He might have been a ghost, the amply bearded, corduroy-clad fellow who haunted Alice Tully Hall in October, clutching an issue of The New York Review of Books, a copy of The Savage Detectives and a legal pad scribbled with screening notes. The spirit of studiousness had otherwise departed the New York Film Festival, even among those who turned out to whoop and shout for (of all people) Béla Tarr.

“You’re an excitable crowd,” observed Dennis Lim of the selection committee before introducing that shambling and sardonic Hungarian, who promised to show his cheering audience “an ugly black-and-white piece of shit.” That Tarr’s The Turin Horse proved to be none of the above is perhaps beside the point. The relevant fact is that the festival is now a place where the young describe Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan as “awesome”; the pretty spend as much time sipping espresso outside as watching films within; and the famous, in conspicuous numbers, may appear at any moment amid a blaze of cameras at the step-and-repeat.

All this is good. To thrive, the New York Film Festival needs a sense of occasion, something that is more and more difficult to achieve in the multiplatform era. When I mentioned to a young friend how Lars von Trier’s Melancholia had overwhelmed me at its festival presentation, she said yes, she’d just caught it on iTunes. “But it demands a real movie screen, and a theater sound system,” I objected. Her TV is fifty-five inches, she explained, and the speakers crank up just fine.

Hence the evolution of the festival itself into something multiplatform. Once a tightly curated series of presentations on a single screen, all of which a sufficiently determined person could see, the festival this year completed its transformation into a cinephiles’ carnival swirling in and around four venues, which offered so many pictures that even the hard core had to choose. Among the consequences: an intensified conviviality, the heightened presence of corporate sponsors (somebody had to pay for the complimentary espresso), the relegation of most documentaries to a separate slate and a tacit relaxation of critical authority.

The mark of the New York Film Festival’s merit, despite this latter change, was that in this forty-ninth edition—the next-to-last to be overseen by its longtime program director, Richard Peña—it still managed to stand for something.

The minimum that it represented was, as usual, on display during the commercial tent poles of the carnival: opening night, closing night and the special midfestival screening. Here the programmers and audience manifested their loyalty to auteurs, even when the directors were not at their most challenging; their love (not nostalgic but slightly regretful) for what movies used to be; and a leftish social conscience sufficiently confident to laugh a little at itself. Evidence of these positions began with Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, in which Polanski teasingly opened up the play’s one-set format, compressed the satirical title to its final word and made light of his old themes of claustrophobia and domestic viciousness. The actors (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) co-operated enthusiastically, turning themselves into gargoyles of bourgeois self-regard. On closing night, a more recent addition to the festival’s pantheon, Alexander Payne, took a contrastingly redemptive tour of American family life, in its affluent version, in The Descendants, his adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel about marital infidelity and big real estate in Hawaii. Although Payne was a little too obvious in his will to reach bittersweet resolution, a little too dependent on a jukebox of Hawaiian background songs, he nevertheless brought out a wonderfully restrained yet vital lead performance from George Clooney and may have made a star out of Shailene Woodley, who played Clooney’s teenage daughter. The star turn of the festival’s centerpiece, Simon Curtis’s semifactual My Week With Marilyn, was of course Michelle Williams’s lovely impersonation of Marilyn Monroe in 1956, during the troubled filming of The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier. Some people objected that Williams did not much resemble her model; but then, Marilyn herself didn’t really look like Marilyn. Like Carnage and The Descendants, My Week With Marilyn gave the less demanding festivalgoers an entertainment that might not have been major (though it flirted with a minor key) but was likable, well constructed and respectably self-aware.

More substantial, though still presented for a big-ticket crowd, were the two films chosen for so-called gala screenings: Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Both turned out to be tales of young women held in the clinics of physicians with questionable motives. Cronenberg’s film, based on a play by Christopher Hampton, was grounded in history but began like a horror movie with a dark coach racing toward a castle, bearing the shrieking and hideously contorted Keira Knightley. She was playing (to within an inch of her life) Sabina Spielrein, the first psychoanalytic patient and sometime lover of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and subsequently a student and protégée of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). I liked the mutability of the film’s tone: the ironic humor that entered with Freud, the fevered sensuality that took hold as Spielrein grew in capability and the mounting anger that Cronenberg seemed to infuse into the story, reminiscent of his short At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World. As for The Skin I Live In: Almodóvar directed it throughout as a horror film, the kind where gleaming new medical technology coexists with medieval surroundings, and surveillance equipment continually monitors appearances that can’t be trusted. About the mystery at the violent heart of the story, nothing should be revealed, except that it imagined the tightest of all imprisonments, as imposed by the most loving and vengeful of jailers.

Say that Almodóvar, with his obsessive recollections of Hitchcock and Franju, exemplified the deeper and more inventive side of the festival’s cinephilia: its urge to call up new forms and meanings out of the fables and metaphors of film history. Say that Cronenberg (who usually operates as a fantasist) this time exemplified the more acute side of the festival’s social conscience: its urge to use film to show the world as it is. The weaker films I saw (such as Steve McQueen’s Shame) fell into neither category. (The story of a sex addict, Shame proposed a metaphor that stood for nothing, presented in a setting so feebly observed that it wasn’t even a tourist’s New York.) The better films carried forward one or the other of these twin critical standards of the festival. The very best advanced them both.

Of the films that meant to show us the world, I might especially praise Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid With a Bike, Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala and Joseph Cedar’s Footnote. The first might have seemed familiar to fans of the Dardenne brothers as another of their dramas of a lost kid drifting into crime, set in a Belgian town the filmmakers know perfectly. But abandonments, betrayals and efforts to do good are always new, so long as they’re true to life; The Kid With a Bike was fresh and moving. Miss Bala also might have seemed familiar because it was a fast-paced gangland thriller. It felt like one of the great discoveries of the festival, though, thanks to Naranjo’s amazingly mobile camera, Stephanie Sigman’s performance as a would-be beauty queen in deep, deep trouble and the up-to-date subject matter of Mexico’s drug wars. With Footnote, we got to a film whose subject matter was not just timely but possibly unprecedented. A mordant comedy of familial animosity, set to an appropriately parodic Mahlerian waltz, Footnote was about the rivalry between an ungiving, disappointed father and a puffed-up successful son, both of them on the faculty of Talmud studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Perhaps the finest of the reportorial
dramas in this year’s festival (and perhaps the finest movie of the year—please watch for its release December 30) was Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. Filmed mostly in a modest but middle-class apartment building in Tehran, and in institutions such as a hospital and a courthouse, it told the story of conflicts and misunderstandings between two intersecting families—one well educated, secular and solvent; the other, struggling and pious—and, no less devastating, the conflicts within the families. From the opening scene, at a divorce hearing, it was clear that the marriage of the middle-class couple (Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi) was beyond repair. And yet, as the wife insisted in defense of her husband, “He’s a good, decent person.” Everybody proved to be good and decent, if also in some cases medicated and overwrought, in this movie about cruelty, slander, perjury, threats, extortion and (very nearly) negligent homicide. Understated despite these crimes and confrontations, and all the more heartbreaking for quietly and gradually shifting focus onto the wealthier couple’s daughter (Sarina Farhadi), A Separation was acted without a trace of pretense (Iran’s celebrated non-professionals could not have done better) and filmed as intimately as if a camera-toting friend of the family had just tagged along.

Of the festival’s fantasy-spinning selections, I should single out Michel Hazanavicius’s irresistible The Artist. More clever and ambitious than My Week With Marilyn in its re-creation of film history, it proved to be a genuine black-and-white, 1.33 format production shot without spoken dialogue, about a great star of the silent screen (Jean Dujardin) who could not make the transition to the talkies, and about a young actress he befriended (Bérénice Béjo) who could. Delightful inventions came at the rate of about one a minute.

But the best of the festival’s artifice-spinning selections by far, as everyone agreed, was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. I have to preface my remarks on it by confessing that I have always thought of von Trier as a buffoon and a charlatan, whose only good movie (The Idiots) was the one in which he owned up to himself. Now, after Melancholia, I write as a penitent convert. The long, glorious prologue to the film—made up of uncanny, quasi-still images that were lit and composed like dioramas, set to Tristan und Isolde—was inexplicable, evocative, aching, grotesque, surging and overpowering, unlike anything I had experienced before at the movies and indispensable to my response to the narrative that would follow. This story, set in some unspecified von Trier land where people speak varieties of English, fell into two parts. First came the expansive, fluid and often bitterly funny dramatization of an ultra-posh wedding reception, in which Kirsten Dunst (giving her career performance) began as the most radiant bride imaginable and ended in isolation and despair. This section was
followed by a tight, episodic chamber drama focused on the bride’s sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), who struggled with a science-fiction premise: the approach of a stray planet, which either would or would not destroy Earth. Perhaps the question posed by Melancholia was not so much whether we would welcome, fear or be indifferent to the death of everybody. The ultimate question, rather, was how we would want to address the feelings of others as the end approached. The wordless answer to which von Trier roused himself may have been futile—that possibility was inherent all along in Melancholia—but it was magnificent.

And now, on the subject of magnificence and futility, I will tell you about Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, an allegory of the end of the world and a documentary of things just as they are.

The Turin Horse begins with a black screen and a voiceover relating Friedrich Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin in 1889, when he saw a cabman whipping a horse and stepped in to embrace the animal. The narration comments on Nietzsche’s later years and ends, dryly, with the words, “Of the horse, we know nothing.” Some commentators, taking this introduction too literally, have identified what follows as Tarr’s vision of that particular horse’s life; but this is nonsense. As the images begin, we see a horse pulling a wagon, not a cab, in a desolate landscape utterly unlike northern Italy. Soon we learn that the staple foods in this place are potatoes and fruit brandy, the local outlaws are Roma and the main characters—the wagoner and his adult daughter—speak Hungarian (when they bother to speak at all).

Tarr keeps you aware at all times that these scenes are an artifact. The droning, two-chord music on the soundtrack is deliberately warped; the black-and-white cinematography is subtly altered to give a faint yellow aura to the sky at some moments, the hint of a reddish blush to the woman’s hair at others; the shot sequence (using Tarr’s characteristic long takes) reminds you that you’re seeing repetitive daily tasks from different angles; and the plot, though minimal, is nothing short of apocalyptic. A storm howls for five days, after which the abyss opens.

You examine an artifact; and meanwhile you are drawn toward suffering creatures who deserve an embrace as much as does any abused carriage horse. The documentary side of The Turin Horse: this is the weight of time, pressing on a man and a woman. This is how material things weigh on them. And this is the force of their resistance, as long as it lasts.

By now, I expect you will have figured out that there is no commercial future for such a film, on any platform. It can be revealed to people (as many as it ever reaches) only if an institution such as the New York Film Festival stands up for it. The festival did its job this year. Long may the cameras blaze.