Finally, world cinema gets the chance to shine. As the 43rd New York Film Festival kicks off tonight at Lincoln Center, about two dozens films from around the globe will get the attention they deserve -- unencumbered by studio junketeering and high-priced acquisitions news.
How unfortunate that in the hyper-market-ized Toronto International Film Festival, where 335 films screened from 52 countries last week, it was only one country, the United States, that captured the imagination of both the public and the industry. With the unveiling of deserving Oscar-contenders like "Brokeback Mountain" and "Capote" and big U.S. acquisitions grabbing the limelight, virtually none of the films that got attention were in a language other than English.
Only one foreign film, Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington's "House of Sand" was acquired, by Sony Pictures Classics (as compared with last year when Lukas Moodysson's "A Hole in My Heart," Lucrecia Martel's "Holy Girl" and Bahman Ghobadi's "Turtles Can Fly" all grabbed U.S. distribs). And a quick survey of influential critic Roger Ebert's entire daily Toronto coverage yielded just one single sentence on world cinema (regarding Danis Tanovic's "convoluted saga" "L'Enfer").
So it is with the New York Film Festival that audiences and industry- ites can take a step back from celebrity ass-kissing and re-focus their sights on audacious, important and eye-popping foreign cinema. While a number of prestigious English language films screen at New York (which opens with George Clooney's "Good Night. And, Good Luck"), excellent foreign films with distribution like Cristi Puiu's Romanian chronicle of mortality "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," Hany Abu-Assad's engrossing, compassionate Palestinian drama "Paradise Now," Im Sang-Soo's Kubrick-ian political satire "The President's Last Bang" and the Dardenne brothers' latest heralded Cannes winner "L'Enfant" can utilize the event to stir up word of mouth and critical support before their releases later this year or early next.
Even a handful of movies lost in the shuffle and superficiality of Toronto will get a second look in New York by micro-distribs. "We're certainly covering all the films at the New York Film Festival that are available, if we haven't seen them already," says Zeitgeist Films' Emily Russo, who cites Polish director Dorota Kedzierzawska's "I Am" and Czech filmmaker Bohdan Slama's "Something Like Happiness" among the films they'll be targeting.
His follow-up to "Wild Bees," Slama's subtle "Happiness" received generous word of mouth in Toronto, but was largely unseen. The film's sales agent, Carole Baraton, from French company Wild Bunch, is counting on New York to help give the film a boost. "New York is a real plus to sell your movie to the U.S. market after a Toronto screening, since the limited number of titles presented [in New York] gives your movie a chance to get a real focus from the press," she writes via email. "'Something Like Happiness' is a small, but audience pleaser auteur film and the NYFF label provides a security for an indie distributor to pick up a 'small' title."
At Toronto, writing in dispatches and blogs, a handful of cinephiles like the LA Weekly's Scott Foundas, the New York Times' Manohla Dargis and Premiere's Glenn Kenny have already thrown considerable weight in favor of such other foreign language selections playing in New York as Philippe Garrel's "Regular Lovers," Aleksandr Sokurov's "The Sun," Patrice Chereau's "Gabrielle" and Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Three Times." But whether these ardent art-films actually get released in theaters still remains a question.
"I'm sure they'll end up getting released," says Wellspring's Marie Therese Guirgis, who says she'll be catching up with a few foreign language titles screening in New York, but has no intention yet of buying. "There's enough small distributors out there," she says.
But Zeitgeist's Emily Russo isn't so sure. "Based on the films we have seen and that we've already passed on, some of the films are still available for good reason: They're probably too difficult to undertake distribution." Last year, Zeitgeist acquired Jia Zhangke's globalization opus "The World" at the NYFF after missing screenings in Toronto. But in theatrical release, says Russo, "'The World' is not finding an audience. We love it, it's gotten almost universally great reviews and it enhances our catalogue, but we have not made any money on the film. Sometimes critics can take you only so far."
While ThinkFilm's Mark Urman admits that the company is less focused on foreign language titles at the moment, he says they, too, will be reevaluating films at the New York fest, especially after the heat of a major market like Toronto cools off. "There are films that one may have liked, but will only like at a particular price," he says. "And with every passing day after a festival, the price may go down."
"This week and next week is very much about getting the second or third or tie-breaking opinion," he continues. ThinkFilm, like other companies, will be closely attuned to the press reaction out of Gotham, "because specifically with foreign language films if you don't have a sense of strong critical attention, you're barking up the wrong tree," Urman admits. "We wait for the ink."
However, this year, the writing on the walls is less clear than ever before. The New York Times, once seen as key to launching art-films into the marketplace, will not publish complete reviews for the films shown at the festival, only small blurbs by a variety of critics. Some industry-ites complain that this change blurs their gauge of critical reception and doesn't insure whether reviews will be positive or negative when it really counts: when the film opens in theaters. What was once seen as an essential marker of how the film might do now remains a gamble.
Betting on foreign-lingo titles right now is especially risky. With very few world cinema successes in the last six months, many believe the market has cooled. "Audiences are getting out of the habit," says Mark Urman. "In the past year, certain foreign language films ["Kung Fu Hustle," "Downfall"] have actually done better than ever, but far fewer of them do any business at all."