Our Critics’ Guide to What to See at the New York Film Festival

Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams in Brian De Palma’s Passion.

The 50th annual New York Film Festival began last night with the premiere of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, but the fest hardly begins and ends with a tiger in a boat. For more than two weeks, through October 14, the event offers a vast array of narrative and international films, documentaries and remastered classics (Lawrence of Arabia!). With so much celluloid to choose from, critics David Edelstein and Bilge Ebiri got an early start to give their take on sixteen films that will be shown. Let this be your guide before you stare at the daunting schedule, wondering just what to pick.

German director Michael Haneke is a brilliant S.O.B. — a punk — whose idea of biting social commentary is the sadistic murder of innocents. But in Amour his stark gaze turns out to be — brace yourself — a higher form of compassion. This portrait of physical and mental degeneration of an elderly pianist (Emmanuelle Riva) seen through the eyes of her husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a must-see — or, rather, a must-endure. The only way you’ll ever forget it is if you get Alzheimer’s. - DE
Alan Berliner’s stunning, morally problematic doc (we can debate all this—and will) traces the mental decay of the poet Edwin Honig, still making poetry through the elusive thicket of his Alzheimer’s. You hang on his every word. - DE
The first dramatic feature of the young, ultra-Orthodox Hassidic Jew Rama Burshtein is intimate, touching, and a surprise: It’s not anti-patriarchal! She’s a believer! At the New York Film Festival yet! - DE
In a remake of the French melodrama Love Crime, Brian De Palma creates a sumptuously creepy flow and goes with it, proving yet again he’s a maestro of design and camera movement — if not always narrative. - DE
A tour-de-force of paranoid cinema by director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss as an East German doctor (it’s 1980) exiled to a small town for trying to emigrate — and watched on all fronts (not to mention cavity-searched). - DE Photo: Christian Schulz
Noah Baumbach’s Nouvelle Vague-influenced, mumblecore valentine to his girlfriend, the adorably galumphing Greta Gerwig, who plays a childlike optimist in a world of grumps. Unbearable or charming depending on your mood, but most of the sweetness comes from the cannibalized Georges Delerue’s score for King of Hearts. - DE
Barry Levinson does a verite plague horror picture with some skill but to no — at this late date — particular end. - DE
Peter Strickland’s bizarre, tongue-in-cheek, very amusing film about a mousy British sound artist (Toby Jones) who journeys to Italy to mix a low-budget giallo shocker of the Argento variety. No blood but plenty of nasty sound effects. - DE
Jeff Kaufman’s loving tribute to the hunchbacked drummer and the ballroom in which racial barriers were joyfully stomped. - DE
To call Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s film a documentary about the fishing industry would be almost comically misleading. Rather, this wordless film focuses on close-ups of the fish as they’re pulled up out of the water and stored inside the boats. And on the faces of the sailors who work them. And on the birds that feed on them. The hypnotic results approach pure abstraction — like a Stan Brakhage movie made out of machines, water, and flesh. - BE
Rodney Ascher’s obsessive movie about another obsessive movie’s obsessive superfans details several out-there theories regarding the hidden meanings behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Ascher goes into the minds of his (somewhat kooky) subjects, letting them narrate their theses as we watch scenes from the film onscreen, but he also opens up his referential universe by peppering snippets of other films throughout. Thus, a look at several people’s obsession with one specific work becomes a haunting meditation on what it’s like to lose oneself in the world of cinema itself. — BE
The enigmatic Leos Carax (Lovers on the Bridge, Pola X), makes his long-awaited return to feature filmmaking with one of the most electrifyingly unclassifiable films you’ll ever see. A stone-faced Denis Levant travels Paris in a limo, inhabiting various characters during pivotal, occasionally final, moments in their lives: Is it a depiction of the surreal nature of filmmaking, or of the divine impulse as it flits from person to person, or of the ever-shifting reality of modern man? This will make the head-scratching over The Master look like a preschool numbers class. - BE
If Wes Anderson and Robert Bresson collaborated on a black-and-white remake of Out of Africa…and then you saw that film…and then you had a dream about it…your dream might look something like Miguel Gomes’s artfully elliptical tale, which starts off depicting the strained relationship between three headstrong women in modern-day Lisbon, then transforms into a silent historical romance set in Africa. Individual scenes feel confrontationally austere – cool performances, static camera, the works. But what emerges is mind-bending and infinitely mysterious, a will-o’-the-wisp of a movie. - BE Photo: Picasa
In this compact, deceptively complex feature, which netted them the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the legendary Taviani Brothers present a group of hardcore convicts putting on a performance of Julius Caesar. The real convicts play themselves, and the Tavianis highlight the physicality of the actors and the transcendental quality of their encounter with great art to craft a beautiful, oddly postmodern fable. - BE Photo: Picasa
This loving look at a young, budding filmmaker/activist’s journey through French counterculture in the early 70s clearly carries some personal weight for writer-director Olivier Assayas (Carlos). And it often highlights his great strengths as a director – the impressionistic focus on moments, the gentle, naturalistic performances of his actors, the combination of fear and sensuality with which he shoots his women. Indeed, even Assayas’s typical inability to tell a story adds to the film’s ambling charm this time around. - BE
Magician and actor Ricky Jay makes a wonderfully engaging narrator as he presents this freewheeling account of both his own life and of the great magic acts that influenced him as a young man (guys with names like Cardini and Slydini). Along the way, he also helps deconstruct the magician persona itself. - BE
Our Critics’ Guide to the New York Film Festival