"Darren did not put a strip pole in his office." -- Marisa Tomei.

Does the New York Film Festival still matter? The 46th edition opened last Friday, and while the fest may not have the celebrity cachet and discovery intent of Sundance and Cannes, or the welcoming populist mentality of Toronto, it stubbornly insists on being recognized as the gatekeeper for all that is worthwhile in world cinema.

Nonetheless, press conferences with a big-name American director and a resurrected American star (and his fetching, Academy Award-winning co-star) have stolen the spotlight during the first week of the festival. Looking somewhat like a guerilla himself, Steven Soderbergh arrived to promote his four-hour epic Che, starring Benicio del Toro as the revolutionary leader. According to the director, "There are a million Ches -– he means something different to everyone."

That attitude has irked some critics; Karina Longworth at Spout felt that Soderbergh's "unwillingness to make a statement may be a major part of the problem." On the other hand, Glenn Kenny of Some Came Running opined: "Silly me, I imagined that such an approach constituted a statement sufficient unto itself, but apparently not." The film will get a rare "roadshow" treatment when it opens in December: trotted around in its four-hour entirety to selected cities for one week only by IFC Films in December, complete with elevated ticket prices and a fancy giveaway program of some sort. Dreamgirls for the intelligentsia?

After the jump: The Wrestler and two fresh new films about those darn kids.



Despite the presence of Marisa Tomei as a stripper (her quote above can be found at the fest's blog), Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler has garnered the most praise for the fine performance by a weather-beaten Mickey Rourke in the title role. Aronofsky apparently pushed Rourke hard, according to a report by Radar: "Darren was screeching at me 'You're only giving me 50%!' and I can't fucking move, brother." Fox Searchlight opens the film in December; expect to hear plenty of awards talk between now and then.

Overall, American films are in short supply; just five are included in the fest's "Main Slate," but the selections are anything but token. Anthony Kaufman says that Antonio Campos' Afterschool is one of two new films (the other being Lance Hammer's Ballast, which premiered at Sundance and opens this week at Film Forum in New York) that gives "hope to cinephiles that American auteurs will keep on coming, no matter what shakedowns face the film industry, at large." Set in a New England prep school, Campos' directing debut follows a young man who accidentally captures on video the drug overdose of two popular girls. Afterschool screens next Monday and Wednesday; it does not yet have US distribution.

Another film about adolescents (and another one without a distribution deal), Gerardo Naranjo's I'm Gonna Explode, has divided critics. Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot called it "overwrought, unpleasant, depressingly single-minded," while Karina Longworth of Spout declared it to be "the rare love letter to influence that's infused with enough personal style and sentiment to transform the stolen into something thrilling and moving." Naranjo's previous film, Drama/Mex , drew similar mixed reaction (I was in the negative camp) but he has been developing a distinctive voice that clearly speaks to some people.

Other films that have screened so far include Steve McQueen's harrowing prison drama Hunger, Mike Leigh's portrayal of a "militantly upbeat" woman played by Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, Kelly Reichardt's drama Wendy and Lucy, featuring Michelle Williams as a woman looking for her dog, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain's "rough-hewn verité-style dance-musical" Tony Manero, and Portuguese director João Botelho's The Northern Land, an adaptation of a novel in which "a young woman searches for the true story of a distant ancestor."

If you live in New York, have you been able to see any of these films? If you live outside the city, does the presence of a film in the NYFF lineup make you more inclined to check it out later?