The New York Film Festival opened Friday with Ang Lee’s 3-D adaptation of “Life of Pi.” I’ve not seen that yet; so far, I’ve previewed a bit fewer than half the 30 main slate movies and can report three knock-outs (Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills,” Miguel Gomes’s “Tabu,” and a film, pictured above, to be named below).
Two more movies have been strongly engrossing (Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” and Pablo Larrain’s “No”). There’s been one admirable lunatic experiment (Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors”) and five films of more than passing interest (Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” Brian De Palma’s “Passion,” Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” Olivier Assayas’s “Something in the Air,” and Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love”). Not a bad percentage. All of these, save “Passion,” have distributors and are scheduled for release — I’ll concentrate on those still without portfolio.
“Araf – Somewhere in Between,” the fifth feature by Turkey’s leading female director Yeşim Ustaoğlu (showing October 4 and 13) is deeply problematic — an ill-conceived movie about a bad pregnancy that, given its sudden shifts in tone, would surely have worked better as a dark comedy. A naïve girl who works in a roadside cafeteria (and looks like a movie star) falls for a trucker some 20 years her senior, with disastrous results. Dreamy and visually dramatic in Ceylan mode, the movie starts slowly, builds to an extended, agonizing “retribution” scene, and then swerves into what might be the director’s metaphor for the confinement of life in contemporary Turkey.
Winner of the prize for best first feature in Locarno, Song Fang’s “Memories Look at Me” (showing once on October 7) is something like a heady draught of the most delicate imaginable herbal tea. Song, who played the film student-nanny in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon,” here appears as herself — returning to Nanjing to spend some time with her aging parents and other family members. That the movie was produced by Jia Zhangke suggests that this seemingly straightforward verité may have some fictional elements; certainly the compositions, mainly in Song’s snug parental apartment, are studied and the camera is never acknowledged.
The title is crucial. Song’s parents are her memories and the movie is about her coming to terms with their aging and eventual deaths. While her father, a doctor, is a bit reserved, her mother is more emotionally forthcoming, most affectingly in recalling her own mother’s death. The movie, which might strike some as less tragic than tragically dull, often flirts with nothingness. There’s a fair amount of silence and some striking shots wherein the camera simply observes the parents dozing. As family drama, “Memories Look at Me” makes those of master minimalist Yasujiro Ozu seem like “The Young and the Restless.” In a way it’s like Ozu in reverse — the child struggling with the realization that her parents are slipping away. “Ma, I’d like to go back to being 17,” Song says at one point. But it’s not her youth that she’s pining for; it’s her mother’s remembered youthfulness. Song has made a movie about passing the time that inexorably compels recognition of time passing.
There’s a more ferocious sort of subtlety at work in “Leviathan,” a truly startling documentary made by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, aboard a commercial fishing boat out of New Bedford. Showing but once (October 13), it’s the festival’s third must-see — although not to every taste. (People didn’t walk out of the press screening, they ran.) Castaing-Taylor comes out of ethnographic film (the cowboy herding doc “Sweetgrass” is his best-known work) but “Leviathan,” which begins by quoting the Book of Job, is closer to Stan Brakhage’s Pittsburgh trilogy than any conventional documentary.
Aurally clamorous and visually ravishing, shot mainly at night and mostly in close-up with a precipitously lurching camera, “Leviathan” abstracts the harvesting and processing of seafood into a vision of terrible beauty. The editing is convulsive yet seamless. The emphasis is on the fish brought out of a dark seething sea. (The movie is nearly over before you hear something like a human conversation.) “Leviathan” is in every way sensational — I can’t imagine how it was made but if it were shown in 3-D it might be too much for the senses to bear.