The New York Film Festival occupies a unique status in the world of cinema, both artistically, aesthetically, and in the gritty business of film - the distribution, the criticism, the audience. The NY Times' major film critic examines this year's lineup and in the process the greater issues this revered festival raises, as only NY can do. As a former New Yorker, and where my older son still lives, I cannot deny I (still) love New York, everything about it. As any NY'er will proudly tell you, it IS the best city in the world. Cinema reigns here in it's own quirky NY fashion- whether at Lincoln Center or as viewed through the chaotic Tribeca's ascendancy as a showcase in it's own right. While Lincoln Center expands, there's also no denying some venerated NY theaters have been shuttered, where foreign films were celebrated. The film fests fill that void, yet questions about the very future of cinema remain, a long held debate within the industry - ever since silent film went all talky! - MS
By MANOHLA DARGIS, NY Times
A taste of sleaze, a blast of sex, some manufactured dissent and art, glorious art — the 45th New York Film Festival offers something tasty for every discriminating cinematic palate. Proudly, at times lazily, this is a festival that always demands discrimination from its audience, a sense of adventure, even as it also relies on no small amount of brand loyalty. You can call the festival elitist — really, go ahead, it’s a badge of honor — as well as maddening, inspiring, out of touch and in the know, but this year you certainly can’t call it dull.
This year the programmers have rounded up fewer of the usual suspects and taken actual chances, particularly with Abel Ferrara (“Go Go Tales”), Catherine Breillat (“The Last Mistress”) and Brian De Palma (“Redacted”). The down-and-dirty Mr. Ferrara, one of the few real New Yorkers in the lineup, is guaranteed to outrage as much as entertain with his sentimental strip-club story, as is Ms. Breillat, a committed French philosopher of the boudoir. Both their films feature the Italian actress Asia Argento, a skinny vamp who has unexpectedly ripened into a terrific actress. A little messy and unpredictable, Ms. Argento has range and heat, which makes her a fitting emblem for the festival at its most vigorous.
As it has in the past, the festival has drawn heavily from this year’s excellent Cannes Film Festival to help build a strong program. More than half the New York selections will open theatrically in the coming year (some will also play as videos on demand), including Ms. Breillat’s “Last Mistress,” Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park,” Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There,” Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon” and Cristian Mungiu’s “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. (Lee Chang-dong’s heartbreaker “Secret Sunshine” does not yet have distribution, so catch it if you can.) These titles challenge, engage, thrill and sometimes appall. They are alive to the world, not just cinema’s own dusty glory.
That history has at times seemed to weigh too heavily on the New York Film Festival, which got off to a heady start in the enchanted art-house year of 1963 with films by Yasujiro Ozu, Chris Marker and Jean-Pierre Melville. In the years that followed, the festival tapped more baby auteurs and grand masters (Rivette, Imamura, Fassbinder), bringing the best in world cinema to an appreciative, movie-hungry city. That was then, this is now. This country’s appetite for foreign-language cinema has so perilously diminished, even in New York, that these days some of the festival’s more obscure names — Jia Zhang-ke, Alexander Sokurov, Bela Tarr — would probably elicit more huhs than huzzahs. But to some of us, these are rock stars.
After foolishly passing on his first two features, the festival has made room this year for another (rising) star, the Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas. His “Silent Light,” a luminous drama set in a rural religious community, is precisely the kind of uncompromised work of art that needs a festival push and that this festival, in turn, needs to burnish its high-art reputation. Even so, there’s no question that a strain of pragmatism runs through most film programming, which probably explains why one of the festival’s 28 feature slots has been reserved for those crowd-pleasing headliners, the Coen brothers, on board with their relievedly straight adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men.” The festival may be elitist, but it also understands the value of marquee names.
And indeed the festival opens tonight with Wes Anderson’s “Darjeeling Limited,” which will be released commercially tomorrow in New York, including at a theater a few blocks from Lincoln Center, its home. No matter: 4,000 festivalgoers have sold out the festival theaters where the film is playing this evening — and at upward of $40 a pop. The festival’s imprimatur affirms Mr. Anderson’s status as a director of note, and his film brings it red-carpet opportunities, as does the centerpiece (“No Country for Old Men”) and another selection showing this first week, Julian Schnabel’s “Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which weds avant-garde gestures to glossy-magazine aesthetics. It may not be art, but it’s pretty and it’s in French, and it brings a tear to the eye.
More venturesome choices from the first week include Mr. Sokurov’s startling and dreamy “Alexandra,” in which the octogenarian opera star Galina Vishnevskaya plays — eccentrically, mesmerizingly — a Russian babushka who pays a bizarre visit to her grandson at the Chechen front. And while it drove me bonkers at Cannes, Mr. Tarr’s film “The Man From London” (an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel) is definitely worth a look — a patient look — for the way Mr. Tarr carves up space with light and camera movement, and for the unsettling sight (and sounds) of the British actress Tilda Swinton as a Hungarian-dubbed hausfrau. Mr. Sokurov and Mr. Tarr are among the most fascinating filmmakers working today, and these films are, as of press time, without American distribution.
I wish I liked Eric Rohmer’s “Romance of Astrée and Céladon” or even found it interesting as a later-life artifact. (Mr. Rohmer turned 87 this year.) Based on Honoré d’Urfé’s 17th-century novel, the film follows two dippy fifth-century lovers through the agonies of love and betrayal, as well as one too many awkwardly composed shots. The film, which plays this weekend, has its fans, but despite some pertly attractive female nudity, I found it moribund and badly performed to the point of distraction. There’s something noble, if that’s the word, about the festival’s loyalty to auteurs like Mr. Rohmer, and perhaps the selection committee actually loves the film and didn’t just succumb to sentimentality.
Even so, though not an admirer, I do understand why the Rohmer is in the festival. The same cannot be said for “The Orphanage,” a slick Spanish horror film directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. The cinematography looks moody and pristine, the actors hit their marks, the story amuses without being especially surprising or scary or innovative. I have similar reservations about Ira Sachs’s cynical excursion into 1940s unhappiness with “Married Life,” which features top-notch performances from Patricia Clarkson, Chris Cooper, Rachel McAdams and especially Pierce Brosnan. Few actors play cads as persuasively as Mr. Brosnan — more, more! — and it’s always nice to see Ms. McAdams, even if she doesn’t do much but flaunt her dimples. (Both films play this weekend and have distribution.)
In recent years the festival, perhaps in response to the far larger Tribeca Film Festival, has expanded its offerings. Alongside “Views From the Avant-Garde,” the festival’s annual, ambitious showcase of experimental cinema and video, it is presenting a tribute to the Hong Kong-based Cathay Studios, featuring classic titles from the 1950s and 1960s. There’s also a handful of music documentaries (Bob Dylan, Tom Petty); a fund-raising shebang sponsored by New Line Cinema; and several retrospective screenings, including John M. Stahl’s feverish “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945), a film noir in lurid Technicolor, and John Ford’s “Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939). Also screening is the so-called definitive edition (HA!) of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982), which remains a masterpiece, even with fiddles and tweaks.
This is an important year for the New York Film Festival, partly because it will not be showing films in its usual big house, Alice Tully Hall, which is closed (well, all but gutted) during Lincoln Center’s massive renovation. Much of its screenings will take place at the Frederick P. Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center a few long blocks south of Lincoln Center. Home to Jazz at Lincoln Center, Rose Hall is on the center’s fifth floor, which means that this year you can pick up an organic apple at the Whole Foods on your way to the movies. None of this appears to have affected sales, and as of yesterday afternoon more than half the screenings were sold out.
Even more important is what the renovations mean for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the festival’s parent organization. When the renovations are finished — optimistically in 2009 — the Film Society will have a new public home on the south side of 65th Street called the Elinor Bunin-Munroe Film Center. This large new space will include an education center, gallery, cafe, indoor amphitheater and two theaters (90 and 150 seats) to complement the recently refurbished 268-seat Walter Reade Theater across the street and up one flight of stairs. For the Film Society, which has had to make do with a theater hidden from pedestrian view, tucked in the equivalent of Lincoln Center’s backyard, this is exciting news.
The question is how the Film Society will rise to the occasion of these new digs: notably, will it expand beyond its cozy core constituency? For those of us who have despaired at the Walter Reade’s inability to fill its seats consistently, and for those of us who have also long thought of the New York Film Festival as an uptown event, these are no small matters. The Film Society does get out of the neighborhood, most recently with outdoor screenings in Stuyvesant Town, but its distance from many of the city’s most vibrant communities can make it seem as remote as the far side of the Moon. The Film Society has often seemed as if it expected the city to come to it, never the reverse.
Its willingness to go beyond its comfort and perhaps even its geographic zone feels especially urgent now because it won’t be long before the old art-house faithful start slipping away like Antonioni and Bergman. Cinemania is alive and well on the Internet, notably in blogs, where young movie nuts rant and rave and help cultivate one another’s cinematic interests. This is heartening, but film — especially the kind that distinguishes this year’s edition of the New York Film Festival — needs more than passion. It needs an audience, a paying public. If we don’t cultivate a new generation of movie lovers who get excited at the very idea of a Hou Hsiao-hsien film, we may as well hold a memorial service for foreign-language-film theatrical distribution right now.
You bring the flowers; I’ll bring the Scotch.