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Familiar directors offer new departures, foreign topics given accessibly at NYFF

This year’s New York Film Festival lineup doubles as a snapshot of the current state of world cinema.

Does that mean that East Asia, a region from which the festival’s main program doesn’t include a single example, is currently going through a lull? Or just that the selection committee didn’t like the latest films by Sion Sono, Takashi Miike, and NYFF veterans Johnnie To and Hong Sang-soo (those last two at least enjoying US distribution)?

Fortunately, the festival’s sidebars offer a broader view of world cinema. Can one say that a festival which includes a huge tribute to the Japanese studio Nikkatsu, as well as two screenings of earlier films by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, is ignoring Asia?

This year’s documentary sidebar, which includes a film about pioneering gay film critic Vito Russo (unfortunately unavailable for preview) and portraits of Brazilian musician Tom Jobim and glam-rock band Mott the Hoople, looks particularly promising.

“Views From the Avant-Garde” serves up its first 3D film, one of the highlights of a typically dense program.

In a key scene in Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In,” Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) lies on a couch, looking at a naked woman (Elena Anaya) through a one-way mirror. Needless to say, he’s clothed. As the camera continues to ogle the woman, it becomes apparent that she’s actually wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. This is the first indication that the film has more than a few twists up its sleeve.

This tale of revenge and scientific madness, in which Dr. Ledgard searches for victims to perfect his treatment for burned skin, combines the kinkiness of Almodóvar’s ‘80s films with the elegance of his recent work. As is often the case with Almodóvar’s work, it seems simultaneously feminist and misogynist, but it plays games with gender that are hard to explain without getting into spoilers.

I’ll just say that “The Skin I Live In” enacts fantasies more typically found in the further reaches of fan fiction and Internet porn. Banderas’ performance achieves a perfect chill. The structure sometimes seems overloaded, especially when Dr. Ledgard’s brother is introduced, wearing a tiger costume and makeup, but disappears from the plot soon afterwards.

Still, “The Skin I Live In” is Almodóvar’s first fully satisfying film since his 2002 “Talk To Her.”

(Alice Tully Hall, Broadway at W. 67th St., Wed., Oct. 12, 6 p.m. & 9 p.m.)

Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” is an astonishing comeback for a director who, after making impressive work in the ‘90s, disappeared into a wormhole of misogyny, snarkiness, and childish provocation.

Unfortunately, this success may be overshadowed by the buffoonish behavior of von Trier at its Cannes premiere, where he made a series of bad jokes culminating in the statement “I am a Nazi.” While he’s clearly not a serious anti-Semite, he managed to get himself banned from the festival.

One can see the same callow, provocation-above-all attitude reflected in von Trier films like “Antichrist,” but “Melancholia” shows a newfound maturity. Its prologue depicts the Earth being destroyed by a larger twin planet called Melancholia. The film then goes back a few days to the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her fiancé (Alexander Skarsgard). Justine suffers from depression so severe that it is unclear whether she will be able to get through the wedding.

In the film’s second part, she stays with her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and awaits Melancholia’s arrival, growing more cheerful and functional. In the past, von Trier has exploited his own history of mental illness, but here he deals with the subject far more seriously.

The film alternates between handheld naturalism and stately grace. Rather than creating more female martyrs and heaping abuse on them, von Trier has finally written troubled women who aren’t completely defined by their neuroses. “Melancholia” is a welcome surprise.

(Alice Tully Hall, Broadway at W. 67th St.; Mon., Oct. 3, 6:30 p.m. & Thu., Oct. 6, 9 p.m.)

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” feels remarkably fresh, maybe because its influences come more from theater than cinema. It opens and closes with proceedings in a divorce court, where a 40-ish couple (Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi) with an 11-year-old daughter are separating. In between, its narrative turns into a spiral of ambiguous mysteries, as the couple’s maid apparently behaves irresponsibly toward the husband’s senile father. Apart from the maid’s boorish husband, no character is either entirely sympathetic or completely unlikable.

Farhadi proves an excellent director of his ensemble cast. “A Separation” won the Berlin Film Festival’s top prize last winter, and I sense that some of its appeal to Westerners stems from the fact that its sheer lack of exoticism is unusual. All the same, the film offers a glimpse into middle-class family life in a culture where one can consult a religious hotline about the sinfulness of helping an ailing stranger to change his pants.

(Alice Tully Hall, Broadway at W. 67th St.; Sat., Oct. 1, 6 p.m. & Sun., Oct. 2, 1 p.m.)

The Liberation Square-set “Tahrir” was made by Italian director Stefano Savona, but it doesn’t feel like the work of an outsider to Egypt. The film avoids all the clichés of made-for-TV documentaries. Savona never appears on camera, supplies voice-over, or interviews his subjects directly. Instead, he lets Egyptian protesters speak for themselves. Many do so eloquently, although “Tahrir” also reflects the chaos of the events it captures.

It’s not an elegant piece of filmmaking; in fact, the director often includes shots in which his camera went in and out of focus. Clearly, he prizes immediacy above all. “Tahrir” is bound to be the first of many documentaries about Egypt’s still-incomplete revolution, and its you-are-there euphoria is a good starting point.

(Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Lincoln Center, 144 W. 65th St.; Sun., Oct. 2, 6 p.m. & Tue., Oct. 4, 9 p.m.)

Essentials:

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

Various locations

Sep. 30-Oct. 16

Tickets range from $20-$50

Schedule & purchase at filmlinc.com

Updated 8:15 pm, August 29, 2018
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