Pity the film festival programmers forced to pretend they have master plans. When forced by journalists to formulate themes that unite their selections, they usually make them up on the fly. However, a significant portion of the program at the 2013 New York Film Festival, currently underway for another two weeks, echoes one dark idea so well it requires no tricky embellishment. Again and again, movies in this year's NYFF lineup engage with the pratfalls of a greedy world that cherishes the prospects of making money to the detriment of everything else.
Perhaps it was appropriate that this idea was first stated loudly and bluntly on opening night, with Friday's world premiere of "Captain Phillips," in which Tom Hanks speaks for a clueless Western world when he frantically attempts to convince his Somali captor that there must be more jobs available in his country than fisherman and kidnapper. "Maybe in America," comes the reply.
Indeed, that same assertion could apply to Jia Zhangke's powerful examination of the various social problems that have established China's scourge of brutal violent outbursts in recent years. Zhangke's Cannes-winning anthology narrative follows a quartet of vaguely interconnected stories involving desperate characters driven to angry extremes largely due to financial problems.
"There's more to life than getting rich," says the nagging relative of Dahai (Zhang Wu), a retired miner in the Shanxi province furious with his village chief for embezzling money. But Dahai's not so easily convinced; in fact, by the time we meet the man, he's on the verge of a breaking point in the vain quest to get the payment he deserves, and the movie's first unnerving story climaxes with its protagonist going postal. As this murder spree puts an abrupt exclamation point on Dahai's demands, preeminent Chinese director Jia ("Still Life") establishes a repeatedly shocking rhythm that makes "A Touch of Sin" his most vivid, essential work: Each sequence climaxes with the repressed fury of Chinese citizens erupting with gory results.
Other characters turn to the gun when seeking fast routes to financial gain or revenge for other forms of mistreatment (a later narrative thread involves a woman, played by the director's wife Zhao Tao, taking grisly revenge on masochistic clients at the spa where she works). But in no case do they actually manage to correct a broken system. "How can we fix this?" the village chief asks Dahai while staring down the barrel of his gun. The response is written in blood -- and punctuated by the fleeting image of a horseless rider that makes for one of the most memorable shots hitting theaters this year (it opens in New York on October 4).
A related form of disgruntlement can be found in Joel and Ethan Coen's eccentric musical drama "Inside Llewyn Davis," which made its official U.S. premiere over the weekend. While Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) rejects the notion of chasing down a settled life, the early sixties folk singer nevertheless struggles from an inability to find stability in his life and reconcile it with his art. Sitting before a bored music producer (F. Murray Abraham) and playing another somber tune in one of countless dead-end audition sessions, Llewyn is handed a dark truth: "I don't see a lot of money here," he's told.
But what's a struggling folk singer to do? The movie's ultimate tragedy is the very notion of artistic ambition as an endlessly rocky road, with Llewyn -- loosely based on the late Brooklyn songwriter Dave Van Ronk -- soon to lose even the slightest potential he has in the shadow of rising star Bob Dylan, whose success, unlike Llewyn's, owed something to songs concerning more than just a tortured soul.
While its subdued tone may not give it the same cult-level appreciation that has afforded Coen efforts like "Barton Fink" and "The Big Lebowski" such enormous staying power, "Llewyn Davis" similarly delves into the pratfalls of lacking an entrepreneurial agenda in a society exclusively obsessed with it. But the Coens aren't sticklers for precise social commentary. "Inside Llewyn Davis" highlights the challenges its downbeat character faces almost exclusively in terms of how he receives them. His pathos runs deep, resulting in the most emotionally subtle piece of storytelling the Coens have done in quite a while, perhaps ever. If "Captain Phillips" and "A Touch of Sin" deal with the intersection of practical and personal struggles of the moment, "Inside Llewyn Davis" reminds us that they've always been there.