By William Wolf

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2004 (I)  Send This Review to a Friend

Having been at the first New York Film Festival, every time I attend the latest yearly round it seems as if I am meeting an old friend. Indeed, one does meet many friends at this important event that has become an integral part of the New York cultural scene. At the 2004 edition, the 42nd, there were some terrific films. Inevitably the selection is always uneven, depending on personal taste, of course, but I found more than enough exceptional quality to classify the event as a success.

Take “Moolaadé,” for example, which had also been shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. Veteran filmmaker Ousmane Sembene of Senegal has written and directed not just a very good work, but one that I believe achieves greatness. His “Moolaadé” will be fixed in your mind forever once you have experienced it. Told in the most simple, straightforward terms, it gathers momentum and eventually soars with spirit and hope even though it deals with the upsetting subject of genital mutilation of women.

Don’t be put off by the topic, for the film, while striking a welcome blow against genital cutting, is not a polemic, doesn’t rely on undue explicitness and ultimately is about so much more. Set in an African village, the film becomes a microcosm of male power, women’s struggle against oppression, conflict with cultural heritage and by extension, any battle by the oppressed against the oppressor. All this is accomplished in emotionally involving human terms. (See Film to click on full review.)

The opening night film was a French crowd-pleaser, an excellent choice for the starting gala. “Look at Me” (“Comme une image”) struck many as a film that, while set in Paris, presented counterparts to types you might meet in New York. The film is a work by director Agnès Jaoui, who co-wrote the screenplay by her long-time collaborator, Jean-Pierre Bacri, both of whom star in the film.

Bacri portrays an egotistical publisher who started as a novelist, and he has a cruel attitude toward his daughter, whose voice-teacher is played by Jaoui. The publisher is the sort who can’t see beyond his own needs, and any attempt he makes to behave differently is a feeble one. In the course of the film we meet an assortment of characters who may be worth understanding but whose behavior is off-putting. It is fun thinking about whom we know in Manhattan worth comparison. Above all, the film is sophisticated, witty and entertaining.

The closing night film was also a fine selection on which to send festival-goers home. “Sideways” is among the best of the year. Personal relationships are at its core. (See Film for full review.) Superb, entertaining performances are featured in a fresh take on the buddy movie genre plus an unusual excursion into California wine country. Directed by Alexander Payne and co-scripted by Payne and Jim Taylor based on a novel by Rex Pickett, “Sideways” cleverly spins the story of two pals setting off on what is supposed to be a memorable week.

Paul Giamatti gives a nuanced performance as Miles, a writer down in the dumps because he can’t get his novel published. He is pining for his former wife with an unrealistic hope that they might get together again. Miles’ friend Jack is an over-exuberant actor who is getting married at the end of the week but has never grown up. His aim is to score with chicks in one last fling before the wedding, and in the process see that Miles scores too. Thomas Haden Church is a riot in the part and would steal the picture from Giamatti if Giamatti weren’t so good as well. “Sideways” is also special for its dealing with wines, partly as an ode to California’s vineyards and partly as a send-up of pretension. The film was also shown at the 2004 Toronto International Film festival.

So was another New York Film Festival highlight, “Bad Education,” written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar and a flamboyant, stunningly made work that is a contemporary film noir. It deals with homosexuality—no surprise there—but in terms of a thriller involving deception, conflict and cover-up.

The performances are compelling, particularly that of Gael García Bernal, the hot-shot actor from Mexico whose career is dramatically on the rise. (He also plays the young Che Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries.”) There’s a scene in which he dons drag and performs as a seductive transvestite cabaret artist and he is sensational. The film involves characters coming to terms with who they are and the complications that stem from the situations that build when a film producer is visited by a young man from the past.

I especially liked “Vera Drake," an ultra-realistic, wrenching work by writer-director Mike Leigh. Imelda Staunton gives the performance of a lifetime as Vera, a working-class woman who secretly performs abortions, not for money but to help women in trouble. The film recalls the early 1950s in Britain when abortion was illegal and cloaked in secrecy, with the poor having to resort to more dangerous situations while the well-heeled had better, if still secret, options. Not a polemic, the film deals with the subject through dramatic human terms and contains numerous fine supporting performances. (Click on Film to see full review.)

One weakness I found is an over-concentration on Asian films. It was a good move by the festival a few years back to begin paying more attention to films from Hong Kong, China Taiwan and Japan, in addition to more from Third World countries. But the Japan/Taiwan production “Café Lumiere” was trivial despite its attempt to emulate the late Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. One just has to see one of Ozu’s works to note the difference in artistry. Much more accomplished was the China/Japan/France co-production “The World,” about the lives and loves of people working in a Beijing global theme park.

(More to Come)


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