Last year, the New York Film Festival programmers took a critical drubbing for choosing films that were too intellectual or inscrutable. It was an old complaint, a cliché really, concerning the impenetrability of the avant-garde or glacially paced, black and white art films. I thought the charges were overblown, but there was something tepid and unwelcoming many selections, which were notably lacking in the genre pictures and star-driven movies that had previously rounded out the Festival and given it a crucial patina of fun.
This year, organizers returned with a reinvigorated idea of what the New York Film Festival can be: elite and cerebral, topically, tonally, and globally diverse, and eager to foster a dialogue with its community. The selections ranged from the Mexican horror movie We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay) to the Russian-Merjan meditation on death Silent Souls (Ovsyanki). Carlos Assayas’s five-hour take on Carlos the Jackal, Carlos, was shown alongside the brisk heist movie The Robber (Der Räuber). Special events included a new documentary by Frederick Wiseman (Boxing Gym), a 3D movie by Joe Dante (The Hole 3D), and Andrei Ujică’s experimental portrait of Nicolae Ceauşescu (The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu) After years of construction, the Film Society’s new Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center stood ready to open, and the whole enterprise felt imbued with bright energy.
The Festival programmers’ savviest move was to open with The Social Network, whose buzz rubbed off on the Festival. That movie’s controversial subject matter, skillful construction, and Hollywood entertainment value was a potent auger for what followed.
Associate program director Scott Foundas introduced Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (Copie Conforme) by referencing the art house films of the ’60s and ‘70s that would send their audiences out into the night brimming with talk about what the movie might mean. With an earnest excitement that was refreshing in the stuffy Lincoln Center environment, Foundas said that he looked forward to the conversations that this audience would be having after leaving the theater.
Certified Copy offers much to talk about, concerning how we interpret what is real in life and in art: it’s a portrait of a relationship as filmic essay, surreal meta-object, and brutal realism. The action follows a woman (Juliette Binoche) and a man (William Shimell) on a day trip through the Tuscan countryside. He is a philosopher who has just written a book about art reproductions and she is a wary reader who may be interested in him romantically. As the day progresses, it appears that they are in fact husband and wife. Or maybe they’re playing an emotionally unhinged game at being a couple. As if to emphasize the interpretive role of the viewer, cinematographer Luca Bigazzi uses natural settings and manmade architecture to divide the frame; for instance, mirrors and windows create multiple images. Sometimes either the man or the woman is facing the frame directly for long takes, effectively in dialogue with the audience.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chat) was another highlight. Weerasethakul’s movies have a welcoming quietness and spiritual humanity so that, despite their slow pacing, the oblique and open-ended symbology, and references to Buddhism, Thai history and folktales, they make themselves available to a wide audience. Uncle Boonmee, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in May, takes place o a farm in northern Thailand, where the title character is dying of kidney disease. He is visited by his sister, the ghost of his dead wife, and his son, who returns as a monkey spirit. Weerasethakul uses subtly different shooting styles for each section, all reflecting on the cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. Even as it is gentle in appearance, the film also offers acerbic commentary regarding the effects of violence.
There is a similar sort of communion going on between the living and the dead in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (Shi). It opens with a suicide of a young woman, set against a gorgeous river in the background. The grandmother at the center of the story, Mija (an amazing Yoon Jeong-hee), learns that the teenage grandson she cares for was involved in the girl’s death. As she ponders this, she’s also taking a poetry class, and her attempts to find beauty in words—the “flowers in her heart”—begin to seem like a dangerous dip into happy delusions. The movie avoids sentimentality through its sensitive, sometimes critical characterizations. The artfully constructed story is as subtle and exacting as the choice words that Mija strives for her in her poem. With Poetry, Chang-dong leaves behind the reliance on climactic melodrama that has marred his earlier films.
Mike Leigh returned for the umpteenth but still welcome time with Another Year. And again, his portrait of a mildly liberal British bourgeoisie, like a good Belle and Sebastian song, incorporate devastating emotional consequences. In a series of connected episodes, Another Year follows the too-cutely named and deeply contented couple Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) from spring to winter. Their relatives and friends come and go, bringing their problems and seeking stability in Tom and Gerri’s settled life. It soon appears, however, that the couple’s gentle demeanors mask a very conservative every-man-for-himself outlook. (Especially startling in the case of Geri, a therapist at a hospital.) This becomes more alarming as we see how their relationship with Geri’s disturbed work colleague Mary develops. Lesley Manville, in a brave performance, first defines Mary by a series of cloying mannerisms that made me groan, “My God, I have to spend two hours with this character?” But it eventually becomes clear how troubled she is, and viewers may feel sympathy even as Tom and Gerri begin viewing her as a nuisance, making for a movie as subtly realized and unpredictable as any of Leigh’s finer efforts.
Against Leigh’s narrative familiarity lay Jean-Luc Godard’s familiar difficulty. The archetypical art house director, audience divider, and NYFF regular made what will no doubt be one of his final submissions with Film Socialisme, an essay in three parts. The first is set on a cruise ship representing the wayward, ahem, ship of Europe; the second is set at a gas station where colonialist and democratic politics are hashed out. The final section is an exploration of western culture using film clips from Battleship Potemkin, John Ford, and Roberto Rossellini. Rather than translate the dialogue directly, Godard has provided what he calls “Navajo” subtitles, which only give two or three words to cover the gist of what is being discussed, such as “corrupted by suffering” or “Africa out.” This leaves huge holes that need to be filled by the viewer. I found myself grateful for remembering what I did from my high school French class, for having limited access to layers that would have otherwise been lost. As with any Godard movie, the vast room for interpretation is both exhilarating and frustrating. This is partially alleviated by the technical exhilaration of Godard’s editing and the digital photography by Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas, which capture bright colors that can be blocky like corporate iconography or smeary as an iPhone photo.
The layering of layer French and other languages suggests a layering of meaning, and we might guess Godard means to frustrate understanding as well. Yet it provided a sense of hard-won hope and openness, a renewed conceptual energy and a tamping down of the hectoring and resignation of his previous films. The title itself indicates a hope for a universal language through film. A subtitle says, “Images in language are in the desert, go find them.”
It is striking that the grandfather of art house, the radical and obscurist who worked his way through impossible optimism for the medium, only to grow increasingly pessimistic in old age, was able to locate a positive vein for film’s future. With a dash of humor, Film Socialisme is good news and an apt symbol for the resonant history and confident artistry that permeated this year’s New York Film Festival.