The New York Film Festival used to offer a minimalist presentation of 25 films, with a few small sidebars. While no one would confuse this year’s festival with the hundreds of films on display at the Toronto Film Festival, it’s starting to balloon.
The main slate consists of 33 films. “Views From the Avant-Garde” offers up 21 programs, most of them comprised of shorts. There are sidebars focusing on older films — everything from “Lawrence of Arabia” to obscurities like the 1972 Iranian film “Downpour” — and on the French TV series “Cineastes of Our Time.”
As far as I could tell, the Filipino film “Bwakaw” (Oct. 7, 6 p.m.; Oct. 10, 6:30 p.m.; Oct. 12, 3:30 p.m.) and Brian de Palma’s “Passion” (Sep. 29, 9 p.m.; Oct. 6, 9 p.m.; Oct. 11, 3:15 p.m.) are the only main slate entries with LGBT content, but the full program also includes work by out gay directors like "The Paperboy" filmmaker Lee Daniels and avant-garde master Nathaniel Dorsky.
French director Léos Carax’s first feature in 13 years, “Holy Motors" (Oct. 11, 6 p.m.) is a constantly surprising delight. Refreshingly, it never explains its bizarre premise: Oscar (Denis Lavant) travels around Paris in a stretch limo all day in a variety of elaborate make-ups and costumes, apparently participating in role-play scenarios. Sometimes, he seems to be working with willing female participants, although one wonders why a teenage girl would want to reenact an argument with her father. At other times, he participates in real violence.
“Holy Motors” is clearly a metaphor for acting, but labeling it as such does nothing to lessen its mystery. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it springs another shock.
Carax’s first three films expressed a young man’s swooning romanticism, while 1999’s “Pola X” showed the bitterness that can result when that emotion as well as Carax’s career burned themselves out.
“Holy Motors” is a perpetual motion machine — featuring two musical numbers, one performed by Kylie Minogue — that expresses a hope for cinema’s future filtered through a middle-aged maturity and concern with mortality.
“Amour” (Oct. 5, 6 p.m.; Oct. 6, 3 p.m.), made in France by Austrian director Michael Haneke, dazzled audiences at Cannes, where it won the top prize. I feel a lot more ambivalent about it. Haneke’s command of the medium is impressive. He rarely moves the camera, and most of the film takes place inside an elderly couple’s spacious apartment. Yet the film never seems claustrophobic.
Haneke has a reputation for punishing his characters and the audience — he opened his 1992 film “Benny’s Video” with ugly video footage of a pig being slaughtered — but at first “Amour” seems like a real change of pace. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are likable and kind to each other. In Haneke’s world, that’s a rarity.
Unfortunately, Anne is soon felled by a stroke that paralyzes the right side of her body. It’s true only up to a point that Haneke spends less time than usual depicting cruelty in “Amour.” Scenes like the one in which a nurse washes Anne in the shower while she moans “hurts” suggest that Haneke has merely found a more palatable outlet for his usual sadism. Nevertheless, Trintignant’s performance is one of the best the octogenarian actor has ever delivered, and he brings a touch of humanity missing from Haneke’s weaker work.
Like Jean-Luc Godard’s “Histoire(s) du Cinema” and Thom Andersen’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Rodney Ascher’s documentary “Room 237” (Oct. 4 & 8, 9 p.m.), screening as part of the “Cinema Reflected” sidebar, shows the possibilities of the video essay form. Based on audio interviews with five obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and images drawn mostly from that film, it initially seems like an exercise in analyzing YouTube videos purporting to show that Nicki Minaj or Jay-Z have joined the Illuminati.
Each of Ascher’s subjects has a distinct interpretation of “The Shining.” These range from the plausible (it’s an allegory of the Holocaust or the genocide of Native Americans) to the outrageous (it’s Kubrick’s confession that he staged a fake moon landing.) However, Ascher seems to respect his subjects, and he points out odd continuity errors and hidden messages that seem to lend credence to their theories.
“Room 237” enters into a delirium of interpretation, as it obsessively repeats the same images from Kubrick’s film while its soundtrack espouses theories about “The Shining.” One’s impulse to laugh is always held at bay, even at the film’s wildest. The “death of the author” was one of the key innovations of postmodern critical theory, but Ascher’s subjects place a great deal of faith in Kubrick’s will to micromanage near-subliminal details.
“Room 237” testifies to the empowerment of the viewer by video technology; the repeat viewing, as well as the frame-by-frame analysis its subjects have engaged in, would have been impossible before the advent of home video. It’s up to us to decide if this is a positive step.
In 2010, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami ended almost a decade of mediocre experimental video work with the brilliant “Certified Copy.” Now he’s followed that film up with “Like Someone in Love” (Oct. 4, 6 p.m.; Oct. 8, 6:15 p.m.), which was made in Japan rather than Italy but echoes its precursor in key ways. An old man (Tadashi Okuno) and a young female college student (Rin Takanashi), who moonlights as an escort, decide to pretend to be relatives.
Like many Kiarostami films, “Like Someone in Love” features a plethora of conversations in cars. Its most purely pleasurable scene takes place in a taxi, as the student listens to her voicemail messages while we take in the neon sights of downtown Tokyo.
Elsewhere, Kiarostami shows little interest in interacting with the city’s seductive landscape. The film’s other high point is its final scene, which serves up a virtuoso orchestration of sound design and offscreen space, as well a retread of the final shot of “Certified Copy.” In between, “Like Someone in Love” drags, summoning ghosts of better Kiarostami films to little impact.
50TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL | Lincoln Center | Sep. 28-Oct. 14 | Tickets begin at $20 at filmlinc.com