Angelina, Mickey Rourke and disco madness

From Clint's "Changeling" to Soderbergh's "Che" and beyond, the New York Film Festival sets the table for the fall's Oscar hopefuls, art-house maybes and wild-eyed cinematic rebels.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 25, 2008 6:34PM (EDT)

Courtesy New York Film Festival

Top row, from left: images from "Happy-Go-Lucky," "Che," and "Four Nights with Anna." Bottom row, from left: images from "Changeling," "Wendy and Lucy," and "The Wrestler."

Like any institution closely identified with New York City -- the Yankees, the Times, the Metropolitan Museum, the scum-sucking financial establishment that has ruined all of our lives and our children's as well -- the New York Film Festival makes a pretty easy target for crusading anti-elitists of all stripes. A young freelancer for the New York Press just enlisted in this venerable tradition, expending thousands of words on an earnest, rambling article whose point seems to be that Lincoln Center's annual September festival caters to a graying, affluent, high-culture audience that's not relevant to younger filmgoers. In other breaking news, the sun turns out to be an enormous ball of flaming gases, 93 million miles away! And Francisco Franco is still dead!

Maybe it's not fair to beat up an article in a struggling alt-weekly that bears no signs of having been edited or even read before publication ("The Film Society [of Lincoln Center] was founded in 1969 and nearly 20 years later, it continues to offer ..."), but this rises well above spouting hoary cliché and reaches the realm of laboriously restating a universally accepted truth. Complaining about the NYFF's hoity-toity atmosphere and superannuated customer base is a journalistic genre unto itself, and one to which I've made my own contribution.

What's far more interesting about the NYFF after all this time is that it remains remarkably successful at its self-assigned mission, anachronistic and undemocratic as that may appear. In programming relatively few features (28 this year) -- most of them drawn from the major European festivals in Berlin, Cannes and Venice -- and in insisting on a pre-pop-culture vision of cinema as an art form, festival director Richard Peña and his staff have, perversely enough, proven to be shrewd table-setters for the fall film marketplace.

Last year's NYFF featured the United States premieres of "No Country for Old Men," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "The Darjeeling Limited," "Persepolis," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," "The Orphanage" and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." Sure, there were also cinephile fave-raves like Carlos Reygadas' "Silent Light," Béla Tarr's "The Man From London" and Lee Chang-dong's "Secret Sunshine," pictures that remain virtually unseen by paying humans. But that's a remarkably strong list by anybody's standard, and if convincing overdressed Manhattanites to pay nosebleed prices to watch them in the sacramental silence of Alice Tully Hall helped those movies to reach a wider audience, that's all fine with me. (Thanks to ongoing and endless renovations at Lincoln Center, most of this year's screenings are at the fabulous Ziegfeld movie palace in midtown Manhattan, which ought to be considered as a permanent venue.)

As that list further suggests, NYFF programming generally falls into three groups. There are the likely off-Hollywood hits (even if the scale of their success has yet to be determined), the intriguing art-house possibilities and the left-field oddities, some of which may sink without a trace or live on only in the fevered memories of a few obsessives. So here's a quickie guide to this year's most notable NYFF films in each category. Some I've seen and some I haven't; expect further reports, revisions and hasty backtracks as the festival develops.

BUSINESS CLASS: The Oscar hopefuls

"Changeling" I was a lot more enamored of the idea of Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie making an old-school Hollywood weeper based on an obscure 1920s Los Angeles kidnapping case than I was by slogging through the drearily handsome motion picture that actually resulted. But some Cannes viewers had vastly different reactions, and everything about this production feels like bait for Academy voters. If Jolie doesn't at least get a Best Actress nomination, she has vowed to spend the rest of her life in glamorous seclusion at that French chateau. OK, I made that up, but wouldn't it be cool? (Reaches theaters in late October.)

"Che" Nobody knows how Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-hour Che Guevara biopic will play with American viewers, and nobody's expecting a huge hit. But Benicio del Toro's magnetic and enigmatic performance claimed the acting prize at Cannes, and an Oscar nomination should be next. Contrary to what I (and everybody else) reported a few weeks ago, "Che" has been acquired by IFC, not by Magnolia Pictures, and it'll get an intriguing release pattern: first in a theatrical four-hour version, in big cities only, and then as two separate films in wider release, also available on IFC's pay-per-view cable platform. Oh and by the way: It's a thrilling and challenging work of cinema, the best thing of Soderbergh's entire career. (Release is planned for December.)

"The Class" The Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, Laurent Cantet's semi-improvised drama set inside a Parisian inner-city high school and starring real-life teacher-turned-author François Bégaudeau, is an ironclad sure bet as a modest box-office success and a foreign-language Oscar nominee. It opens the NYFF on Friday night, and I guess a lot of people who haven't seen it are expecting a feelgood life-lessons drama, "Dead Poets Society" with a multiculti cast and discussions about Voltaire. In fact it's a formally rigorous film with no heroes or villains that resists all the easy dogmas about race and education. If you or your children have attended public education anywhere in the Western world, this one's a can't-miss. (Likely release date is Dec. 12.)

"Happy-Go-Lucky" I have yet to see British indie legend Mike Leigh's latest, but everyone is raving about Sally Hawkins' performance as a preternaturally bubbly London kindergarten teacher. Leigh's films are generally a little too prickly to reach a large American audience, but this one's sunnier than most and if there's one thing the Academy loves, it's an up-with-people message movie from our charming cousins across the pond. (Opens in theaters Oct. 10.)

"The Wrestler" Arguably the fall's most anticipated release among critics and film buffs, "The Wrestler" offers two comebacks in one. While star Mickey Rourke struggles to rescue himself from the log-running train wreck of his career, immensely talented director Darren Aronofsky tries to recover from the commercial and critical disaster of "The Fountain." Yes, it's really set inside the pro-wrestling world, with Rourke as fading star Randy "The Ram" Robinson, complete with hearing aid, stripper girlfriend (Marisa Tomei), estranged teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and a day job behind the deli counter. Can you stand waiting? I totally can't. (Likely opening date is Dec. 19.)

TOURIST CLASS: The art-house strivers

"A Christmas Tale" This many-textured holiday confection from French critic's darling Arnaud Desplechin may be a tougher sell than his Hitchcock-meets-Bergman masterpiece, "Kings and Queen," but for a modest big-city audience it will be cinematic heaven. Catherine Deneuve, Anne Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, Chiara Mastroianni, Melvil Poupaud and Jean-Paul Roussillon are the members of a bitterly divided provincial family brought together for the holidays with the specter of death looming nearby. Like all of Desplechin's work, "Christmas Tale" bursts at the seams with literature, philosophy, drama, music and sheer filmmaking brio. (Opens Nov. 14 in New York and Los Angeles, with wider release to follow.)

"Gomorrah" This epic melodrama about organized crime in Naples, from director Matteo Garrone, was one of Cannes' knockout surprises in '08, but Italian films do poorly in the U.S. and this one's too dense and dizzying to spread beyond a cinephile American audience. You're nowhere near the "Sopranos" or "Godfather" universes; characters emerge only gradually from the maelstrom of evil and stupidity, and we only rarely learn their names. Based on a famous nonfiction book about the Camorra, Naples' answer to the Mafia, "Gomorrah" is part vertical dissection of a corrupt society and part Antonioni-flavored existentialism. (Scheduled to open in February 2009.)

"Hunger" British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen's movie about the Irish Republican Army hunger strikes of 1981 inside Long Kesh prison is a powerful work of iconographic, almost nonverbal cinema -- except for the single scene that's all talking, in which the camera never moves. That McQueen won the Caméra d'Or at Cannes (for best debut film) was no surprise, but can a film so stripped of ideological and political context reach an American audience that never understood the events of the Northern Ireland conflict the first time around? (Likely to open early in 2009.)

"Waltz With Bashir" An almost indescribable blend of animation, documentary and psychological investigation, Israeli director Ari Folman's film about his own recovered memories of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war (in which he fought as a soldier) is a sui-generis work with the urgency of nightmare. Artfully and insidiously, Folman unpacks the events of that conflict, leading up to and surrounding the Sabra and Shatila massacres (in which Israeli-supported Christian militias murdered many Palestinian refugees), which still haunt him and arguably his whole country. Sparked furious debates between Cannes viewers, but no one who sees "Waltz With Bashir" will ever forget it. (Likely to open Dec. 26.)

"Wendy and Lucy" Indie heroine Kelly Reichardt made a small splash with the lovingly-reviewed "Old Joy," and returns with a more audience-friendly film starring Michelle Williams alongside a lovable pooch. No, I'm serious; this is a charming girl-and-dog movie as well as a slightly menacing portrait of life on the outer edges of American society. Out of money and stuck in a dead car someplace in rural Oregon, Wendy (Williams) gets busted for shoplifting and loses her dog, leading her on a "Bicycle Thief"-style odyssey among the homeless people, strip-mall security guards and random predators of nowheresville. A commanding performance by Williams and a heartrending final scene. (Will open in December.)

STOWAWAYS: On the margins of the margins

"Chouga" A deadpan, almost black-comic adaptation of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," transferred to the Russian-speaking criminal and professional elite of contemporary urban Kazakhstan. If this sounds something like the work of Finnish minimalist Aki Kaurismäki, you're in the right ballpark. This fascinating picture from Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirbaev, with Ainur Turgambaeva as the independent-minded trophy wife (named in the title) who takes up with a no-account younger lover, is subtle, dry and dark -- and has virtually no chance at U.S. distribution. Consider it an NYFF-only special, or find it on DVD in two years.

"Four Nights With Anna" There must be a good reason why masterful Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski -- who made "Deep End" in the early '70s and "Moonlighting" in the early '80s, and appeared as an actor in "Eastern Promises" -- hasn't made a film in 17 years. Oh, right, the chickenshit corruption of the entire industry. That reason again. Well, this profoundly unsettling and consistently surprising stalker thriller might be the most technically superb picture on the NYFF's roster this year, so I guess it was worth waiting for. It's a resolutely non-uplifting story about a disturbed hospital handyman obsessed with a nurse who takes to breaking into her house while she's sleeping -- to fix her clock, mend her clothes and bring her presents, mind you. Skolimowski's persistence and craftsmanship surely ought to be rewarded, but I'm sure he'll be surprised if anything beyond the tiniest American release ensues.

"I'm Gonna Explode" I haven't seen this youthful-rebellion road flick from director Gerardo Naranjo ("Drama/Mex"), set in middle-class Mexico City suburbia, but its selection was surely one of the NYFF's big surprises. Some distributor will eventually take the chance, but the American art-house audience's modest enthusiasm for Mexico's new wave dried up after "Y Tu Mamá También" and "Amores Perros." Consider the sad fate of Fernando Eimbcke's "Duck Season," a marvelous film with a similar setting and premise. Still, Naranjo's a terrific young talent and I'm psyched to catch this.

"Tony Manero" Absolutely the breakout film of the Director's Fortnight at Cannes, this cringe-but-keep-watching horror-comedy from young Chilean director Pablo Larraín takes a variety of familiar premises and twists them mercilessly into something penetrating, original and unbelievably dark. It's the 1970s under the Pinochet military dictatorship in Santiago, and the 50ish protagonist (Alfredo Castro) is devoted to emulating the godlike example of John Travolta's "Saturday Night Fever" character. But "Tony Manero" isn't a movie about how pop culture will set you free, or help you survive tyranny. It's a defiantly down-with-people allegory about a man, a culture and a country driven into psychotic disrepair. If you totally hate it, don't come crying to me. A possible future midnight classic, if anyone's brave enough to distribute it.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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