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The New York Film Festival 2008

The New York Film Festival 2008 opened with Entre les murs, the new film by Laurent Cantet, shot in an informal style with non-professional actors and much improvisation. The admirable rigor and compositional strength visible in Cantet's earlier films has here been replaced with a more exploratory, experimental approach. The result was emotionally moving but less satisfying artistically, as here one encountered less of the formal unity which enhanced, for example, the director's earlier, fine "Time Out".

Jia Zhang Ke's "24 City", a synthesis of fiction and documentary, shot on and presented in video, was difficult to assess on a single viewing. Jia's trademark formal control was evident here as elsewhere and here the director moves into more avant-garde territory than in his previous narrative features but whether this film will bear comparison with the magisterial "Platform" remains to be seen.

The debut film by the young filmmaker, Antonio Campos, "Afterschool", was also distinguished by careful framing and thoughtful employment of long-takes, characterized by a Kubrickian coldness. The foundation for the visual narration is an intelligent screenplay and the film is enhanced by sensitive direction of its mostly young actors. There does seem to be an authorial vision at work in the film's moral-psychological penetration.

The premiere of "Ashes of Time Redux", a "restoration" of Wong Kar-Wai's classic wuxia art-film, aroused eager anticipation but I was unable to endure viewing what appeared to be a digital reworking of the original 35-millimeter material, inevitably degraded by transfer back to the original format.

"Bullet in the Head" by Jaime Rosales was unusually challenging in its spareness, shot mostly with long lenses and largely inaudible dialogue, with an obscure narrative that only becomes clarified in the film's final minutes. Nonetheless, this was a striking work, and a second viewing confirmed the aesthetic rewards dimly perceived in the first. At the press conference, the director defended his unorthodox approach on political grounds but if I find this argument not entirely persuasive, it seems to me irrelevant since the artistic achievement here requires no political justification.

Steven Soderbergh's ambitious, two-part, four-and-a-half hour film,  "Che", was unexpectedly successful in achieving its aims. The film is much aided by an impressive performance by Benicio del Toro. The most significant weakness here was the inability of the digital cameras to produce a sufficiently robust image in bright light. Soderbergh managed to be sensitive to the political complexities of his subject in a meticulously researched script while conveying a sense of both the grandeur of the Cuban Revolution and of the demoralization afforded by the defeat of Guevara's Bolivian campaign.

"Shuga" was another notable work by the distinguished Kazakh director, Darezhan Omirbaev, a personal film of delicate sensitivity and unspeakable sadness. It is difficult to say more after a single viewing except that Omirbaev has remained remarkably consistent in his artistic vision with its affinities to the minimalism of, say, a Robert Bresson, which may be most apparent in the construction of images with a certain neutrality in their valences and in an unaccented quality in the editing.

 "A Christmas Tale" is another eccentric, brilliant, unwieldy excursion of novelistic density by Arnaud Desplechin, again starring the extraordinary Mathieu Amalric in another exhilarating, seriocomic performance. The primary difficulty here was what appeared to be degraded image quality caused by a digital intermediate transferred back to film, a circumstance possibly further aggravated by the shooting of the film in Super 35, a generally inferior widescreen format. Desplechin continues to be one of the most exciting filmmakers working today but one rues the lost of filmic texture in his cinematography.

The long-awaited new film by Jerzy Skolimowski, "Four Nights with Anna", also seemed limited by a video transfer to 35-millimeter, despite a somewhat engrossing and unique narrative, shot with a sometimes thrilling, highly mobile camera. Here, the voyeurism had Hitchcockian overtones; however, Skolimowski's style is observational and unclassical in a European tradition.

"Gomorrah" by the Italian director, Matteo Garrone, also suffered from being shot on video and transerred to 35-millimeter with degraded image quality. It was, however, a stimulating and ambitious work with a highly episodic, complex narrative which provides an expansive portrait of the Italian underworld in Naples and features effective employment of hand-held camerawork, taking full advantage of several scenic locations. A certain jaggedness in the editing also accords well with the uncertainty and abruptness of events of the milieu portrayed in the film.

The new film by Mike Leigh, "Happy-Go-Lucky", was rewarding in its sympathetic humanism and, as usual, was enlivened by some memorable lead performances, where characterization balanced tragic elements with comic dimensions. Visually, however, the sensuous photographic qualities of the filmic material were irreparably damaged by reliance on a digital-intermediate transferred to film. Although Leigh was never a major stylist, many of his works have been considerably strengthened by the attractive images achieved by his director of photography, Dick Pope and one senses that that could have been the case here but for the regrettable reliance on a digital format.

One of the most extraordinary films in the festival was "The Headless Woman" by Lucrecia Martel, a filmmaker who appears to be moving from strength to strength, an artist with a developed worldview and an utterly distinctive visual style by which to convey it. In this film it was ultimately the images which were eloquent, and the relations between images; acting and dialogue are transmuted into organically expressive components by the sheer force of Martel's eccentric and distinctive mise-en-scène, with its unusual camera placement and subtly elusive rhythms. The feature was preceded by a strong short film from Argentina, "I Hear Your Scream", photographed in long-shot.

Another impressive surprise was the debut film, "Hunger", by artist Steve McQueen, a riveting and disturbing account of the imprisonment of Bobby Sands, distinguished by some exceptionally well-written dialogue and by a visually mesmerizing orchestration of all the stations of the cross of the revolutionary's passion. "Hunger" is unforgettable.

"I'm Gonna Explode" by Mexican director, Gerard Naranjo is an absorbing, episodic story of teenagers on the run but was also marred by virtue of its video source being transferred to 35-millimeter film with consequent loss of image quality; however, Naranjo appears to be a promising quantity. The two attractive leads bring considerable force (and pleasure) to the work.

"Parlez-moi de la pluie" confirms the expressive abilities of writer-director Agnès Jaoui who delicately balances satire with poignancy here, as she did in her last feature. Jaoui's widescreen frame is characterized by an elegance inflected by a nuanced visual wit which acts as a counterpart to the meticulous craftsmanship evident in the construction of her scenario, to the delicacy of her direction of actors, and to the pointed dialogue conceived by her and her writing partner, Jean-Michel Bacri.

A restoration of "Lola Montès", the swan-song of supreme master, Max Ophuls, was a highlight of the festival. Some intriguing, previously unavailable footage was visible in this version, with the color superior to that in many prints -- although I still have the sense that this may be a lost film since this print didn't attain the gloriousness of color I imagine for the film. The film itself remains one of the glories of cinema.

Although I found the new feature by Korean director, Hong Sang-soo, "Night and Day" to be a worthwhile experience, with manifold depths and resonances, it does not seem to measure up to the stature of the director who gave us, "The Turning Gate", one of the strongest Korean films I have seen. Hong, in recent work, seems to be foregoing the rigor of his earlier style for a looser, more pragmatic mode but I think this change has arrived at the price of a certain loss in intensity. A further problem is the transfer of video to film which too noticeably diminishes the quality of the image. However, the comic element which Hong seems to be further developing does possess an authentic charm, communicated gracefully by his appealing lead actors.

The enigmatic, high-modernist "The Northern Land", a video by veteran Portuguese director João Botelho, on a single, baffling viewing, appeared possibly to be the strongest new film in the main body of the festival with highly controlled, sometimes intricate compositions but this work will require several more encounters to unlock its complexities and symmetries before it can be comprehensively evaluated.

I did not see Brillante Mendoza's "Serbis" because of the inadequacy of the transfer from video to film, which was a difficulty also with the compelling "Summer Hours" by Olivier Assayas, another Renoirian, novelistic exploration of the contemporary French bourgeoisie, shot in the director's trademark style with a sinuous mobile camera in relatively longer takes. The sensuality of the image, so strong a feature of the director's earlier films, was greatly missed here.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's comically mournful, finally moving -- indeed, haunting -- "Tokyo Sonata" was notable for its unusual narrative tonalities, a trait in line with the distinctiveness of the director's earlier works. Kurosawa successfully manages to orchestrate his incongruous materials into a coherent statement, largely through careful compositions supported by authenticity in performance. I regret to say, however, that this film too is weakened by virtue of its being shot on video and transferred to film, with consequent degradation of image-quality.

"Tony Manero", by Pablo Larrain of Chile, has a very original story, effectively told with notable directorial restraint in a fluid, confident style. This is another film with an unusual tone, a chilling portrait of a psychopath portrayed with strong satirical overtones. Shot in 16-millimeter and blown up to 35, I have questions about whether the imagery may have been weakened by possible recourse to video-processing. It was preceded by an excellent short film, "Love You More", by British artist Sam Taylor-Wood, featuring two charming leads; the events unfold with assurance in the visual storytelling and an attractively lit color image.

"Tulpan" the first fiction film by by the Russo-Kazakh documentarian Sergey Dvortsevoy is an engrossing, neorealistic ethnographic study photographed with observational, verité technique and many non-professional actors deployed with a beautiful ingenuity. The film is shot on the Kazakh steppe with a palpable sense of place. Again, possible recourse to video-processing here seemed to result in a weakness in the cinematographic texture by virtue of a transfer to 35-millimeter.

I did not see "Waltz with Bashir" but Kelly Reichardt's slight, modest "Wendy and Lucy" afforded several minor pleasures such as an evocative feel for the American Northwest and several fine, naturalistic performances, notably a sensitive, heartbreaking turn by Michelle Williams. Reichardt's style is simple, uncluttered, and restrained, with effective color photography, falling back upon the unobtrusive rhetoric of one strain of American independent cinema.

The worst film in the festival was the disastrous "The Windmill Movie" incompetently assembled from material by the interesting, experimental documentarian, Dick Rogers. Whatever merit this film may have lies entirely in its subject-matter and in the intrinsic interest of the original material but Olch's own "creative" decisions only managed to unspeakably disfigure the footage at his disposal. However, Rogers's own "Quarry", an exquisite black-and-white short from 1970 was scintillating in its visual textures and in its poetic, associative editing.

The festival centerpiece this year was Clint Eastwood's disappointing "Changeling" which was not without its minor pleasures by virtue of its preponderantly graceful classical storytelling, its handsome period art-direction, and several excellent performances, notably those by John Malkovich and Jason Butler Harner. However, the film failed to transcend a conventionality of conception and will be esteemed as one of Eastwood's lesser efforts.

The festival closed on a lesser note with the resolutely minor "The Wrestler" by Darren Aronofsky, another too conventional although not unlikable, commercial melodrama happily unmolested by stylistic extravagances. The film features a strong performance by Mickey Rourke, among others, but I would have preferred a work of greater significance to the art of cinema.

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