Marco Bellocchio, this film presents the story of Benito Mussolini’s relationship with Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), and their child, Benito Albino Mussolini. The film’s contention (and there is apparently much historic evidence to support the claim) is that Mussolini was secretly married to Ida in 1914, although, after marrying Rachele Guidi (his mistress of several years) in 1915, he came to deny any relationship to either Dalser or their son.  In somber black and white, the film chronicles Il Duce’s rise to power from the Ida’s perspective and as a backdrop to their relationship.  Filippo Timi plays both the young Benito Mussolini and the adult Benito Albino, with actual newsreel footage of Il Duce being used for his later presence in the film.  Ida’s driven efforts to assert her marital status led to her being confined for much of her life in mental asylums, and her son’s fate was ultimately the same.  From Bellochio’s perspective, Ida’s claim of marital status and Benito Albino’s paternity were valid; nevertheless, it is also clear that in his view there was something actually insane about the way the Ida and her son dealt with their situations.  This is the setting for what could have been a most fascinating film, and, given how much we had liked Marco Bellocchio’s 2003 entry in the NYFF, Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, Notte), we should have expected it to be so.  I am afraid that Vincere did not meet that expectation.  It was too long, too overdone, too unremittingly dark, too heavy handed, too melodramatic—troppo, troppo, troppo!  It was OK, but disappointing.

Trash Humpers.  (USA)   Harmony Korine’s latest work is a hard one to describe, no less to explain.  It is a crudely edited, roughly filmed video—in production values, indistinguishable from a very old, unedited home VHS tape.  It stitches together scene after purposely repetitive scene of the most outlandish action imaginable, mostly centering on three figures in old-people masks (two of them Harmony Korine himself and his wife, Rachel Korine), cackling and singing as if insanely demented:  they peer into windows, smash television sets, throw florescent light tubing into the air and watch them explode on parking lots, they fellate bushes and trees, and, most incessantly, they literally hump trash cans—so much so, that late in the film the mere appearance of a trash can on camera elicits a laugh from the audience.  We get to watch an overweight child wearing a white shirt and tie savagely beat in the head of a baby doll with a hammer.  The is no plot; there is only a succession of various forms of weirdness.  But the film almost works.  In fact, it is almost brilliant: had it been 10-12 minutes in length, it would have been the sort of weird, comic piece of video art one might have found in a gallery—and it might have been wonderful.  But, at 74 minutes, it is quite purposely and significantly longer than that; and it is clear that it is intended to stretch the limits of our notions about what constitutes a movie far beyond what we are comfortably able to accept.

Police, Adjective (Politist, adj.).  (Romania)  Corneliu Porumboiu’s film is a lengthy presentation of a police surveillance operation, in which we watch Cristi, the plainclothes officer protagonist, endlessly staking out a young student who is using marijuana with two of his friends.  Cristi is avoiding his boss, because he knows the chief will just want to set up a sting operation and bring the case to a long-overdue close by arresting the student.  Cristi does not believe the student is selling drugs, feels the real supplier is someone else in the picture, and does not believe that the laws against casual use are fair.  There are some interesting moments, but basically the film is neither artistic enough nor sophisticated enough to support the fact that this is a two hour movie in which basically nothing happens.

Ne change rien.  (France/Portugal).  Well, I suppose if one really liked French actress and chanteuse Jeanne Balibar, Pedro Costa’s lingeringly slow, stark, black and white study of her performing and rehearsing her music might be very rewarding.  We all found her voice dreadful (during the opening sequence, I whispered to Nancy, “Is she really as flat as I think she is?”; and she replied, “No, it’s just that she keeps sliding into each note, and that her voice is dreadful.”) and her choice of music even worse.  We waited about 15 minutes to see if anything changed, and, when it did not, we left.  Painful.



Every year the NYFF has a rich array of Special Events.

We were only able to attend one of these Special Events, but it was an absolutely fantastic one:  Pedro Almodóvar’s History of Cinema: A Conversation.  In addition to being one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, Almodóvar is also a world-class film buff.  Billed as the “cinematic autobiography of a major film artist,” this conversation with NYFF Selection Committee chairman Richard Peña (who, as always, also provided excellent translations for Almodóvar when he needed to revert to Spanish for nuance), consisted of Pedro showing clips from his films alongside clips from films that have influenced his work, and then discussing his own artistic creative process in that light.  One of his first examples was a combination of clips from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 All About Eve and John Cassavetes’ 1977 Opening Night, the combination of which Almodóvar felt led to his own 1999 All About My Mother.  Among many other topics, he also laid out the relationship between Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 Autumn Sonata and his own 1991 High Heels as it applies to the idea of motherhood in film.  It was a most informative, enjoyable two hours.

There are short films shown with some of the main screenings of the Festival.  Particularly good this year were:  [the best film] The Hardest Part by Oliver Refson (U.K.), in which an aging television actor famous for playing a butler rehearses a role that turns out to be as humiliating in his audition as it is useful on the way home; [the most fun] Get Your Ya-Yas Out! by Bradley Kaplan, Ian Markiewicz, Albert Maysles, (1969-2009, USA), which contains 27 minutes of rare footage from the Rolling Stones’ 1969 concert in Madison Square Garden, was a rip-roaring rock-n-roll experience!;  Socarrat by David Moreno (Spain), was a cleverly presented, very funny tale of family dysfunction spanning three generations; and Plastic Bag, by Ramin Bahrani (USA), tell the journey of a plastic bag, from the bag’s perspective in the voice of Werner Herzog.

During this year’s NYFF, there was a NYFF Masterworks series. This year's Masterworks ­ repertory collections, highlighting the history of global cinema, were programs of films from China and India. (Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949-1966, is a twenty-film anthology of works from the crucial early years of the People's Republic of China. A Heart as Big as the World: The Films of Guru Dutt offered eight films from the much-admired Indian auteur.  This NYFF Masterworks series was screened at the Film Society’s Walter Reade Theater.  As much as we should have loved to see these films, we simply did not have the time this year.

We were also unable to attend any of the annual Views from the Avant-Garde series, which is always so wonderful.

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