The New York Film Festival, still after 22 years under the outstanding stewardship of Richard Pena, has completed its 48th edition running from September 24 to October 10. It has remained a most desirable platform for directors and the place to detect tendencies for high quality commercial movie making and for films in the art cinema sector. It is a festival where film tastes are shaped and where an upscale discerning audience derives pointers for serious filmmaking and for features they should see. The 2010 slate of 28 films has a large number culled from the Cannes Fest is eclectic; serving broad artistic tastes, though truly controversial films such as Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST featured last year were missing.
While going through changes in staff and venues and facing funding issues, the New York Film Festival seems to be reaching for a broader audience, as reflected in more film festivals moving to the festival venue at Lincoln Center. Thus the Asian American Film Festival plays now at the venue of the festival and the Mahindra Indian American Art Council Film Festival will be there as of 2011. The NYFF expansion is also required since more space has been added in the renovation. With the addition of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, a new multi screen facility will exist with two new small theatres. A larger audience base will also help to raise more funds in this difficult economic period.
Thus the 2010 program included several high quality audience films appealing to a larger audience like the festival opener David Fincher’s SOCIAL NETWORK and the closing film, Clint Eastwood’s HEREAFTER. In THE SOCIAL NETWORK David Fincher depicts the rise of a seemingly nerdy Harvard undergraduate student Mark Zuckerberg to becoming the youngest billionaire in US history as the contested originator of Facebook, a $25 billion enterprise which has now more than 500 million subscribers. Driven by first rate fast paced storytelling and the film provides a superb depiction of an out of the box self obsessed character, who in spite of his double crossing and apparent betrayal and cunning of collaborators is somehow sympathetic. Rather than heralding new internet technologies the film focuses on interpersonal relations. Fincher does not take sides but has his main character emerge through the faithful reconstruction of several lawsuits against him, a very effective narrative method.
In HEREAFTER by Clint Eastwood we have an appealing mystical mediation about life after death, successfully connecting the fates of a French woman journalist with a near death experience, a British boy trying to contact his dead twin brother, and a West Coast psychic who can communicate with the death but is unable to establish his personal life. Given the theme, there is no haste in the film it moves slowly and the superb and overpowering opening sequence depicting destruction wrought by a tsunami leaves the strongest visual impression of the film.
Both films are intriguing, yet have clear story line with little left for the viewer to decipher. This traditional but superb film making is diametrically different from the festival’s FILM SOCIALISM by Jean Luc Godard, possibly his last film. Like Eastwood he is a festival favorite, by now 25 Godard films have been show here. FILM SOCIALISM is an enigmatic three part allegorical reflection about the decline of European history and socialist alternatives. It moves through a cruise ship trip from nowhere to nowhere and teenagers running for a political office to terminate with an homage to Catalonia liberating itself. The film offers a cryptic blend of images and semiotics with elements that appear disconnected requiring analysis by the viewer. There is a multitude of story segments underlying the imagery, many quotations by dozens from Balzac and other Godard favorites and the rejection of a clear narrative or linear order in the film. As critics have observed Godard shows impatience with coherent binary structures. We see no attempt to provide the viewer with answers; rather reflection about the meaning of images and words is necessary.
To the contrary, the viewer of Charles Ferguson’s INSIDE JOB receives a plausible account, possibly prompting the prosecuting director’s intended response, action by the audience. The documentary offers a dynamic dissection of the causes of the financial collapse that wrecked the US and the world economy and identifies high ranking financial professionals causing the crisis. Many cogent interviews with members of the coalition of investment bankers, politicians and academics responsible for the crisis result in an infuriating demonstration of the arrogance of these financial experts, not to speak of the incredible amounts of money they made. They collected millions deregulating the economy, during and after the crisis and show a basic contempt or oblivion for their victims. INSIDE JOB also demystifies Obama’s economic entourage that features many of the same characters. It is noteworthy that the film received a fairly positive review by the Wall Street Journal, under the byline No Straight Answers in Sight.
Several other films with audience appeal were part of the program. In the touching Korean POETRY by Lee Change-dong an elderly lady struggling with Alzheimers and her delinquent grandson searches for solace in poetry. MSYTERIES OF LISBON is a glorious well enacted and beautifully digitally recorded film of close to five hours that was originally made for television. Directed by the famed Raul Ruizo this telenovella plays in 19th century Portugal and features in a complex story a tapestry of love, vengeance and passion as played in magnificent sets out by the aristocracy, their descendants and a Monte Christos parvenu. Based on an actual event is the excellent but somber film OF GODS AND MEN by Xavier Beauvois, the winner of the 2010 Grand Prix at Cannes. Taking place in 1996 the film focuses on the survival and demise of a small French monastery of seven monks providing care to the local village in a desolate area during the Algerian civil war. There is a powerful subdued presentation of the monks, their doubts, communal links, and aspirations. Expressions of spirituality by the monks are juxtaposed with Muslim fundamentalism of the terrorists yet no blame is placed. Beauvois is more interested in the minute reconstruction of the monastery life and of the monks’ encounters with the local community and the terrorists.
The surging Romanian national cinema is still present at the 2010 festival with two features and Andrei Ujiza’s semi fictional documentary THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF NICOLAE CEAUSESCU in the Special Events section. TUESDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS by Radu Untean was the winner of the 2010 Cannes Grand Jury price and offers the dissection of a disintegrating marriage as represented in the family’s everyday life. Ujiza achieves an extraordinary performance by the protagonists, allowing no deviation from the script or improvisations, the acting is tightly controlled and the director’s extraordinary craftsmanship influenced by voyeurism as a device requires little editing as acknowledged by the film maker. The second Romanian feature Cristi Puiu’s AURORA has murder without an apparent motive at its center. In this coproduction, set in a Bucharest wasteland covering two days Cristi Puiu plays the killer perfectly as a character who cannot be scrutinized but is in total control. Reasons for the murder of four people remain a mystery, except for few hints at the end. Even more disconcerting than murder without obvious reasons is the Chilean co-production POST MORTEM by Pablo Larrain which depicts the harrowing and brutal murderous ascension of the military in Chile as observed through the work of medical staff. The images recall the worst scenes of civilian death one can imagine. The film is powerful because of a mesmerizing story line. First, scenes from a cabaret and the normal everyday work of the medical staff in the obduction section of a local hospital are shown. A long sequence follows exposing the audience to the civilian carnage of the military upheaval, including the autopsy of Allende the medical staff is forced to perform. In a surprising ending the protagonist locks up a former woman friend and her lover, an apparent leftist opposed to the military. CARLOS, by Olvier Assayas also focuses on political violence, but from the left. It is a five and a half hour tale brilliantly performed by Edgar Ramirez as Carlos, featuring the rise and fall of the terrorist Carlos the Jackal, a detached Marxist revolutionary killer with contradictory narcissistic and hedonistic tendencies yet also playing the family man.
Among the best film selections was WE ARE WHAT WE ARE the first feature by the Mexican filmmaker Jorge Michael Grau which won accolades at Cannes and the award as the best feature film at the Mexican 2010 Expresion en Corto Film Festival. Grau scores in virtually all areas with his grim and fascinating story of a mother and her three teenage children engaged in ritualistic religious cannibalism. His film excels in the originality of the screenplay, cinematography, acting, sets, sound design, and carefully constructed story telling. It is not a horror film rather the depiction of the disintegration of a family due to uncommon causes. Nevertheless there is sufficient blood and violence for an audience fascinated by evil from the somber darkly lit underbelly of a Mexican metropolitan area.
The 2010 edition of the New York Film Festival delivered on its promise of an innovative broad based program reflecting current trends.