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Roundup: 48th NY Film Festival

As usual, Film Society of Lincoln Center's global celebration of cinema leaves audiences with lots to talk about, including The Social Network, The Tempest, and Hereafter.


The 48th New York Film Festival screenings begin with a promo reel in which a graphic animated map of the world is formed. Famous director names are paired with their countries of origin in rapid succession until the entire globe is lit up as if powered by the cinema itself! It’s a simple—even subtly clever—way to remind us that cinema is a global artform and that the NYFF in dependably international in breadth and focus.


True to form, NYFF’s 2010 lineup comes from all over the globe, and opinionated movie fans—and what other kind are there in New York City?—are finding plentiful opportunities to rave, kvetch and argue over subject and execution throughout. Quibbling and instantaneous opinion wars are part of the informed collective joy of any film festival experience.


Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network


Opening Night

That being said, you probably won’t hear much quibbling over David Fincher’s The Social Network, which kicked off the festival with a world premiere on September 24, just one short week before its theatrical bow. Most artistically-minded films spend a great deal of time (one could argue too much) strategizing ways to harness the excitement from festival debuts to guide their slow-build traveling distribution patterns. Not so The Social Network, one of those rare monsters that can rampage through all film worlds simultaneously, flattening doubts underfoot like ants, with its massively confident stride; elitist cinephiles who scoff at pure entertainment, mainstream moviegoers who claim aversion to “talky” movies, and old fashioned Oscar voters who don’t use the Internet will all succumb. Just watch.


Fincher’s improbably electric account of the invention and culture-changing power of one billion dollar idea (“The Facebook,” as it’s first dubbed) and the power feuds and legal battles that erupted between founder Mark Zuckerberg and fellow students and business partners is both great art and grand entertaiment. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay harnesses the speed and biting wit of a screwball comedy in the service of a high stakes drama that captures big themes through impressively small, recognizably human characters.  


“I didn't think it was a movie about Facebook,” Sorkin told the journo crowd after the first press screening. “I thought it was a movie that had themes as old as storytelling itself: friendship and loyalty, class, jealousy, power—these things that Aeschylus would write about or Shakespeare would write about or Paddy Chayefsky would write about. Luckily none of those people were available, so I got to write about it.”  


The only downside of opening a major festival with a film this rich can be summed up with the following question: Isn’t it all downhill from there?


The answer is both yes and no, depending on what you mean by the question. On a film-by-film basis, the answer is a qualified yes. Collectively speaking, it’s a satisfying “No, sir.”



Inbetween Days


Let’s start with the Centerpiece selection. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, which reworks Shakespeare’s shipwreck island classic with a female lead (“Prospero” becoming “Prospera”) is a definite downgrade, despite Helen Mirren’s star power. Taymor’s much lauded visual imagination fails to happily marry the text it’s courting. But not every film can be a winner, and part of any healthy festival experience is arguing about what didn’t work and why afterwards over drinks or late dinners.


Fortunately, even for the films that don’t work—or don’t work for everyone, art being subjective—there are elements that are hard to write off. For instance, I couldn’t personally connect to the Ukrainian film My Joy, which begins as something like a road movie full of fascinating character detours, but ends as an increasingly nihilistic national allegory. Still, it’s hard to find fault with the film’s aesthetic choices and control. It gives off the continually proficient and rare vibe that it’s exactly the film it set out to be, and it certainly offers plenty to mull over in the wake of its black hole finale. Another political allegory-friendly film, Mexico’s cannibalistic We Are What We Are is more accessible in its genre-specific (horror) simplicity, if less superbly controlled.


48th New York Film Festival: Another Year

Another Year and Meek’s Cutoff, holdovers from other festivals, have yet to screen for us at this writing, but early word suggests they’ll land in this “quiet success” category, since reviews are mostly of the “rave” variety and neither filmmaker, Mike Leigh or Kelly Reichardt, is exactly known for histrionic emoting. They prefer intricate character work as subject and small shifts in feeling and naturalistic observation as plot. Their movies build almost imperceptibly towards major emotional catharsis.


Elsewhere the festival’s most satisfying films were, in amusingly stark contrast to the propulsive energy and noise of The Social Network, of the quiet, subdued variety. My personal favorite was Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, a superbly acted story about a lonely grandmother attempting to learn poetry. She is continually distracted by some awfully brutal realities about herself and her family. The way the film’s different plots thread together so movingly in its genius conclusion make it a true stunner.



Other longform movie spells that work quiet cumulative magic include both France and Thailand’s upcoming Oscar submissions. Of Gods and Men, the story of French monks happily co-existing with Muslim villagers until terrorism destroys the peace, will probably win an Oscar nomination. Some viewers might feel it’s too tame for its violent and provocative subject matter, but it has a soberness of spirit and minimalist aesthetic which refuse easy sentiment and wisely leave room for the audience’s own projections.


Meanwhile, though Apichatpong Weerathesakul’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is unlikely to penetrate Oscar’s worldview, it’s a must see. If you’re receptive to experimental cinema and untroubled by films that don’t explain everything (or even anything, really), it casts quite a visual spell. So walk with the dying Uncle Boonmee and his relatives as they recall their past lives and family history in the alien Thai jungle.



Closing Night

For the final film on October 10, the NYFF selection committee fell back on an old favorite: Clint Eastwood. The big screen icon has become as regular a behind-the-scenes cinematic presence this past decade as the infamously prolific Woody Allen has always been. His new film Hereafter, which has not yet screened for the festival press at this writing, is a supernatural drama about a man who can speak with the dead (Matt Damon). Whether the film is a winner or not only time will tell. But given the breadth and pleasures of the festival thus far, it almost doesn’t matter. You can consider the 48th edition of the New York Film Festival a major success.


Like Eastwood, whose career is still vital and thriving as he enters his octogenarian years, and The Social Network, which is so specifically a story of now that one suspects it will age very well whether as a new classic or a perfect time capsule, the New York Film Festival is looking pretty spry and healthy for its age. It will endure. So too, will the conversations surrounding many of these intriguing movies.


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