And so another New York Film Festival has come and gone, and I feel great. I mean, sure, I feel as if the world as we know it is about to be consumed by an apocalypse of its own design, slurped down an unrelenting vortex of misery and despair from which there is no escape. But other than that, I feel great! Because here’s the thing: each year NYFF rolls around like clockwork to shock the metropolitan movie world out of its stupor, delivering unto NYC a sudden, immaculately curated wellspring of cinematic bliss after nine long months of movies so bleak that by July I was falling over myself to praise Transformers: Sucks to be Chicago. And yet, for all the sweet relief with which NYFF rolled in to town, I walked out of most of the films feeling as if I had just borne silent witness to the end of the world, perhaps because several of the most notable films at this year’s festival were literally about the end of the world. And not in the way that you watch the trailer for I Don’t Know How She Does It and think “Yikes, it’s the end of the world,” but rather in the way that a giant planet collides into Earth, obliterating every living organism on this great rock of ours and think, “Yikes, it’s the end of the world.”
The apocalyptic theme seemed to seep into every crevice of the stellar line-up, cropping up in the obvious spots (Abel Ferrara’s 4:44: The End of the World), as well as in less expected places such as Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which you might think is about a horse from Turin, but is obviously actually about the apocalypse (kind of. It certainly reserves its greatest violence for potatoes). Even Jafar Panahi’s devastating and immensely important This is Not a Film — ostensibly a documentary — fades out with the sparks of a civilized world subsumed by flames and destruction. And yet, elsewhere in Panahi’s not film are contained the warmest and most joyful moments the cinema has known all year, scenes which brought a smile to my face even wider than that elicited by the sight of Melissa McCarthy hoarding a litter of puppies under her arms. And speaking of Gilmore Girls, whoever thought that Sookie would prove to be that show’s breakout star?
Altogether, this year’s NYFF featured an extraordinary roster of films that made me feel again, films that didn’t just waft over me and die on my lap like the adventures of so many spandexed superheroes (The Green Hornet is still my favorite). The festival was a much-needed reminder that in the hands of a great filmmaker, a movie about the end of the world can be every bit as sublime and satisfying as a movie about saving it. So for those of you who are wondering where all the good stuff has been hiding, here are the 10 best films I saw at this year’s fest.
10.) THE DESCENDANTS (dir. Alexander Payne)
A new movie directed by Alexander Payne — who hasn’t directed a feature since Sideways in 2004 — is a pretty big deal. A new movie featuring the sublime talents of one Matthew Lillard is also a pretty big deal. Combine those two things together and you have a deal of such size and significance that it may lie beyond the bounds of traditional film criticism, understandable only via the rhetoric of semiotics or from the smudged text of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And Matthew Lillard isn’t merely *in* The Descendants, he’s *excellent* in the film, much like approximately every other human who has ever appeared in one of Payne’s wry and invariably effective emotional comedies. But I guess, if push came to shove, I’d have to admit that the performance that it’s George Clooney’s performance as Hawaiian lawyer Matt King that most anchors The Descendants, as the dude is kinda sorta literally in every scene, playing the level-headed and sweetly aloof husband to a woman knocked into a coma by a motorboat to the face. King hopes the event will allow him the chance to pay more attention to his wife and remind his two daughters (one pre-pubescent, the other running amok at boarding school) of their family’s potential. But with an impending deal to sell the huge plot of pure Hawaiian land that has been in his family for centuries and a rogue Matthew Lillard on the loose, things aren’t quite so cut-and-dry.
And so — with a grounding and potentially calculated clumsiness — begins another shaggy Alexander Payne film about an American man in crisis, the kind of gentle and deceptively slapdash character comedy that Payne unspools with the quiet authority that renders him one of contemporary cinema’s great hidden auteurs. The characters, who at first seem loose and unformed, eventually blossom into people you’ll take home with you, Payne introducing them in a rich and increasingly hilarious island world carved from overcast details and a few errant plucks of a ukulele. Clooney delivers a performance as strong as any he’s ever given, earning his inevitable Oscar nomination (or win, more likely) in a single heart-breaking shot, and young Shaileene Woodley arguing that she could be the next Natalie Portman in her turn as King’s precocious teenage daughter.
9.) SHAME (dir. Steve McQueen)
Alright, let’s just get this out of the way: Michael Fassbender — an emerging actor of whom you may have heard — has almost as much penis as Steve McQueen does talent, and that’s a lot. McQueen, a British filmmaker and a visual artist whose work has earned him the prestigious Turner Prize, first collaborated with Fassbender on Hunger, one of the most striking directorial debuts the cinema has ever known, and their follow-up has been among my most anticipated films since approximately 4 minutes into their first one. This time around Fassbender plays a sex addict named Brandon whose rituals are interrupted by an impromptu visit from his erratic younger sister (Carey Mulligan), McQueen placing the actor in the pedestrian environs of New York City and warping the rigid lines of the urban landscape into a prison as unyielding as that of Hunger’s Maze. Hollywood’s hottest actor boning everything that moves might seem like a sure thing, but for all of its sex Shame is a rather impenetrable thing, and I’m afraid that for some viewers its depth will be overpowered by its premise. While every bit as visually severe and geometric as Hunger — Shame is inevitably a bit more common in its appearance, but McQueen’s newfound conventionality is really a bit of a ruse, as he weaponizes melodramatic form against Brandon to tease him into a false sense of feeling. It’s brilliant stuff, but you probably don’t want to see this on a date. Or with your sister. Maybe on a date with your sister.
8.) THE KID WITH A BIKE (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The Dardenne brothers have long been considered one of the most fascinating and accomplished filmmaking teams around — appropriately introduced at the NYFF screening of their latest work as “The Yankees of Cannes” — so it definitely comes as something of a shock when The Kid With a Bike pauses halfway through to pay homage to the cinema of Paul W.S. Anderson. No, not Paul Thomas Anderson, but rather the guy who took one look at the Resident Evil videogames and thought to himself: “These games are good and all, but a movie adaptation of this story should *definitely* feel like wandering through a post-apocalyptic Hot Topic.” Yes, The Kid With a Bike pauses to observe a character’s obsession with the Resident Evil films (particularly their villain), with a degree of detail that feels truly surreal, like a Miley Cyrus reference in a Bela Tarr film.
And yet, if the Dardennes were ever to include such an unexpected aside, this is the film in which to do it, as it elevates the Dardennes’ usual kineticism into a propulsive energy that cheats closer towards action cinema than their typically muscular riffs on Bresson. Or maybe I just wanted to shoehorn a mention of that crazy Resident Evil scene into this piece, whatever. But this new slice of life, imbued with a gooey moral core courtesy of Cecil De France’s celebrity shine, truly transmutes a moral tale into a visceral adventure, working from a title so willfully generic it sounds like self-parody to wrest an orphan movie so sweet and tough and true that it could only be their’s. Oh, also, the Dardenne’s include an Assassin’s Creed 2 walkthrough, so the movie isn’t just good, it’s also helpful!
7.) ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
It’s tempting to call Nuri Bilge Ceylan the Turkish Antonioni, especially when you have but a few scant sentences to describe his latest film, but it’s hard to deny that Once Upon a Time in Anatolia plays — at least superficially — like an appropriately dislocated riff on L’Avventura, but since most of the lead characters are cops, the disappearance at the root of the story is never entirely forgotten. But stories about bodies are never really stories about bodies, and with his stable of state officials Ceylan spins a damning portrait of men in action, man’s inaction — good men, bad men, and the compromises which obliterate such simple distinctions. The film’s final sequence, an extended autopsy under the spell of a curious gaze, more than rewards the 150 minutes it takes to get there. Nuri Bilge Ceylan has finally hit the big leagues.
6.) THE TURIN HORSE (dir. Bela Tarr)
Remember the time that Hungarian master Bela Tarr made a 7-hour film about a farming collective, using only 150 shots over the course of its 432 minutes? Yeah, that shit is practically Avatar compared to Tarr’s latest (and supposedly last) celluloid dirge, The Turin Horse. Remember the apocryphal story of Friedrich Nietzsche being so moved by the sight of a horse being beaten that the philosopher threw himself upon its flesh in the animal’s defense, and was then so traumatized by the experience that he never spoke again? Of course you do. Well, this is an 146-minute film about that horse. An 146-minute journey into the blackened lungs of despair that follows the eponymous horse home, Tarr’s camera eventually settling in with the sour, grizzled man who owns it, and the silent daughter who prepares his potatoes to be squished (not a euphemism). She goes to the well, she comes back from the well. A Shakespearean wind howls around the house, violent and always. The world maybe ends. Ya know… it’s a Bela Tarr film, and one told with a majestically morose finality that seems to confirm Tarr’s threats of retirement. As confined a film as he’s made and yet philosophically expansive in a way that the plots of his previous work never allowed him to be, The Turin Horse is an unforgettable experience, pinning you to your seat with the weight of all the world’s bleak madness.
5.) THE LONELIEST PLANET (dir. Julia Loktev)
Bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce. That’s how Julia Loktev’s painterly wisp of a film begins, revealing the sound to be the result of a naked young woman jumping on a tired trampoline, the frame cutting her off above the neck and below her dash of red pubic hair. This is Nica (a lithe and electric Hani Furstenberg), and she’s come to the Caucasus mountains of Georgia (the country) with her affiance (Gael Garcia Bernal) for a harmlessly rugged pre-marital hike. Following the lead of their native guide (a kind but ominously elusive Bidzina Gujabidze) they head out into verdant terrain that Loktev renders with a beauty both breathtaking and deceptively formal. And then… something happens. Something small. I can’t remember any other film that so turns on such a fleeting gesture — a poorly timed bathroom run and you might miss the dramatic fulcrum upon which Loktev’s entire movie hinges. The second half will invariably frustrate some viewers with its steadfast passive-aggression, but I was entirely absorbed by the depth of Loktev’s expression, and how lucidly she makes clear how the smallest of moments can underscore relationships forever.
4.) HUGO (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat, as it was presented as a work-in-progress apart from the festival’s official selections, but… damn. What a sudden and delirious rush of cinephilic edutainment (if “delirious rush of cinephilic edutainment” isn’t Paramount’s dream pull-quote, I don’t know what is). Like, remember when I wrote almost 1,000 euphoric but closely guarded words about this movie? Good times. But for those of you hoping to avoid another tumble down that particular rabbit-hole, the headline really says it all: “Hugo will literally remind you why you love movies so much, in the first place.”
3.) MISS BALA (dir. Gerardo Naranjo)
Miss Bala — Mexico’s official submission for the Oscars this year — is kinda like No Country for Old Men meets Miss Congeniality. In the unlikely event that you need any further convincing that this is one of the year’s most essential films (though word has it that it won’t be getting a significant release until January), Gerardo Naranjo’s blistering breakthrough feels like the Mexican drug cartel movie that Michael Mann might have made before he went soft. You can read my full review of the film over at Reverse Shot, and in the meantime you may want to cancel that family vacation to Juarez (I hear Libya is lovely this time of year).
2.) MELANCHOLIA (dir. Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier’s new movie sees the notoriously impish filmmaker charting a bold new course, telling the story of a deeply anguished woman who — in the face of an insurmountable crisis agitated by a swath of foul men, most of whom are in some way moved by her sexuality — becomes a force of nature in order to both transcend and violently obliterate the external circumstances that weigh upon her. …Okay, so Melancholia may not actually be an unexpected offering from the world’s most giddily abrasive auteur, but the 2nd film of his Andrei Tarkovsky phase is an uncharacteristically uplifting effort, despite the fact that the opening shot informs us with no margin of uncertainty that a giant planet called Melancholia (and called so with a straight face) is about to collide with Earth, instantly ending the world as we know it. At the center of this story is a Kirsten Dunst, playing a psychologically damaged young bride on the eve of her wedding, which is scheduled to be held at the sort of expansive countryside estate that will unfailingly remind fans of Dogme 95 of The Celebration. What ensues is a two-part apocalyptic drama in which catharsis can only be found at the bottom of despair — anchored by the best performance of Kirsten Dunst’s career and a ravishing eye for destruction, Melancholia certainly isn’t von Trier’s first masterpiece, but — despite ending with the end of the world — it may be his most optimistic.
1.) THIS IS NOT A FILM (dir. Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
Approximately everyone who writes about this not film seems compelled to mention a few key details, so let’s just get them out of the way at the top:
This is a film. Not literally, of course, as before being shipped to Cannes on a USB drive buried inside a cake, it was shot on a consumer-grade digital camera and an iPhone so archaic that you can’t even talk to it. But the title is most critically a bit of gallows humor, as its director and subject Jafar Panahi was under house arrest and awaiting the start of his prison stint for crimes against the Iranian regime (i.e. making socially empowering movies, wearing the color green, etc…), and at the time of production had already been banned from filmmaking for 20 years. A sly wink to the oppressive authorities that had stripped him and so many of his fellow Iranians of both their human and artistic rights, this film is called This Is Not a Film precisely because it’s so obviously a film. Ya dig?
Good. So what does one of the world’s most revered and vital filmmakers do when they’re confined to their apartment during pre-production of their latest work, unsure of when their grueling stint in one of the worst prisons known to man might begin, only that it inevitably would? Well, if said filmmaker is Jafar Panahi, whose masterworks have each been touched with an urgent self-reflexivity, you pick up an iPhone, point it at yourself, and make the most self-reflexive film of your career.
This Is Not a Film ostensibly chronicles one day of Panahi’s domestic incarceration, following this warm, charming, and deeply empathetic subject as — among other things — he leads viewers on a stunted walkthrough of the film his arrest forced him to abandon (he tapes the blueprint of his set on the floor and acts the script’s every role), dodges the piss of his daughter’s massive pet iguana, and rides the elevator with the gregarious young man who has come to dispose of the building’s trash. Occasionally, Panahi walks us through scenes from some of his earlier work, elliptically eluding to the idea that the “real” people he encounters in his apartment are amalgams of his scripted protagonists, the veracity with which they’re veiled in This Is Not a Film assuring us that the subjects of his previous films may have been fictional, but their circumstances are all too real. Fans of the Iranian New Wave will (and should) question the documentary reality of what Panahi presents to us, but as always Panahi’s portrait is made all the more devastating by the ways in which he slips free from the shackles of the world as he’s been forced to experience it.
A profoundly moving 75 minutes even if taken at face value, This Is Not a Film ultimately coheres into a sobering and quietly resonant appeal to the unbridled power provided to people who wield the recorded image. Quite possibly Panahi’s final film, it’s also the most powerful tribute to Steve Jobs there is, and — more pressingly — a damning reminder that oppression is no longer a sustainable option.
This Is Not a Film wasn’t only the best film at NYFF, it isn’t merely the best film of the year, it’s also quite possibly the most important film of the millennium.
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