The Best Films of the New York Film Festival 2011

Here are the top films of the New York Film Festival from FP film critic Franklin Laviola.  (Read the rest of his work for Frontier Psychiatrist here.)

Forget about the Oscar-baiting The Artist and The Descendants, or the over-hyped and vacuous Shame.  The following films were the real gems of this fall’s New York Film Festival:

8.  Goodbye First Love, directed by Mia Hansen-Love   

 The Best Films of the New York Film Festival 2011

Mia Hansen-Love’s semi-autobiographical follow-up to her excellent Father Of My Children is further proof of her already very mature talent (she is only 30) and more evidence that the French continue to be the best, in today’s international cinema, at handling this type of subtle, character-driven drama. Another entry in the tempestuous teenage romance genre, Hansen-Love’s film bears some resemblance to her companion Olivier Assayas’ greatest work, Cold Water, albeit with a decidedly less poetic and more emotionally detached approach to its young lovers’ dilemma. Perhaps most interestingly, Hansen-Love posits passionate young love as a (potentially crippling) condition and state of mind that one must leave behind, move beyond, even forget, if he or she is to grow and become a stable, successful adult, on any level. A tad overlong, but rewarding, nonetheless, thanks, in large part to Stephane Fontaine’s seasonally-attuned cinematography and the performances by both the very promising female lead, Lola Creton (Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard), and, as her older lover in the film’s second half, Magne-Havard Brekke, currently one of Europe’s most underrated and underused actors.

Opens in New York Spring 2012      

7.  Miss Bala, directed by Gerardo Naranjo

 The Best Films of the New York Film Festival 2011Naranjo’s tough, brutally violent thriller places the viewer right smack in the middle of the headline-grabbing drug wars that are currently plaguing Mexico. The film’s young protagonist, Laura, played by Stephanie Sigman, is a beauty pageant contestant, who stumbles upon a bloody massacre in a nightclub. Caught between rival drug cartels, her situation becomes increasingly nightmarish, when she is forced to become one leader’s pawn in an escalating, all-out gangland war. Naranjo, thankfully, eschews many of the cliches (handheld cameras, rapid cutting, a glut of close-ups), associated with depictions of urban violence and the ultra-realist mode in contemporary Latin American cinema. Instead, his film is lit and shot, like a horror film (at times, reminiscent of early John Carpenter!), as the protagonist is frequently pursued in slow dolly shots and/or situated at somewhat of a distance in dark, anamorphic widescreen compositions. Coupled with an intense sound design, this voyeuristic approach to the characters and action unfolding onscreen, results in a more suspenseful and involving experience for the viewer. With his slight frame, inscrutable facial features, and always seeming to get exactly what he wants, Noe Hernandez’s villain is one for the ages.

Opens in New York on January 20th   

6.  The Skin I Live In, directed by Pedro Almodovar    

 The Best Films of the New York Film Festival 2011I suspect fans of Almodovar’s recent output will be quite satisfied with his latest film, while fans of the gothic source material,Thierry Jonquet’s novel Mygale, will be considerably less blown away. As a fan of both, I was left conflicted, even frustrated, upon my first viewing.  When a major filmmaker drastically alters the source material to suit his or her own adaptation, I’m usually the last person to complain.  But, in this case, Almodovar had in Jonquet’s novel, in terms of narrative shape and structure, character motivation and dramatic conflict, and thematic ideas, what already read like a tailor-made film treatment. Almodovar, not surprisingly, preserves the story’s gruesome central plot twist, but his decision to change a crucial backstory and to treat the past tense inciting incident (what in the novel is unequivocally a rape), as, instead, a major misunderstanding with tragic consequences, in order to paint the “captive” character as, ultimately, more sympathetic, has some questionable ramifications for the film’s final act.  Still, despite Almodovar’s refusal to fully embrace the novel’s inherent “genre” elements (simplicity and suspense, for starters), I was considerably more able to appreciate his accomplished filmmaking on a second viewing.  Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya are both terrific as the highly attractive leads, composer Alberto Iglesias contributes another solid score, and Almodovar himself continues to expand on his ideas and obsessions, pertaining to the many forms and variations of identity, sexuality, and love.

Now Playing Nationwide 

5.  The Kid With A Bike, directed by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne  

 The Best Films of the New York Film Festival 2011

This is the Dardenne Brothers’ best and most emotionally resonant film yet, by far.  Clocking in at a mere 87 minutes, their latest is a model of narrative economy, with echoes of the work of De Sica, Truffaut, and Pialat, throughout. Once again set in their hometown of Liege, Belgium, the Dardennes’ humanist drama stars newcomer Thomas Doret, as the eleven year-old of the title, abandoned by his deadbeat father, and the wonderful Cecile De France, as the kindly hairdresser, who attempts to provide him with a new home.  In a tale of two opposites, coming together, the boy, susceptible to the negative lure of the streets, seems to be in a perpetual state of motion, while De France’s hairdresser, though not without her own issues, embodies a much needed patience and stability.  Here’s a film that unabashedly (and non-didactically) recognizes the importance and need for familial bonds in an increasingly confusing and dehumanizing world.  This is also a necessary reminder that stories about people, who actually do the right thing from the start, while quite scarce, these days, can make for equally compelling drama.

Opens in New York on March 16th  

4.  This Is Not A Film, directed by Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

this is not a film poster1 The Best Films of the New York Film Festival 2011

Convicted by a court of law for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail and officially banned for twenty years from making, directing or writing any film or screenplay, giving any interviews with domestic or foreign media, and leaving the country.  Literally a home movie, this brave act of resistance, which Panahi collaborated on with Mirtahmasb, chronicles a day in his life, spent under house arrest.  Their video cameras capture such mundane activities as Panahi having a lengthy telephone conversation with his lawyer about the progress of his appeal and his sitting on the couch, surfing the internet, while his pet iguana stealthily climbs over his body, as well as one of the day’s more spirited and heartbreaking episodes — an impassioned Panahi, screenplay in hand, creating a film set out of living room pillows, and “directing” the film he might never get to make.  Far from the conventions of both the issue-oriented documentary and the diary film, the resulting non-fiction work is a potent object of its historical moment and place and a record of one man’s legal and existential conflict.  One need only watch the extended closing shot (an elevator descent to what could be both a metaphoric and a very real hell), to recognize that this film is packed with the multi-layers and reverberations of a fictional work, including a highly charismatic and likable lead performance by the director himself.  Literally smuggled out of Iran for the rest of the world to see, this essay on personal and political freedom and its limitations offers bona fide proof that a film with zero production values can be inspiring on numerous levels.

Opens at Film Forum in New York on February 29th 

3.  You Are Not I, directed by Sara Driver    

 The Best Films of the New York Film Festival 2011The festival’s major rediscovery.  Adapted from a short story by Paul Bowles, Driver’s film, which originally screened at film festivals back in 1981, was thought to be lost for good, when its negative was destroyed in a flood. However, several years ago, a print was serendipitously found by a librarian in the Tangiers home of the celebrated author.  Both haunting and hilarious throughout, Driver’s dream-like (and fully restored) film could be the downtown New York cousin to David Lynch’s Eraserhead.  The bird-visaged Suzanne Fletcher is brilliant as a young woman, who escapes from a New Jersey mental hospital, amidst the ensuing chaos of a massive, infernal car accident on its grounds.  When she returns to her family’s home, she encounters further horrors.  Jim Jarmusch’s black & white 16mm photography and Phil Kline’s minimalist score contribute to the film’s distinctly creepy atmosphere.  Driver deftly immerses the viewer in her protagonist’s damaged subjectivity, while maintaining a tone of surreal humor.  Her film might have a running time of only 48 minutes, but its cumulative effect is eerily unforgettable.

No Rerelease Scheduled Yet 

2.  Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan  

 The Best Films of the New York Film Festival 2011Winner of the Grand Prix (shared with The Kid With A Bike) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Ceylan’s (Distant) epic police procedural might just be his masterpiece.  It’s nighttime on the Turkish steppes and a storm is fast approaching.  Snaking through the grassy hills is a caravan, made up of cops, various civil servants, a prosecutor, a medical examiner, and two murder suspects, all in search of a body, whose exact whereabouts are unknown.  During the film’s first two thirds, Ceylan effortlessly balances seemingly disparate modes and tones — a black comedy, a study of a vast natural landscape at night, and a dissection of a small-town society and its mores.  And then, in the third act, with night becoming day and the caravan returning to town, Ceylan subtly shifts gears.  His characteristic long takes now create an almost unbearable tension, as his surrogate, the melancholy doctor (an inspired nod to Ceylan’s literary hero Chekhov), readies himself to perform an autopsy on the found body.  Part thriller, part inquiry into the ethics and morality of authority, this section brilliantly (and shockingly) reveals a fine line between integrity and corruption.  The closing scene also beautifully evokes a single shot from much earlier in the film, in which an apple falls from a tree and drifts down a rocky stream to its final resting place.  Had it been given an official 2011 theatrical release, Ceylan’s meditation on the cycle of life and death would surely have made my list, as one of the five best films of the year.

Opens at Film Forum in New York on January 4th    

1.  The Turin Horse, directed by Bela Tarr   

 The Best Films of the New York Film Festival 2011

This year, at the New York Film Festival, I caught three films with major apocalyptic overtones — Abel Ferrara’s 44:44 Last Day On Earth, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, and Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse.  Ferrara takes an endearingly life-affirming, small scale, and personalized approach, but his film ultimately succumbs to undisciplined technique and an overall lack of mystery. Von Trier’s slick, bloated, and fashionably cynical effort (perhaps the most expensive Lexapro commercial ever mounted?), depicts the end of the world with the relish and maturity of an adolescent, “goth” nihilist, making it abundantly clear to his viewers that he no longer believes in the fundamental dignity of human or any other form of life.  In stark contrast to both of these, the Hungarian Tarr’s black & white masterwork, which he is sadly calling his final film, is a genuine marvel — profoundly beautiful, mysterious, rigorous, and timeless.  By itself, the film’s opening tracking shot of a weary horse pulling its master’s cart at full speed is breathtaking and evocative of many of the greatest works of the silent era.  Ostensibly set in the age of Nietzsche (a narrator informs the viewer of the apocryphal incident, wherein the German philosopher witnessed the beating of the title creature), but reminiscent of the work of Samuel Beckett, Tarr’s minimalist narrative revolves around a man and his daughter, taking shelter in their farmhouse from a never-ending storm, amidst a desolate landscape.  Man’s relationship to the natural world seems irreversibly damaged, but should hope be abandoned completely?  This is a film that earns its bleak vision every step of the way.  The fact that Tarr’s distinct career summation and Terrence Malick’s own, The Tree Of Life, by chance, made their festival premieres within the same calendar year, is both something of a cosmic joke and a clear gift from the film gods.

Opens in New York on February 10th  

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Franklin P. Laviola is a filmmaker and freelance writer, based in the New York area. He wrote and directed the award-winning short film “Happy Face,” which has screened at over twenty film festivals. He recently wrote on the 35th Anniversary of the film Taxi Driver, interviewed filmmaker Heather Spilkin regarding her documentary Above Brooklyn, and reviewed the Criterion Collection release of Blow Out.  Stay tuned for his list of the best movies of 2011.



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