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indieWIRE’s 5 Hidden Gems from the 2011 New York Film Festival

indieWIRE's 5 Hidden Gems from the 2011 New York Film Festival

The New York Film Festival, which begins September 30, offers plenty on the surface: There’s the new Roman Polanski (opening-night selection “Carnage”), the sweeter side of the Dardenne brothers (“The Kid With a Bike”) and David Cronenberg turning his camera on the relationship between Freud and Jung (“A Dangerous Method,” starring Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender). Lars Von Trier and Abel Ferrara offer apocalyptic relationship stories (“Melancholia” and “4:44: Last Day on Earth,” respectively), while Martin Scorsese will unveil his sprawling HBO documentary on George Harrison.

Guaranteed crowdpleasers all, but the less-boldfaced program components include a number of provocative discoveries. Here’s a few of them.

Everyone seems lost in Nadav Lapid’s “Policeman” (“Ha-shoter”), an unsettling story of brawny Israeli anti-terrorist officers and the equally clueless activists they’re tasked with hunting down. While blatantly topical, this is not a political film of the moment, but rather a calculated meditation on purpose. Developed by first-time director Lapid, the script for “Policeman” contains a persistently muted, disquieting tone that the director could expand upon in subsequent efforts. While somewhat problematically fragmented, “Policeman” is loaded with insight into the nuances of Israeli society.

“A Separation”
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s devastating portrait of an Iranian couple ensnared in unexpected legal problems has been selected as Iran’s official entry for the Academy Awards for best foreign language film. It also won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as Silver Bear awards for the performances of its leads. It’s easy to see why: Farhadi (“About Elly”) delicately examines what it means for a secular-minded couple to live under societal oppression. The moody Nader (Payman Moadi) refuses to leave Iran with his wife Simin (Leila Hatami), who wants to find a better place to raise their adolescent child. The couple considers getting a divorce, but before they get the chance, Nader accidentally finds himself accused by a religious maid and her unemployed husband, who claim Nader caused her to have a miscarriage. Much of the movie finds the two couples standing before an irritated judge whose biases continually shift, reflecting the ever-changing source of sympathy in Farhadi’s incredibly perceptive narrative.

“The Student”
A speedy depiction of university politics and the spirited radicalism associated with them, “The Student” (“El estudiante”) announces 31-year-old Argentinean filmmaker Santiago Mitre as a South American Aaron Sorkin. A screenwriter whose credits include Pablo Trapero’s “Carancho” and “Leonera,” Mitre uses his directorial debut to craft a fascinating and heady universe filled with moody young intellectuals and back-stabbing schemes. It might be the first serious political narrative about undergraduate matriculation.

“This is Not a Film”
Jafar Panahi took risky circumstances and turned them into art. A first-person account of the Iranian filmmaker at home awaiting news of his prison sentencing, “This is Not a Film” is a sharp, measured critique that puts a human face on Iranian censorship. Aided by his friend, documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who was recently imprisoned), Panahi muses on the state of affairs that led to his six-year prison sentencing and 20-year ban on making movies. Miraculously smuggled into Cannes just before the festival began, “This is Not a Film” is an eloquent indictment of Iranian society that’s also unexpectedly funny, personable and sad.

“We Can’t Go Home Again”
Most people know Nicholas Ray as the director of 1950’s Hollywood classics like “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Johnny Guitar” and “In a Lonely Place.” After those prolific years, however, Ray entered a radically different stage of his career. As a teacher at the State University of New York at Binghamton in the 1970’s, a nexus for avant-garde filmmaking during a crucial period of its history, Ray took an interest in far more experimental storytelling techniques. The result is his most daring, baffling and distinctly profound “We Can’t Go Home Again,” a partly fictionalized look at Ray’s relationship to some of his students and the countercultural energy they represented for the jaded director. Never completed before the director’s death in 1979, “We Can’t Go Home Again” barely saw the light of day after a mixed reaction at Cannes in 1973. Newly restored and now set for DVD release through Oscilloscope Laboratories, “We Can’t Go Home Again” retains its unique allure as both Ray’s personal essay on age and responsibility as well as a kind of non-linear coming-of-age comedy. The film screens at the New York Film Festival along with “Don’t Expect Too Much,” a documentary about the production of “We Can’t Go Home Again” directed by Ray’s widow, Susan.

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