Who needs Toronto? The New York Film Festival continues to offer a well-chosen viewer's digest version of the year in world cinema. The '98 edition spanned a typically wide range of regions and budgets to include everything from Woody Allen's surprisingly peppy Celebrity and Wes Anderson's sublime Rushmore to indie debuts (e.g., Marc Levin's Slam--see sidebar at right); old classics in new prints (Strike, Point Blank); and new works by old masters such as Bergman, Rohmer, Resnais, Imamura, and the Taviani Brothers. And, as the NYFF lacks competitive awards, clogged screenings, and the crush of agents and distributors, it remains an event designed mainly for movie lovers to get together and watch movies.
In that spirit of laid-back cinephilia, I offer the following five coming attractions for your must-see list. As all of these are in a foreign language and, in several cases, without U.S. distribution, they may require local art-house petitioning and our collective crossed fingers to arrive here before the middle of '99, if at all. (We'll deal with the domestics in the coming months.) Still, even as we head into another inevitably shrill season of mega-hyped Oscar contenders, the fact remains that we moviegoers do register our taste with our pocketbooks. Ergo: Vote indie and vote often.
I Stand Alone
As further proof that this French Taxi Driver traffics chiefly in the fear of being afraid, critic Amy Taubin declared it "the most disturbing film of the decade." Oh, merde. First-time director Gaspar Noe keeps his end of the bargain by charting the escalating rage of a monstrously misanthropic butcher (Phillipe Hahon), employing all manner of startling shock-cuts and piercing sound effects (the equivalent of a slaughterhouse stun-gun?) to make the viewer flinch. As the protagonist prepares to meet his retarded daughter (Blandine Lenoir), very possibly to kill her, Noe's menacing aesthetic climaxes with a William Castle-esque title card warning the faint-hearted that they have 30 seconds to vacate the screening before all hell breaks loose: "30...29...28...27..." Actually, I Stand Alone is never more nerve-wracking (or artistically justifiable) than when the butcher speaks, detailing in voiceover his lacerating philosophy that people are meat.
Black Cat, White Cat
Having vowed never to make another movie after the four-year ordeal of Underground, Emir Kusturica was gradually persuaded by his crew to direct this, a relentless slapstick comedy that takes the screwball pace of his previous film to purely exhilarating (if similarly exhausting) ends. Giving himself a break from Balkan politics, the Bosnia-born director tells the absurdist tale of two 80-year-old businessmen-cum-Gypsy-godfathers (Sabri Sulejman, Zabit Memedov) living along the Danube; their sons and grandsons, tangled up with various love interests; and the titular cats who turn up now and then to pass judgment on the ensuing mishaps. With its cartoonish cast of caricatures engaging in an endless series of fracases and pratfalls--culminating in a hysterical double wedding and an exquisitely obscene gag involving an outhouse full of excrement--Black Cat, White Cat suggests Terry Gilliam and Federico Fellini collaborating on a Yugoslavian remake of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
In the Presence of a Clown
Made for TV and shot on video, Ingmar Bergman's return to the screen (at age 80) is nevertheless characteristic in mood and theme--enough so, in fact, as to offer itself as a career summation. Set just before the advent of film sound in the mid-'20s, it observes the art- and angst-making of yet another Bergman surrogate (Borje Ahlstedt)--an aging inventor who claims to have conceived "the living talking picture," a medium in which actors stand behind the movie screen reciting dialogue in sync with the film's images. Assembling a troupe of loyal actors, the auteur/inventor shoots a speculative bio-pic about the last days of Franz Schubert. When the time comes to perform the soundtrack, though, the film technology fails and the thespians gamely act out the movie onstage for a minuscule audience, Death (Agneta Ekmanner) among them. Is this Bergman's way of saying that the cinema--his cinema--is at the end of its life? If so, Clown's pixilated video look serves its allegory far better than its mise-en-scene, but the result is essential nonetheless.
Flowers of Shanghai
Deemed "butt-numbingly slow" by the cineastes at Variety (and cited as evidence of "the world's greatest active narrative filmmaker" by critic J. Hoberman), the deeply challenging, formally inventive films of Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Puppetmaster, A City of Sadness) are usually limited to one-night-only festival screenings even in New York.That being the case, we can only pray that one of our indie exhibitors will attempt a Hou retro butt-quick. The Taiwanese Hou here examines late-19th-century brothel life in Shanghai through the stories of four "flower girls," subtly suggesting that their melodramatic downfall is that of Imperial China. In terms of Hou's mastery of the medium, it isn't just that the period sets are impeccably adorned and gorgeously lit, but that the director has chosen a long-take shooting style, rather like filmed theater, to convey the claustrophobia of the milieu. The upshot is that, even after two viewings, Flowers of Shanghai remains tantalizingly oblique and hypnotic, perfectly matched to its characters' own opium-induced dream state.
Late August, Early September
Albeit highly conventional by the standards of new New Wave auteur Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Wild Reeds), this well-acted soaper about anguished Parisian thirtysomethings has sex appeal to spare--particularly in the form of Mathieu Amalric and Virginie Ledoyen, who more or less reprise their roles as the gorgeous romantics of My Sex Life... and A Single Girl, respectively. Here, they play the budding couple that threatens the Amalric character's lingering attachment to his former flame (Jeanne Balibar), currently playing hard to get. Aside from exploring the fear of death that people of any nationality begin to feel at this age, the movie is très Français, with Ledoyen's liberated young vixen representing the two extremes of Betty Blue: the woman who lives for screwing her boyfriend in various kinky positions and the one who'll hurt herself the very next day by strenuously trashing some other guy's apartment. Assayas aficionados would do well to take this as a guilty pleasure while awaiting the release of HHH, his documentary portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien.
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