With each passing year, the New York Film Festival becomes the forecast by which cinephiles plan the coming season. Cherry-picking from Cannes, Toronto, Venice and Berlin, it gathers the best not for competition, but for representation. "Here's the next year of film for the world," it says, with a showman's flourish. "Here's what we'll be seeing at The Belcourt," Nashville movie lovers say, following the barrage of exit-line tweets.
The just-concluded 50th NYFF was one of transition, bidding farewell to selection-committee chairman Richard Peña, director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center for the past quarter-century. But whether it was battling against uncooperative digital projectors or giving long-lost films new life, the NYFF mostly looked ahead, finding no small number of captivating visions.
Ang Lee's adaptation of the beloved novel Life of Pi set the bar high, with an abundance of imagination and heart. It's certainly the most creative use of current 3D technology I've seen — not that we should expect any less from the man who made 2003's Hulk, still the most visually adventurous film to emerge from Hollywood's mainstream.
Sopranos creator David Chase premiered his feature debut as a writer-director, Not Fade Away, a crowd-pleasing epic of '60s garage bands and family tension. You can't dislike a movie whose central moral pivot transpires to Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth's magnificent "Down So Low." Flight, the festival's closing-night offering, lured Robert Zemeckis back to making movies with real live people instead of motion-capture suits, and the humans (including Denzel Washington and John Goodman) invigorated a tired script.
International auteurs fared even better. In his Palme d'Or-winning Amour, Prussian taskmaster Michael Haneke addresses debilitating illness and the sad, long death that inevitably claims all love. The acting is visceral and effective, and I believe the director of Caché and both Funny Games films when he says he's trying not to be as cruel to his audiences. But after the journey this film takes you on, I still hope no restaurant gets his order exactly right for the rest of his life.
Olivier Assayas, who's been knocking it out of the park for at least the past decade, brought his new film Something in the Air, a gorgeous tale of youth, art, idealism, activism and the tenuous strands of friendship. The music is proggy and enveloping, everyone is gorgeous, and its open heart makes it a sentimental favorite from this year's NYFF. It also features one of the finest action scenes of the year: a running, scampering, leaping graffiti-bombing that leads to violence, love and inevitable gossamer beauty.
Closer to home, Noah Baumbach's new film, Frances Ha, offers a vivacious, sometimes melancholy valentine to his new muse, Greta Gerwig. Everyone's charming, and the dialogue is great, but I can't full-on recommend it because I'm too much of a Jennifer Jason Leigh fan to let that particular betrayal slide. Gerwig is great, though, and if there was one overarching motif at this year's NYFF, it was the remarkable array of great women's roles.
Conisider Nina Hoss as Barbara in Christian Petzold's tense drama of the same name. Playing an East German doctor trying to escape to West Germany, Hoss delivers one of the finest performances of the year — strong, smart, and all too aware that trust is a commodity worth more than gold. Hoss could have been a diva for Fassbinder, Hitchcock, Verhoeven or John Waters; we're just lucky to have her now.
Rama Burshtein's Hasidic family drama Fill the Void has four amazing parts for actresses, all doing things you don't often see people doing at the movies. I particularly look forward to seeing Fill the Void again, because it's such a mood-altering, immersive experience. I had similar hopes for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days director Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills, whose leads Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur shared Best Actress honors at Cannes. But Flutur's character is never anything more than a construct, and that undercuts the bizarre hothouse spell Mungiu was aiming for.
Speaking of amazing female duos, Brian De Palma's Passion marks a delicious return to form for the master of art-sleaze. Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams play beautiful corporate warriors doing awful things to one another, and the end result is a delirious fusion of Assayas' Demonlover and Mean Girls.
Two remarkable rebirths were found in the exceptional festival sidebars, with 1986's Little Shop of Horrors finally reunited with its original apocalyptic ending (now available on Blu-Ray), and Michael Cimino's underrated masterpiece Heaven's Gate rising like a phoenix from the ashes of its legendary 1980 flame-out. It was also a delight to see Nothing But a Man (one of the highlights of the Belcourt's Visions of the South series) properly preserved and due for rediscovery.
As always, there were exceptional documentaries worth seeking upon release. The mind-melting Room 237 takes a dive into several secret theories that proponents insist are hidden within Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The result resembles an insightful class on film theory that you have to take in a voluntary asylum.
Alan Berliner's first-person exploration of Alzheimer's, First Cousin Once Removed, was quietly devastating, as was the subtly effective Liv & Ingmar, which followed the professional and personal relationship of one of the most intriguing couples in cinema history. More bluntly forceful was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doc The Gatekeepers, which apart from its Fincher-esque 3D rendering had the impact of a sock in the jaw. As light as The Gatekeepers was heavy, Deceptive Practice let modern-day magician and card sharp Ricky Jay pay tribute to the quick-fingered men who served as his mentors.
Debuting its new Midnight Movie sidebar, the NYFF brought The Bay, a found-footage environmental apocalypse film from Barry Levinson (of Diner and Rain Man fame). It was everything one could hope for — energetic, gross and provocative, and it makes the viewer interested in whole new facets of a veteran filmmaker's work. Emetophiliac Monthly magazine says The Bay is the film of 2012.
The Midnight section also screened Berberian Sound Studio, a low-budget journey into madness that takes place in the dubbing and mixing of a '70s Italian horror film. Though the whole is less than the sum of its parts, BBS has an exquisite Broadcast soundtrack, a game lead performance by Toby Jones, and a great late-film freak-out where the whole movie goes full-on Tscherkassky.
Going even further in applying experimental constructions to genre tropes is João Pedro Rodrigues' The Last Time I Saw Macau, which uses subjective imagery, stills and off-frame audio to structure a colonial noir. It's like nothing else I saw during the NYFF. Except for maybe Leviathan, which you could call an arthouse take on Deadliest Catch, but that doesn't begin to encapsulate the hypnotic, bloody (so many walkouts during the slaughter of the stingrays), avant-everything spell that this movie weaves. Given the way the film uses its cameras to just "happen" upon something poetic and exquisite, someone from the production owes Philippe Grandrieux a muffin basket, at least.
Missteps at this year's NYFF were few. The Belgian film Our Children, starring Rosetta's Émilie Dequenne, wants to be a searing examination of mental instability and post-racial identity in contemporary Europe; instead, it plays like a Final Destination film made by the Lifetime network. The documentary Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out manages to be the first film by a woman I've ever seen that deserves the term "wanky," existing only to remind the viewer that the director's previous Polanski doc, Wanted and Desired, caused an international incident.
The Paperboy, by comparison, sails beyond film maudit into its own campy stratosphere. Already the year's most infamous film after its Cannes debut, the latest from Precious director Lee Daniels is the best film about the South since Black Snake Moan. Fecund, frothing, all revved-up and ready to mete out horny justice, The Paperboy gives us everything we could want at the movies — People cover-bait Matthew McConaughey with rough-trade secrets, Disney dude Zac Efron finding the emotional expression in a wardrobe that is half tighty-whities, a demonstration of the difference between Southern and Northern racism, and a majestic central performance from national treasure Macy Gray that renders the conflicted niceties of last year's The Help summarily irrelevant.
To top it all, there's our own Nicole Kidman digging deep into Southern-fried madness with a fearlessness not seen since Elizabeth Taylor's "I bet you've never seen this at the movies" streak in the late '60s. The Paperboy isn't for everyone, but if you want a film that understands the insanity of Southern life, get your tickets now for its Belcourt opening next month. Everything you've heard is true.
My favorite of all this year's NYFF offerings was Holy Motors, set to open at The Belcourt this November. The latest film from Léos Carax (The Lovers on The Bridge), it's a beautiful and bruised look at the art of cinema, and the continued grind of life on artists. It encompasses all genres, it has a staggering amount of wit and visual imagination, and it transmutes the pain of loss and being left behind into a triumphant cry of life and beauty and art and sex and sweetness and horror and deliverance. I would watch it again in a heartbeat for its wild twists and turns, and to have my heart broken again by Australian pop diva Kylie Minogue as a variant shade of Juliette Binoche.
If you took the limo from Cosmopolis and rode down David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., then you might have an idea of the joys and tragedies Carax's exquisite film delivers. In many ways, Holy Motors was the NYFF's emblematic film. Its expansive, mercurial vision of the communal dream that movies represent is as perfect a demonstration of what film festivals represent as one could hope.
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