A week removed from the final press screening of the New York Film Festival, I have had a little more time to think about this year’s festivities after the verbal fireworks that were threatened to diminish the actual program being presented. Some of these charges have come from critics (who will remain nameless) who I assume no one takes seriously, but the more surprising charges have come from AO Scott the The New York Times. Given his stature, his piece roused the rabble of pretty much everyone, including this critic. This post is my festival wrap up (a top ten is posted at the end) and an attempt to grapple with the criticisms offered by Mr. Scott in light of the actual festival of films being presented, which get less than half the actual text of Scott’s piece. I wondered if it was worth responding to in the first place. Full of baffling contradictions, I honestly have had a hard time trying to discover where Scott is coming from and what he is after. So, a festival of the multiplex? An underground festival? A conceptual festival of popular, passably interesting, fun movies yet to be made? Still, I got worked up enough I couldn’t help but give some thoughts. Please excuse this former debater for the self-indulgence. If you’re just here for the top 10, feel free to skip down to the end.
This week, AO Scott resituated himself as the smarter-than-the-populus populist in the New York Times, shifting his role from film critic to axe grinder, shredding the festival as one that “seems to have been organized in pointed opposition to the pleasure principle” and challenging the selection committee as critics out to sustain their own worldviews entrenched in guilt and depravity. Mr. Scott goes on to call the situation “festivalism” which fails to recognize “the nature and value of fun.” Following that with a quotation from TS Eliot, Mr. Scott plays both sides in his call for some kind of middle ground, again accusing the critics of programming the festival “more as critics than as curators” – an especially odd suggestion after Mr. Scott slams the cohesion of theme of the overall festival. Curatorial work is the thing where you use a variety of works to build around a central idea, right? Seems both worlds would be met (even though it’s a misplaced cry to suggest there is an actual theme other than the simple criticism that “those movies were depressing,” which, naturally, is also not all true.) What exactly is required to make a variety? 26 films of 26 different genres from 26 different countries? Instead, it just seems to be a complaint about festivals, in general. The general criticisms of festivals showing the same films over and over, making it a participatory back-and-forth between the same groups of people, is valid, but I wonder what the alternative is. Seeing as Mr. Scott doesn’t really discuss the films at hand and rather merely their status as “festival movies,” it hard to say if an addition of more accessible [American] titles such as A Serious Man or Where The Wild Things Are (two of the three most mentioned films amongst the “snubs,” along with Audiard’s A Prophet which was also at Cannes) would have transformed this, or if maybe its just a sad, depressing year for international movies. But, again, I ask what is the alternative? A festival full of Hollywood films? Or films never before seen? Or more passable international work? Who knows. Mr. Scott’s piece ends up being a call against festivals, more than anything else, offering no suggestions or alternatives other than “find other movies.” Good luck with that.
Ah, but who actually does offer something? The selection committee. Love it, like it, or hate it, they were, in fact, showing something over there at Avery Fisher for the last two weeks. Scott’s claims can’t really be dismissed, or verified, without talking about the movies – something I have tried to do here throughout the course of the festival, and something which some major outlets have failed to do, instead turning their nose up at the smell of something serious asking for more popular alternatives. Yet, “festivalism”’s key feature is showing films that have not been seen before and may never be seen again. Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, New York all feature multiple titles that will never get distribution or only get distribution because of their presence at such festivals. This makes these festivals and their ongoing presence a celebration of work being done around the world. Rather than spit at what we’re given, it seems infinitely more positive, amid the dark films, to actually consider them for what they are and why they are here at this time, rather than searching for an enjoyable program of world movies that don’t exist. Moreover, I wonder what kind of “variety” people are missing. Mr. Scott calls for variety and unpredictability –two tenets I would strongly second. He finds weakness in the predictable selections allowing no room for “high-minded middlebrowism” to actually find an audience. Yet again, as Selection Committee head Richard Pena has said in years past, what is lacking is not adventurous movies, but adventurous audiences. Have any of these films been seen in New York before? In the United States? And have we become so redundantly theme-heavy in our criticism that major critics have actually started believing that this isn’t a variety? In a festival with numerous documentaries, ranging greatly in style and substance, foreign films, from old masters and young guns, and, yes, challenging films embraced by audiences at other festivals, the New York Film Festival continues to represent the best of world cinema out there in a given year. Party lines might be followed, as Mr. Scott says, but it’s a party for everyone and everything. New York, let’s keep the party going.
And now, the top 10 from a very strong slate of very different movies.
1. Trash Humpers
2. Ne Change Rien
3. Police, Adjective
5. To Die Like A Man
6. Everyone Else
7. Ghost Town
8. The White Ribbon
9. White Material