Depending on your needs, you can evaluate a film festival by the number of deals concluded and Oscar contenders screened, tickets sold and corporate sponsorships secured, red-carpet photos posted and tweets retweeted. To its continuing credit, the New York Film Festival seems to be meeting its performance quotas in all those categories but still demands to be judged by a different set of numbers. How many likely masterpieces were on the program this year? How many subtle illuminations or worthy disappointments, shoulder shrugs or provocations?

In the latter category, the festival deliberately provoked itself during its fifty-first season—the first under the direction of Kent Jones—by inaugurating at its midpoint a complete retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard. You couldn’t avoid hearing about it. Before each regularly scheduled feature, the screen would suddenly emit alarming bursts of text, sound and image: Bardot’s ass! Belmondo’s blue face! The Madison! Le car wreck! This was the trailer for the series, made in loving emulation of the master’s own style; and if it was heavily weighted toward the earlier, best-known films (the New York Herald Tribune!)—that was part of the provocation. These works, which helped set the image of the New York Film Festival in its early years, seem canonical now but were by no means universally enjoyed when first detonated in the faces of a Lincoln Center audience. By jolting the house with them today, the festival was all but forcing its audience to think, “Those turned out to be great. Now what have you got?”

The answers, for me, began with Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

Like Godard (except forty years younger and working in entirely different circumstances), Jia has won the loyalty of the festival’s programmers, having opened vast new areas of subject matter in a highly self-aware but bracingly confrontational style. His ambition is only slightly less grand than is implied by the title of his 2004 film, The World. He’ll settle for representing all of China. In A Touch of Sin, he tours the country from north to south—Shanxi, Chongqing, Hubei, Guangdong—while telling four linked stories that he’s based on real events. A middle-aged miner goes on a shotgun rampage. A migrant laborer carries out an armed robbery, execution style. The receptionist in a bathhouse-brothel slashes two customers. A young hotel worker takes a dive off a balcony. Everywhere these four characters turn, they encounter entrenched corruption, the arrogance of wealth and the threat of sanctioned violence. They respond with self-righteous vengeance or cold-blooded opportunism, an impulsive lunge to maintain a last shred of respectability or a desperate leap out of this life into the next, which might turn out to be better.

Much has been made of Jia’s shifts, in A Touch of Sin, from social realist observation to neo-realist melodrama to action sequences that might have come from martial arts movies. (Or westerns, for that matter: the rampaging miner stalks through his scenes like Charles Bronson in a duster.) For good measure, Jia gives his stories the cultural resonance of traditional opera—shown in street-plaza performances—and the emblematic presence of animals from the Chinese zodiac, as if the events he shows were part of the eternal round. Some filmmakers (Godard, for instance) might present this abundance in fragments, but not Jia. He seems to believe that the world (or China, at least) is whole; and so, although his film is panoramic in settings and quasi-encyclopedic in styles, it unrolls as a single picture, sweeping, fluid and mesmerizingly clear.

Of the other films I saw this year—my festival-going was necessarily incomplete—the only one to come close to A Touch of Sin was the overwhelming 12 Years a Slave, shown outside the main slate as a presentation of Film Comment magazine.

Based on a book published in 1853 by Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga, New York, who had been kidnapped and sold, 12 Years a Slave ends on the most startling line of dialogue imaginable: “There is nothing to forgive.” On the contrary. For more than two hours, through John Ridley’s screenplay, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s magnificently passionate and controlled lead performance, and Steve McQueen’s meticulous direction, which gives almost tangible weight and texture to each moment of the story, the film has led you to experience slavery as an unending nightmare so horrific that there is something cruel even in Northup’s liberation from it. At the end, he is released alone, knowing that he leaves millions behind. That’s why he needs to be told at his homecoming that nothing he’s done has to be forgiven—neither his forced absence from children who grew up without him, nor his return to a freedom denied to others. To the audience, though, the words cut deeply. If there is nothing to forgive in what we’ve seen, it’s because no forgiveness can be conceived.

As Natalie Zemon Davis points out in her book Slaves on Screen, films from the 1960s onward depicting slavery have tended to favor narratives of resistance. In 12 Years a Slave, though, resistance is brief, fitful and futile. Even the decision to sing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” becomes evidence that hope in this world has been abandoned. Enslaved people (Northup included) are ready to run; slaveowners are perpetually on the lookout for signs of uprising; but the purpose of 12 Years a Slave is not to valorize rebellion, but rather to commemorate the suffering of those whose victory was to have abided, for decades and centuries. It is important, then, that when Northup blunders past the lynching of two runaways, or is forced to flog another enslaved person, McQueen’s mobile camera makes the action continuous, so nothing is disguised. You are all but certain that you’ve seen men in nooses actually hoisted off the ground, and the actress Lupita Nyong’o struck by the whip in Ejiofor’s hand. These are the facts, the style tells you. There is no escape.

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A good many of the strongest films in the festival this year stayed close to the facts. Apart from the amply stocked “Spotlight on Documentary” sidebar, the main slate included Jehane Noujaim’s vital and urgent report The Square, Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley (another late masterpiece by the dean of the real), and perhaps the thickest, chewiest, most engrossing slice of life of them all, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s American Promise.

In 1999, the filmmakers placed their son Idris in Manhattan’s elite, predominantly white Dalton School. Seun Summers, the son of another African-American family in their Brooklyn neighborhood, also entered Dalton at that time. Inspired in part by Michael Apted’s Up series, Brewster and Stephenson decided to videotape the boys’ careers through twelfth grade. What they have dug out of the resulting 800 hours of footage is a narrative of persistent racial divisions and negotiations and a lot more besides: missed signals, dashed expectations, efforts to cope with sudden catastrophe, and a final parental coming-to-terms that is painful to see—and was extraordinarily brave of Brewster and Stephenson to show.

Wiseman’s portrait of the University of California at Berkeley concentrates on two themes—the school’s efforts on the one hand to manage ongoing financial pressures, and on the other to maintain a culture of public engagement—which give the old wizard the makings of a suspense drama, as surely as if a locomotive were racing toward a heroine tied to the tracks. (New York City’s IFC Center will release the film theatrically in November.) Noujaim’s The Square, which follows half a dozen Cairo revolutionaries through waves of protest and repression in Cairo’s Tahrir Square from early 2011 through summer 2013, will open at Film Forum in New York City in late October, offering as immediate a view of ongoing political struggle as you are likely to see.

I consider Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust separately because it has an invaluable document at its core: a protracted interview conducted in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the only survivor among the Nazi-appointed “Jewish Elders” of the ghettoes and death camps. Through Murmelstein’s testimony, Lanzmann is able not only to rebut certain accusations about the collaboration of Jewish elites (a charge that, in this case, is reduced to absurdity) but also to cast light on the character and motives of Adolf Eichmann, the course of development of the German death industry and, above all, the function of lies as the mortar in the Nazi edifice. Lanzmann could find no place for all this in Shoah, and so he has now made the interview into a three-and-a-half-hour film of its own by adding present-day contextual footage. These additional scenes unquestionably diminish the rigor of Lanzmann’s method, lowering it at times from revelation to rhetoric. Nevertheless, The Last of the Unjust stands as a monument appended to a monument.

Among the fiction films at this year’s festival, perhaps none generated so much popular excitement as Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ loving re-creation of the New York folk music scene in 1961. “Loving” is not a word I have used before with the Coens. “Condescending” would be more like it, especially when they turn their cold gaze on people who avow any kind of principle. In the scuffling title character of their new film, though, they have someone with both principles and a sarcastic edge, and an actor, Oscar Isaac, with such a revved-up and illicit air that you’d think he’d been hot-wired in an alley and gunned onto the set. The Coens still can’t resist playing tricks on the audience—in this case, a gag so corny that sixth graders are warned away from it—but for once they risk allowing real sorrow to run through the fun, games and grotesquerie.

Even better, to my mind, is Nebraska, written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne: a story about a middle-aged man (Will Forte) on a road trip with his half-addled father (Bruce Dern) and vituperatively honest mother (June Squibb). Two out of the three know they’re on a fool’s errand, which takes them from their present drabness in Montana back to a derelict home town in Nebraska, all shot with Payne’s unmatched eye for the American unpicturesque. It’s a catalog of disappointment, loss and stupidity, made touching and funny by Forte (a comedian practicing self-restraint) and by Dern’s mysterious reserves of dignity in the midst of frailty.

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Current taste clearly favors the asperity of films such as Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis while running against sentimentality. But for people who still want lush, unembarrassed emotion coupled with a sensuous richness of imagery, the festival offered James Gray’s melodrama The Immigrant. Starring Marion Cotillard as a Polish woman traduced straight from Ellis Island into prostitution, and Joaquin Phoenix as her Lower East Side impresario-pimp, the film is as old-fashioned as its 1920s setting and yet as true to life, in a movies way, as the locations that Gray found still available in New York City.

Observers curious about the stamp that Kent Jones might put on the festival will find welcome early answers in films by three French directors he has championed. Philippe Garrel’s intimate black-and-white drama Jealousy, with Louis Garrel and Anna Mouglalis, was pure, simple and heartbreaking in its playing out, moment by moment, of love and betrayal. Claire Denis’s Bastards—her imaginative response, I would guess, to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal—was brooding, brutal and not for the fainthearted. Best of all was Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. Based on a true story—God alone knows where Desplechin found it—about the talking cure of a troubled Blackfoot veteran of World War II, the film features Benicio del Toro and Mathieu Amalric in brilliant, utterly dissimilar performances and a script with as many convolutions as the human brain.

In the necessary category of worthy disappointments, I include The Wind Rises, the final film by the great animator Hayao Miyazaki (beautiful and morally complex but greatly overextended); Like Father, Like Son (a tart but predictable drama by Hirokazu Kore-Eda); and the closing-night selection, the sci-fi romance Her (which showed just how much Spike Jonze needs Charlie Kaufman). Among the flat-out disappointments were Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism (which was elegant but took a lot more from me than it gave back) and Richard Curtis’s anodyne comic fantasy About Time (which wasted mine). 

Time, in a sense, is what a festival is all about: the hours you devote to watching the movies, the years that lie behind each selection, the decades that may pass until today’s films come into perspective. So I might sum up the festival with Burning Bush, another of the main slate’s extremely long films, made as a miniseries for HBO Europe by NYFF veteran Agnieszka Holland, here in masterful form. Like several significant dramas in this year’s selection, it’s based on real events: the 1969 suicide by immolation of Jan Palach to protest the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, and the efforts of two women—Palach’s mother (Jaroslava Pokorná) and an uncompromisingly brave attorney (Tatiana Pauhofová)—to uphold his name against the regime’s slanders. To Holland, this isn’t history; it’s part of her personal experience, as someone who was in Czechoslovakia at the time. Her film may be short on formal innovation (many selections were this year) but it’s long on narrative power, emotional conviction and moral responsibility. Like the festival as a whole, it improves the time.