The best and worst lines of dialog from the first half of the "demanding, inflexible, and insanely selective" (per the trailer) New York Film Festival come from, respectively, Stephen Frears's amusing character study "The Queen" and Todd Field's facile "Little Children." "At the end, all Labour prime ministers go ga-ga for the Queen," complains anti-monarchist Cherie Blair to hubby Tony after he defends HRH's silence following Diana's death in 1997. How prescient, only a few years before the consummate opportunist went ga-ga over our own man who would be king. Frears directs in that no-nonsense British telly style, but "The Queen" is really all about the performances of the much-admired Dame Helen Mirren and, as Blair, an astounding, inner-lit Michael Sheen. "Little Children" suffers from predictable converging plotlines about an upscale town of smug adults, adorable kids, a ridiculously drawn pedophile, and an overdetermined bigot. An unsated suburban housewife commencing an affair with irresponsible stay-at-home dad Patrick Wilson, poor Kate Winslet has the thankless task of analyzing Madame Bovary for a woman's book club: "It's not the cheating. It's the hunger for an alternative and refusing to accept a life of unhappiness."
Although these two high-profile films feature Oscar-nominated stars, they don't hold a candle to more naturalistic fare, mostly featuring unknowns. The 1962 black-and-white "Mafioso," by the gifted Italian director Alberto Lattuada, is an inspired revival. The great comic Alberto Sordi may play the lead, a Sicilian who returns to his village from Milan and becomes an involuntary assassin for the local don, but neo-realism gets top billing. Authentic locations, the real faces of nonactors, and family and Mafia rituals add veracity to this satire.
Using nonprofessionals only, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi continues this less-is-more tradition with "Offside," the affecting story of young soccer-buff women denied entry into Tehran's stadium for a World Cup-qualifying game and placed in a holding pen by unenthusiastic military conscripts. The only other set is a van from which the soldiers and teens emerge, freely and joyfully, once they hear that Iran has won the match. In the stirring "Bamako," from Mali, Abderrahmane Sissako mixes professionals and nonprofessionals to enact a trial in a residential courtyard. Civil authorities prosecute the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for "abusing the African people" by demanding high interest rates and pushing poor nations toward privatization. "Bamako" is never static. Sissanko cuts to assorted individuals around town and dots the film with superb local music.
In the sublime "August Days," the revelation of the festival, Spanish director Marc Recha ingenuously fuses fiction and nonfiction to tell the tale of his own writer's block while working on a screenplay based on the life of a now-deceased Spanish leftist journalist and witness to history. He and fraternal twin David drive through rural Catalan looking for clues to the man's life, at the same time discovering their own family history, a host of unique residents, and residue from the Spanish Civil War. A genius with landscapes, Recha rhythmically edits into the storyline graceful shots of rock formations, rivers, and trees. Michael Apted's doc "49 Up," on the other hand, is trite. He intercuts footage of the individuals he has been tracking every seven years in the most obvious ways. Yes, we know Britain has a class system, and that peoples' lives don't go as planned during their youth, but most of the subjects are as boring as the questions he asks.
Eschewing naturalism, other films build their narratives on artifice. The most impressive is the near-mystical "Syndromes and a Century," by Thai maestro Apichatpong Weerasethakul. With long takes, slow camera movements, and empty spaces that become populated by its characters, the film relays two separate stories of doctors, based on the filmmakers' parents before they married, working in a large provincial hospital. Chinese filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang is less successful in "The Go Master," a biopic about Wu Qingyuan, the great Chinese player of the board game 'Go' who lived most of his life in Japan. Tian creates some breathtakingly beautiful scenes, but they are a tableaux that do not comfortably interlock. Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo's "Woman on the Beach" is stylized while pretending not to be. The director places his actors in a depressing, monochromatic gray beach resort. They posture though they try to appear spontaneous; you feel they are being directed. The premise is that the lead male, yet another filmmaker having a tough time writing a screenplay, is a cad with women. Perhaps it is autobiographical--but who cares? Yet another Asian film, Satoshi Kon's excellent Japanese anime "Paprika," is surreal. The story of the team that attempts to retrieve a stolen device that invades one's dreams and nightmares is built around feed-your-head gigantic puppets and dolls and other lifelike bric-a-brac. A future darling of Freudian cinemacademics, "Paprika" collapses the boundaries between the movie screen and the unconscious.
A beauty antithetical to realism colors two gallic films that are, in very different ways, love letters to Paris, the City of Light--and Pretense (a form of artifice, after all). "Belle Toujours," by veteran Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, is an homage to Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere, the forces behind the 1967 Catherine Deneuve-starrer "Belle de Jour." In the new film, Michel Piccoli reprises his role as Husson, the best friend of the husband of Deneuve's masochistic Severin, who turned tricks for kicks. Thirty-eight years on Husson spots her and arranges a dinner. What is disarming, and distracting, is that Deneuve has morphed into Bulle Ogier, who lacks Deneuve's allure. What is splendid is the way de Oliveira shoots Paris, mostly overhead and in darkness or inside claustrophobic spaces.
Georgian-born Otar Iosseliani achieves far less with "Gardens of Autumn." It begins as a successful parody about a government minister who falls from power and loses everything. The powers-that-be and subordinate characters seem more Eastern European than French. He begins a trek around Paris, encountering old acquaintances and making new ones. (Piccoli reappears as his mother.) Unfortunately, the second part is about his descent into a bizarrely vulgar lifestyle, replete with loads of alcohol, drunken Orthodox priests, and displaced African squatters. Satire turns into squalor and creepy tastelessness. It's less insanely selected than merely insane.