Years ago, when I served on its selection committee, I failed to justify the New York Film Festival to a culture-desk reporter for the New York Times. He honestly could not see the point of an event where so few deals were made, promotional campaigns launched or Oscar contenders handicapped. I tried to persuade him, but could not, that a festival may also serve a critical function, which is how the New York Film Festival distinguishes itself. It declares that some two dozen new pictures, out of thousands made around the world, are worth particular discussion this year. Agree with its choices or disagree, but the New York Film Festival stands for something.
The fact that this something is often remote from commercial interests—not necessarily inimical to them but on their margins—can admittedly make New York’s event seem like the Magic Mountain of film festivals. A self-enclosed society of febrile cinephiles gathers, away from the world, to breathe only thin, pure air (that’s the house aesthetic) while gorging on meal after meal of dread, suffering and bad conscience (the preferred subject matter). I recognize myself, forever convalescent, in this caricature. But I also know that the 2010 New York Film Festival offered wonder, heartbreak, illumination, laughter, sumptuous sets, gorgeous costumes, flamboyant acting, lavish storytelling—and that was just in Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon.
I’ll get to that picture—and to Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, which filled the festival’s regular slot for a rousing, muckraking documentary, and is the selection that Nation readers especially want to see. First, though, a few notes on the films that most needed critical endorsement: the ones American audiences might not get to see if the festival didn’t help introduce them.
Perhaps the finest selection this year was Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, a drama about a smiling, modest, hard-working older woman in a provincial Korean city and the lout of a teenage grandson she’s been raising single-handedly. Her story begins with back-to-back announcements of bad news: she has begun to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, and her grandson is part of a high school gang that has committed a terrible crime, which the boys’ fathers are conspiring to cover up. What can she do, this conventionally self-deprecating woman with the genteel old clothes, now that she’s losing her words and a group of men are enforcing silence? Her intuitive solution, which gradually takes on the character of an act of resistance, is to enroll in a poetry writing class. Lee’s moving yet utterly unsentimental script is flawless; his direction is assured. But best of all is the acting by Yoon Jeong-hee, whose performance equals any you will see in Ozu or Naruse.
Among the other outstanding narratives on the schedule, films by Kelly Reichardt and Aleksei Fedorchenko testified to the festival’s abiding love for movies where made-up characters pass through real though myth-laden landscapes.
Meek’s Cutoff is the latest of Reichardt’s studies of Americans adrift in the West and is her first period drama. Set in 1845, it follows the dangerous social dynamics within a small wagon train that has gotten lost in the Oregon Territory and is growing desperately short of water. As the party doggedly travels right to left across the classically formatted frame, going through grasslands and desert and rocky hills, power shifts back and forth among a braggart frontier guide (Bruce Greenwood), an increasingly self-assertive woman in the party (Michelle Williams) and a captive Indian (Rod Rondeaux), who may or may not be leading the group to its doom. You might be tempted to call Meek’s Cutoff an exercise in feminist, multiculturalist piety if these two latter characters had any clear idea of what they were doing, or an overriding motive other than self-preservation; but they don’t, and you won’t.
Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls was for me the revelation of this year’s festival. Ostensibly based on a Russian novel (no trace of which seems to exist), supposedly written by Aist Sergeyev about the disappearing folkways of the Merja (who do exist, but perhaps not like this), Silent Souls is an exceptionally strange, exceptionally beautiful road trip movie, set along the rivers, bridges and dying towns of central Russia. The key character, Tanya, is a corpse lying in the back seat of a little car. She is being driven to a Merja-style cremation, to be performed by her husband (a powerful older man to whom she was not so happily married) and by the film’s narrator, an amateur folklorist (coincidentally named Aist) who seems to have shared an unconsummated crush with Tanya. Wry, melancholy, nostalgic and inventive, Silent Souls is fabulism with mud under its fingernails.
Landscape and fabulism come together incomparably in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the top award at Cannes this year and so, like many of its predecessors, made its way into the New York Film Festival. An ailing farm owner in Thailand’s rural northeast, his sister-in-law and nephew who are visiting from the city, the ghost of his wife and the spirit of his long-absent son (now transformed into a hairy creature with glowing red eyes) are among the characters in this droll and deadpan foray back and forth between the daylight and nocturnal worlds, the limits of the house and the vastness of the jungle, life as we know it now and life as it might have been (and still might be) in other times. Once upon a time during the festival, a colleague asked what I was looking for. I replied, "A film that I don’t yet know how to watch." Weerasethakul has given it to me, and I’m as grateful as when I was first handed a mango.
As much as the festival favors the contemplative, the personal and the indirect, it also makes room for films that address the public realm head-on. Here the 2010 festival was especially strong, with two large-scale, complementary films about the fortunes of leftist movements over the decades. These were Olivier Assayas’s journalistic fiction Carlos, about the career of the international terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, and Andrei Ujica’s compilation documentary The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, shown as a sidebar event.
Monumental and intricately detailed, yet as seemingly spontaneous as if its crew had parachuted into a war zone, Carlos in its full version is nearly five and a half hours long, making it suitable only for festivals, cable television and roadshow presentations. A normal-length cut is going into wider release, but I would urge you to make time for the complete experience, since it recounts twenty years of intrigues and violence, takes place in more than a dozen countries and is performed in English, French, Spanish, German, Arabic, Hungarian, Russian and (I think) a little Farsi. As a thriller, Carlos follows the Touch of Evil principle: it sets itself off with a car bomb and then never stops moving (though some episodes, notably the 1975 kidnapping of the OPEC oil ministers, are more protracted than others). As a character study, the film lives off the swagger of its lead actor, the amazing Édgar Ramírez, who catches just the right note of self-regard in every bullying speech about revolutionary self-abnegation. As a political exposé, Carlos draws on copious research and its own cool head as it lays bare the various agendas—duplicitous, venal, opportunistic—that this self-styled freedom fighter pursued without ever advancing the Palestinians a single millimeter toward statehood.
If Carlos, with its exploration of the byways of Soviet-sponsored terror, is in part a fictionalized look at the covert world of Communism in the last decades of the cold war, then an overt and yet even more fictional Communism is the subject of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, a film pieced together almost entirely from Romania’s public spectacles. Here, in government footage, is Ceausescu’s life as his propaganda machine portrayed it, from 1965 to 1989: an endless series of parades, festivals, folk dances, inspection tours, state visits and triumphant speeches, where he and his wife were invariably greeted with ovations, warm congratulations from foreign leaders and heaps of flowers borne by uniformed children. Sometimes the archives yield a glimpse of genuine valor (as when you see Ceausescu refuse to join in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia), and sometimes a sign of discord momentarily breaks through the surface. On the whole, though, this is three hours of official delirium. If it seems a bit long, think of how the real thing felt to the Romanians.
Because the New York Film Festival has been the entry point into America for the Romanian New Wave, anticipation ran high this year for another two Romanian selections. Tuesday, After Christmas by Radu Muntean proved to be the better of them: a slow-paced (needless to say) but ultimately scorching drama of adultery and the breakup of a marriage, with a trio of superb performances. Muntean’s buildup leads to an explosion; whereas in Aurora, by Cristi Puiu, there is only a fizzle. Puiu, of course, is the author of a masterpiece, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; and so it was dispiriting to see him (as the lead actor) fall into the cliché of the affectless loser, who shuffles robotically from one drab, wordless, needlessly prolonged scene to another until violence erupts. Well, doesn’t it always?
I come to some of the disappointments of the festival. Post Mortem, by Pablo Larraín (director of Tony Manero), is the story of a shuffling, affectless loser in Chile for whom the inevitable violence is the 1973 coup. He becomes complicit, because in film festivals it is an article of faith that he must. (Hangdog men who masturbate in their dingy bedrooms always go over to fascism.) Robinson in Ruins, a film essay by Patrick Keiller, pretty much cleared the theater at the screening I attended. Though it had a lot to say about the traces left on England’s landscape by centuries of property enclosures and political resistance, it said these things in no particular order, with no effort at argument and at numbing length, within the irritatingly flimsy pretense of a fictional framework. Still, I believe the festival had the responsibility to show it—just as it had the responsibility to show Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, which combines two of my favorite words in its title but will never make it onto my must-see list. Mashing up a ship-of-fools setting with scenes set in a Resistance-cell garage, footage from The Battleship Potemkin and ruminations on the history of Palestine, Film Socialisme is marvelous to look at but pointless to decipher. Godard’s dazzling collage technique now does the thinking for him—or, rather, relieves him of the responsibility to think at all.
Among the masters who did not disappoint this year were Abbas Kiarostami with Certified Copy—a much-abused film, which I hope to defend when it’s released—and Raúl Ruiz with Mysteries of Lisbon. The latter movie, based on Camilo Castelo Branco’s mid-nineteenth-century novel, was another of the festival’s marathon selections (with a running time of four and a half hours) but rewarded every minute with its tales upon tales of desperate countesses, disguised priests, nouveaux riches upstarts and wandering orphans. I can’t say the film is as radically brilliant as Manoel de Oliveira’s version of the same author’s Doomed Love, nor does it reach the impossible heights of Ruiz’s version of Time Regained. (A problem of the source material: Castelo Branco was no Proust.) All this one does is carry you into a Neverland of cinematic bliss.
Hell, in the festival, was left for Charles Ferguson’s brief against the financial services industry, Inside Job, which wants to carry you into the street. Its thesis is simple: the people who ran Wall Street, and whom Ferguson is so rude as to name, knew perfectly well before 2008 that they were fleecing millions of people, endangering their own companies and threatening to crash the world economy. They just didn’t care, so long as they could cash out first. The not-so-simple job of the movie is to make this case with impeccable clarity, which Ferguson does, using expert testimony (from the likes of Nouriel Roubini and George Soros), archival footage of the culprits, crisp graphics and the occasional dash of gallows humor. ("Has Larry Summers ever expressed remorse?" asks Ferguson, off-camera, to Barney Frank, who shoots back, "I don’t take confessions.") I wish the film had been able to provide more blood sport in interviews with Wall Street figures (most of whom refused to sit for the camera). I also could have done without the crude shot of a revolving door (to accompany a discussion of the collusion between Wall Street and government) and the concluding flyover of the Statue of Liberty. (Since the problem is global in scale, as Ferguson takes pains to show, wouldn’t it have been better to end on an international symbol—the red flag, for example?) But these are quibbles. Inside Job really is the movie of the decade, unfortunately. It’s also the movie that brought the 2010 New York Film Festival down from the Magic Mountain and into the fray.