New York Film Festival Flares

Small and selective, the festival offers a snapshot of world cinema trends

Of all the country’s major festivals, the New York Film Festival is one of the smallest and most selective. This year, the main program includes a mere 23 films, although there are several sidebars offering shorts and revivals of older films.

To put it in context, that’s eight films fewer than the New York Asian Film Festival showed this summer. The NYFF attempts to be a manageable festival. Since all screenings take place on evenings and weekends, it’s theoretically possible to work a nine-to-five job and still catch every film.

The NYFF’s selection is akin to the Cannes competition lineup, offering many of the same big name directors year after year. More importantly, they’ve provided a New York platform for directors such as Manoel de Oliveira, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Hong Sang-soo, who’ve rarely attracted American distributors, and the latter two of whom have films in this year’s festival. The festival’s “Views From the Avant-Garde” sidebar shows experimental films to relatively sizable and appreciative audiences. This year that series has expanded to ten feature-length films or programs of shorts over two days, including a rare chance to see Andy Warhol’s once-banned 1969 “Blue Movie.”

The lineup tends to be a snapshot of world cinema trends. It’s not a festival to make discoveries; usually, it just reflects the zeitgeist developed elsewhere. Last year, two Argentine films were included. This year, not a single Latin American film made the cut, but three Korean films did. Two Middle Eastern films are playing—the Palestinian “Paradise Now,” and the Israeli documentary “Avenge But One of My Two Eyes”—but despite festival programmer Richard Pena’s enthusiastic Film Comment article about two Iranian films he saw at

Cannes, nothing from that country is included. The biggest surprise is that Eastern Europe seems to be resurging, with three films.

The NYFF has often been accused of snobbery and elitism. This aura stems partially from the fact that tickets go on sale two weeks early to Film Society of Lincoln Center members. Thus, by the time they’re available to the general public, many films have already sold out. However, once the festival begins, it’s easy to find people selling unwanted tickets—usually at face value—in front of Alice Tully Hall.

Bracketed by Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) giving a 1958 speech lamenting television’s wasted potential, George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” this year’s opening night film, isn’t a conventional biopic. Less flashy than his directorial debut, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” it uses a roving camera and improvised dialogue to impressive effect. Dropping the viewer into a ‘50s world of chain-smoking men in suits, it re-creates Murrow’s battles with Senator Joseph McCarthy, with McCarthy as himself, appearing through archival footage. Strathairn’s performance is magnetic. The present-day parallels are clear, but so are the areas of divergence. “Good Night, and Good Luck” nostalgically evokes a period when reasoned discourse won out over shouting matches and the media was run by men one could argue with, not faceless corporations.

Set in ‘80s Brooklyn, Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” follows a family of four through a separation. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is an aging writer whose career is going nowhere, while his wife Joan (Laura Linney) is about to publish her first novel. Daniels delivers his best work in years, perfectly capturing his character’s blithe self-absorption, assumptions of entitlement, and half-concealed issues with women and children. He treats his boys like miniature adults, so 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) responds by claiming Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own composition at a talent show and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) drinks beer and masturbates in public.

The film is more concerned with observing character than storytelling. On the surface, it sometimes falls prey to the cute quirkiness of many American independents, but it contains an angry undercurrent. The abrupt ending seems designed to produce an epiphany, a gesture that falls flat in a film that generally resists big displays of emotion. At its strongest, “The Squid and the Whale” simply but powerfully depicts the passive-aggressive behavior and petty backstabbing of a failed marriage.

Propelled by a mixture of idealism and sarcasm, Im Sang-soo’s “The President’s Last Bang” might be the festival’s most politically audacious work. Due to a lawsuit by relatives of its title character, Park Chung-hee, several minutes of documentary footage have been excised. Based on a real incident, it depicts the Korean CIA head’s assassination of Park in 1979. The late president is depicted enjoying a sybaritic lifestyle, completed with visits from prostitutes and pretty young female singers, when not busy ordering violence against political protesters. Like many Korean films, “The President’s Last Bang” shifts moods like someone zapping through TV channels. It veers from somber, tense moments to manic comedy to over-the-top gore, often mixing the latter two. The cinematography is slightly foggy and dingy, as if we were watching an aged print. Im shows a real flair for virtuoso tracking shots, including several memorable upside-down images, and shallow focus. A spiritual descendant of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” and Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H.,” its irreverence is refreshing, even if the tonal changes don’t always gel.

Filling out the festival’s Korean trifecta (along with Hong Sang-soo’s “A Tale of Cinema,” which I wasn’t able to preview), Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance” completes his trilogy of films about revenge. Less naturalistic than “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance” or overbearingly hip than “Oldboy,” it’s a rambling reverie filled with playful digressions, flashbacks, and fantasies. Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) served 13 years in prison for a kidnapping she participated in and a murder she didn’t commit. Upon release, she tracks down the real killer and brings together his victims’ families.

“Sympathy For Lady Vengeance” doesn’t get to the point very quickly, and like “The President’s Last Bang,” its tone wanders all over the map. However, it really comes together in the final third, which is disturbing and surprisingly moving. This time, Park digs into the emotional consequences of violence. Containing less than its predecessors in the trilogy, this “Sympathy” is the one that most risks being taken for a pro-vigilante statement, but it also suggests peace of mind can’t come at the point of a gun.

Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s “The Sun” follows “Moloch,” about Hitler, and “Taurus,” about Lenin, in his series of films about 20th-century tyrants. This time, Japanese Emperor Hirohito (Issey Ogata), who claimed divine authority, is the subject. It takes place entirely on the day in 1945 when Japan surrendered to the U.S. Molasses-paced, it’s as much an environment as a narrative, filled with dim, cavernous rooms (large sections are so dark they’ll be almost unwatchable on video), distant sirens and appallingly beautiful ruins. Sokurov cuts out most of the political context, focusing on Hirohito’s ritualistic routine, which includes the study of hermit crabs, and then revealing this particular day’s significance. Treating Hirohito very sympathetically, Sokurov has fashioned a hymn to the virtues of humility. Despite the Japanese characters and setting, “The Sun” might be the most Christian film this very Russian and generally conservative director has made.

“The Squid and the Whale” opens commercially October 5, “Good Night, and Good Luck” October 7, “The President’s Last Bang” later this fall, and “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance” in March 2006. “The Sun” has no American distributor.

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