The noncompetitive, keenly curated New York Film Festival, which begins its two-week run Friday, is neither a far-ranging marketplace nor a prelude to an awards night. Therefore, it’s tempting to look upon what is, by the increasingly popular “more is more” programming standards of Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, and Tribeca, a comparatively small slate of 28 contemporary features as a reliable bellwether of global cinematic trends.
In the four decades since its creation, Lincoln Center’s autumn movie classic has, after all, introduced dozens of film-buff household names and heralded dawning cinematic dominance from Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The list of films in the 46th annual Lincoln Center survey is characteristically all over the map.
Despite the heavy presence of French films in this year’s lineup, filmmakers from South Korea, Britain, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, France, America, the Philippines, Argentina, Japan, and Poland all will be represented in the next two weeks, along with the dozens of additional co-producing nations that a fluctuating global economy increasingly requires to finance moviemaking. Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman” boasts production credits from three nations in addition to Ms. Martel’s native Argentina. “Tulpan,” directed by Kazakhstan-born Sergei Dvortsevoy, arrives at the festival via additional financial support from Germany, Poland, Russia, and Switzerland.
A festival season boasting a reworked Hong Kong wuxia marital arts film (Wong Kar-wai’s “Ashes of Time Redux”), a low-key contemporary take on the ’70s American road movie (Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy”), a four-hour historical biopic (Steven Soderbergh’s “Che”), a period true-crime movie (Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling”), a contemporary gangster picture (Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah”), a film depicting the redemption of a fallen sports hero (Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”), a supernatural meditation on guilt (Ms. Martel’s “The Headless Woman”), and a wintery family melodrama (Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale”) arguably makes 2008 the year of the genre in New York.
What’s particularly interesting is the degree to which festival filmmakers both romance and subvert the accumulated conventions of the story forms they’ve chosen to explore. Ms. Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,” for instance, uses the ambling rhythms and off-the-beaten-path Americana portraiture that is characteristic of such ’70s-era horizon-hugging tableaux as Monte Hellman’s “Two-Lane Blacktop” and Thomas McGuane’s “92 in the Shade” to examine cracks, leaks, and outright dam bursts in the fragile economic bubble tenuously sheltering the American middle class. Though it begins with a credit-sequence montage of brilliantly shot and edited intersecting train tracks and train cars, evoking a vestigial baby-boomer “discover America” ethos, “Wendy and Lucy” ultimately is a portrait of two would-be free spirits trapped in the hardening circumstantial amber of bad luck and tough times. Like Ms. Reichardt’s debut feature, “River of Grass,” “Wendy and Lucy,” is a road movie about not being equipped to hit the road.
After Walter Salles’s facile 2004 big-screen biography of Ernesto Guevara, “The Motorcycle Diaries,” the prospect of another Hollywood examination of the life of the Argentine Marxist might seem redundant. Nevertheless, Mr. Soderbergh’s “Che” has much to recommend it in advance. The fact that the film was initially conceived as a project for “The Thin Red Line” and “Days of Heaven” filmmaker Terrence Malick, and weighs in at nearly five hours (the NYFF screening comprises two complete feature films, “The Argentine” and “Guerrilla”) suggests that “Che” may have the necessary scope and detail to circumnavigate the dull-headed anachronisms and self-conscious “you are there” declarations that hamper most contemporary retellings of popular history.
Mr. Wong’s “Ashes of Time Redux” is not just an aesthetic foray into the venerable wuxia mystic martial arts genre it’s actually a revisit to a prior visit. A meditative semi-adaptation of Chinese author Jin Yong’s multiple-volume novel “The Legend of the Condor Heroes” (a source malleable enough to have spawned a separate 1993 comic reworking produced by Mr. Wong), “Ashes of Time” was originally released in 1994 to mixed reviews, poor box-office receipts, and complete disinterest on the part of American distributors still six years away from the success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
In the years since, Mr. Wong told the Sun, he has determined that another version was not only warranted, but necessary.
“I’ve come to realize that there are several different versions of ‘Ashes of Time’ in circulation,” the director said, “some approved by me, some not. To rectify this situation, we decided to revisit this project and to create the definitive version.”
In returning to “Ashes of Time,” Mr. Wong has taken full advantage of improvements in digital postproduction technology. The filmmaker’s signature lush visual style (aided immeasurably by his now former collaborator, the cinematographer Christopher Doyle) has received an extensive state-of-the-art makeover.
Though seen on-screen recently in David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” the Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski has not directed a feature since 1982’s “Moonlighting,” a film that, like his current entry “Four Nights With Anna,” made its American debut at the New York Film Festival. A perversely mannered and beautifully crafted portrait of a rural Polish loner and his one-sided romantic obsession not to mention crime, punishment, and absolution (though not in that order) “Four Nights With Anna” evokes the cinema savvy and masterful command of black humor that Mr. Skolimowski shares with another Polish director and sometime actor of his generation, Roman Polanski.
Mr. Skolomiwski’s entry in this year’s New York Film Festival elegantly doubles back over thematic terrain he covered earlier in his career. “Four Nights With Anna” mirrors the filmmaker’s trenchant and miraculously nonjudgmental assessment of masculine desire at its most authentically aberrant, 1971’s “Deep End.” Like several of the more prominent entries in the New York Film Festival’s year of the genre, “Four Nights With Anna” represents a past master accepting the challenge presented by the excellence of his own prior work.
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