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19 Movies in 23 Days: This Year’s New York Film Festival

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I’ve been seeing so many movies during the last month that I haven’t had time to write about them. So this article is a way of playing catch-up. All but one of the movies were in the New York Film Festival (although I saw two of those after the festival at other venues).  

For me the highlight of this year’s NY Film Fest was definitely the Janus Films retrospective of classic foreign films, a ‘sidebar’ at the Walter Reade Theater, one of the best venues anywhere for seeing movies – superb projection and sound in an intimate, comfortable setting. These wonderful films are being released in new DVDs this week by Janus and Criterion, but seeing them on a theater screen was a sublime experience.

The new movies, at least the ones I saw, were a mixed bag. This is often the case at the NYFF. Supposedly 1500 movies were winnowed down to the 25 actually shown, which means for every one accepted, 59 were rejected. And yet, just as in every other year I’ve attended, I saw several movies that made me think, I’m glad I don’t have to sit through those other 59 – because the one that did make it seems unworthy of being shown in such an esteemed venue (and at $20 a ticket). Certainly this is a completely subjective judgment, although it’s shared by most people I’ve attended with over the years.

In the main festival:

The Queen is Helen Mirren, and Helen Mirren is The Queen. Although it is certainly the better film, The Queen resembles The Devil Wears Prada in being almost impossible to imagine with someone else playing the pivotal role. And Meryl Streep’s performance in Prada and Mirren’s in The Queen are the acting high points of the year – exhilarating star turns that take their respective movies into realms their makers must hardly have dared hope they could go.

When I heard about this film’s premise, I groaned inwardly. How could they bring it off? Actors playing such familiar figures as Tony Blair and the British royal family, during the period surrounding the death of Princess Diana – it seemed a recipe for a silly, grotesque failure. And yet as deftly scripted by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, The Queen is a comedy of manners with a real heart. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a marvelous entertainment, both hilarious and moving. (The closest equivalent may be Mike Nichols’s movie adaptation of Primary Colors, in which the Clintons were fictionalized into characters in a sly comedy that was satirical but not cruel.)

Mafioso – Vibrant and funny. In 1962 when this Italian film was first released, the mix of broad comedy, criminal violence and social criticism must have seemed shocking and new. It’s still a flavorful, entertaining movie, as a dull bourgeois industrialist takes his family to his native Sicily for a vacation. Imagine Green Acres crossed with the Sicilian sections of The Godfather, and you’ll have an idea of the approach.

Gardens in Autumn, from France, seemed to be something about a retired (or forced-out) government official and his family and friends. It floated along, almost entirely free of anything resembling a point, a reason to have been made, or a reason to be sat through. Whimsical and tedious: one of the worst combinations for a movie.

Reds – Warren Beatty’s Oscar winner from 1981, in a new print, shown in conjunction with its first-ever DVD release. Rarely less than interesting, but never as good or as powerful as it wants to be, and as its subject – the Russian Revolution from the point of view of an American Communist journalist – seems to demand. The audience, primed by the hype, reacted as if it were a masterpiece. No, sorry, though I wish it were. Beatty and Diane Keaton are at the peak of their appeal in this film, however.

49 Up – The most emotionally powerful movie I saw at the festival. I happen to be the same age as the subjects of this series of documentaries from the UK. I’ve watched all the earlier ones fairly recently on DVD. Seeing people age from 7 to 49 over a short period is a very strong, almost overwhelming experience. In this latest installment, nearly every one of the ‘characters,’ the real people who have been interviewed on camera every seven years for 42 years, talks about the distress and pain the participation brings. I hope the gratitude of the audience helps them feel a little better – I think much of the audience shares my teary-eyed exhilaration at watching each new installment, and each one has greater cumulative power.

At this point, I would have seen even more movies, but someone wisely convinced me to take a break and spend Columbus Day weekend in the mountains. Then, upon my return:

Our Daily Bread – This is an interesting documentary…not sure if it will find any kind of audience in this country. Without narration or music, it shows us in an almost abstract manner how farm-grown food is mass-produced in Western countries. The factory methods required to produce large amounts of apples, peppers, beef, eggs, pork are shown in an almost abstract manner. You watch a cow being killed, bled and then sliced in half, but you may be surprised to feel so little emotion…it’s like a plastic widget on an assembly line. For me, it was yet another example of a film that could make its point in 40 minutes but is stretched to feature length.

Triad Election – Just an ordinary genre piece, not nearly on the level of such Hong Kong films as Infernal Affairs (the basis for The Departed, see below). The “highlight” has our antihero young gangster striking fear into his enemies by chopping one guy into hamburger and feeding him to dogs in front of other gang members he has abducted and imprisoned. If this sounds like fun to you, you are welcome to it. Yuck.

Climates – This Turkish film is largely about the silences between people, especially couples, and the long awkward pauses in many of the scenes seemed to make the audience squirm the night I saw it – there were some walkouts. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is interesting, a melancholy romantic comedy with hints of Ingmar Bergman, and some beautiful photography of various geographical and seasonal views of Turkey.

Poison Friends had the distinction of being the last Film Festival movie to be screened in Alice Tully Hall (the mostly-chamber-music auditorium that has been the festival’s main home for decades) until 2009, while a major renovation is completed. This was almost its only point of interest. Its plot and characters were shockingly obvious, pedestrian, predictable. It’s about a group of supposedly high-caliber grad students who are not smart enough to see what the audience knows within ten minutes: that the obnoxious loudmouth they inexplicably admire and allow themselves to be manipulated by is indeed a despicable fool. The French hold books and authors in very high esteem, so one has to assume that the banal and silly notions about literature bandied about in this movie are as embarrassing to most Parisians as they were to me and the friends who attended with me. But this won some kind of award at Cannes, so who knows?

Volver – Almodovar’s latest is being overpraised a bit, like most of his movies, but it is very entertaining and splendidly shot. I just don’t think it amounts to much, in the end. But Penelope Cruz is excellent as our heroine, who discovers very surprising things about her husband, her dead mother, her teenage daughter, her sister and her aunt.

Little Children – A disappointing misfire that begins very promisingly. This look at adultery and ugly feelings in suburbia often chooses to be very unsubtle, as when a book club discusses Madame Bovary while our heroine flashes on the sex she just had with her married lover, or the local sex criminal goes on a disastrous blind date. Those are the two worst scenes, but they set the tone for the second half of the movie – it’s a veritable screeching string quartet of misjudged writing and direction. The very best idea in the film is having Will Lyman of PBS’s Frontline narrate…but this device too has nowhere to go. I’m no fan of Todd Field’s first movie, In the Bedroom, but this is much worse. And yet many are overpraising it, inexplicably.

The Departed – This is the one film in this list that didn’t play at the NY Film Festival. It follows its source, the Hong Kong policier/gangster movie Infernal Affairs, very closely, scene by scene. But Martin Scorsese’s stunning direction and the excellent cast take it far beyond that nifty little movie in terms of power. In the end, the material may still seem a bit thin, but while you’re watching, you may not notice…if you remember to breathe, that is. One of the very best movies of the year.

In the Janus Films sidebar:

Jules et Jim – Truffaut’s 1962 masterpiece. I’ve seen this a few times over the years. It’s arguable that the very young, though they may love the film, probably don’t fully appreciate it. This was the first time I felt the full headiness of its script and direction and acting. Seeing a beautiful print well projected on a large screen certainly helps. But it also helps to be a little older, to have seen and read and experienced more. I remember feeling disappointed by the film when I was younger – it seemed glib and simplistic then, much less so now. This is the opposite experience I have had with some films that were favorites of my younger days.

The Makioka Sisters – A brilliant film made in 1983 during the twilight of Kon Ichikawa’s long and varied career. It takes you completely into the world of the upper middle class in Osaka at the beginning of WWII. The design, the photography, the performances are all beautiful. (The score, incongruously performed on a synthesizer, is not.)

Viridiana – Luis Bunuel’s comeback film from the early 60s, very controversial then and still entrancing now. The gorgeous new print added to the impact of this perverse tale of a beautiful young nun, her lascivious uncle, and her unfortunate attempts to help the local beggars after she leaves the convent.

Zero de Conduite (Zero for Conduct) – Just brilliant, a story of rebellion in a boys’ school that still seems utterly fresh and original, more than 70 years after it was made. Only 45 minutes long, it has as much impact and hilarity as any of these 19 films.

Cleo from 5 to 7 – We spend 90 minutes with a French singer circa 1962 while she waits for results of some very serious medical tests. Wonderful location shooting in Paris of the period.

The Earrings of Madame de… – Max Ophuls’s romantic masterpiece. At first it seems as trivial as its heroine, but the intensity builds and builds as her winkingly illicit affair becomes deadly serious.

Sansho the Bailiff – Yet another masterwork in the Janus series, an epic Japanese folk tale from Kenji Mizoguchi. Its sadness builds and builds, and the final scene is as devastating as it is beautiful.

Possibly the Janus series will play in other theaters around the country. If so, don’t miss them. But at the very least, start renting or buying the new discs as soon as you can…some of the best movies ever made are here!

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