New York Film Festival
26 September - 12 October, 2008


For the benefit of those of you who may eventually be directed here from someone's NYFF rundown, and who may assume that 57/100 amounts to an F.

100-90: Masterpiece, or damn close. Very rare.
89-80: Fanthefucktastic. Near-lock for my year-end top 10 list.
79-70: Definitely something special. Do not miss. Likely list contender.
69-60: Very good, but also flawed or missing some crucial element.
59-50: Didn't quite work for me, but has many redeeming qualities.
49-40: Demerits clearly outweigh merits.
39-30: I really did not enjoy this picture, but talent was involved.
29-20: When will this fucking picture end. When.
19-10: Outright fiasco and/or unwatchably boring.
9-0: One of the worst movies I've ever seen. Very rare.
W/O: I don't know the director and the first two reels (about 35 to 40 minutes) didn't convince me that (s)he has it going on.

Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea): 71
[Almost busted out laughing when our hero pointed out the Musée d'Orsay at one point, thereby reminding me of Hou's cosmopolitan visit to France just last year -- and underlining the fact that Hong flew all the way to Paris to make a movie in which spotting a non-Korean face amounts to a rousing game of Où Est Waldo? Certainly expatriation only makes his protagonist perhaps 10% more bemused and adrift than usual. For some reason, however, it makes him 200% more hilarious, even though the film is utterly devoid of the routine culture-clash comedy one might expect. Like early Jarmusch, Night and Day functions almost like a series of blackout sketches, minute variations on a theme; the interstitial date cards themselves gradually turn into miniature punchlines, emphasizing the degree to which this quizzical, indolent lump -- a renowned artist who does nothing for two solid months apart from lie in bed, smoke cigarettes and very hesitantly chase girls -- proves temperamentally impervious to change. Nothing new for Hong, of course, but the tone here is subtly different -- which is to say, oddly funny and disquieting -- right from the opening scene, in which Sung-nam, fresh off the plane, is warned, apropos of nothing whatsoever and in broken English, to "be careful." That he proceeds to treat Paris like a potential minefield, behaving like a dog who's accidentally wandered out of its own neighborhood, friendly but uncertain, just gets funnier and funnier. Not sure the film needed to run well over two hours, given its fundamentally anecdotal nature, but so many of those anecdotes are priceless that I'm not much inclined to quibble. I do have a question, though, for anyone who speaks both English and Korean: What the hell is going on in that scene where the subtitles have Sung-nam speaking in some kind of weirdass sexist jive? Just how untranslatable is that, and why?]

Changeling (Clint Eastwood, USA): 67
[As I've argued for over a decade now, Eastwood-as-director, with his so-called "classical" style that really amounts to a sort of measured impatience, is only as good as his material. Here, via former Babylon 5 geek J. Michael Straczynski, he's stumbled onto a true-life tale so absurdly sensational that you can only wonder how on earth it ever fell into obscurity in the first place. I can easily imagine it inspiring a much better film than Changeling: a film in which the lead actress doesn't seem to be in constant battle with the period setting; a film that finds a way to make its two parallel stories work in counterpoint long before they dovetail; certainly a film that doesn't hand over its exposition to a good-hearted, wise-cracking hooker. (I'd feel sorry for Amy Ryan had I not just seen this.) But the fact that John Grisham can't write for shit didn't stop me from blazing through The Firm in six hours flat (in person I demonstrate by muttering "this is stupid," "this is retarded," "how did this even get published?" -- all while miming rapidly flipping pages), and likewise I cannot honestly claim not to have enjoyed this movie, even if it was strictly in a flabbergasted voyeuristic how-much-more-fucked-up-can-this-get? kind of way. And while Changeling has plenty of cornball Hollywood moments, it also repeatedly thwarts audience expectations -- if only by virtue of sticking to the facts of the actual Wineville case, which was by no means resolved in a cathartic or crowd-pleasing fashion. I can only assume that Northcott really did sing "Silent Night" on the gallows in that quavery terrified voice...because, seriously, who could make that up?]

The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA): N/A
[The alarm went off at 8:30 and I thought "Fox Searchlight is gonna screen this thing a bazillion times over the next couple months" and went right back to sleep. I'll plug the review in here when I see it.]

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France): 68
[Neat trick Assayas pulls off here, slowly subtracting characters until it becomes clear that the film's true subjects are all inanimate. And yet at the same time he gives everyone's feelings their due, discreetly following the eldest and most sentimental sibling into the bedroom when he gets all weepy about having to sell the house; letting the other two justify their decision without writing them off as cold, rootless global-econ maroons; even halting the Cold Water Redux finale to give one grandchild a brief moment of longing and regret. As it happens, my own family (paternal side) has a similar house in Carmel-By-The-Sea (of Clint-as-Mayor fame), which my dad and six surviving aunts/uncles opted to keep when their parents died back-to-back in the mid-'90s; having just spent a weekend there in April and been suffused by childhood memories, I'm probably unusually receptive to this film's elegiac tone at the moment, despite having more in common with Binoche's Adrienne than with Berling's Frédéric (NYC being as far as it's possible to get from Carmel/San Jose without actually leaving the continental U.S.). But just the degree to which I'm digressing into autobiography -- and I haven't even touched upon the living-room couch my mother wouldn't allow any of us kids to sit on, which pointless restriction annoyed me so mightily that I later constructed an entire screenplay around it -- gives you an idea of how potent Assayas' musings on history and utility prove to be. A very small film, but lovely.]

The Northern Land (João Botelho, Portugal): 12
[Make no mistake: This film is deadly -- a stilted, stultifying pomo costume drama that makes Oliveira look like Aronofsky. There is no conceivable projection scenario that would not make me wish myself elsewhere. But it's possible that I might have found it somewhat less odious had the Festival not shown it to the press on (reportedly) plain old DVD, thereby rendering it ass-ugly as well as arm-gnawingly dull. Projected video has made such impressive leaps and bounds over the past few years that I'd forgotten how fervently I despise the way that the consumer-grade version, when blown up in a theatrical setting, flattens everything into a two-dimensional version of bad 3-D, with actors who (or rather "that") appear to have been digitally pasted onto unrelated backdrops. The Northern Land's declamatory theatrics would be grating enough in a context of visual splendor; presenting it in lo-def made me feel as if I were being subjected to a two-hour joint presentation by some high school's A/V Club and Drama Society. It doesn't help that all of the key female roles are played by Ana Moreira, whose sole register (see also Transe) is a sort of imperious terror. When one of her characters approaches a cliff's edge and looks longingly downward at the waves crashing on the rocks, I could only think "Oh please."]

Che (Steven Soderbergh, France/Spain): 48
[As movies with no compelling reason to exist go, this one is really quite good. Soderbergh's shift from freewheeling, widescreen Cuban triumph to flat, plodding Bolivian nightmare packs the intended dialectical punch, and you couldn't ask for a less flashy, more committed portrait of Guevara -- so intent is Del Toro on eschewing mythology that Che often threatens to recede into the background of his own movie. The film is scrupulously intelligent, admirably evenhanded, and only very faintly dull given its extreme length. It's just...why? Granted, I tend to ask that question of most fact-based films, and almost every biopic, but usually there's some glimmer of vitality to be found, if only in the star's evident desperation to win approval and/or an Oscar. Here, it feels more as if Soderbergh drew the subject "Che Guevara" out of a hat and then set about finding the most interesting approach he could think of; never for a moment do you get the sense that he's invested in the project as anything more than a technical exercise. The film's champions, e.g. Glenn Kenny, claim that Che is about "process," but while we certainly get acquainted with the nuts and bolts of armed insurrection, such exhaustive cataloguing in no way dovetails with the grandiose rise|fall structure. (The process is essentially the same in both campaigns; it's just that the Bolivians refuse to cooperate.) At the post-screening Q&A, Soderbergh confessed that he hadn't known at the outset what drew him to Guevara, but that he ultimately came to realize that for him the film is fundamentally about engagement -- an almost comical irony, since he couldn't possibly seem more disengaged.]

I'm Gonna Explode (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico): 62
[Except they're not, is the thing. What they're actually gonna do is enact the most desultory, useless lovers-on-the-lam scenario ever, "fleeing" to a tent on the roof of Román's family's posh home and then sneaking downstairs to almost fuck after everyone leaves. Their whole adventure could scarcely be more pathetic -- which is pretty clearly the point, even if nobody seems to have noticed. Pace Michael Sicinski (who I suspect was distracted by class issues that are largely a red herring), the film isn't "pseudo-Godardian" but rather an affectionate piss-take on the very notion of Romantic Youth, one that doesn't even remotely take its two protagonists' rebellion seriously, even as it takes the feeling of disaffection that inspires it very seriously. "And now here's Román Valdez to perform a dramatic monologue entitled 'See You in Hell'." I mean, come on. Do we need Christian Slater doing a Jack Nicholson impression? The tricky part was maintaining our interest in these sad wannabes along their road to nowhere, and for the most part I thought Naranjo (and his cast) did a fine job of walking the perilously thin line between blasé and dull, though obviously others disagree. It falls apart at the end, admittedly, as these movies are wont to do...but even then, I was grateful that Maru's fate turns out to be not the dose of cheap irony we first assume but instead something thoroughly in keeping with the film's doleful emphasis on fantasies unrealized. drama/mex was more distinctive, less shaky, but this is still a filmmaker to watch in my opinion.]

Hunger (Steve McQueen, UK): 59
[Thought McQueen was doing something amazingly daring for a while, but it turns out to be only semi-daring. Basically, the third act kind of ruins the movie for me -- partly because that's the point at which it finally becomes the straightforward Bobby Sands martyrdom saga I'd feared (and also the point at which McQueen begins trafficking in symbolic cliché -- I would've preferred an insert of Mel Gibson yelling "Freedooooooom!" to birds taking wing), but mostly because the last thing I wanted Hunger to do was return to a strategy of tactile overload. A conventionally unconventional political drama would devote most of its first half to discourse and rhetoric, steeping us in the ideals being fought for by the prisoners as well as the cold rationale behind the Crown's intransigence; only once we could pass a short quiz on Special Category Status -- and had become intimately familiar with a cast of compelling characters -- would the film mutate into an arty, nonverbal portrait of human suffering. So when the Sands/priest debate kicked off, and continued well into the next damn reel, I mistakenly thought (excitedly) that McQueen was doing precisely the opposite: first abstraction, then ideology. In fact I started to hope -- rather naïvely, I admit -- that he might not actually depict the hunger strike at all, that we'd experience it only via its impact on those outside the prison walls. But no, that scene -- totally gripping in itself, of course; somewhere Brando and Malden are looking very sheepish -- functions more like an arch's keystone, and when it's over McQueen returns to his nearly silent passion play...which, for all its formal mastery, I must say feels a bit macho in its eagerness to shove our noses into the Maze's agony and filth. Why were these men prepared to commit suicide over what was largely a matter of bureaucratic designation? There is an answer, of course, but you won't find it in this movie, which is devoted to excrement and bedsores to the exclusion of nearly everything else.]

Bullet in the Head (Jaime Rosales, Spain/France): 24
[Wish I had the technical know-how to put together the Jaime Rosales version of, say, Pulp Fiction, just to give you a rough idea of how bold and unprecedented and ambitious and unbelievably fucking tedious this movie is. Instead I'll have to attempt it with words. So imagine that Tarantino's film opens with Travolta and Jackson driving, except we're watching them from outside the car, through a window. We can hear traffic noise and planes overhead and maybe the distant thrum of Kool & The Gang, but we have no idea that Jules and Vincent are discussing hash bars and the Royale With Cheese. Then we see them walking and talking in and around an apartment building -- but from a great distance, so forget any entertaining dialogue about TV pilots or foot massages. It's just two dudes gabbing about we know not what. Now jump ahead to the first Bruce Willis scene, same close-up of the back of Ving Rhames' head, goes on just as long, we can't hear a word he's saying. Vincent and Mia at Jack Rabbit Slim's but from a mile away, they're talking animatedly for five minutes, we hear the clatter of dishes. And on and on and on like that for almost 90 minutes, then Vincent gets gunned down on the toilet and Butch runs off. The end. I'm dead serious. That's essentially what Bullet in the Head amounts to: Terrorists are people too, they do everyday shit when they're not taking innocent lives, DETAILS WITHHELD. No doubt somebody on the selection committee will eventually write a long piece declaring it a masterpiece of mundane voyeurism, but all I saw was a pointless stunt.]

24 City (Jia Zhangke, China/Hong Kong/Japan): 58
[Because I (as usual) went in totally tabula rasa, my reaction to Jia's latest must perforce be divided into two radically oppositional eras: BJC and AJC. Before Joan Chen showed up, 24 City struck me as a fairly staid but nonetheless often engrossing documentary -- yet another troubling portrait of the New China, but with more direct emotional access to the average citizen than Jia's semi-detached style generally permits. The middle-aged woman riding the bus tells her story with a rough-hewn eloquence that's remarkably moving, and I also got involved with the dude who mostly wanted to reminisce about getting dumped. ("You said it first.") Then Joan Chen showed up, and suddenly I didn't know what I was watching anymore. Was the whole thing a sham, à la Dadetown? Hard to believe some of the previous interview subjects were actually actors. Still, I found myself watching the sequences After Joan Chen with deep suspicion, now fundamentally incapable of connecting with the film on the simple, visceral BJC level. (Only when Zhao Tao appeared at the end was I even 100% certain that I hadn't just been fooled by an amazing Joan Chen lookalike, given the cute bit about her being nicknamed after a character in one of Chen's early Chinese movies.) As I wrote a decade ago, in reference to Unmade Beds (which seems more and more like a watershed movie with each passing year): "It's as if I wear one pair of glasses for fictional narratives and another pair of glasses for documentaries, and Barker's film left me unable to determine which pair of glasses I was supposed to put on, and without glasses my vision's maybe 20/500, and so I found the entire experience...well, really darn blurry." Even after going home and looking up other reviews and whatnot, I still don't really feel like I understand what Jia was aiming for by abruptly shifting from real testimonies to fictitious ones -- it doesn't seem to add (or subtract) much from the overall conception, and both halves of the film seem to me equally hit or miss. Still, it's exciting to see people in a Jia movie who are more than just tiny figures blocking our view of some defunct building or scarred landscape, whether they're actors or not.]

Serbis (Brillante Ma. Mendoza, DGPI; Phillipines/France): 40
[Not sure I can really improve on the Twitter review: "Here's an environment. Do you like my environment? Immerse yourself in the environment I offer you. That is all." Endlessly trailing members of an extended family up and down the stairs and across the waterlogged floors of the soft-core porn theater they run, which doubles as a meat market for Angeles City's gay community, Mendoza winds up going in circles; to echo Theo's complaint about Sugar, I saw no particular reason why this movie couldn't just continue forever in the same rambling yet urgent vein. Subplots are halfheartedly introduced -- teen pregnancy, a bigamy suit -- but you don't really get the sense that Mendoza cares much. He's more interested in the graffiti and posters that cover the walls, in the constant din of traffic that presumably serves to drown out lusty yelps. (And also, for some reason, in an ugly boil on one dude's ass.) By contrast, Mendoza's far superior Foster Child, which screened at New Directors/New Films earlier this year, remains in constant forward motion (it feels like you see half of Manila), sticks tight to an immensely sympathetic protagonist, and boasts a much more interesting project, viz. withholding any trace of melodrama from an emotionally overwhelming scenario (a professional temp mom preparing to hand a kid over to its permanent foster parents). Serbis is less strenuously doc-like and more self-consciously scuzzy, and once I knew the layout of the building well enough to sketch an accurate map, I felt like my mission here was pretty much accomplished. Cute goat, though.]

Four Nights With Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland/France): 39
[Having already seen this basic lovelorn-stalker scenario realized to devastating effect by both Patrice Leconte (in Monsieur Hire) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (in Decalogue Six, only one of the greatest films ever made), I quickly grew impatient with Skolimowski's lumbering, faintly comic variation, which takes its protagonist's essentially infantile nature an unnecessary step further by actually making him borderline retarded. Imagine this harmless perv as a maladjusted teenage boy, which he more or less is, and you can see a certain affinity with the director's superb 1971 coming-of-age tale Deep End -- but there the similarity ends, alas. Both Deep End and the equally terrific Moonlighting (1982) are endlessly nuanced, constantly lobbing little hand grenades of unexpected but entirely credible human behavior. But 17 years away from the camera seems to have badly rusted Skolimowski's hinges, comeback ballyhoo notwithstanding. Here, his only means of distracting us from the poverty of his imagination involves truly dumbass misdirection: the opening scenes work overtime to persuade us that we're witnessing the story of a deranged serial killer, and the screenplay's overall structure is so stupidly contrived that even Guillermo Arriaga will likely slap his forehead in frustration. Really, the only interesting thing about Anna is its unusually aggressive score, which is refreshingly unashamed of its mood-enhancing function; at a time when most international art films revel in silent austerity, those shrieking violins seem downright avant-garde, even though that's exactly what you'd expect from the Hollywood equivalent. If only there were bold, striking images and/or ideas for them to complement.]

Chouga (Darezhan Omirbaev, France/Kazakhstan): 44
[It's been so long since I read Anna Karenina that at first I figured I must simply have missed whatever subversive thing Omirbaev was doing here, especially since this is my first encounter with his work. But no, as far as I can tell he's merely condensed and flattened Tolstoy's novel into near-uselessness, although the basic narrative is inherently involving enough to stave off boredom. Certainly it doesn't help that the actors playing his equivalents of Anna and Vronsky have all the scorching sexual chemistry of Howard and Marion Cunningham -- you've never seen so many ostensibly torrid glances bounce right off the recipient's face and crawl whimpering into the nearest corner. But I can't say I'm overly impressed by Omirbaev's formal chops, either. Chouga looks handsome enough, and its locations are well chosen, especially insofar as they provide a sense of what passes for great wealth in Kazakhstan. But the rhythm is plodding, the compositions banal, and Omirbaev's idea of expressionism is cutting to nature-doc footage of snails copulating when Chouga and Ablai hook up, or representing Chouga's dwindling options by having a series of doors literally close in her face, one after the other. Most of the time, even if I don't like one of NYFF's selections, I can at least see why other people might consider it remarkable. But what would excite anyone about this humdrum transplantation is beyond me.]

Afterschool (Antonio Campos, USA): 94
[Remember in Mulholland Dr. when that creepy dude points at the headshot and says, flatly, "This is the girl"? Try to imagine me heavier and much more intimidating as I tell you with equally unshakable certitude: This is the film. All of 23 years old at the time of shooting, Campos tackles head-on the key subject of the early 21st century, viz. mediation, and delivers the first movie I've seen that seems to recognize how drastically the (developed) world has changed in just the last several years, and the extent to which we're now both starved for authenticity and dedicated to pretense. What's more, he does so with a formal control and ingenuity that's nothing short of breathtaking, especially for a neophyte. Switching deftly back and forth between panoramic widescreen celluloid and cramped, windowboxed consumer video, Afterschool deliberately blurs the line between the two: Not only are the "objective" shots brilliantly artless, forever trained on the wrong spot or cutting someone in half at the edge of the frame, but much of the video imagery -- most especially Rob's A/V project, which abruptly turns from mundane B-roll into something so horrifying it can barely be processed, much less resolved -- evinces the chilly neutrality of Haneke or the Asian master-shot school. (And then there are shots that are just plain stunning, with D.P. Jody Lee Lipes working expressionist miracles via the tonal contrast between foreground clarity and backgrounds so magnificently blurred they resemble lost Monets.) Within this unique, semi-alienating worldview, Campos constructs a portrait of Generation YouTube (set here in high school, appropriately, but encompassing all ages) that's somehow at once compassionate and merciless -- which is to say, utterly true. The scene of Rob tentatively applying lessons learned from gonzo porn on new girlfriend Amy does in just a handful of seconds what Larry Clark spent half an hour belaboring in his Destricted short, and is beautifully counterweighted by his (Rob's) later act of sweet generosity in giving Amy his shirt to mop up the post-coital blood. Key moments in the characters' lives wind up scrutinized on the net hours later -- or they find "alternate takes" of events they themselves recorded, captured by persons unknown with ethical imperatives unrecognized. Even minor details cut clean: When Rob calls his mother to tell her he's not fitting in, her response is so credibly concerned-yet-destructive that it made me annoyed at the equivalent moment in Wendy and Lucy all over again. And while at first I thought Campos had erred in continuing beyond the re-edited memorial video, his actual ending will haunt me as long as it haunts Rob. Sorrowfully observing the quest for something real in a terrain of orchestrated lies, Afterschool never once flinches. This is how we live.]

[ADDENDUM, THE NEXT DAY: Like most great films, this one appears to be widely misunderstood. That others don't care for it is fine by me, and not wholly unexpected given its outsized formal and thematic ambition. But it does grate a bit when folks don't seem to recognize what Campos is doing, even as they berate him in the same breath for being overly explicit. And I want to address some of this stuff while my memory is still fresh, even though doing so requires a degree of specificity that I'd rather not inflict on those who haven't seen it (i.e., almost everyone). Please, come back to the next paragraph post-viewing.

You too Waz.

Okay. Now, take this gibe from Slant's Ed Gonzalez, which was echoed in a brief conversation I had today with Aaron Hillis: "Robert (Ezra Miller) joins the new-to-the-curriculum AV club, fucks around with his hottie partner, Amy (Addison Timlin), choking her just like that chick he likes so much (it's amazing what kids pick up on these days -- and so quickly too!)." That sarcastic parenthetical completely ignores this disturbing moment's actual import, which is nowhere near as facile as Gonzalez suggests...and while Aaron merely felt (if I understood him correctly) that showing Rob choking Amy was overkill, he's equally mistaken. The point here is not (just) that Rob is aping behavior he's seen in a porn video -- though, as I said above, it does beat hell out of the (inexplicably much-admired) Larry Clark short in that tiny respect. For this deeply confused kid, the throttling is not just some random perversion he's eager to assay on anything suitably nubile. It's an attempt to cut through the bullshit. When we initially see her, "Cherry Dee" is clearly hiding behind a persona, like most porn actors; it's almost painfully evident that she's performing for the camera, doing her best to fulfill male-derived stereotypes of female sexuality. It's only when her unseen interrogator grabs her by the throat that she drops the facade and we get a brief glimpse of the actual scared-shitless girl beneath the manufactured pout and salacious come-ons. That is what Rob is responding to and attempting to replicate. He doesn't choke Amy during their (amazingly credible and virtually unseen) first kiss, when both seem to have forgotten the camera -- he does it at a moment when Amy is clearly performing, after he's seen her demeanor abruptly change. It's his painfully awkward attempt to make her more real. That's what the entire film is about, and if I have a serious quibble it's that there's a scene in which Campos explicitly tells us that's what the film is about, having Rob explain to the guidance counselor what he finds so compelling about found video. You'd think that would clear up any possible confusion. Apparently not.]

Tony Manero (Pablo Larraín, Chile/Brazil): 33
["Ah, one for the boys over at Slant," I thought, and sure enough. For those not temperamentally inclined to celebrate uncompromising cine-machismo for its own sake, however, this is pretty thin gruel, deeply unpleasant without ever coming within spitting distance of enlightening. Once you've been startled by Raúl assisting an old woman home and then unexpectedly pummeling her to death for her TV set, and then seen him pawn the TV in order to fund a replica of the multicolored Saturday Night Fever dance floor, you're good to go, literally -- everything that follows is more of the same. American Psycho didn't really work as a movie, but at least Bret Easton Ellis had a coherent idea, in that you can readily see the connection between '80s materialism, Bateman's sadistic violence and the transformation of Genesis into a Phil Collins solo act. How exactly does living under Pinochet translate to disco fever? Why are we watching Tony Manero and not, say, Roy Neary or Luke Skywalker? I really don't get the sense that Larraín ever thought that through, and Alfredo Castro's deliberately affectless performance (uncompromising!) offers no clues. Ultimately, the whole thing struck me as extravagantly pointless, just arthouse high-concept. Some claim it's intended as black comedy; if so, the joke is on me.]

The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/France/Italy/Spain): 77
[Simply one of the most confounding filmgoing experiences I've ever had, and as usual I'm uncertain how a "normal" viewer -- i.e., someone who hasn't made a point of entering the theater with no advance knowledge of any kind -- would likely respond. (If you want the full experience and haven't already encountered a basic plot summary, stop reading now.) Personally, I entered a fugue state right alongside Vero, drinking in the oddly unsettling compositions and straining to hear ominous offscreen noises with roughly the same air of pleasant bewilderment she evinces for pretty much the entire first half of the movie. As pure filmmaking, The Headless Woman is indisputably superb, non-stop evocative; there's scarcely a shot that doesn't throb with ambiguous menace and/or portent. It's just that when it ended, I didn't know what the hell I'd just seen. The handful of non-dismissive reviews from Cannes emphasize a strong political undercurrent -- Andrew O'Hehir, for example, deems it a "story of unacknowledged class warfare" -- but whether because I myself am an oblivious dude of privilege (albeit one currently living below the poverty line; donations to the Keep md'a in New York Fund welcome) or because I was too enraptured by the general moodiness to notice, this element made little to no impression on me. Instead, I find that I keep thinking of Inland Empire, another tale of a wealthy middle-aged woman who tumbles down an unexplained rabbit hole. (Laura Dern and María Onetto, it turns out, are almost exactly the same age.) But where Lynch's overt surrealism and Dern's mannered mutations set my teeth on edge -- "golly, ain't this bizarre?" -- Onetto's aimless journey as She With No Noggin is truly the stuff of nightmares, if only because the lady will not stop smiling. The rest of the world chugs along as if nothing has happened, but Vero has come unmoored -- a sensation that we fully share, because Martel cannily stages the accident mere seconds after introducing the character, so that we know absolutely nothing about her. She's surprised to discover that she's a dentist, and so are we. Who is this man now suddenly kissing her? Beats her; beats us. And yet her reaction to each successive jolt is identical: vaguely warm indulgence. Nor is there a moment anywhere in the film where she identifiably regains her sense of self, though it's clearly happened by about the midpoint. The whole thing is just...weird, in a way that's at once exciting and discomfiting. I've given it a provisional rating, but check back around 6 October (after it screens for the press again) for an update.]

The Windmill Movie (Alexander Olch, USA): N/A
[Sorry, but I just couldn't motivate myself to get up at 8:30am to watch a semi-autobiographical posthumous portrait of an obscure filmmaker and teacher, reportedly directed by an old friend of Richard Peña's (this may just be a rumor, but it's a very credible-sounding rumor) and entitled The Windmill Movie after the subject's family's house in the Hamptons. I missed Calle Santa Fe last year as well, and don't much regret it, so I think I've decided that my NYFF completism no longer extends to tedious-looking documentaries.]

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA): 53
[The first warning flag was the sock -- singular because Wendy's only wearing one of them, a costume decision that immediately struck me as a way-too-calculated bid for our sympathy. Then came the almost comical self-righteousness of the supermarket stockboy, who isn't merely keen to bag a miscreant but seems to be belatedly auditioning for McCain's VP spot, barfing out sound-bite non sequiturs like "the rules apply equally to everyone." (What were the hypothetical grounds for favoritism? Cuteness?) And then the movie just flat-out lost me when (a) Wendy waited until the cops were driving her away to inform them that her dog was tied up in front of the market -- Lucy would be her primary concern; she'd be badgering them before they even left the manager's office -- whereupon (b) they completely ignored her...because, as we all know, the Man just don't care, not even about innocent pooches. Let's see Poppy keep her spirits up in this socio-economic cul-de-sac! (There's even a rambling homeless dude.) Kindly Walgreen's security guard gets some nice, tender moments, but you can barely hear him over the sound of modernity's wheels grinding poor Wendy to bits. The cheap pathos rarely lets up -- I mean, couldn't her sister and brother-in-law have at least come across as genuinely concerned (even if not enough to do more than offer platitudes), rather than as oblivious and obnoxious, respectively? Did we have to get a sad little insert of the guard's handout (which I had only assumed to be maybe $20 to begin with, frankly)? Sure, I got choked up at the end, but only in a shameless Old Yeller kind of way; comparisons to Umberto D. only reveal that most people don't understand why De Sica's film is so unbelievably heart-rending. The key word is "dignity." Wendy and Lucy opts instead for pity, which is not a road I wanted to see someone as gifted as Reichardt go down.]

The Class (Laurent Cantet, France): 61
[I guess there's just no pleasing me (cue vigorously nodding heads), because for the first hour, when the film seems wholly dedicated to observing the student-teacher dynamic in a multiculti Paris classroom, I found myself admiring its rigor and intelligence but also wishing that something a little extra-scholastic might happen. Then a narrative gradually, almost imperceptibly emerged, and suddenly I longed for Cantet to return to pure pedagogy -- mostly on account of the intense feeling of déjà vu. Complaining that a two-hour movie can't match the dizzying depth and cumulative force of an entire season of The Wire (see also Gomorrah) may seem unfair, but there's no denying that in its second half, as The Class's anecdotal nature gets overwhelmed by the question of whether certain problem students are worth "saving," the film moves into territory that David Simon and his crew handled with a great deal more complexity and finesse -- in part because they didn't restrict themselves entirely to the school grounds. I'm generally in favor of Von Trier-esque "obstructions," but in this case the sole-location strategy places undue emphasis on François Bégaudeau, playing (essentially) himself in an adaptation of his own memoir and coming off as a secular saint with a breaking point. Accusations of narcissism are perhaps a bit overstated, but there is something vaguely self-serving about this project, despite a plot that ultimately pivots on Monsieur Chips' use of a word that the subtitles translate as "skanks." (Given the reaction of everyone in the movie, the actual French word must have way more odious connotations.) It's an uncommonly subdued heroic-teacher drama, inclined to lengthy digressions about the contemporary relevance of the imperfect subjunctive (a scene I recalled just yesterday when reading David Fear's review of Elite Squad, which asks, apropos of BOPE and with an apparently straight face, "Whom do you call when shit goes down?"; can we please fucking kill the few lingering remnants of Old English case structure?), but it still fits the genre, and its many limitations, quite snugly.]