Stunning new films by Spike Jonze, Hayao Miyazaki, Claire Denis and Teller — yes, the silent one — are headed our way from the NYFF 

The Coldest Water, The Warmest Blues

The Coldest Water, The Warmest Blues

There wasn't any grand, overarching theme to the just-concluded 2013 New York Film Festival, that annual bellwether of the fall movie season. But in its first year with new programmers Kent Jones and Dennis Lim, the NYFF cast its nets wider and brought in such an abundance of what world cinema has to offer — spanning genres, ideologies and perspectives — that I didn't see one stinker in the bunch. Even the films that were disappointing overall had aspects that made them worthwhile, relevant to any discussion of current film.

Sadly, they did away with the midnight movie section, and none of the main-slate films I saw was presented in 35mm. But transitional times demand transitional technologies, I suppose, and a few films seemed to understand that. The Square, Startup.com director Jehane Noujaim's look at the tumultuous recent history of Egypt, is a remarkable source of information for the curious viewer, and a must-see when it begins its as-yet-undetermined run in the U.S.

Focusing on an actual event from the history of the former Czechoslovakia, Agnieszka Holland's Burning Bush examines a student's 1968 protest against the Soviet invasion by self-immolation, tracing the fallout from that event through multiple social strata. Made for HBO Europe, then edited into a four-hour feature, it's a stunning achievement — one of those experiences where the time you invest yields exponential rewards. AMPAS' rejection of the film as the Czech Republic's 2014 Oscar submission only makes the Academy look foolish. Let's hope Burning Bush turns up in the U.S., either in theaters or on domestic HBO.

The grand achievement in social activist cinema this year was Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave (opening here sometime in the next few weeks), a devastating look at one of America's domestic horrors. With an exemplary cast led by Lupita Nyong'o, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender and an unflinching eye for the myriad ways we can dehumanize our fellow men, McQueen's historical slavery narrative will get much attention from audiences, critics societies, and probably assorted awards groups. Also, after this film, it is doubtful that Paul Dano can appear in any future films without being beaten down soundly in them.

Alexander Payne's new film Nebraska (opening in December) features Bruce Dern's Cannes-celebrated performance as well as a gorgeous anamorphic black-and-white look that haunts the viewer long after the film is over. It deals with confronting old family issues and the debris we leave behind, and Dern is supported by great performances from June Squibb (as the movie year's sassy old lady of note) and Stacy Keach (as small-town evil incarnate). But while Payne's ambition to fill larger canvases is admirable, it would be a delight to see another film from him as focused and spry as Election or Citizen Ruth.

Men at sea either literally, figuratively or both were big this year, with Paul Greengrass' opening-night alpha-male procedural Captain Phillips (now playing in theaters) setting the jarring tone, capped by what may be the finest final 10 minutes of any film this year. Similarly stuck in an untenable nautical position is "Our Man," the nameless character Robert Redford plays in All Is Lost (opening Nov. 8 at The Belcourt). Working from a 31-page script and approximately two minutes of dialogue total, Redford and writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) craft a story of survival and chaos that sustains an even higher level of tension than Gravity, just because of increased likelihood.

Not bound to the sea itself but still tied to a watery void is Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake, a sexually explicit, emotionally raw morality tale about exactly how far you'll let desire push you on the continuum of making stupid decisions. With its use of exclusively exterior locations, natural light, and a laissez-faire attitude toward dangly bits and gay sex, it's not for everyone. But its starkness has an ability to make viewers face their own moral truth in ways that rival Mulholland Dr., and the end result is shattering.

But none of the previously mentioned men in aquatic-crisis mode hold a candle to the drama awaiting Marco (Vincent Lindon), the rugged seaman who has to abandon the sea to clean up a family mess in Claire Denis' Bastards (opening most likely at The Belcourt eventually). Financial crisis, romantic betrayal, unspeakable secret kinks, the horror of finding out exactly how low someone you love can go — it's all here, in a surprisingly accessible (though not entirely linear) narrative for Denis. Working with digital cameras for the first time, cinema's greatest modern sensualist and her longtime cinematographer Agnes Godard treat the serrated edges of HD's sharp image as blades that cut the viewer deeply. Where once there was the inviting sensual rush of grain, now there is the pitiless edge of horrors that the night previously kept to itself.

There were a lot of great roles for women at this year's NYFF, including a one-two-three punch of amazing turns from young actresses. As an 8-year-old navigating father Louis Garrel's serial promiscuity with seemingly every woman in their neighborhood in Philippe Garrel's Jealousy, Olga Milshtein handles a tricky part with wit and charm, while Lu Yi-ching in Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs deals with homelessness, hunger and a parent's descent into madness (including what may be cinema's first attempt at suicide by instantaneous diverticulitis) with stoic grace and humor. As the name-withholding heroine of My Name is Hmmm …, the directorial debut of French fashion designer (and Harmony Korine's production partner) agnés b., Lou-Lélia Demerliac flees sexual abuse and finds a path that splits the difference between Korine and Terrence Malick with a winning performance.

Those three remarkable leads were joined in the Revival section by 12-year-old Rebecca Hampton in Anne-Marie Miéville's 1986 short The Book of Mary, delivering a performance so stunning you have to wonder why it isn't better known. (Blame the film that overshadowed it in its initial double-bill release, Godard's Hail Mary.)

But no talk of women's roles would be complete without mentioning Blue Is the Warmest Color (opening at The Belcourt Nov. 15), which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year both for its director and two lead actresses. Based on Julie Maroh's graphic novels, it's the story of young Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, in the performance of the festival), who finds love and loss with a blue-haired artist named Emma (Léa Seydoux). Its first 90 minutes are magnificent, getting at the complicated nature of dealing with less-than-conventional desires in high school.

Then the much-ballyhooed sex scenes start, however, and the movie derails. The scenes stand out in the most mercenary ways: they're overlit, as if by blown-out fluorescents, so what is meant to read as an intimate, candlelit moment instead feels like a constructivist centerfold. The movie never completely recovers, and in the time since Cannes, countless back-and-forth grumbling and gossiping from its participants has emerged online. (Judging from the press conference — and his last film, Black Venus — director Abdellatif Kechiche is at best evasive and at worst sleazy in the way he puts his films together.) But Exarchopoulos makes it a must-see.

Giving just as much as Exarchopoulos is Isabelle Huppert, who returns to screens in Catherine Breillat's semiautobiographical Abuse of Weakness (still without U.S. distribution, which is a fucking crime). Huppert plays a filmmaker recovering from a stroke who gets wooed and swindled by the celebrity financier (rapper Kool Shen) she hopes to star in her next film. It's a remarkable fusion of body horror and financial crisis, with Huppert giving her all and Breillat making what is her most accessible film, as well as one of her most visceral and poignant ones.

The new Joel and Ethan Coen film, Inside Llewyn Davis (opening Dec. 20 at The Belcourt), is an ambitious and memorable dive into the mind of a folk musician (Oscar Isaac) in '60s New York. What O Brother, Where Art Thou? did for classic country/mountain music, this one does for the world of folk, and it is a beautiful and bleak journey with a cast that includes Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and John Goodman.

Similarly bleak but not quite as beautiful is the frustrating American Promise, which provoked the most intense and conflicted response I've ever had to a film that wasn't Dancer in the Dark. Spending 14 years documenting the academic lives of two young African-American boys as they enter one of New York's most prestigious schools, the film gets at learning disabilities, cultural phenomena, perceived bias, social flux, and the ways that race and education are entwined — and that's fascinating.

What it also gets at, alas, are the horrible choices the director-filmmakers have made as parents of one of the two boys — the film essentially functions as an indictment of their own parenting errors. (That they started making the film when the children were too young to understand or consent to its making even makes a case that it is a document of abuse.) I made myself leave before the press conference because I knew if I had a chance to talk to co-director Joe Brewster, I would get kicked out. But the film will be seen, if nothing else thanks to its connections with ITVS, and I look forward to seeing the diverse and frenzied response it draws.

As an emotional highlight, nothing topped getting blessed by Saint Tilda, as La Swinton herself thanked me and touched my shoulder for pointing out a link between her work with the late, great Derek Jarman and something her character does in Jim Jarmusch's new film Only Lovers Left Alive. (It's opening in 2014, but since it's being distributed by Sony Classics, who knows when or where?) The film is a moving and mordantly funny look at a relationship stretching back centuries between vampires who still carry the torch for analog culture. Along with Swinton, Tom Hiddleston delights with a perfect blend of his deadpan charm and the gravitas he brought to The Deep Blue Sea. Though tonally different, this is Jarmusch's finest film since Dead Man.

There were erosions of the line between reality and fantasy, starting with Ben Stiller's new version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (opening this Christmas), which had some great moments but seemed too slack and pleased with itself (barring a great deal of visual wit and a warm, winning two-scene performance from Ólaffur Darri Ólafsson as a helicopter pilot/karaoke enthusiast). Far less benign is Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Real, sprung from the DNA of The Cell and Inception to tell a story of a marriage in a rather unique crisis. A nice thriller with an inspired visual sensibility, it almost unmakes itself in its last 20 minutes, going on too long and obliterating a lot of its charm.

The best of the reality benders was Alain Resnais' Providence, the revered director's only English-language film, digitally restored and available in the U.S. for the first time in almost 40 years. An author's exorcism of his family's travails, both real and imagined, it's a bawdy, brilliant assembly of great actors (John Gielgud, Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, Elaine Stritch and David Warner) in an emotional free-for-all.

The NYFF's humdingers were a trio of films dealing with advances in technology coupled with the artistic urge that motivates them. Tim's Vermeer, a documentary from Teller (of Penn and Teller) is the story of Tim Jenison, a brilliant businessman, developer and thinker who, using his knowledge of optics, develops a theory about the possible use of mechanics in the Golden Age of Dutch painting.

As Jenison follows this thesis to the point of trying to re-create Vermeer's painting The Music Lesson, you get a film that's like the lovechild of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and Fitzcarraldo. Its domestic distributor is Sony Classics, so who knows when it'll turn up in Nashville — but when it does, anyone with even the most cursory interest in art, science or human endeavor should check it out.

The Wind Rises, the ostensible final film from animator Hayao Miyazaki, also deals with the intersection of artistic vision and scientific innovation as it details the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero warplanes. A peaceful man whose grand creation becomes an instrument of destruction, Horikoshi makes a fascinating protagonist: a conflicted man torn between idealism, love and a sense of what he feels calling to him from the work of previous artists. It's a kind of Rosetta Stone for much of Miyazaki's other work, and if it is in fact his final film, it's a stunning swan song.

I don't know exactly what I was expecting from Spike Jonze's Her. Advance word was that it was about a guy who falls in love with his phone's operating system, which seemed a little Electric Dreams-y, but that certainly had potential. And boy, did it. Her is a masterpiece — a work of visionary science fiction, deep emotional power and an awareness of the foibles of humanity that allows it to grow in stature the more one thinks about it. Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of the year's great performances as a man who finds love in the most initially unlikely of places, and if the whole film were just about his interactions with "Samantha" (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), it would be something special.

But Jonze has expanded outward, giving us a whole new world of humanity in a space that we as viewers can recognize but not truly feel a part of. I wept. I laughed. I had to spend a while after seeing it figuring out who I am. And that's what you go to the movies for, to dialogue internally with the abstract of the experience and the concrete of yourself. Whenever distributor Warner Bros. figures out what to do with this movie, prepare to evolve.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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