So each year I plan to give you an insanely detailed NYFF report and invariably I get sidetracked and only have time for quick roundups. Alas. Alack. Things get so BUSY in October. But since the festival wrapped a few days ago, I really ought to wrap it up myself.
Tulpan (pictured left) tells the endearing visually satisfying tale of a sheep farmer with limited ambitions --no big changes or city life for him. He wants to stay in the inhospitable terrain of the Steppe and make his life there. The problem: you can't really make it on your own and his oversize ears spoil his wedding plans much to the dismay of his frustrated sister and brother-in-law. The ears in question aren't actually that big but you'd have a complex about them too if your would be fiancé (the title character) cited them as her reason for rejecting you. The film is full of memorable bits and scenes (live animal births, naturalistic acting, sandstorms) and it's a modest gem [This is Kazakhstan's Oscar submission] -B
Serbis I'm not sure I really "got" this Philippine film from the prolific auteur Dante Mendoza which was the first Pinoy film in 25 years to compete @ Cannes. I'm guessing I'm missing allegory or subtext since I have next to no knowledge of Pinoy history or culture. But, like his earlier very similar film The Masseur, it's a semi-explicit tale focused on sexuality as commerce (the new film is set in a porn theater instead of a massage parlor), absent or dead fathers and dismal economic realities. It's not for everyone but it has its moments and Mendoza is definitely committed to staring these issues between the eyes. B-
Hunger Trailer [*NSFW]
Hunger Artist Steve McQueen's (not the dear departed movie star) debut feature zeroes in on of Irish activist Bobby Sand's hunger strike. The film's depiction of prison hell is so harrowing it makes the second act of the current Blindness look like grade school recess... I'm exaggerating but this is harsh stuff. It's politics seem pointedly vague but the human horror of two unmoving forces (The Irish Republican Army and the British Parliament) and their collateral damage is well captured. Maybe it errs on the side of bravura filmmaking but it's riveting stuff. [The film will open on US screens in 2009] -B+/A-
Waltz With Bashir -Director Ari Folman has made a rather unique self-analysis documentary about his young days in the army during the Lebanon war and his difficulty, as an adult, of remembering the events. Some may quibble with the "documentary" label but that's what it this is though it falls squarely within the subgenre of the 'personal essay' as non-fiction filmmaking goes. Bashir starts strongly with a riveting dream sequence starring vicious dogs and there are return trips to sublime hallucinatory images like soldiers emerging naked from the water as a city burns. But something about it feels limited and even misguided -- a last minute dose of documentary footage seems especially self-defeating. The story is also so inwardly focused (Folman's navel: adequately studied!) that it doesn't always leave enough room for the audience. It'll have major fans but I'm not certain this is going to get an Animated Feature nomination with Oscar. [Opens December, 2008. It's hoping for both foreign film and animated Oscar consideration... the same track Persepolis tried to take last year for France] B-
Gomorra -This Italian feature took second place at Cannes and like Hunger, detailed above, it's tough stuff. It offers up a mosaic of the effects of organized crime on the lives of slum denizens. Gomorra doesn't always connect emotionally -- it's going for something like a bird's eye view of the situation, trying to take it all in -- but some sequences are duly tense and upsetting. It takes awhile to pull itself together but I'd call it a limited success upon reaching its grim summary. [Italy's Oscar submission. It will open in the US in spring 2009 --banking on a nomination, one presumes.] -B
The Wrestler tells the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a professional wrestler in his 50s who has long since passed his prime. Unfortunately it's the only life he's ever known. Mickey Rourke will earn a well deserved Oscar nomination for this major comeback (though astute moviegoers already noticed he still had "it" with that sly and expertly crafted "best in show" performance in Sin City). Not everything operates on Rourke's level here -- it can be predictable and a major plot element, his relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) has awkward moments, but it's one of the year's best films. Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) may finally get some Oscar credit too. We'll see. You'll be hearing about The Wrestler a lot. You'll be hearing about it so much, in fact, that I fear that December 19th release date will only harm it. You see, months of hype can sometimes raise epic-sized expectations and this is essentially an intimate character study. B+/A-
Best of the Fest
I didn't see all of the entries so take the following with that brick of sand in mind. My most frustrating omission was Cannes winner The Class but it screened while I was out of town [sniffle]
Pic -The Wrestler (runners up: A Christmas Tale which opens on US screens in November and Hunger, now slated for 2009)
Director -Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler. I wanted to say Arnaud Desplechin for A Christmas Tale just to surprise but the film is perhaps even messier than his oft-illuminating messiness can be whereas Aronofsky is so tightly focused that one must applaud. Speaking of tightly focused: Steve McQueen for Hunger. He isn't going to let one frame of that movie escape wounding capacity. The visual composition skills of Juan Campos (Afterschool) are admirable as some critics have mentioned but the film is limited.
Actress -Michelle Williams, Wendy & Lucy
Actor -Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler. I'm not sure if he can win the Oscar but boy will that nomination provoke smiles. (Runner up: Michael Fassbender, Hunger)
Supporting Actress -The women of A Christmas Tale: Catherine Deneuve & Emmanuelle Devos are feathers in any film's cap ...but you knew that already. Anne Consigni and Chiara Mastroianni are also intriguing. (Runners up: Kinga Preiss as Anna in Four Nights with Anna. She doesn't have much to work with given that she's but a target of voyeurism but it's a pleasing full sketch. Plus: Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler is dependably watchable. Bonus points: still looks great naked)
Supporting Actor -pass
Screenplay -Arnaud Desplechin & Emmanuel Bourdieu for A Christmas Tale
Costume Design -Deborah Hopper for Changeling
Cinematography -Sean Bobbitt for Hunger
Too Much of a Good (?) Thing -NYFF could use a little more emotional range. They favor auteurs which is a given (and a blessing) but even when they go Hollywood (Changeling) they err on the side of the funereal and violent. Mix it up a little, fellas.
Switcheroo -The programmers were insane to reject Rachel Getting Married (brief thoughts) and include Changeling (my review). Insane in the membrane!