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The 44th Annual New York Film Festival

As always, this year’s New York Film Festival promises a snapshot of world cinema at present. With only 25 new films included in the main program, its selection is akin to the Cannes competition, although the NYFF doesn’t give out any awards. Implicitly, the festival promises that every film will be a major work worthy of serious attention, although it’s rarely lived up to that notion. The 2006 selection is notable for including a wider variety than usual of Asian films, ranging from anime (Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika”) to South Korean monster movies (Bong Joon-ho’s excellent “The Host”) to austere art films (Apichatpong Weerasetha­kul’s “Syndromes and a Century”).

Many of the NYFF’s most intriguing choices lie on its fringes. Gay Filipino director Lino Brocka was widely considered his country’s counterpart to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but since his death in 1991, his films have become impossible to see in the U.S. The NYFF is countering this amnesia by screening his 1976 landmark “Insiang.” Similarly, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” were extremely popular midnight movies in the early ‘70s, but they’ve fallen out of sight since then. The NYFF will be bringing both back. The “Views From the Avant-Garde” sidebar includes new prints of classics by Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage and Ernie Gehr, as well as a much-lauded new short by Nathaniel Dorsky, who received the dubious honor of being ripped off by Sam Mendes in “American Beauty.”

On paper, the premise of “Bamako,” in which a Malian court puts the IMF and WTO on trial for ravaging Africa, sounds hopelessly didactic. To a certain extent, that’s true, but the film is more complex than a plot summary suggests. It has a split personality, devoting one part to the trial and the rest to a panoramic view of everyday life in a Malian town. The latter is similar to director Abderrahmane Sissako’s earlier films, “Life on Earth” and “Waiting for Happiness,” but it’s the most compelling part of “Bamako.” There, Sissako depicts a malaise underlying his characters’ life without a degree of subtlety he abandons in the rest of the film. It’s hard to come up with a wittier metaphor for the absurdities of globalization than a character who studies Hebrew because he dreams of a job at an Israeli embassy in Mali that will probably never open. On the other hand, if you’ve read much about the World Bank or even watch “Democracy Now” regularly, Sissako’s arguments about the West’s exploitation of Africa will be mighty familiar. While they’re delivered passionately, a sermon full of righteous anger is still preaching.

Iranian cinema was hot on the festival circuit in the ‘90s, but it’s fallen out of fashion in the past few years. Recent films like Mani Haghighi’s “Men at Work” and Bahman Ghobadis ‘Half Moon” suggest a resurgence, an impression confirmed by Jafar Panahi’s “Offside.” Iranian women aren’t allowed to attend soccer games alongside men, so the heroines of “Offside” sneak into the stadium disguised as boys. There’s a feminist sensibility in most of Panahi’s work—implicit in his early films about children, explicit in “The Circle”—but he doesn’t portray women as helpless victims of patriarchy. Instead, “Offside” celebrates teenage girls’ resistance and ability to work around ludicrous rules. It’s also rather sympathetic to the young men drafted into enforcing them.

Panahi’s ability to create an aura of reality has few peers. The narrative of “Offside” is a series of confrontations and arguments, with tension defused by humor. That makes its joyous ending all the more startling and exhilarating. In the end, “Offside” attempts something I’ve never seen before in Iranian cinema: reconciling nationalist pride and feminist rebellion. Its female characters celebrate being Iranian, while striving for full participation in the country’s culture.

The New York Film Festival once seemed highly loyal to 98-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, but they’ve passed on most of his recent work. Fortunately, they’re back on board for “Belle Toujours,” one of his best films. It’s a highly unusual sequel to Luis Bunuel’s 1967 “Belle de Jour,” in which Catherine Devenue played Severine, a bored housewife who explores her sexual fantasies by working in a brothel. Michel Piccoli reprises his part from “Belle de Jour,” while Bulle Ogier replaces Deneuve as Severine. On the surface, Bunuel and Oliveira, who has an affinity for distanced, Brechtian literary adaptations, don’t have much in common, but the latter’s homage is touching.

Here, Oliveira is less concerned with sexual or narrative experimentation than Bunuel. Instead, “Belle Toujours” is a calm but powerful reflection on aging, a theme Oliveira has frequently—and understand­ably—touched on. The director’s avoidance of camera movement creates a stately feel, enhanced by the lighting and cinematography. “Belle Toujours” is a miniature whose minimalism—only three major characters and a few settings—sometimes feels theatrical. The film’s emotional charge peaks in the sublime next-to-last shot, in which Oliveira turns a scene of waiters clearing a table into an image resonant far beyond its literal content. It’s as powerful a metaphor for loss as I’ve ever seen.

The New York Film Festival passed up Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s gangster opus “Election” last year, but this year they’ve selected its equally strong sequel, “Triad Election.” It’s a shame they’re not showing the two together, as they benefit from being seen as a whole. Even grimmer than its predecessor, “Triad Election” takes a machete to the romantic myth of outlaw brotherhood, as well as the benefits of Hong Kong business investment in mainland China. Picking up after the murders committed by Lok (Simon Yam), which closed “Election,” it chronicles the struggle for power between Lok and Jimmy (Louis Koo), a fellow thug who aspires to being a legitimate businessman.

“Triad Election” distinguishes itself from the many over-the-top gangster films that emerged in John Woo’s wake in two ways—the sincerity of its revulsion with violence and its combination of brutality and beauty. No filmmaker except Michael Mann has such an eye for nocturnal cityscapes. The ending sets up a third part in the saga—I can’t wait for To, who’s one of the world’s most prolific directors, to get around to making it.

For the past few months, Sony Pictures Classics has been presenting a Pedro Almodóvar retrospective across the country. By encouraging spectators to juxtapose his earlier films and his latest, “Volver,” they’re not doing the latter any favors. Almodóvar’s last two films—the perverse “Talk To Her” and “Bad Education,” an attempt to reimagine the film noir from a queer perspective—showed the director stretching himself and trying to do something new. Unfortunately, “Volver” marks a retreat. The film centers around two sisters, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas), both coping with difficult situations. Raimunda’s daughter has killed her father after he tried to molest her, while Sole is faced with the reappearance of her late mother. As usual, Almodóvar explores the melodrama, but he seems to be on automatic pilot this time around. The acting and cinematography are impeccable, but until its final half hour, “Volver” barely shows a pulse. It seems so infatuated with its restrained, mature approach to the genre that it forgets melodrama includes drama. The last reel does have a cumulative impact, but even at its best, “Volver” simply retreads territory Almodóvar has covered better in films like “The Flower of My Secret” and “All About My Mother.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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