42nd New York Film Festival
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
1-17 October, 2004

Yeah, so, it's been a while. Once upon a time, this festival was the highlight of my moviegoing year; I'd dutifully see and review every single film, excepting only the many films each year that I never actually did get around to reviewing due to laziness, writer's block, girlfriends suddenly dumping me and then remaining tantalizingly and unhealthily close for months and months and then doing something so surreally obnoxious that even three years later it still feels like it must have been a nightmare or a "Punk'd" episode or both, etc. So I was startled to discover, when I sat down to create this page, that my last full-fledged NYFF writeup was back in 1999. The following year I started going to Toronto, and in 2002 I started attending Cannes, and what with those excursions plus other advance press screenings it's now rare that I haven't already seen half the movies by the time this mother gets underway. Which is also true this year, but since many of the films I've already seen are films I neglected to review at Cannes, and since my accreditation status could conceivably be seen as shaky following the shift from weekly Time Out New York to monthly Esquire, now seems like the right time to return to top-to-bottom, semi-comprehensive, sure-to-derail-after-about-five-days coverage. I'll address the previously seen titles as they show up on the press screening schedule, relying on foggy memories and conversations with friends at Toronto. Pilfered ideas may occasionally be credited to their originators. (For brief remarks on Bad Education and Undertow, mosey over here.)

(NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, the films below are not currently scheduled to be released in the U.S.)

Rolling Family (Pablo Trapero, Argentina): 34

Within ten minutes I was rooting for this intensely irritating clan to roll right over the edge of a very high cliff. Is Argentina really so white-hot right now that even a muddy, formulaic, patronizing bit of slapdash road-comedy fluff can now find favor at Venice and New York? Can somebody make a credible case for this film as more insightful or penetrating, or even just less ugly and noxious, than the average Miramax pickup -- Everybody's Famous, for example? Remember when the family's trailer predictably broke down, allowing for the de rigueur period of stasis in which various trite relationships ostensibly grow more complicated? And then later it broke down again? And did I imagine it or did they somewhere in there send the Slutty Daughter and her Oily Bohunk for gas on his motorcycle whereupon that broke down as well? Yet throughout all of this convenient mechanical failure, nobody ever fails to continue yammering and gesticulating and covertly auditioning for the forthcoming Buenos Aires production of "Tony n' Tina's Wedding." Once again, as with The Holy Girl (see below), I found myself silently chanting "End. End. End. End." This time, however, there was well over an hour left to go.

The World (Jia Zhangke, China): 58

Yet another portrait of aimless, disaffected Chinese youth unsure of their place in the new global economy, but spiced up this time with a truly inspired conceit, the film's theme-park setting providing a winningly absurd counterpoint to the characters' moping and flailing. Jia's use of offscreen space, always masterful, suddenly becomes even more poignant and hilarious, e.g. a slow pan reveals that the person who wandered out of frame a moment ago is now standing in ancient Egypt, the Great Pyramids sort-of-towering over his own forlorn frame. More energetic than Jia's last two films, too (my favorite, in a walk, remains his funky debut, Xiao Wu); the animated interludes don't really add much but were welcome nonetheless, just 'cause they shook things up a bit and boy does Jia need that. Demerits: way overlong, sometimes heavy-handed (the scenes with the Russian woman; "I don't even know anybody who's ever been on a plane"); kneejerk downbeat conclusion. But this still seems like a step in the right direction.

The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina): 69

Thought this would reveal itself as a near-masterpiece on second viewing, given the way that it expanded and lingered in my head following its Cannes premiere, but the epiphany never came. Still a very good film, accumulating force through tiny, offhand details and culminating in a structural tour de force that's at once liberating and unnerving. (Great final shots are tricky, rare and cherishable; this was one of those instances where I found myself silently chanting "End. End. End. End" and felt ecstatic and grateful when my wish came true.) Martel comes up with one striking composition after another, coaxes beautifully inflected performances from her actors (though the girl playing Amalia mostly just needed to bring her sullenly voluptuous face to the set every day -- what a casting coup), and -- best of all -- never once succumbs to the mannered somnolence that made her debut, La Ciénaga, such an impressive chore to sit through. This is a huge leap forward. At bottom, though, The Holy Girl, in its conflation of/confusion between faith and desire, shares the same basic concerns as any Prince album, and those two or three songs (read: scenes, moments, ideas) that transform an otherwise solid effort into an enduring classic are nowhere to be found. [I gather this is getting a commercial release sometime in 2005.]

The 10th District Court: Moments of Trial (Raymond Depardon, France): 55

Not remotely as illuminating as Depardon seems to think it is, except perhaps insofar as it presents a typical cross-section of Parisian citizens -- pretty dubious, as achievements go. First few cases are basically adventures in obliviousness, with defendants competing to see who can most thoroughly sabotage their own shot at acquittal or leniency; at one point the following dialogue takes place (edited for space):

JUDGE: No, yang.
DEFENDANT: Well, yes, yang. But yin.
JUDGE: The law clearly states yang.
DEFENDANT: I understand that the law says yang. I myself said yang right from the start. I have never said anything but yang. Except...yin.
JUDGE: So long as you say yin instead of yang, I can do nothing to help you.
DEFENDANT: Yang. Yang. With all of my heart, yang. Just understand that really it's yin if you consider its inherent yin-ness.

And so on. Hilarious, in a forehead-slapping, there-but-for-my-trillions-of-brain-cells-go-I kind of way, but hardly the stuff of acute Wisemanesque social observation. Subsequent cases are less riotous but still oddly mundane; the most fascinating exchange -- which sees the previously sensible Bernard-Requin get testy with an academic who's had the gall to show up armed with legal arcana and self-respect -- never even gets resolved onscreen. Generally engrossing, but I'm not convinced that a random selection of 12 different cases would have made for a substantially different movie. Major chutzpah points awarded to the attorney who confessed his own difficulties with women in a fashion so manic as to perhaps inspire several additional restraining orders.

Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, UK): 66

Somewhere between its inexplicable Cannes rejection and unexpected Venice triumph lies the truth about this often amazing, sometimes schematic attempt to blend the '40s maternal weepie with the '50s "problem picture." (It's set in 1950, smack between the two eras.) Though the film fairly bleeds sympathy for its scrappy dynamo of a protagonist and drips contempt for the draconian legal and social response to her actions, Leigh wisely avoids taking an explicit moral stance; instead, he focuses -- a little too bluntly for my liking, I must say -- on class issues, to the point of creating an entire subplot the only function of which is to remind us that rich women had (and have) options that poor women do not. Structurally quite daring, with Staunton's endless close-up (and subsequent transformation) a heartbreaking fulcrum...but I was far more absorbed by the ostensibly less dramatic first half, which among other things serves as a stunningly detailed evocation of post-WWII Britain. A bit didactic, but in a very tolerable and forgivable way. And there's no longer any denying that Leigh has evolved into a visual stylist of the first order -- Truffaut would be gobsmacked. Oh yeah, and the actors are of course one and all brilliant, ho hum. Shame, shame, Fremaux.

Woman Is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea/France): 44

To my mind, Hong's oeuvre singlehandedly discredits all but the broadest notions of auteurism, since he keeps making the same movie over and over and yet I respond powerfully to some (Turning Gate, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well) while remaining stubbornly indifferent to others (The Power of Kangwon Province, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors). After a solid, promising beginning, his latest settles into slightly salacious enervation, and no amount of frank requests to give or receive head ("May I blow you, sir?") can disguise these characters' essential emptiness -- they're fucked up in the most banal, uninteresting ways imaginable. Hong's usual formal chops compensate to a degree, but I remained at arm's length throughout.

House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, China): 54

Ditches Hero's lyrical abstraction in favor of labored melodrama, to sodden, earthbound effect. Even the stunning set pieces here -- and there are several, most notably the vertiginous bamboo battle -- work in a different and more conventional way than do those in its alleged "dress rehearsal" (snort): You chortle with glee when four arrows shot sequentially defy the laws of physics, knocking four baddies on their asses simultaneously...but it's merely an expert feat of engineering, whereas the indelible moments in Hero erupt from individual cuts, colors and compositions -- the medium's very grammar. In fact, I'm sorely tempted to pull an Armond and declare that anybody who prefers House of Flying Daggers to Hero simply doesn't understand cinema. Instead, I'll go rhetorical: What's wrong with you people? [Opens 10 December 2004 in New York City.]

Or (Keren Yedaya, Israel): 53

Expertly naturalistic filmmaking in service of a bizarre, arguably demeaning idea, viz. that lower-class Israeli women have no options available to them save prostitution, which then takes hold of them like an addictive drug. Wonderful to see Late Marriage's Ronit Elkabetz again, but I wasn't really buying the Daisy Duke outfits and perpetual junkie whine; likewise, I'd happily watch newcomer Dana Ivgy anytime, albeit preferably in something less bleakly deterministic. NB.: Saw this at Cannes with French subtitles, so it's possible that a few nuances escaped me; my reading comprehension is pas mal, though, and the film's dialogue both sparse and simple; no big deal, probably.

Kings & Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, France): 47

Self-consciously quirky (the Amalric story) and dramatically muddled (the Devos story), Desplechin's latest epic trifle amounts to little more than a handful of sublime moments* in search of a credible context. Even in the hands of two such superlative actors, both of the main characters come across as clunky conceits, especially when the closing reels reveal their initial circumstances to have been a classic case of bait-and-switch. (Cryptic elaboration designed to avoid spoilers: Given who they turn out to be at the end, it's impossible to believe that they'd have been where they were at the beginning, but for the filmmaker's hands on the puppet strings.) The deliberate juxtaposition of wildly conflicting tones is "interesting," I guess, though in retrospect it seems like just more misdirection. Maddening, and also really long. [Opens sometime in 2005, most likely.]

* (convenience-store hold-up decidedly not included)

Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer, France): 40

"Will you forgive me?" asks determinedly naïve wife of placidly duplicitous husband following yet another dry expository monologue of serene self-justification. "I was only half-listening." I, too, frequently tuned out during the film's repeated assaults of verbiage -- and unlike Primer's opaque scientific gibberish, the dialogue here is calculated to befuddle not merely the audience but the onscreen listener, meaning attention must be paid if you're to have any hope of following the emotional manipulations and machinations characteristic of Rohmer's moral fables. Struggled to stay interested, but it just didn't seem worth the effort given the tonal monotony; I felt retroactively vindicated when the epilogue addressed a historical matter of no thematic consequence whatsoever. An opening title informs us that "some plot twists" have been added to the true-life tale that inspired the movie. Twist harder next time.

Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, France/Thailand): 85

Opinion seems divided about whether this exquisitely uncanny gay romance tells one linear, simple-yet-oblique story, switching rhetorical gears at the midpoint, or whether its mythic second half to some extent recapitulates its mundane first. Both positions have merit -- though I found a number of apparent rhymes on second viewing supporting the latter -- but more compelling than either, to my mind, is the film's implicit suggestion that no amount of artful, naturalistic observation can possibly convey the atavistic turmoil lurking within the human heart. Unexpected though the rupture may be, it arrives precisely at the moment when conventional representation, however inventive, precise and assured, starts to feel painfully inadequate. The jungle adventure that follows -- beautiful, mysterious, savage, tentative, spontaneous, unforgettable -- deserves a less hackneyed and misleading phrase than "pure cinema," but somebody else will have to come up with the neologism. I'm already a week behind. [Opens early 2005 in New York City.]

Look at Me (Agnès Jaoui, France): 51

Struggled with the rating on this one, because it's obviously a "good" film -- intelligent, literate, beautifully acted, nicely observed, chockablock with piercing bons mots and credible human idiosyncrasies -- and yet I watched the entire thing in a semi-attentive, fidgety stupor. In part this may have something to do with the dynamic being too blunt and constricted, particularly w/r/t the toxic relationship between dumpy, neurotic fille and monstrously insensitive père; in part it may involve my general lack of interest in the self-esteem issues of the French bourgeoisie. Mostly, though, I felt certain that I wouldn't remember much of anything about this movie even just a few months later. And I was right. I don't. [Opens 25 February 2005 in New York City.]

Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, USA): 57

More arresting than what I saw of My Architect, but I'm still not thrilled with this new wave of docu-essays that function as the cinematic equivalent of House-Tree-Person, with the audience as collective shrink. Sarcastic wit mingles with maudlin self-pity, sometimes to jaw-dropping effect -- most notably in pre-pubescent Jonathan's eerily articulate impression of abused housewife 'Hilary,' who's composed of equal parts Tennessee Williams and Sally Jessy Raphael. In the end, though, it feels more like an exorcism than an investigation, and I began to wonder whether my presence was strictly necessary, except as validation. Singular and impressive, to a degree, but I fear the slew of copycat woe-is-me exposé-confessionals that are sure to follow. [Opens 6 October 2004 in New York City.]

In the Battlefields (Danielle Arbid, Lebanon/France): 39

Smells like teen reminiscence, and unfortunately not everybody's childhood is so inherently fascinating that it deserves a cinematic showcase, even in war-torn Beirut. Emphasis is on the way that everyday hassles -- familial, financial, romantic -- cause more devastation than the bombs thudding nearby, but Arbid lacks the imagination to transcend coming-of-age cliché -- details are insufficiently specific; characters, with the exception of our watchful young tabula rasa, remain simple types; compositions are perfunctory at best. Watchable enough but mostly pretty dull; the ostensible coup de cinéma that closes the film (landscape montage + Buzzcocks) comes across more like a Hail Mary pass at the buzzer.

Our Music (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France): 39

Might have almost liked this if not for the literally Purgatorial middle section, which constitutes most of the film's running time and consists largely of Godard's usual gnomic claptrap; watching his late films always feels to me like leafing through somebody else's notes for a class I mostly slept through. I can appreciate the formal magnificence of the Hellish montage, albeit from an academic distance, and the Heavenly coda revels in beguilingly weird imagery, the word subordinated again at last. For the life of me, though, I cannot comprehend how others derive pleasure or even stimulation from the disconnected verbal didacticism with which Godard now addresses the world. Our Music speaks at me, not to me; the pronominal promise of its title is never fulfilled. [Opens 24 November 2004 in New York City.]