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The 2011 New York Film Festival

This year was DVD Talk's first at the New York Film Festival, one of the country's most durable (49 years and counting) and respected cinematic feasts. True to form, this 2011 festival included several Oscar hopefuls making an early bid for buzz in award season, as well as several noteworthy documentaries and foreign films out to rack up some good reviews. Your humble correspondent was unable to see everything I'd hoped (such a thing is seldom possible), but I did manage to take in all of the big, centerpiece films, as well as a few other, smaller pictures. Time did not permit me to take in Shame, The Artist, Miss Bala, Goodbye First Love, and a few others that seem to have made considerable impressions in their festival screenings; hopefully I'll catch up with those in general release.

But there was no shortage of greatness among the 14 films I saw--terrific performances, risky storytelling, tremendous craftsmanship. Here's some of the best of the best:

TOP FIVE FILMS OF THE NYFF:

1. Martha Marcy May Marlene: Writer/director Sean Durkin's extraordinary debut feature uses elegant transitions, knockout photography, and a brilliant leading performance by Elizabeth Olsen to tell two interlocking stories of a woman being pulled into, and pushing herself away from, a smiling commune that begins to look more and more like a dangerous cult.

2. Melancholia:Anxious, convincing, unnerving cinema from director Lars von Trier, who here takes on nothing less than the end of the world. Kirsten Dunst won a richly-deserved Best Actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for her peerless performance as a clinically depressed young bride, while co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg beautifully conveys the hopelessness and despair of trying to get through to someone who is, well, filled with hopelessness and despair. Yes, von Trier is a pain in the ass, but he remains a major talent, and Melancholia is his best work in a decade.

3. Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel: No film at NYFF better captured the sheer joy of cinema than Alex Stapleton's wonderful documentary profile of low-budget legend Roger Corman. Corman wasn't a serious filmmaker, but Corman's World takes him seriously--as an exploiter, and as an artist, and often as both simultaneously. Filled with hilarious clips and marvelous stories from a who's-who of 1970s Hollywood, it's a wonderful picture, pure pleasure; it makes you want to go out and make movies.

4. A Separation:Asghar Farhadi's Iranian drama is a dizzying complex and multi-faceted morality play, setting up a small tragedy and investigating the implications with the precision of a whodunit. Farhadi enables, in shifting but equal measure, both anger towards and sympathy for everyone involved; we're drawn in so close by the style (which is intimate without being self-conscious) that the anxiety of the people onscreen becomes our own.

5. George Harrison: Living in the Material World: Martin Scorsese's two-part, three-and-a-half hour documentary portrait of the "quiet Beatle"is the story of a man on a life-long search for answers; it delves deep into the substance of his spiritual journey, and the struggle of maintaining it. Because it takes that element of his life so seriously, we feel real emotion and something akin to genuine enlightenment when his story reaches its end; we get attached to this man, and feel as though we know something of him after spending this much time getting a handle on who he was. Scorsese lets us observe and regard a full and complex life, and feel as though we understand it a touch better afterwards. This is a masterful film.

GREATISH PERFORMANCES:

Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, George Clooney in The Descendants, PeymanMoaadi in A Separation, Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, Christoph Waltz in Carnage, Antonio Banderas in The Skin I Live In.

Thanks to all of the nice folks at Lincoln Center for making DVD Talk so welcome, and for their continuing commitment to great cinema. See you next year!

FULL LIST OF OUR NYFF REVIEWS:

Carnage
Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
A Dangeous Method
The Descendants
George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Melancholia
My Week with Marilyn
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
A Separation
The Skin I Live In
Tahrir
This is Not A Film
Vito

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