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.