If the New York Film Festival had a slogan, it would be “Predictable, incredible, and predictably Incredible. Oh, and also aggressively esoteric.” Okay, so that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it definitely sums up the festival’s modus operandi, which is to corral the best high-brow works from the year in film and deliver them to the Lincoln Center intelligentsia every fall. The NYFF slate is typically populated with stand-outs from Cannes, hidden gems from Berlin, and a smattering of the finest fare from the near future, distilling the festival season into one extremely manageable rock-block of high cinema.
Perhaps the most aggressively curated major film festival in the world, any film selected to play NYFF is guaranteed to have some measure of significant critical respect, and this year’s line-up -- revealed this afternoon -- is looking like a real doozy, mercifully redundant of some other fests that locals can’t attend, but still with plenty of stuff that gives NYFF an understated flavor of its own. You can head on over to the FilmLinc website for the complete run-down, but here’s our list -- based upon reasonably informed speculation and with a sprinkling of mild bullshit -- of the 10 films most likely to reward a trek uptown.
Goodbye First Love
Young filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love proved that she was more than a catchy name and an all-star husband (Olivier Assayas) with 2010‘s poignant and remarkably assured drama The Father of My Children, and her most recent work is said to surpass any of her previous efforts. Furthering Hansen-Love’s fixation with life’s irreducible truths (her films often start macro and chip away at extraneous thoughts and info until the characters are left with nothing but their own piece of mind), Goodbye First Love chronicles the primal love a 15 year-old girl has for a slightly older boy who is scheduled to depart for an extended trip abroad. Acetic but beautiful, devastating but almost imperceptibly so, Goodbye First Love promises to be a graceful and poetic portrait of young emotions run amok.
A monster hit at Cannes back in May and already acquired by Janus films for domestic distribution (thus all but guaranteeing a Criterion Collection DVD & Blu-ray release down the line), Aki Kaurismaki’s light comedy was a NYFF shoo-in. The wry Finnish legend returns to the big time with this story of a struggling author who abandons his literary ambitions in favor of the titular port city, where he becomes a shoeshiner and dotes upon his ailing wife. But the simple life is torn asunder when a young illegal immigrant from Africa shows up and requires our hero’s help to avoid deportation. Apparently, lots of laughter ensues. Perhaps the year’s most consistently beloved film of the year, expect Le Havre to be a guaranteed great night at the movies.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
It can be tough to put much stock in a Sundance award -- I mean, Precious swept the place clean back in 2009 -- but when something like Martha Marcy May Marlene claims the best director prize and then plays to rave reviews in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, it’s hard not to get excited. A thriller about a woman (Elizabeth Olsen) haunted by the cult from which she recently escaped, Sean Durkin’s film is supposedly tense to the point of suffocation, and has maintained a steadier drone of buzz than the Hysteria trailer. This one hits U.S. theaters on October 7, but NYFF audiences should jump at the chance to catch this thing before the awards season gets its grimy hands on it.
Lars von Trier and NYFF go together like, um, Charlotte Gainsbourg and a pair of rusty scissors. The critical reaction to Melancholia was a bit lost in the post-screening circus that followed (a.k.a. that time when von Trier impishly suggested that he sympathizes with Hitler), but even those most offended by the antics of the Great Dane could deny that his latest film affected them in some way. A story about the end of the world -- the Melancholia of the title is actually a giant planet on a collision course with our own -- Melancholia finds von Trier taking typical glee in upending our expectations, as this bracingly apocalyptic portrait of two sisters on the precipice of oblivion is arguably the auteur’s most cathartic film. I saw Melancholia a few months back, and I’m happy to report that von Tier has managed to wade further into his Tarkovsky phase without relying on the sort of abrasive imagery that distracted from Antichrist’s myriad other qualities, instead a subdued and deeply resonant masterpiece of release, acceptance, and naked Kirsten Dunst.
The Turin Horse
Supposedly the final film from Hungarian hero Bela Tarr, this light comedy stars Russell Brand as an eccentric young man on a quest to invent the perfect sexual position, only to arrive at the gloriously titular formation the day before he meets the love of his life, a woman (Jessica Alba) too scarred by a performance of Equus to join in Brand’s sexual self-actualization. Just kidding, Tarr’s black-and-white film about “the heaviness of human existence” actually tells the story of Friedrich Nietzsche and the horse whose whipping he prevented. Its 148 minutes are probably relayed over the course of about 7 shots, 4 lines of dialogue, and 912 scenes of a farmer repeating the same action until -- suddenly and with irrevocable force -- the film forever shakes your entire understanding of the living world (reviews have compared it favorably to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Woman in the Dunes). You might have to add a pinch of meth to your coffee before you see this thing, but never, ever, never ever miss a Bela Tarr film when you get the chance.
IMDB describes Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala as “The story of a young woman clinging on to her dream to become a beauty contest queen in a Mexico dominated by organized crime,” which sort of sounds like someone revisited Little Miss Sunshine and added all the gang murders which that film was sorely missing. The twist here is that Naranjo’s film is actually a white-knuckle action flick closer in tone to City of God than it is to the quirky misadventures of little Olive Hoover. Early reports suggest that Naranjo has delivered a bold but crowd-pleasing little thriller with a keen eye and an itchy trigger finger, a pulse-pounding reprieve from the usual heft of the NYFF slate.
All the rage at Berlin earlier this year, Wim Wender’s homage to the choreography of the late Pina Bausch is supposedly a fluid fit of pure cinema, exuberantly capturing four extended dance sequences and interspersing them with brief bits of interview footage for context. The trailer in and of itself ranks among the year’s most rapturous moments I’ve had in front of a movie screen all year, and international reviews suggest that Wenders has recaptured the aesthetic grace that was so evident in his Wings of Desire, making literal use of that film’s spectral dance and grounding it with a dazzling kineticism. Pina also seems poised to join Cave of Forgotten Dreams as further proof that 3D is wasted on blockbusters, here allowing viewers to join in lockstep with dances from another time.
There are days when it seems as if Steve McQueen’s Hunger is the best first feature this side of Citizen Kane, and then there are other days when it merely feels as if it’s the best first feature of our new century. It’s a damn good movie, is my general thesis here, and for his next trick McQueen has re-teamed with Michael Fassbender for Shame, a film about the sundry and sexual misadventures of a contemporary New York nympho. Expect it to be hot, weighty, and altogether astonishing. Fassbender’s near-constant state of undress should make Shame into a spectacle that belies its modest scale, but NYFF’s approval all but guarantees that McQueen has once again delivered a picture that is as difficult to shake as it is beautiful to watch.
The Kid with a Bike
The Dardenne Brothers are NYFF mainstays, and justifiably so. Their gritty yet stirringly humanistic neo-realist fables have engendered them to the critical community like few other filmmakers, each of their superficially similar works carving out its own set of rabid champions (my personal torch is for The Son, one of the 10 best films of the last 10 years). The Kid with a Bike seems like it would have won Cannes if not for that meddling Malick, despite the fact that its hyper-literal title makes it sound like a Friedberg and Seltzer parody of the Dardennes’ work. Expect lots of jittery and urgent camera work, an endlessly empathetic lead performance by a young boy, and a velvety poetic touch that will reduce you to tears over the course of a characteristically scant running time.
This is Not a Film
Better known as the film that had to be smuggled to Cannes on a USB drive hidden inside of a cake, Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film is indeed a film. It was shot primarily on an iPhone during a time when Panahi was confined to his house as punishment for the unforgivable crime of openly respecting human liberties while in Iran, but it’s still definitely a film -- I don’t want anyone thinking that it’s just a breather in the NYFF schedule, or anything like that. There will be images moving on the screen and stuff, creating a fluid illusion that informed audiences will recognize as cinema. While obviously ghastly and illuminating, This is Not a Film is supposedly even more entertaining than the story of its journey from Tehran to Paris, a wickedly watchable act of lo-fi rebellion that gives a big middle finger to censorship, and proves once again that art finds a way even in the most oppressive of political regimes. This is Not a Film is likely a major film from a man who refused to stop making them.