Compared to Sundance or (so I've heard) Toronto and Cannes, the New York Film Festival is a low-key, low-pressure affair, generally functioning as a Viewer's Digest version of the bigger festivals. Awards aren't given, the schedule is more manageable (30 features plus a dozen shorts), and since the majority of films have already been acquired for distribution, it's not the site of an industry feeding frenzy. Moreover, because the repertoire is selected by a fairly diverse group of wizened cineastes (e.g. The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum and Newsweek's David Ansen), it doesn't necessarily reflect the state of cinema in a given year; one feels less compelled to hunt for trends. At the risk of sounding reductive, I dare say this is mainly a place to preview a few obscurities and some good or great coming attractions.
Of the 21 features I saw, only Nick Gomez's faux gangster movie, illtown (starring Michael Rappaport and Lili Taylor), could be classified as a waste of time. Otherwise, Arnaud Desplechin's effectively grueling How I Got Into an Argument...(my sex life) emerged as the standout among a surprisingly large number of worthy French films; Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt rivaled The Cable Guy as a perverse studio movie par excellence; Chen Kaige's Temptress Moon and Michelangelo Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds were as disappointing as I'd heard; and Underground, subUrbia, Secrets & Lies, Breaking the Waves, and the restored Vertigo were even more amazing than expected. Below are some notes on the six most remarkable of these, starting with the very best.
Breaking the Waves Danish auteur Lars von Trier (The Kingdom) has made a gorgeous and devastating melodrama, nearly equal in impact to Todd Haynes's Safe or Kieslowski's Blue. Like those, it's the story of a woman faced with a seemingly insurmountable crisis: Bess (Emily Watson), a delicate young newlywed living on the north coast of Scotland in the early '70s, prays that her husband (Stellan Skarsgard) will return from his long stint on an oil rig, which God seems to answer by sending him home as a brain damaged quadriplegic. From start to finish, the relationship is all-consuming, and so is the movie. Von Trier shot it in widescreen 35mm, transferred it to video, and then re-photographed it on film, creating a look that's both documentary-like and uniquely surreal. Meanwhile, he complicates the style even further by inserting digitized picture-postcard images that function as chapter breaks, accompanied by the most romantic of '60s and '70s pop-rock classics from David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Deep Purple. Suffice it to say this isn't for those who shy away from emotional cinema. Blatantly over-the-top, expressly concerned with goodness and faith, daring to convey the spiritual and the ludicrous in the same instant, Breaking the Waves could be summarized by an Elton John lyric: "It's a sad, sad situation/And it's gettin' more and more absurd." The film is scheduled to open in New York and L.A. in mid-November, and should make it here a few weeks later.
Underground Not the somber affair you'd expect from a three-hour, evidently unreleasable Palme d'Or winner about Yugoslavia's violent history. In what is actually a screwball war movie, director Emir Kusturica (Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream) spans from 1941 through the war in Bosnia, staging the most tragic events as if they were slapstick circus acts; the most sympathetic characters are a caged tiger and a pet chimpanzee. Otherwise, the film follows Marko (Miki Manojlovic), an opportunistic member of the Communist party who convinces his best friend (Lazar Ristovski) and various other misfits to stay hidden in a basement for decades, even during peacetime. As Yugoslavia gradually disintegrates, the characters' failure to reemerge from darkness becomes an allegory for letting the country slip away. With its epic scope, chaotic action, and visual intimations of Terry Gilliam, Underground really shouldn't be seen on tape; but since the film is still without a U.S. distributor (and may never find one), I'll mention that it can be rented at Intercontinental Video.
Vertigo Halfway through this stunning widescreen/stereo restoration of Hitchcock's (or Hollywood's?) greatest work, an older gent sitting behind me said, "You know, I don't think I ever saw this movie." I felt jealous. On the other hand, Vertigo (1958) is the rare thriller that gains from repeated viewings, and is itself about being possessed by something hauntingly familiar but ultimately inaccessible. Among other things, vertigo is a metaphor for the near-sexual obsession with movies--which made the post-screening press conference about the original negative's decomposing "grain structure" seem practically necrophilic. Anyway, the experience of watching this print is encapsulated in the self-reflexive moment when the hero (James Stewart) sees his "new and improved" sweetheart (Kim Novak) gliding toward him as if in a dream, while the digitized rendition of Bernard Herrmann's score drips from the speakers like tears. At the moment, ours isn't among the ten cities being visited by this made-over Vertigo; I'd think a few obsessive pleas with Universal Pictures (or the Uptown?) might be in order.
How I Got Into an Argument...(my sex life) A weird title (translated from the French) for a story that's never been more universally in vogue: an incestuous group of twenty- and thirty-somethings swap bedmates while coping with the horrors of the real world. At the center of this Parisian twister is a guy (Mathieu Amalric) who's equal parts charming and despicable, as so many are; stuck between a pressing need to finish his doctorate and a seemingly infinite number of extracurricular affairs, he acts irresponsibly for as long as possible, at which point he finds the will to become a man. What's unique about this rambling comedy is the extent to which writer-director Arnaud Desplechin (La Sentinelle) depicts his protagonist as a fucked-up mess, while giving a trio of somewhat stereotyped women characters a platform to agree. At three hours, Argument is something of an endurance test, which might well be Desplechin's point; if and when the film gets a stateside release, it will probably be shortened by a third, to the benefit of conventional pacing and the detriment of its inimitably French sprawl.
subUrbiaOr: The Further Decline of Western Civilization. Director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) again proves his gift of gab and love of young actors in adapting an acid script by Eric Bogosian (based on his play), which follows some 20-year-old Caucasian slackers during a very long night of pounding beers and hanging out in the parking lot of a convenience store. Set in the fictional, aptly named town of Burnfield, subUrbia conducts an anthropological study of cable TV/Lotto/alternarock/Slurpie/skateboard culture, and its deadening, ultimately violent effects. With its spare budget and dialogue-driven narrative, this film could conceivably be made by one of its characters, although one punk who wields a stolen camcorder is interested only in plotting his MTV manifesto. As in Kids, the boys are depicted as volatile predators, the girls as fragile prey. The two most sensitive of these souls almost connect, but not quite--a tragedy which the director observes somberly, as if mourning the fate of an entire generation. Or does Linklater believe that this post-teen angst is just a phase? In either case, Clerks director Kevin Smith has nothing on him, and this will surely be a major film when it's released in February.
The People vs. Larry Flynt A romance set in the porn industry, a bio-pic of Hustler's publisher by the Czech director of Amadeus (Milos Forman), and a near-great studio movie, this is holiday-season entertainment at its most perverse. It charts the life of Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson), an enterprising Kentucky redneck who built an "adult magazine" empire from the toilet up, married his star model (Courtney Love), and became paralyzed by an assassin's bullet before finding God, losing his mind, and antagonizing arch-nemesis Jerry Falwell in a series of hilariously anarchic court cases. Obviously, an amazing story. But the film is also a shrewd amalgam of talent, combining the sympathy-for-the-weirdo approach of Ed Wood's screenwriters with the counterculture fixations of Forman, the capitalist satire of co-producer Oliver Stone, and the more sordid details of Love's own biography. As the sole voice of sanity, Flynt's lawyer (Edward Norton) serves as a surrogate for the lefty viewer: He detests his client's profession even while passionately defending the man's civil liberties. Going a step further, Larry Flynt sells us on the notion of a "smut peddler" as a First Amendment hero and the epitome of family values. Only in America, indeed.