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NEWS ARTICLE

NYFF 2011: A Most Stellar Edition

As New York Film Festival head Richard Pena announces next year will be his last, we highlight some of the films that made this year's edition so buzzworthy.

2011+New+York+Film+Festival

 

New York Film Festival's programming director (and chair of the festival's selection committee) Richard Peña announced at the close of this year’s NYFF that he will be leaving the festival after next year’s edition, the NYFF’s 50th. 2012 will be Peña’s 25th year of involvement with the fest, meaning he’ll have taken part in half of all editions of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual event, which cherry-picks films from the best of the year’s other festivals for its main slate. It’ll be tough to imagine how Peña can top next year’s programming with the lineup he had in 2011: this year’s program featured an overwhelmingly great lineup packed with auteurs young and old, foreign and domestic. Below, I recount some of the films I saw at this year’s fest.

 

Shame

 

Shame

 

The finest film I saw in this year’s fest was Steve McQueen’s follow-up to his auspicious debut Hunger, which I featured on this site upon its release. While Shame’s storyline is slightly more conventional than that of its disjointed-narrative predecessor, McQueen nevertheless manages here to retain, and expand upon, his mode of storytelling, which is shaping up to be unlike anything else this critic has seen presented in cinema. McQueen eschews any expositional dialogue and prefers to let his characters be defined by their actions; our truth, the filmmaker knows, is determined by the things we do, not the things that we say or believe. The film is about a sex addict named Brandon (Michael Fassbender), whose vice starts to cause some undue stress in his life once his younger sister (Carey Mulligan) starts crashing at his place. But truly, the film is about behavior; it’s about how narrative in cinema can be conveyed highly effectively through specific moments and specific actions or experiences in one’s life, rather than through a storyline that turns on a conflict the protagonist has to overcome. McQueen’s film absolutely tells a story, but it tells a story unlike anything else being done in contemporary art-house cinema. If his first two movies are any indication, this filmmaker may be the medium’s next paradigm-shifting artist, and Fassbender, who is sublimely precise here, may be his performative equal.

 

The Turin Horse

 

The Turin Horse

At a talk he gave in Lincoln Center’s Furman Gallery during the festival, Hungarian master Béla Tarr confirmed what he’s already said a few times before: The Turin Horse will be his final film. The reason, as Tarr stated, is that he doesn’t want to continue to repeat himself. Indeed, this film’s apocalyptic finale calls to mind the speech in the opening of what is arguably Tarr’s greatest film: describing a solar eclipse, one character asks, “Are the hills going to march off? Will Heaven fall upon us? Will the Earth open below us?” Such are the questions posed again here, albeit in starker relief. The film largely concerns the daily existence of a farmer and his daughter, living a solitary existence on the steppe with their horse. That horse is the horse Friedrich Nietzsche saw in Turin, the one that he threw himself upon as its master was beating it for refusing to move; Nietzsche went mad following the incident, and never spoke again. That horse’s suffering, which Nietzsche could not bear, which drove him past the realm of sanity (or so Tarr would have it in his artistic worldview) is the suffering of our farmer and his daughter, and by proxy, the suffering of all humanity – meaningless, never-ending and unendurable. This thoroughly existential and bleak film is a fine way for this legendary filmmaker to close out his stellar career.

 

Martha Marcy May Marlene Martha Marcy May Marlene

 

Martha Marcy May Marlene

 

Not a frame is off, not an edit is unsure in this formally exquisite debut from Sean Durkin. Durkin, who is one member of the Borderline Films crew (alongside Josh Mond and Antonio Campos, whose Afterschool was one of the best films of 2009), has an aptitude for composing formally ambitious, intriguing frames in a fashion that calls to mind the aforementioned Hunger, as well as (in their usage of negative space especially) Campos’ own Afterschool. (This surely is in no small part due to both Martha Marcy May Marlene and Afterschool being shot by ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes.) The film stars Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman who has just escaped from a cult on a farm somewhere in (perhaps) upstate New York. As she attempts to re-integrate herself into “normal” society at the lake house of her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy), we learn more about her experience in the cult, in flashback. John Hawkes is superb as the cult leader, and all of the cult members’ performances have a certain inwardness that renders the film all the more unsettling.

 

Carnage

 

Carnage

 

The easy move with Carnage is to say that it’s hardly cinematic, more of a filmed play than anything else; the counterintuitive one is to argue for just how cinematic this one-location, four-character, dialogue-drenched film really is. The truth is, there are merits to both arguments. Carnage, Roman Polanski’s latest, is based on the Yasmina Reza play God of Carnage, which was a huge hit when it opened in Paris a few years ago, after which it made the move to Broadway. It’s about the parents of two boys who got into a fight on the playground trying to resolve the issue amicably – and slowly but surely getting into a heated verbal slugfest that certainly outdoes anything that transpired between the two kids. With the exception of Jodie Foster, who is a bit unyielding in her take on her character, the performances (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz as the other parents, John C. Reilly as Foster’s husband) are superb – as they must be for something like this to work. The film seems like, at moments, it may veer into a critique of society or parenting or something major like that, and it sort of does, but it mostly avoids the sermonizing in favor of sharp-toothed satire. Winslet and Weitz’s corporate power-couple are the obvious targets, but Reilly and Foster’s bohemian parents get it too.

 

The Loneliest Planet

 

The Loneliest Planet

 

Almost like a Kelly Reichardt film in extreme, Julia Loktev’s latest, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and relative newcomer Hani Furstenberg, is an extremely acute character study in the make-up and fissures of one couple. That couple, played by the aforementioned actors, is backpacking in Georgia (the country) with a guide. One brief but powerful event (some debt is owed, however obliquely, to Contempt) changes the dynamic of that couple, perhaps irreparably, and the film charts, with great detail and powers of observation, the change in that dynamic. It all sounds perhaps a big vague, but the film’s narrative structure is an exercise in taking a segmented experience (a vacation, a seemingly life-threatening occurrence) and putting it under a microscope, scanning it and analyzing every detail.

 

A Dangerous Method

 

A Dangerous Method

 

David Cronenberg’s latest was adapted from Christopher Hampton’s stage play The Talking Cure, and the film is very much a chamber piece. Rather than charting the famous fallout between Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender, again excellent) from the vantage point of the larger debate over psychoanalysis, Cronenberg chooses to frame it against the backdrop of Jung’s unorthodox treatment of a patient, one Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Cronenberg lets the actors do a lot of the heavy lifting here, which is an interesting gambit, as the film’s emotional buildup is rather contained, until it is all released in one definitive scene. There’s no denying Michael Fassbender’s magnetism onscreen – one cannot look away from him – and Mortensen is scene-stealing in a supporting role as the cigar-chomping Freud.

 

The Descendants

 

The Descendants

 

Alexander Payne took a healthy break from cinema – seven years, to be exact – between Sideways and his latest, but the Hollywood auteur’s latest finds him back in familiar ground. The Descendants features a few interlinking plot strands, but essentially centers on a father and wealthy real-estate heir, Matt King (George Clooney), who sets out to find out with whom his wife (who is in a coma) has been cheating on him, all the while trying to decide what to do about a parcel of land he owns, which his relatives are pushing him to sell. That’s the plot at a gloss; what comes across more strongly than the narrative here is Payne’s empathy for all of his characters – there are no villains and no emotional sadists, just a bunch of confused people trying to make the best out of the tricky scenarios that life presents. Judy Greer is fantastic in a small but crucial supporting role.

 



Many of the films from this year's New York Film Festival will find their way to theaters in the United States. Stay tuned to Tribeca on Facebook and Twitter for updates, and enjoy the movies!

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