By Indiewire | Indiewire October 15, 2002 at 2:00AM
FESTIVAL: Earning Its Right to Another 40 Years; NYFF Proves Its Worth
by David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman
(indieWIRE: 10.15.02) -- Fortieth anniversaries are worth celebrating, and this year's New York Film Festival did just that. It also had another milestone to mark on opening night -- the retirement of Joanne Koch, who joined the festival in 1971 and has run its parent Film Society of Lincoln Center since 1976. Apart from developing the center's invaluable Walter Reade Theater, her most important single move -- and at the time, her most controversial one -- was replacing the respected Richard Roud with newcomer Richard Pena as chairman of the selection committee in 1988.
In recent years Koch has presided over major expansions in the festival, with more ambitious sidebars (like this year's 13-film tribute to Shabana Azmi, the Indian movie star) and a glorious enlargement of the annual avant-garde showcase. Marian Masone and Claudia Bonn will step into her shoes. Wendy Keys' announcement of all this was more engaging to watch than the 40th-anniversary hodgepodge of clips from bygone opening-night films, which included memories of enough misfired choices (remember "Conversation Piece" and "Miller's Crossing," old-timers?) to remind everyone how hard it really is to program a first-rate festival.
That's especially true of a highly selective event like the NYFF, which -- unlike such jam-packed festivals as Cannes, Toronto, and Berlin -- faces the tricky task of choosing the best possible pictures, on one hand, and taking diversity and balance into account, on the other. This year's programmers solved the problem neatly, placing eagerly anticipated titles into the most visible shows -- opening and closing nights plus the recently created Centerpiece slot -- and surrounding them with an eclectic mix of mostly fine movies in a wide spectrum of categories.
Alexander Payne's well-acted "About Schmidt" made a perfect kick-off attraction, partly because Payne and cowriter Jim Taylor have come up with a canny blend of social criticism and old-fashioned schmaltz, and also because it let the Lincoln Center crowd bask in the presence of Jack Nicholson, who strutted across the stage to show he's still a lot handsomer in real life than in the dumpy persona on display in his latest role. Not surprisingly, the cheering multitude agreed.
"Talk to Her" was equally inspired as the closing attraction, returning Pedro Almodovar to NYFF glory after "All About My Mother" in 1999 and the seminal "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," which opened Pena's first program back in 1988. The cleverest decision was making Paul Thomas Anderson's dazzlingly peculiar "Punch-Drunk Love" the Centerpiece, saluting the director's achievement as an auteur while shining a slightly dimmer spotlight on a movie that has plenty of detractors. And hey, who says an art-film crowd won't turn out for an Adam Sandler flick?
For all the pleasure over choices like these, you could also hear grumbling about movies that weren't in the mix. "Bowling for Columbine" would have made a lively entry, even if it confirms that Michael Moore cares as much about getting his own face on camera as explaining why Americans are gun crazy. "Spider" is David Cronenberg's smartest and subtlest film in years, with a Ralph Fiennes performance that's arguably his most deeply imaginative to date. We would have voted for Gaspar Noe's ferocious "Irreversible," if only to see Noe sporting a tux at the Tavern on the Green party on opening night. And where in the world was "8 Women," the comedy-drama-musical-mystery romance that finally establishes Francois Ozon as a world-class director?
Certain filmmakers were missing too, through no fault of the festival. The programmers bravely chose Abbas Kiarostami's rigorous "Ten," a stunningly dramatic series of emotional dialogues shot entirely in immaculately framed close-ups, and had to unveil it in the director's absence when U.S. authorities blocked his visa in an inexcusable display of post-9/11 bigotry and paranoia. Kiarostami's friend Aki Kaurismaki then boycotted the festival as a protest -- a laudable gesture but a sad one, since Kaurismaki's own "Man Without a Past" proved a predictably popular attraction. Movies and politics are clearly as intertwined as ever, even when the films in question don't have overt ideological agendas to push.
Religious matters also reared their head. We reported on the brouhaha over Peter Mullan's pungent "Magdalene Sisters" when we reviewed it -- some Vatican commentators damned the Venice festival, and are presumably peeved at Lincoln Center, for honoring a film they claim is anti-Catholic and not sufficiently respectful of the unsaintly sisters it portrays. Since then, we've found that the movie's publicists fear the press will focus on this controversy rather than the film itself. We hope not, since the movie packs more than enough power to be newsworthy without preposterous distractions from a church that has more important PR problems to worry about these days. Catholic bishops have been griping since Cannes about Marco Bellochio's finely wrought "My Mother's Smile" because they don't like its bit of blasphemous dialogue. It's a hit in Italy anyway, and it mightily pleased the NYFF crowd as well.
On another front, some NYFF viewers objected to Elia Suleiman's "Divine Intervention," the Palestinian entry, seeing it as an argument for violence against Israel -- apparently the ninja target-shooting sequence pushed more than a few buttons. It will be interesting to see how this debate plays out when Avatar Films opens it in theaters.
If one theme emerged during the festival as a whole, it was a fascination with the past (the title of Kaurismaki's opus notwithstanding) as experienced through the doubts, uncertainties, and mysteries brought by the passing of time. This underlay films as different as Alexander Sokurov's bravura "Russian Ark," a grand exploration of Russia's social and cultural history, and Paul Schrader's sardonic "Auto Focus," which peers at 1960s hypocrisy with mingled bemusement and horror. "My Mother's Smile" and the Dardenne brothers' "The Son" were among films that showed families dealing with the past, while "The Magdalene Sisters," Bertrand Tavernier's "Safe Conduct," Paul Greengrass' "Bloody Sunday," and the much-buzzed-about "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary" revived troubling historical episodes.
But there's no simple way to characterize a festival that ranged from the socio-cultural bite of Jia Zhang-Ke's "Unknown Pleasures" (which we found overrated) to the deeply personal tone of Claire Denis' "Friday Night," Otar Iosseliani's "Monday Morning," Tian Zhuangzhuang's "Springtime in a Small Town," and the Kiarostami and Kaurismaki offerings. Not to mention the sweeping international scope provided by well-received films from South Korea (Im Kwon-Taek's "Chihwaseon" and Hong Sang-soo's "Turning Gate"), and Mauritania (Abderrahmane Sissako's "Waiting for Happiness"), among others. Add welcome returns by old favorites like Almodovar and Manoel de Oliveira ("The Uncertainty Principle"), and you had a festival that's earned its right to at least another 40 years.