New York's film week was bookended by screenings of palm d'or winners at the Museum of Modern Art. On Thursday, the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was present, to the amazement of many, for the screening of his gorgeous 1998 film "The Taste of Cherry." (Kiarostami was famously denied a U.S. visa in 2002 when his film "Ten" played at the New York Film Festival, prompting the boycott of similarly initialed Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki). MoMA screened the film as the opener to their exhibition "Kiarostami: Image Maker", an unprecedented screening of all of the directors films as well as a good deal of his breathtaking still photography, with still more photographs on view in Queens at P.S. 1. Kiarostami let the film do most of the speaking for him, foregoing a Q&A and keeping his introduction brief, although he did comment that he had never before seen his own short film, "The Birth of Light", which screened before he took the stage.
On Friday night, the Director's Guild of America's theater saw the opening of the New York International Children's Film Festival, kicking off two weeks of unapologetically esoteric art films for kids with the French animation "U", a slightly hallucinatory and entirely charming little fable about a young, floppy-eared princess who finds her interest in a bohemian cat threatening her friendship with the infinitely generous titlular unicorn. After the screening and before the gala reception (serving cupcakes to the kids and wine to their parents), the film's animator Serge Elissalde fielded questions from a long line of junior cineastes, at one point mentioning "There is not a lot of animation that I like, and that was the inspiration: I really wanted to do something that I would like."
This is a familiar sentiment to Eric Beckman, who created the festival with his wife Emily Shapiro after noticing the lack of indie-minded kids films. "I started this festival because the films for kids were so awful," says Beckman bluntly. "The only ones being made were these hugely budgeted Hollywood movies, and I had to ask: why isn't there more of an independent market for kids?". Beckman has seen the festival grow from a selection of short films, screened in a 90 seat theater in an after-school daycare, into a multi-venue, multi-national affair without compromising its art-house roots; the films are still challenging, and the shorts programs are still its central focus.
The NYCIFF is the sort of festival that will expose a young audience to treasures like "Call Me Elizabeth" screening at the IFC Center this Sunday. Leave it to the French to create a story about a girl who discovers the importance of cynicism; the film begins with its narrator telling us "Call me Betty" and ends with her saying "Call me Elizabeth". The journey in between is a difficult one, as Betty runs through her countryside estate, discovering that her idyllic family life may not last forever, learning that the scarred little boy she has befriended might not have her best interests in mind, and learning that perhaps she should not trust the escaped mental patient who has holed up in their barn. With its wide-eyed heroin and adventure-movie feel, it's the sort of film I would have adored as a child, and adore equally now, and its inclusion in the festival speaks volumes to the respect the programmers have for their young audience.
On Tuesday night, internet junkies gathered at the Tribeca Screening Room for a chance to see the finalists in Livemansion.com's "LiveMansion: The Movie" competition, with commentary by special advisory judge Spike Lee. Some background: Livemansion is an entertainment networking website whose members have been working to create what it calls the "first feature film to be produced by an online community". Over 150 directors and 1000 actors submitted audition samples that were voted upon by members of the LiveMansion website, and the 5 qualifying directors were given $1000 and their share of the top 24 actor finalists to shoot the same 5-10 minute scene from the script-in-progress, which were then screened for the Tribeca audience and Spike Lee before being broadcast on the internet and voted upon again; the winning director will be matched with the 8 winning actors and a much larger budget to create the finished scripts.
What was not chosen online was the script, which proved a bit baffling for those who had not been following the competition online - it included a kidnapping, a stolen USB drive, a betrayal, and about 8 characters within its 6 pages. Lee's comments mainly came down to lighting and style choices, and by that token he spread his praise and occasional criticisms evenly amongst the finalists. "It puts me in an uncomfortable position to judge whose work is best," said Lee afterwards, "this is a great demonstration to the audience how different we are as human beings - all directors were given the same script, same budget, and we had 5 completely different views."
On Wednesday night, MoMA treated various guests to a special sneak preview of Ken Loach's heartbreaking Palm D'Or winner "The Wind That Shakes The Barley", featuring Cillian Murphy as a young Irish doctor who gets swept into the Irish War of Independence. Eschewing any obvious connections that might be brought up in the story of a foreign occupation and ensuing civil war, the film - which opens next Friday - keeps its sights admirably focused on the Irish experience, and the MoMA audience focused on the Irish response during the Q&A with Loach, Murphy, and actors Padraic Delaney and Martain de Cogain. When asked if there had previously been much discussion of the civil war in Ireland, de Cogain responded "anytime there was a football match between Britain and Ireland, but other than that.... it was a dark, dark period that nobody wanted to talk about." On the effect film's success (it became the #1 Irish-made film at the Irish box office), Murphy said "Generations of families went to see it together. Obviously, you don't take history lessons from a film, but it has made people open to talk about it." The film opens next Friday, March 16th.
COMING THIS WEEK: French Rendez-Vous continues at Lincoln Center and the IFC Center for its final weekend.
Opening in Theaters this Week
"Maxed Out" (March 9), directed by James D. Scurlock. Distributor: Truly Indie. Official website
"The Host" (March 9), directed by Bong Joon-Ho. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures. Official website
"The Namesake" (March 9), directed by Mira Nair. Distributor: Fox Searchlight. Official website
"Beyond the Gates" (March 9), directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Distributor: IFC Films. Official website