The New York Film Festival has fallen into a pattern of opening with a trendy American offering, closing with Clint Eastwood's latest, and in between being contentedly stuffed with the finest offerings from Cannes and other bold obscurities. This year is absolutely no exception, and that's just the way I like it - it's nice when Cannes comes to me, and at Lincoln Center there's less chance of accidentally stepping on Lars von Trier.
As was previously announced, the fest will be opening with David Fincher's The Social Network, finally bridging the gap between the world's most challenging auteurs and N*Sync (at this rate NYFF 2011 will feature Justin Timberlake as a bisexual, ennui-ridden sailor in Hou Hsiao-hsien's next period epic). Clint Eastwood's Hereafter will close the program, with Julie Taymor's The Tempestbeing selected to serve as the fest's arbitrarily more expensive centerpiece. I'm not sure if any tempest could be as difficult to endure as Across the Universe (because of how it was one of the decade's very worst films, and all), but fond memories of Titus have me hoping for a Shakespearean return to form.
It's a strong line-up (New de Oliveira! New Hong Sang-soo! New Reichardt! New Puiu!), but also one that reinforces how NYFF needs to rely a bit less on Cannes if it hopes to carve a unique identity of its own. You can take a look at the entire roster over at filmlinc.com, but here are the 5 selections I'm most excited to see (not counting the aforementioned special events):
5. Carlos by Olivier Assayas
The former Mr. Maggie Cheung returns to NYFF with this 333-minute Cannes stunner, originally conceived for French television and destined for the Sundance Channel here in the U.S. The film - presented at Cannes in its entirety split only be a brief intermission - is a three-part biopic about the life of (and lives taken by) international killer for hire Ilich Ramirez Sanchez. Reviews were almost entirely stellar, and I'm especially jazzed to see the elliptically sophisticated Assayas chronicle such seedy stuff, especially as the film's biographical nature should keep him more grounded and on-point than he was with the likes of Boarding Gate.
4. Mysteries of Lisbon by Raul Ruiz
Prolific and diverse avant-garde filmmaker Raul Ruiz thought he was dying, so he stuffed just about every idea he had left into this epic adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's Dickensian 19th century novel. Lisbon is one of my favorite cities to see on film, and at 272 minutes Mysteries of Lisbon is going to have me see a lot of it. In a saga that spans from Portugal to Brazil and everywhere in between (okay, well not like actually in between, but you know what I mean), a rush of eclectic characters find their lives inextricably linked to an orphan by the name of Pedro da Silva, and to their own ends struggle to uncover the mystery of the boy's identity. Ruiz - famed for the density of his images and the unrelenting creativity with which he strings them together - was eventually saved by surgery, but I can't wait to see what this guy did with his broadest canvas and what he thought was his last chance.
3. Certified Copy by Abbas Kiarostami
Ever since starring in Dan in Real Life it seems as if Juliette Binoche has decided to restart her exhaustive quest to act for all of the world's best living directors, regardless of the language in which they usually tell their stories. Kieslowski may be gone, but Hou Hsiao-hsien recently abandoned Mandarin for her in The Flight of the Red Balloon, and now she's convinced the grandmaster of Iranian cinema to meet her in Italy for some English. Kiarostami may never be able to channel his pet subject of authenticity into a film greater than his colossally brilliant Close-up, but I'm definitely pumped to see him try, especially if it's going to give him the chance to venture beyond the yellow earth of Tehran for a new aesthetic. Binoche plays a woman who meets an English writer busy promoting his latest book in Tuscany - they discuss art and originality and then begin to pretend as if they're a real couple. Reviews from Cannes were mixed, but the premise is vintage Kiarostami, and if the movie works I'm hoping that Steve Carrell will be suitably inspired to star in Gaspar Noe's next psychotic nightmare or something (there's gotta be a good reason he's leaving The Office, right?).
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Breaking news: I just spelled Apichatpong Weerasethakul's name correctly from memory, so... if you could all take a moment to commemorate my accomplishment in your own special way, that would be great. Anyway, the man responsible for some of this young century's finest films (Tropical Malady will either bore you to tears or blow your mind clean out of your head) returns with this Palm d'Or-winning film about... well, the title seems pretty self-explanatory. A folksy, non-linear Thai mind-bender (in other words, an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie) celebrated at Cannes for its emotional verve and relative accessibility, Uncle Boonmee may still not be challenging Avatar's box office records any time soon, but early word suggests that its spiritual, free-floating bliss is as otherworldly as any of James Cameron's CG wonders.
1. Poetry by Lee Chang-Dong
Lee Chang-Dong's previous film - Secret Sunshine, which played at NYFF in 2007 - might be the very best Korean film ever made, and is almost certainly the most exhilarating experience I've had in my seven years of attending the fest (and it's still not available on Region 1 DVD, though I continue to bother Criterion about changing this). Poetry is the story of a woman (Yung Junghee) who mourns her encroaching senility and the death of a neighborhood child by enrolling in a local poetry class, and if that doesn't get your heart racing you've gotta be dead inside.
Okay, so it's not The Expendables (but then again, The Expendables wasn't The Expendables), but Lee's films cut to the core of human existence in a way seldom seen since the likes of Robert Bresson, and acclaim from Cannes (where it won the screenplay award) suggests that it's as powerful as his last NYFF entry, and anchored by the kind of lead performance so skilled that its inevitable lack of an Oscar nod single-handedly discredits the entire awards season. Lee Chang-Dong makes life-changing films - the kind of films that make a trip to midtown seem worth it. And seriously, if that picture doesn't scream "exhilarating, world-shaking cinema" to you, I just don't know what to say.