The 2009 New York Film Festival

Benjamin Strong


When the lineup was announced in August for the 47th New York Film Festival—which opens today at Lincoln Center—some cinephiles expressed concern that the choices were a little too safe, conservative, and predictable.

“I’ve heard good things about this The Wizard of Oz film,” quipped TimeOut New York’s Joshua Rothkopf, who wasn’t exactly joking. This year’s program does in fact include a 70th anniversary restoration of Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic. (Dark Side of the Rainbow?, now that would have been an inspired choice.) Rothkopf and other naysayers of the 2009 schedule were reacting not just to the obviousness of Oz, but to a roll call of usual suspects (Michael Haneke, Catherine Breillat, Pedro Almodóvar) who have become overly familiar at NYFF and who aren’t exactly cutting edge. Still, the word your Fanzine correspondent would use to describe this year’s NYFF slate—and I mean this as a major compliment—is hardcore.

I do not speak of Lars Von Trier’s latest foray into provocateur hokum, Antichrist, a movie comprised mostly of a naked Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe alternately fucking and mutilating each other, often in way-too-graphic close-ups. (Antichrist screens on Oct. 2 and 3, for those of you whose attention I’ve just gotten.) No, by hardcore, I mean that this year’s NYFF schedule shows a dogged and unfashionable love for old school, Old World auteurs. At 100 years old, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is the senior filmmaker in this bunch (his hour-long Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl is a slight yet beguiling riff on the folly of infatuation) but right behind him are three vibrant octogenarians—Andrzej Wadja, Jacques Rivette, and Alain Resnais.

As with so many of the films I’m hyped about this year, neither Wadja’s nor Rivette’s—Sweet Rush and Around a Small Mountain (36 Vues du Pic Saint Loup), respectively—had screened yet for critics at press time. Other selections I’m still looking forward to include Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother, Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, and Harmony Korine’s avant-garde video grotesquerie, Trash Humpers, the title of which is apparently literal. What your correspondent has seen is Resnais’ Wild Grass—NYFF’s opening night selection—and he can tell you that it is easily the best film he has viewed all year.

The plot of Wild Grass is easy enough to describe: A married writer becomes obsessed with another woman after finding her stolen wallet in a shopping mall parking structure. More difficult to convey is the zany surrealist spirit that makes Wild Grass a late-career masterpiece, and not just another variation on the male midlife crisis. The writer (André Dussollier) may or may not be a murderer of pretty young girls, though we know for sure he has thoughts of killing them. The other woman is a flakey dentist (Sabine Azéma, aka Mme. Resnais) who owns a World War II Spitfire airplane cared for by a group of adoring men listed in the end credits only as “les acolytes.” And while it is not unusual in French cinema for a wife to tolerate her husband’s infidelities, this man’s better half (a comically sleepy Anne Consigny) doesn’t bat an eyelash when he comes home at dawn with the dentist’s best friend (Emanuelle Devos), whom he appears to have screwed so hard she cannot cross the living room without swaying. In one scene after another, Resnais subverts our expectations, not just in terms of story, but in terms of mood and tone. David Lynch—who has been stealing from Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) for his entire career—should take notes; while you, reader, should miss this movie, when it comes to your town, at your own peril.

It would be misleading for me to imply that this year’s most interesting NYFF selections come strictly from the geezer set. Police, Adjective, the second feature from 34-year-old Romanian New Wave director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest) is another festival standout. A decidedly fresh take on the cop procedural, Police, Adjective is as much about language as crime. A provincial captain (Vlad Ivanov, last seen as the oily abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) pressures one of his young detectives, Cristi (Dragos Bucur), to arrest a teenager who gets high near a playground everyday with two friends. The captain insists that the kid is a dealer, but Cristi, who spends most of the movie in surveillance of the boy, believes he’s just an innocent little stoner. Moreover, Cristi argues, in a few years drug laws in Romania are going to change, and mere possession will no longer be a serious crime. In a tense showdown reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino picture, Cristi and his superior decide the boy’s fate over a lengthy conversation about definitions found in a Romanian dictionary.

In the same way that Police, Adjective moves beyond the clichés of the typical detective film, Sweetgrass, a pastoral documentary from Illisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, updates the Western genre in a contemporary setting. Assembled from more than 200 hours of DV footage Barbash and Castaing-Taylor shot over the last decade, the movie follows two sheepherders as they lead their flock to summer pasture across some picturesque but pretty craggy Montana mountains. Much of the film, particularly the first hour, has no dialogue (there’s no narration either) but by midway through a real story has emerged, and it’s nothing like Brokeback Mountain, let alone Unforgiven. Although clearly intended as an elegy for a disappearing way of life, Sweetgrass portrays in detail the less glamorous aspects of the sheepherding trade. One simply cannot script an earnest discussion about what is worse, a wolverine or a bear (answer: wolverine), nor a scene where a grown man weeps to his mother, via cellphone, when he can’t go on because his bad knee is giving out and the sheep have become ornery. But as in Beckett, the cowboy will go on.

I won’t. There are other films I could steer you toward particularly: The Art of the Steal, a talking-head documentary about the political-corporate conspiracy to acquire the Barnes Foundation art collection; Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, a long unavailable and gorgeously restored companion piece to the infamous 1970 Rolling Stones concert flick Gimmer Shelter; and a new, uncut print of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s half of La Rabbia (1963), a fiery Marxist collage that seems to anticipate the cut-and-paste methods of today’s best left-wing bloggers, and which plays in the annual side bar series known as Views from the Avant Garde. The suprising strength of the 2009 NYFF does not lie in any individual film; it is in the festival’s across-the-board quality.

Some no doubt will peruse this year’s schedule as if it were tea leaves, foretelling the demise of the Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC), the parent organization that annually hosts the NYFF. Following the departure earlier this year of longtime programmer Kent Jones (replaced on the NYFF selection committee by the more than capable Dennis Lim), and after some controversial changes made by the FSLC’s new executive director, Mara Manus, some critics, such as The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, are charging that Lincoln Center has lost its way. Anyone convinced, however, that the NYFF has been rendered too mainstream or commercial, need only compare it to the Tribeca Film Festival, which is much larger and which has American Express’s money behind it, but which remains unfocused and trendy in its programming. No single NYFF lineup is going to please everyone, and frankly I wish every year could be as predictable as this one.

note: image 1 is from Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009)