Take it as shameless boasting or a necessary disclosure, but I begin my coverage of the Fiftieth New York Film Festival by qualifying my opinions as those of an insider, almost—an outdated insider, let’s say. Having been a member of the selection committee for the thirtieth festival and a few after that, I fall easily into the retrospective mood that attended the fiftieth. I also feel a personal stake in the concurrent retirement of the festival’s longtime director, Richard Peña, who is certainly inimitable and might have been called indispensable as well, if not for the brilliantly reassuring decision of the Film Society of Lincoln Center to name Kent Jones as his successor. Although I am not involved with these people and their colleagues on a daily basis—and although my own day was about twenty years ago—I still take it for granted that their work is valuable and vital and enlightened and good. And if you don’t agree, go ahead and wait fifty years for a better film program to come along.

This is to say that I took particular interest this year in the films of directors who were young in my time, or at most slightly middle-aged, and have since become great eminences of the festival, whether for better (Abbas Kiarostami, Olivier Assayas, Léos Carax, Alan Berliner) or worse (Michael Haneke). But I also found much to admire in work by a now established younger generation, including Pablo Larraín, Miguel Gomes and Cristian Mungiu (whose Beyond the Hills was, for me, one of the year’s masterpieces); in first films by Song Fang and Antonio Méndez Esparza; and in the urgent, astonishing documentary The Gatekeepers by the young Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh.

There were also US studio releases to bookend the festival—with the usual mixed results—and a quasi-independent American star vehicle, The Paperboy, to fill the annual “What Were They Thinking?” slot. It’s important to show these products: they keep the festival in touch with the normal movie world, and despite a hit-or-miss character to their inclusion (the result of the festival’s having to make the most of available opportunities), these selections often reflect a carefully nurtured relationship with a filmmaker. So let me start with these pictures, if only to set the context for what the festival does best.

The opening and closing nights this year imparted a theological tone to the festival. The main slate began with Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s shaggy God novel, Life of Pi, and ended with a redemption story by Robert Zemeckis, Flight, in which Denzel Washington takes a couple of hours to admit his helplessness and ask for help from a higher power. I can say that Life of Pi shows how beautiful a 20th Century Fox release can look, and how the contents that pump up the glittering balloon can be so much hot air. Flight, by contrast, plays like an essay in social realism (or as close to it as Zemeckis ever gets), beginning with a scene of Denzel, as a great but reprobate airline pilot, passed out in an Orlando, Florida, establishment labeled American Values Motel. The lesson in this case was how exciting a Paramount release can be—for the first twenty minutes or so. After that, the nightmarish action sequence was over, Denzel had to stop being a fully unbuttoned bad guy, and all of the adrenaline drained away.

As for Lee Daniels’s The Paperboy, a would-be scandal of a film about crime and family dynamics in late 1960s Florida, you’ll be familiar with all of its racial and sexual themes if you’ve ever read James Baldwin. The difference is that Baldwin owned this subject matter, had pressing reasons to write about it, and never cluttered his prose with the equivalent of unmotivated color-filter effects or lingering beauty shots of Zac Efron. Nicole Kidman (who was honored at the festival with a gala tribute) played the story’s fatal dame and showed once more that she’s game for anything. But then, she married Tom Cruise and played the lead in Dogville, so we already knew that.

So much for the splendors and miseries of American commercial filmmaking. What did the festival offer from the rest of the world?

For one thing, proof that when it comes to commercial product, the French have a lighter touch. Camille Rewinds, a Gaumont release starring Noémie Lvovsky (who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay), was in some sense nothing more than a Gallic remake of Peggy Sue Got Married: the story of a bitter, betrayed, hard-drinking actress (small roles only) who passes out on New Year’s Eve 2010 and wakes up in 1985 as an awkwardly mature-looking high school girl. What follows isn’t ambitious, but it was sometimes touching and always entertaining—a whole film, in other words, kept buoyant by the utterly non-movie-star performances of the rotund Lvovsky and stringy, gawky Samir Guesmi as the high school boyfriend (and future husband) she absolutely must avoid.

Camille Rewinds was a pleasure, if a minor one. The major experiences of the festival began for me with another French film, Holy Motors, the first feature in thirteen years by Léos Carax, who is, I’m delighted to report, still crazy. I might say the premise of Holy Motors is that in the era of cellphone videos and Internet streaming, cinema is everywhere at all times—which means that “real” movie actors (as distinguished from the rest of us) might play a dozen roles a day, all on location, while the movie studio shrinks to the size of a stretch limousine. But to extract this idea from the terminally cracked Holy Motors is like trying to separate the egg whites from a freshly cooked omelet. It’s better to say that Denis Lavant (the blunt-faced, acrobatic actor who has long been Carax’s on-screen alter ego) plays roles that include a banker, a beggar, a wild man from the sewers, a Chinese-speaking assassin, a computer-generated dragon and the leader of an accordion band in Notre Dame de Paris. If you weren’t intoxicated by a given sequence (unlikely, I’d say), there was always another coming along. Besides, any frame of Holy Motors—any frame at all—looked more arresting than anything else in the festival, Life of Pi included.

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At the other end of the delirium scale from Holy Motors, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills gave everyone a prolonged, devastating jolt of the Romanian New Wave realism that the festival introduced. Shot outside a small hill town during a snowy, muddy Moldovan winter, the film reveals a grayish world in which girls graduate from institution to institution—first a destitute orphanage, then a convent that hasn’t yet been approved by the bishop because it can’t afford to paint its church—or else leave Romania to provide cheap labor in Germany. Round-faced, big-eyed, placid Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) falls in the first category, having become a novice under the direction of a priest called Papa (Valeriu Andriuta) and a mother superior called Mama (Dana Tapalaga). In the second category is wiry, nervous Alina (Cristina Flutur), Voichita’s friend, protector and perhaps lover from the orphanage, who returns intending to fetch Voichita to Germany. But Voichita hesitates: thinking to keep her friend in the convent and perhaps bring her to God, she delivers Alina only to bouts of rage and unconvincing stabs at piety. As the good intentions pile up on hopeless deprivation, and secular incompetence on ecclesiastical backwardness, Beyond the Hills builds horribly, with unstoppable momentum, toward a disaster at once too stupid and too logical to be called tragic.

To appreciate the great strength of Beyond the Hills (which enjoyed an award at the 2012 Cannes festival for Stratan’s and Flutur’s performances), it’s helpful to look briefly at one of the more anticipated films of the New York festival, Michael Haneke’s Amour, which won the top prize at Cannes. Although it’s directed with Haneke’s characteristic precision, Amour has won praise for being warmer and more tender than his usual horror shows. Two icons of French cinema, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, play an old married couple in Paris whose cultured contentment is shattered when the wife suffers a debilitating stroke, and then another. Painstaking scenes of the husband caring for his increasingly helpless wife made me think that Haneke had finally, in his own later years, worked up the courage to make a movie, not just a gimmick. This hope was dashed, though, as Haneke reverted to type with yet another story of violence and empty mystery. I can credit Amour with building as inexorably as Beyond the Hills, detail by detail, toward its bad end (which Haneke signals in the opening scene). But Beyond the Hills has characters with real if conflicting desires and minds that can change; it has a society with a specific history and well-observed problems, and enough air in the scenes so everyone can breathe. Amour has only the momentary visit to the couple’s apartment of a symbolic pigeon (by far the liveliest figure in the film)—that, and Haneke’s relentless desire to be admired.

Fortunately, the other eminences this year took themselves much less seriously. The most senior of them all, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, made a welcome return after a nineteen-year absence with Caesar Must Die, which both documents and reimagines for the screen an actual production of Julius Caesar performed by the inmates of a prison in Rome. During the scenes of putative rehearsals (actually a fresh performance carried out for the camera), the prison’s exercise yard serves as the Forum; the Roman rabble, stirred by Marc Antony’s oration, is made up of inmates shouting through barred windows. The wonder of the film lies in the depth these amateurs bring to their roles, acting because (not “as if”) their lives depend on it. The sting lies in the prisoners’ emotional turmoil: they are proud of what they’re doing, but they know that art hurts.

Art also hurts—and saves—in Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air, whose original title (After May) gives a better idea of the subject matter. The “May” is 1968; the “after,” initially, is 1971; and Assayas’s characters, students in a high school just outside Paris, are members of a radical youth group, trying to carry forward a revolution that never happened. Gilles (Clément Métayer), whom I took to be an autobiographical stand-in for Assayas, is a kid with more hair than face, torn between his commitment to the cause and his growing awareness that the bad news about Chairman Mao isn’t just CIA disinformation. As the next few years go by, he loses and gains and again loses girlfriends, decides that making art is a less useless activity than committing acts of terrorism (the choice of some of his friends), and after some reluctance finds himself working a job—which is to say, starting to live. Something in the Air didn’t seem to me to be Assayas’s best work (though it did revisit—and deepen—scenes from such important earlier films as Cold Water); but it moves as quickly as his best films, with an almost calligraphic decisiveness, and captures that departed era as faithfully as if it had been shot on the scene.

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Abbas Kiarostami, who twenty years ago introduced a great wave of new Iranian cinema to the festival, is now working outside Iran. For most directors, the result would be deracination. For this wily old master, it’s been an opportunity to discover new depths and quirks of human feeling in refreshing new settings. He directed Like Someone in Love in and around Tokyo, working with an all-Japanese cast and crew, and somehow came out with a Kiarostami film. Or maybe it also has a little bit of Renoir. Everyone in the film has his or her reasons: the college girl from the provinces who is trying to stop working as an escort, the rough-hewn auto mechanic who has decided that he’s her fiancé (without exactly having consulted her), and the kindly old sociology professor (or is he a john?) who winds up pretending to be her grandfather. Very tricky; very engaging.

Other films that I would discuss in detail if space permitted include Pablo Larraín’s No, a deliberately low-end video production that remakes the image of the Latin American revolutionary by casting Gael García Bernal (cinema’s young Che) as the TV ad man who sold democracy to the Chileans in the 1988 plebiscite; Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, a black-and-white fever dream (shot on real, glorious 
celluloid) about spiritual dessication in 
present-day Lisbon and fantasies of wild colonialist lust in 1960s Africa; Song Fang’s Memories Look at Me, the delicately sad story of a single young woman (played by the director herself) visiting her aged parents in Nanjing; and Antonio Méndez Esparza’s Here and There, an unforced drama about a Mexican laborer returning to his rural family (all played by nonprofessionals) after a period spent working in the States and hoping, against the audience’s better knowledge, to be able to stay.

Alan Berliner, whose documentaries about his family have been highlights of the festival for many years, was back this year with First Cousin Once Removed, a profound portrait of the distinguished poet and translator Edwin Honig in old age, with Alzheimer’s disease progressively grinding him to his essence. A couple of years ago, the festival showed a short version of the film, which seemed to me to be about a highly literate man’s loss of language. The full-length version (which has all the tenderness and warmth that people impute to Amour) has become something more challenging: it’s now about the bad memories that a man willingly gives up.

Which brings me to something else that many people don’t want to face: the reality of the Palestinians. In his absolutely essential documentary The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh has put together a history of Israel’s relations with the other people on the land, as seen through unprecedented interviews with six former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet. Illustrated with stunning, often deeply disturbing documentary images and sequences of computer graphics that recall video games (an appropriate choice, now that the security agents mostly sit at computers and push buttons, including triggers), the interviews contain some ideas that Nation readers are likely to deplore—such as the permissibility of “extreme interrogation” techniques in cases where there is good reason to believe an attack on civilians is imminent. What’s more important by far is the discovery that the heads of the Shin Bet often sound like editorial writers for The Nation. Again and again, they say that there is no military solution to a political problem, and that the problem is the neocolonialist occupation of a nation that wants its freedom. “Oh, thank you,” groaned a Likudnik sitting behind me in the audience. To which I now add, without the irony: thank you, Dror Moreh.

And thank you to the New York Film Festival, which alone could have launched The Gatekeepers so successfully in the United States. Here’s to the next fifty years.

Stuart Klawans last wrote here about Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (October 10).