Must-Sees At The 2011 New York Film Festival

***NOTE: THIS POST WILL BE UPDATED OVER THE COURSE OF THE NEXT FEW WEEKS SO BE SURE TO CHECK BACK HERE DAILY!***

As usual, no contextual introduction is necessary. It’s the New York Film Festival. Those four words say everything. Simply sit back, relax, and bask in the glory of all those Cannes/Venice entries that you’ve been waiting impatiently to see for the past several months/weeks. The air is cooling, autumn is coming, and the 49th NYFF is here.

Note: As with last year, rather than providing comprehensive coverage, we’ve decided to focus on those films that we think are especially worthy of mention in some way, shape, or form. We should also acknowledge that we unfortunately haven’t seen every film in this year’s program. Shame on us, we know.

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30th

Carnage (France/Germany/Spain/Poland, Roman Polanski, 80m, 6:30/7/9/9:30pm) — Aside from its epilogue and prologue, two near-identical panoramic tableaux which, for reasons of Roman Polanski’s exile and reasons of his control, have been seamlessly composited to contain Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the savage inciting incidents of childhood, Carnage is restricted to a Park Slope apartment and its adjoining foyer. The matter, your Honor, is this:  the son of Mr. and Mrs. Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) has knocked a couple of teeth from the son of Mr. and Mrs. Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster). And so, within a tightly wound interior resembling a not-quite-lived-in spread for Town & Country (art books and single malt!), the couples square off—and how insufficient is that phrase here, “square off.” There is much to admire in Polanski’s collaboration with many-times-translated playwright Yasmina Reza, but mostly, this savagely funny upper-urban-Euro-satiro-jaunt sent down from God to open the New York Film Festival is a boast of precision. Polanski’s strengths have always been rooted in ruthless geometry (space + time), and here he has the good fortune to play house with four generous performers in their prime. They square off, triangle off, pair off, circle off, trapezoid off. Each cut has force, the deep-focus cinematography guarantees no one can hide, and because ellipses haven’t been rigged in, the 80-minute running time feels more like sprinting time. Even with foreseeable turns, a slightly awkward sense of American decorum, and a burped coda, this is a very fun movie to wear a tux to.  (John Magary)

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 1st

The Loneliest Planet (USA/Germany, Julia Loktev, 113m, 3pm) — Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and her fiancée Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) engage a guide named Dato (Bidzina Gudjabidze) to escort them on a hike through the Caucasus mountains of Georgia. As the group walks further and further from Dato’s village, writer/director Loktev (Day Night Day Night) cultivates a sense of dread and vulnerability before a terrifying moment brings about an unexpected reaction from Nica and Alex that changes their relationship forever. Loktev is a filmmaker of great gifts, using the frame to establish the dynamics of emotion and power with an elegant sense of geometry. The Loneliest Planet is one of the most compelling movies at this year’s New York Film Festival; a rigorously constructed story of the way love can accidentally fall apart before reassembling itself in a new, diminished way. Loktev has created a film without a single false note being struck and shaped by a thrilling simplicity, utilizing all of the tools of the cinema in the service of the sublime. (TH)

A Separation (Iran, Asghar Farhadi, 2011, 123m, 6pm) — In the opening scene, a middle-class married couple faces an off-screen judge, i.e., the camera, i.e., the audience. She wants to leave the country to provide a better future for their daughter; he insists on staying to take care of his ailing, Alzheimer’s-stricken father, and refuses to allow their family to be broken up. Right from the start, this ingeniously constructed drama challenges the viewer to take sides, and every scene that follows adds a further turn of the screw. The wife goes to live with her mother, so the father hires a caretaker, a devout working-class woman living on the outskirts of town. When the caretaker is injured on the job, she and her husband press charges, and the legal quagmire that ensues threatens to destroy both families. As the plot complications and moral ambiguities pile up, we’re forced to constantly recalibrate our understanding of the characters’ motives and actions. Farhadi’s fifth feature made a big splash at Berlin this year, being picked up for distribution in several major markets and winning the Golden Bear for Best Film and Silver Bears for Best Actor and Best Actress (the latter two shared by all the leads). Sony Classics will release A Separation in the U.S. in December, and it stands a fair chance of being the first Iranian movie to become a breakout indie hit here: it’s a rare and wonderful hybrid of art-film brain food and rousing, riveting entertainment—emotionally charged, furiously fast-paced, fiendishly intelligent. (Nelson Kim)

Miss Bala (Mexico, Gerardo Naranjo, 2011, 113m, 9pm)– Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala is a polished thriller about the corruption of innocence and social institutions in a nation caught in the crosshairs of an ever-escalating drug war. When a beauty pageant contestant named Laura (Stephanie Sigman) gets caught up in the cops vs criminals battle raging in Tijuana, Mexico, she begins a slow descent into moral compromise. Naranjo’s film follows a much more traditional path than his dizzying l’amour fou I’m Gonna Explode, but Miss Bala delivers unique thrills of its own; a solid piece of genre fiction that seeks a balance between character, thrills and message. (TH)

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 2nd

A Separation (see above, 1pm)

Patience (After Sebald) (UK, Grant Gee, 82 min, 3:30pm) — Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) is an essay film that tracks the meaning and reverberations of W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings Of Saturn, a nearly unclassifiable text that is equal parts travelogue, memoir, fiction, photographic essay and autobiography, all carefully filtered through a singular literary intelligence. Gee’s film works as a form of criticism, an essay about a book that embraces the differences of the literary and cinematic forms while walking the line between documentary and fiction, much like its subject. For film fans who love to read and love to luxuriate in the meaningful questions that artists like Sebald seek to ask of us, Patience is a moving, visually striking film that should be experienced on the big screen. (TH)

Tahrir (France/Italy, Stefano Savona, 90m, 6pm) — Thanks to technology, this year’s revolution in Egypt was televised, though Savona brings it to life here in an even more exciting way: extended, embedded, immediate, present-second. Structurally, he abandons any traditional character development or familiar narrative arc—save for the thrilling climax, of course—and instead adopts an almost expressionistic flow that rhythmically switches back-and-forth between extended scenes of citizens passionately and thoughtfully discussing their predicament with more visceral footage of chanting, chanting, chanting, and dancing, dancing, dancing. If this begins to feel repetitive, it should. Watching this film isn’t meant to be a ‘hindsight’ type of experience. And though some subjects do address the question of what will happen if/when President Hosni Mubarek does indeed cede to the people and step down, the aftermath has nothing to do with Savona’s agenda. Like the thousands of people protesting in Tahrir Square during those fateful days, Tahrir’s sole purpose is to stand proudly in that square as well, witnessing and participating in a truly historical revolution. (Michael Tully)

Le Havre (Finland/France/Germany, Aki Kaurismäki, 93m, 7pm) — Kaurismäki is the cinema’s hardest working modernist and his new film, Le Havre, is one of his best. Marcel Marx (André Wilms) is a shoeshine working the streets of the city by day and enjoying the stability of a long, happy marriage to Arletty (Kati Outinen) by night. During one of his lunch breaks, Marcel encounters Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an undocumented migrant boy from Francophone Africa who has escaped the clutches of local authorities, led by detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Daroussin). Like most of Kaurismäki’s films, every frame of Le Havre is beautifully designed and stripped to its essentials, allowing the noir-ish lighting schemes and presentational performance to give the movie a classic sensibility. But Le Havre is about more than simply inserting everyday life into a specific aesthetic universe; it is also about the politics of immigration, about community and responsibility, about the need for Europeans to embrace the changing faces of their societies. Kaurismäki makes a savvy play for hearts and minds and, in the finest humanist tradition, finds a way to smile in spite of it all. (TH)

MONDAY, OCTOBER 3rd

Melancholia (Denmark/Sweden/France/German/Italy, Lars von Trier, 135m, 6:30pm) — What a polite wasteland cinema would be without our melancholy Dane. Like a man screaming for salvation through a spot of bad air turbulence, Lars von Trier finds expression, if not always articulation, in existential chaos. With Melancholia, he has happened upon an irresistible, why-didn’t-I-worry-about-that metaphor: the unavoidable world-shaking catastrophe of sadness. Kirsten Dunst, sounding here like a teenager laced with codeine (that’s a compliment), plays Justine, a newlywed so racked with depression that she can’t make it through her own wedding reception. Just as the depression seems to waste what’s left of her soul completely, Trier ushers in Part 2, wherein Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is given explicit science lessons in real pain as the planet Melancholia makes its present felt. All of LVT is here: the pitiless sense of humor, the appeal to genre, the cruelty of class, the awkward dialogue, the performance-dictated cuts, the death obsession, the Wagnerian heft, the black forest, the green glow, the Udo Kier, the trademark fusion of theater and emotion. We are left high with wonder and queasy with dread, just as the maestro would want. (JM)

Corpo celeste (Italy/Switzerland/France, Alice Rohrwacher, 100m, 9:30pm) — Gently toeing the line between quotidian and holy, thing and symbol, Alice Rohrwacher turns an open face to dogma in her debut feature. A navigation of debased late-Catholicism seen through the eyes of a guileless thirteen-year-old transplant named Marta (Yle Vianello), Corpo celeste has the familiar/family trappings of a Sundance squish: life lessons ‘round every corner, imminent menstruation, sick/sweet mom, nasty/loyal sister, God in all His guises. But Rohrwacher, gentle with a fine cast and assured with Super-16mm handheld, somehow leaps over 90% of the hazards by turning the material’s commonness into a central theme: rituals here are domestic drudgery, indistinguishable from sweeping the stairs and making the bed and, yes, getting your period. Slyly layered with quiet desperation, the film winds its way eventually to a shipwreck of a town, left with nothing to strip but a crucifix. Always attuned to the weariness in symbols, Rohrwacher grants Marta a chance to caress the cross, and we see it as she does: a beautiful, inconvenient old hunk of wood. (JM)

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 4th

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (USA, Martin Scorsese, 208m, 6:30pm) — I figured I had a lot to learn about the subject, being a Beatles fan but not a deeply knowledgeable, read-every-biography, hunt-down-every-alternate-take devotee. As it turns out, I was already familiar with most of the areas covered in Martin Scorsese’s documentary, but the film was a revelation nonetheless. Most of the major topics you’d expect are here—the young guitarist’s salad days, the explosion into worldwide fame, the discovery of Indian music and spirituality, the band’s dissolution, the making of the solo masterpiece All Things Must Pass, the Concert for Bangladesh, the formation of Handmade Films—as are most of the interview subjects: Paul and Ringo, Harrison’s widow Olivia and son Dhani, George Martin, Eric Clapton, Patti Boyd, and Phil Spector, among many others. Scorsese’s direction here mainly consists of editing—almost all the interviews, so far as I can tell, seem to have been farmed out to others, and the rest is archival footage of various kinds. But the interviews are candid, often funny, and deeply touching. And the footage, much of it previously unseen by the public, is remarkable, whether it’s Ravi Shankar giving Harrison sitar lessons or Paul and George tearing into each other during a late Beatles studio session. Scorsese’s touch is evident in the dazzlingly deft cutting, the obvious love of the music and admiration for the man who made it, and the themes that recur in both artists’ lives—religion, most notably, as well as the dark side of public acclaim: it was only after Harrison finished speaking about the impact John Lennon’s assassination had on him that I remembered, with a start, the director’s own connection to that terrible day. (NK)

The Loneliest Planet (see above, 9pm)

Tahrir (see above, 9pm)

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 5th

Le Havre (see above, 9pm)

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 6th

The Kid With A Bike (Belgium/France, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, 87m, 6pm) — Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are the cinema’s most eloquent humanists, directors who champion the lives and experiences of the unsung classes to create sublime stories of tragedy and, in the case of their extraordinary new film The Kid With A Bike, triumph. Set along the social margins of working class Liège, Belgium, the birthplace and continual subject of the Dardennes’, The Kid With A Bike is the story of Cyril (a wonderfully instinctive Thomas Doret), a young boy abandoned by his father (Jeremy Renier) to life in a school for troubled youth. When Cyril discovers his father has left town, his heartbreak moves a stranger named Samantha (Cécile De France) to bring him into her life. After recovering his bike from a neighbor, Cyril begins to integrate himself into the outside world, but trouble lurks around every corner. As with all of their films, The Kid With A Bike is a story of perpetual motion, of characters constantly springing to action to satisfy the wounds that lurk beneath the surface. While the film may be lighter and perhaps more accessible than their previous work, it retains all of the artistic hallmarks of the Dardennes’ finest films, wearing its influences (The 400 Blows, The Bicycle Thief) and its heart on its sleeve in equal proportion. (TH)

Melancholia (see above, 9pm)

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 7th

The Kid With A Bike (see above, 9pm)

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 8th

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 157m, 5:30pm) — Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest is a remarkable movie. On the surface, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is the story of a murder investigation; told over the course of a single night and morning, the film follows the police, a coroner and a prosecutor as they accompany a pair of confessed killers in search of a corpse. Gratefully, Ceylan is far too gifted a filmmaker to leave it at that. Masculinity has always been a crucial subject for Ceylan; from the impossibility of male communication in Distant, to the callous, violent sexual vanity on display in Climates, to the corruption of the individual by his duty that sets the fates in motion in Three Monkeys, Ceylan has always understood the emasculating brutality of power and the impact it has on the lives of men who desire and feel bound to its tropes. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia spends its time in search of both a body and something far more intangible: the nature of masculinity and its corruption. Put simply, there is something about Ceylan’s work that transcends. The film plays just once during the New York Film Festival and, hearteningly, there are only Stand By tickets remaining. Take our word for it—stand by and go see this film. (TH)

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 9th

The Turin Horse (Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/USA, Béla Tarr, 146m, 2:30pm) — Béla Tarr, always leaving you wanting less. Less pain, less muck, less time to do less work, less life. Sharing the top line with longtime editor Ágnes Hranitzky, world cinema’s reigning blue whale takes a famous footnote to Nietzsche’s life—the philosopher’s spiral into dumb silence upon witnessing a carriage horse’s brutal beating—and constructs a footnote to the footnote, wherein we follow the horse home. Routine follows routine, as the carriage driver and his daughter wake, dress, drink a shot, work, check on the horse, eat a couple hot potatoes, sleep, repeat. From the first frames of a technically masterful opening shot of the titular horse chomping bit against a howling wind, the film’s astounding, moving-daguerreotype aesthetics rest on an even, dusty plain with the scenario. Here, light and shadow don’t reveal character; they are character. Tarr’s world, a carousel of grime and heavy doorways and ceaseless gales, is free of psychology yet feels entirely interior. Little is said and little is developed, as days end and begin, end and begin—until they don’t. A distillation of Beckettian liminal anxiety Beckett himself would’ve had trouble committing so fully to the screen, The Turin Horse stays in your brain like tar in your lungs. (JM)

MONDAY, OCTOBER 10th

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (USA, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 121m, 6pm) — It’s hard to bring an objective eye to Berlinger and Sinofsky’s third (and final?) installment in the trilogy that began with what remains one of the most powerful and best documentaries ever made, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills. Having not revisited either that film or the second chapter, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, in almost ten years, I personally found the filmmakers’ heavy dependence on previous footage to be necessary for a host of reasons (watching all three films back-to-back-to-back might be a different story). Of course, you’d have to be living under an internet-free rock to not be aware of the epilogue that has now officially been added to the film since it world premiered in Toronto last month, a turn of events that brought a shocking conclusion to a case that seemed like it would never end. Though it certainly isn’t a shiny, happy ending, for the way in which the West Memphis Three were allowed to leave prison only reinforces the belief that when it came to this case, the state of Arkansas and the judicial system were nothing but self-serving cowards. Is Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory a great documentary? In this case, it really doesn’t matter. What Berlinger and Sinofsky have achieved by picking up a camera and seeing this story through to its conclusion is nothing less than life-saving. *Note: The West Memphis Three—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelly will be in attendance for the public NYFF screenings.* (MT)

Two Years At Sea (UK, Ben Rivers, 87m, 7:30pm) — Winner of a FIPRESCI prize at Venice, the first feature by renowned short filmmaker/installation artist Ben Rivers is a staggering accomplishment of low budget filmmaking. The placement in ‘Views from the Avant Garde’ might scare people away, daunted as they are by a 90-minute feature that features only one human on screen and not one single line of spoken dialogue, but the film is no less approachable than any late Tarkovsky or Albert Serra. Shot in anamorphic on Rivers’ favorite soon-to-be-discontinued black and white Kodak film stock and hand-developed in a ragtag manner befitting the patchwork lifestyle of the subject, Two Years at Sea showcases an impressive command of space, creating a wholly alien yet familiar landscape out of a remote cabin and the area surrounding it, where a solitary and robustly bearded man lives with his cats. Rivers steps almost as far back as possible, allowing many takes to linger for five, six minutes, even more, forcing the viewer to study the old man as he confronts inhuman objects, such as his record player, a handmade boat, or some unexplained apparatus that lifts his small trailer high into the trees. Rivers’ use of the widescreen format to illustrate the vastness of the forest and the miniscule presence of mankind within is outstanding, making this unmissable as a theatrical experience. (Alex Ross Perry)

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 11th

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (see above, 6:15pm)

Martha Marcy May Marlene (USA, Sean Durkin, 101m, 9:15pm) — A throbbing flip-flopper of a movie, weaving an always-past present into an always-present past, Martha Marcy May Marlene tosses and turns around its thrice-titular lead, played by Elizabeth Olsen with unsettling ease. Martha, having escaped from a cult in the Catskills (where she was Marcy May when she wasn’t Marlene), drops a dime and, cold turkey, re-enters society, portrayed here as something like the general population of a family penitentiary. Martha’s sister and brother-in-law (Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy), accepting their runaway like a dog accepts fleas, express dismay at Martha’s erratic night terrors, spontaneous skinny-dipping, and loopy resistance to living in a non-collective. Throughout, first-time writer-director Sean Durkin, in perfect sync with editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, pulls trigger after trigger from Martha’s past: her sly renaming to Marcy May, nudged like a come on; her blithe forfeitures of autonomy; her drug-dulled initiation with the cult’s leader, played by John Hawkes as a skeletal (though not entirely unbecoming) alliance of Manson and Thoreau. Cult episodes drop in like cold water, then like mirror shards, and by the last act they’ve gained so much reflective momentum that their past-ness simply dissolves. What sounds in outline like a Movie of the Week—charismatic guru, hot orgies, sibling rivalry—transforms under the guidance of Durkin into something forceful and astoundingly fluid, an eerie melding of then and now, paranoia and truth. Highly geometric yet de-centered, dense to the point of suffocation, fleet and juicy, darn near seamless in its transitions, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a consuming workout. (JM)

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 12th

The Skin I Live In (Spain, Pedro Almodovar, 117m, 6 and 9pm) — Almodovar springs back to life with a work that overflows with provocative ideas, fantastical characters, and raw passions erupting into madness. The script is his first adaptation, taken from the 1984 novel Mygale by Thierry Jonquet, and it’s a perfect fit for his sensibilities: a rich meditation on, amongst other things, identity and power—dressed up in over-the-top ‘60s pulp novel/sci-fi/thriller style. Bataille by way of Sam Fuller. (Paul Sbrizzi)

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 13th

Martha Marcy May Marlene (see above, 3:30pm)

This Is Not A Film (Iran, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 75m, 6pm) — It is a film. Well, it’s a video—one that was shot while Panahi was under house arrest and then smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside a cake, in time for a surprise screening at Cannes earlier this year. So it’s not a film, in that celluloid and photochemical processing played no part in its creation, duplication, or exhibition. But this is a “film” in a broader and vaguer sense: it’s a fully formed, complete work of cinema, not (as it pretends to be) an unfinished sketch or a series of fragments or a day-in-the-life diary entry. The backstory: Panahi was accused of planning a movie that would incite rebellion against the regime. (It’s widely assumed that the authorities trumped up the charges because they wanted to silence the director, a vocal supporter of the opposition movement, and to make an example of him.) In December 2010, he was convicted, and sentenced to a six-year prison term and a twenty-year ban from making films, leaving the country, and speaking to foreign journalists. That’s where This Is Not A Film begins. While awaiting word of his appeal, Panahi invites his friend Mirtahmasb, a documentary filmmaker, to come over and record him while he talks about a script he’d been hoping to shoot. Panahi walks us through the story’s outline, and even begins to act out scenes in his living room—when suddenly, frustrated, he exclaims, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” and calls an end to it. But there’s much more to come. Suffice to say that out of the simplest and least promising of materials, Panahi and Mirtahmasb have crafted something rich, sad, funny, playful, pissed-off, smart, and slippery, a movie unlike any I’ve ever seen—and yet, a movie that’s also recognizably of a piece with so many other great achievements of modern Iranian art cinema (and with Panahi’s earlier work), in its blurring of the boundaries between fiction and documentary, its self-reflexive investigation of the filmmaking process, and its profound humanism. If you love cinema, remember Jafar Panahi and his family. And remember that they’re not alone: On September 17, Mirtahmasb and five other documentary filmmakers were arrested, on charges of supplying aid to the BBC Farsi service. This is not just a film, but an ongoing story… (NK)

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 14th

The Artist (France, Michel Hazanavicius, 98m, 6pm) — Capsule Coming Soon

Goodbye First Love (France/Germany, Mia Hansen-Love, 110m, 9pm) — Capsule Coming Soon

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 15th

Goodbye First Love (see above, 3pm)

Pina (Germany/France/UK, Wim Wenders, 103m, 6:15 PM) — Some film purists believe that the cinema died when sound entered the picture. Others believe that it died again when 3D came along. From this place of transformation comes Wim Wenders’ new documentary Pina, about the late avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausche. Fusing the silent language of dance with the visceral language of 3D, Wenders constructs an intimate portrait of a woman who touched the lives of everyone she came in contact with—not the least of whom was Wenders himself. Pina sets the memories of Bausch’s dancers against a hodgepodge of dance performances shot in live and staged locations. The end result is a celebration of the human form, as well as of cinema itself. (Daniel James Scott)

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 16th

The Artist (France, Michel Hazanavicius, 98m, 12pm) — Capsule Coming Soon

The Descendants (USA, Alexander Payne, 115m, 6:15, 6:45, 9, 9:30pm) — Capsule Coming Soon

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