The glass prow of the new Alice Tully Hall jutting out at 65th & Broadway wasn’t the only sign that the New York Film Festival (September 25-October 11), now approaching the half-century mark, wants to present a new face, if not take an entirely new tack. Routinely perceived as elitist by industry insiders and audiences alike, the still-essential rendezvous that the Film Society of the Lincoln Center gives New Yorkers each fall went so far this year as to advertise in the subway! But on the whole, the festival (whose current selection committee includes Village Voice Media contributors Melissa Anderson, Scott Foundas and J. Hoberman) does well by sticking to its original charter: only 28 films, narrative and nonfiction combined, plus an increased sidebar of special events honoring the greats (this year, Indian filmmaker Guru Dutt and Raymond Chandler) and a preview of IFC’s forthcoming Red Riding trilogy. Eighty-seven-year-old Alain Resnais’ moving presence at the festival’s opening with his latest film, Wild Grass, stressed this sense of continuity: Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad was featured in the first New York Film Festival, in 1962. A special tribute to New Yorker Films founders and foreign-cinema boosters Dan and Toby Talbot seemed fitting as well, underlining the increasingly insular nature of cinema as we know it.

There is always much to like in a festival which sees itself as a store window showing the best of the year’s world production. Most of this crème de la crème was culled from other festivals — Cannes, Venice and Berlin winners were featured — but there is always the stray surprise. On the negative side, it’s laughable for a festival with such ambitions to pass on Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, arguably the most impressive film at Cannes this year and also the most audience-friendly. Fidelity to certain authors — like Manoel De Oliveira and Jacques Rivette, neither of whose latest works are essential viewing — can often verge on clientelism, but it gets worse when the truly awful Kanikosen (Japanese director Sabu’s ham-fisted take on class war aboard a crab-fishing boat) or something like Raya Martin’s Independencia get programmed. Including Pedro Costa’s take on self-indulgence (Jeanne Balibar as chanteuse, in Ne Change Rien) was indulgence itself.

On the positive side, there are always films that somehow fell through the cracks of other festival selections or commercial distribution. Last year, it was The Windmill Movie; this year it was Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town, a 2008 documentary about an isolated Chinese community that seems to have come from nowhere but proved to be very rewarding, provided one was willing to stick around for two hours and 49 minutes. In 1910, the Lisu people of a remote mountain chain in China were converted by Protestant missionaries, as we learn from a cheery old coot who claims to be the only survivor of the purges exacted by the Red Guards over a period of 30 years. And although you follow him and his pastor son, and the town drunk and his divorced wife, and a host of others, the heart of the film is really how these largely destitute people display more democratic spirit than any Revolutionary caucus: There is a wonderful scene where one man defends someone’s right to preach, “even if he’s a bad preacher.” Another image, of the village church under snow on Christmas Eve, is as unforgettable as it is weird. Hearing “In the Eaves” coming from the church in such a setting makes the image of a forlorn Chairman Mao statue superfluous.

The NYFF has been strong on documentaries of late, and this year was no exception: The Art of the Steal, about the fate of Albert Barnes’ art collection, is a true American story, and director Don Argott goes further than to merely lament the way Philadelphia’s most famous misanthropist’s world-renowned collection has been slowly but surely stolen by his worst enemies, including arch-meanie Walter Annenberg and the Pew Charitable Trusts. As it has been picked up by IFC and Sundance Selects for a 2010 release, we will be able to come back at length to the incredible story of this “Immaculate Appropriation” (as some wag has it in Argott’s film). Another popular favorite among this year’s docs was Sweetgrass, in which artists and ethnologists Ilisa Barbas and Lucien Castaing-Taylor follow Norwegian-American sheep herders around Big Timber, Montana — the last ones in the country to take the herds up-mountain in the summer to graze on public land. The film is compelling in many ways, only marred by a video picture quality not quite matching the stunning countryside. But pastoral or idyllic it is not: Sheep can even make a grown man cry to his mother on his cell phone. It’s a deserving companion piece to Brokeback Mountain, and the only “cocksuckers” in Sweetgrass are the epithets you hear the herders use (often) on their walkie-talkies.

Next to the tense and harrowing Lebanon (which shows hands down what an artistic fraud Waltz With Bashir was last year), the best narrative feature on offer was the seemingly mundane Everyone Else, which won the Silver Bear in Berlin this year. It’s only Maren Ade’s second film, but it was the best written feature at the festival, doing for the 21st-century couple what Polanski’s Knife in the Water or Antonioni’s L’Avventura were doing in the ’60s. This one even takes place on an island (Sardinia, instead of Sicily), and the main character is an architect, like Antonioni’s. Ade excels at rendering lovers’ silly banter, as well as those moments when the blissful balance shifts — usually when the couple interacts with others. In this case, it is another couple, richer and more worldly. There is one withering moment, when the man allows his guests to make fun of his mother’s taste in bedroom decor. He goes along with the jeering, maybe a little tipsy, maybe a bit spineless, but his partner’s look leaves no doubt about what just happened in her eyes. In this one minute, Ade manages to cull more truth and acuity than the entirety of Godard’s Contempt (whose actual subject wasn’t really this, anyway). One only hopes this film will get all the exposure it deserves in this country. If it does, the New York Film Festival will have served its purpose with flying colors.

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