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7 Must-See Underdogs From the 2015 New York Film Festival

7 Must-See Underdogs From the 2015 New York Film Festival

READ MORE: 13 Events You Won’t Want to Miss at This Year’s NYFF

The New York Film Festival generates plenty of attention for some of its flashier titles. This year, that means opening selection “The Walk” will hog the spotlight during the first weekend, while “Steve Jobs” and Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” take over the following one, and Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic “Miles Ahead” lands on closing night. In between, Matt Damon will battle for survival in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.”

But these selections barely get to the essence of NYFF, a uniquely curated three-week event that begins its 53rd edition on Friday. With a selection committee comprised of five people, the NYFF lineup emphasizes quality more than any other high profile American festival. Cherry picking some of the highlights from Cannes and other festivals from earlier in the year, the program brings fresh eyes to anticipated films — such as Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” — but also showcases plenty of lesser known, but equally compelling, cinematic treats. Here are a few of this year’s first-rate offerings from off the beaten path.

“Arabian Nights”

It’s no easy feat to squeeze a three-part, six-hour opus into a crammed film festival schedule. But Cannes attendees who managed to catch Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ sprawling, experimental look at modern Portugal through the lens of a classic fairy tale were not disappointed. Now it comes to NYFF in advance of Kino Lorber’s theatrical release, which isn’t as daunting as it might seem.

“If the movie’s cumbersome running time appears intimidating, its episodic nature makes it easily digestible, and here at the Cannes Film Festival it has been presented on three separate days — a fine way to experience it,” wrote Adam Cook in his Indiewire review last May. “‘Arabian Nights’ moves freely and spontaneously from one story to the next, combining humor and lyricism into a continually subtle package…Gomes takes the viewer on a journey through Portugal’s present, whether in the nooks and crannies of the suburbs, the countryside, a protest in the city, or into the crowd of a heavy metal concert.” In other words, get ready for one of the more unique cinematic offerings of the year.

“Cemetery of Splendour”

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work doesn’t always make things easy for its viewers, but it’s often infused with a pop sensibility. Both “Tropical Malady” and his Palme D’Or-winning “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” include wondrous encounters that wouldn’t be out of place in the fantasy genre. (He also once planned an unrealized sci-fi project said to have included the Starship Enterprise.) With “Cemetery of Splendour,” the director offers up another hypnotic look at people at odds with their peculiar environments. Through his usual aesthetic of stillness pierced by mesmerizing visual motifs, Apichatpong develops a masterful look at what it means to probe the secrets buried in daily realities.

At its center is Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), a lonely, aging woman tasked with running a relief center housing soldiers stuck in comas all day long. Initially, Jen and some of the other nurses spend their quiet days talking amongst themselves, but eventually they find greater companionship from addressing the sleeping men. Jen’s melancholic routine is briefly complicated by the arrival of an American man who she meets online, though he drifts out of the picture almost as quickly as he arrives. No matter what, she’s on her own — until one of her comatose patients wakes up. Or does he?

“Cemetery of Splendour” slowly develops a unique sense of awe. At a certain point, as it must in Apichatpong’s hands, the gentle plot gives way to a series of far more mysterious circumstances. By the time Jen wonders aloud if she’s dreaming, we’re right there with her. Not content to merely cycle through existing mythologies, Apichatpong builds his own marvelous poetic one.

“Don’t Blink: Robert Frank”

Decades after the initial publication of “The Americans,” photographer Robert Frank remains one of the great chronicler’s of the country’s unique identity. Laura Israel’s lively documentary tracks the 90-year-old Frank’s ongoing photography projects alongside an involving timeline of his career, stretching back to his childhood in Switzerland. Frank recalls his early days as a New York immigrant, an eye-opening trip to South America, closeup perspectives on the Beat Generation and the Rolling Stones, and his various filmmaking experiments. His candor with the filmmaker is all the more impressive when viewed alongside some of his earlier, more combative interviews. Asked to analyze the nature of his art, he responds, “Why is that question so important?” But “Don’t Blink” offers a compelling answer: In the modern age of documentation, when images of our time clutter up every corner, Frank’s remain iconic. Israel’s movie reveals the combustible genius that made them.

“Heart of a Dog”

In the pantheon of memorable dogs in recent cinema — from “The Artist” show-stealer Uggie to Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” star Roxy — one can now add Lolabelle, the late piano-playing rat terrier owned by Laurie Anderson and saluted in her stirring essay film “Heart of a Dog.”

Though the 68-year-old performance artist hasn’t directed a movie since her 1986 concert film “Home of the Brave,” the new work is alive with the lyrical insights of a veteran artist. Using her beloved pooch as a starting point for broader philosophical observations, Anderson delivers a unique window into her creative mind.

A collage of lo-fi video images, animation and still imagery, “Heart of a Dog” is narrated by Anderson as she recounts her relationship to Lolabelle and the dog’s own burgeoning musical career. Anderson managed to turn Lolabelle into an unwitting star readymade for an age of viral animal videos: She trained the aging pet, who went blind in her later years, to tap away at an electronic keyboard in conjunction with a beat. Performing at charity events (and even debuting the original composition “Music for Dogs,” an event co-curated by Anderson and her late husband Lou Reed, at the Sydney Opera House in 2010), Lolabelle took on greater significant for Anderson. As the filmmaker’s reflections on Lolabelle continue, she becomes an avatar for Anderson’s own views on life’s various mysteries.

“No Home Movie”

Chantal Ackerman has been a master of slow burn cinema ever since her 1975 breakthrough “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” which follows a housewife through her routine over the course of a 200-minute running time. “No Home Movie” brings the filmmaker’s fascination with time in cinema into the 21st century with an intimate diary film about her relationship to her mother, an Auschwitz survivor. Applying a tenderness that calls to mind fellow cinematic diarist Jonas Mekas’ digital video work, “No Home Movie” quietly tracks Ackerman’s sweet conversations with her ailing mom over Skype and in person, while her camera captures additional moments that reveal further textures in their complicated relationship.

At times it seems as though no matter how much they try to get along, mother and daughter can’t fully confront the dark chapters of history that hang over their family legacy. Ackerman intersperses their exchanges with long, pensive shots of outdoor landscapes that keenly reflect her wandering train of thought. The empty scenery suggests that no matter how much her life remains in motion, Ackerman struggles to find clarity in her most personal challenges.

“Right Now, Wrong Then”

South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s work tends to blend together, but that usually enhances its appeal. There has rarely been a better instance of this phenomenon than his latest feature, which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno this year. “Right Now, Wrong Then” is actually the same movie played through twice with slight variations — and equally charming results. The movie follows a conceit not unlike “Groundhog Day,” with characters enduring an identical experience and making small but notably different actions that lead to varied outcomes. Ham Sung meets Hee-jung, grabs a drink with her, falls in love and joins her at a party; the next day, he attends a Q&A for one of his movies. Then the whole story restarts. Both segments contain a mixture of good and bad judgement, leaving one to wonder which half actually corresponds to the two outcomes described by the title. That’s the greatest triumph of “Right Now, Wrong Then”: While intensely familiar, it still manages to surprise.

“The Treasure”

It’s hard to imagine a big distributor taking a risk on a slow-burn effort from the Romanian New Wave, but a company experienced with some of the better films hailing from that tradition — “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “14:08 East of Bucharest” chief among them — should seriously consider this surprisingly warmhearted effort from Corneliu Porumboiu, whose “Police, Adjective” was a previous Cannes favorite. His latest movie finds a good-natured blue collar worker invested in the peculiar effort to help his neighbor find buried treasure beneath an old family property.

From the makings of a deadpan comedy, in which the high pitch wail of a metal detector becomes a hilarious audio motif worthy of Jacques Tati, “The Treasure” transforms into a bizarre thriller about Romanian bureaucracy — not unlike the ending of Porumboiu brilliant “Police, Adjective,” where the conclusion revolved around a superior officer forcing his employee to look up several words in a dictionary. In the case of “The Treasure,” Costi and his neighbor are warned of state regulations that force them to report any riches they find. Whether or not they discover anything of value, it’s bound to be subjected to the same drab rules that dictate their current, uninspired working class routine. Porumboiu manages to deliver this heady thesis with a disarmingly slight touch, something we’ve never quite seen in other movies of its ilk. “The Treasure” proves that even a cerebral narrative can have its soft side.

READ MORE: 53rd New York Film Festival Announces Main Slate Offerings; ‘Brooklyn,’ ‘Carol’ and ‘Bridge of Spies’ Top List

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