The Last Picture Show

For a time there, between the invasion of the Republicans and vapid Fashion Week, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the cultural elite in New York might never return.

During the dark days of summer, Times Square became our cultural fiefdom and The Lion King its jewel in the crown. Elitism and intellectualism were suddenly four-letter words. Alien vs. Predator reigned over the box office. Miramax was flinging staff members to the streets. We absconded from the city and, when we returned, we found that the city seemed to have absconded from us.

But now it’s officially autumn—elsewhere, a sign of decay; in this city, a sign of rebirth, with the first crisp, cold wind blowing the foul stench of warm garbage away. Goodbye, tourists gaping at ostentatious billboards in the sky. Hello, Columbia intellectuals flocking to those dear, gray Great Society–era buildings of Lincoln Center. Yes, we’re atoning for our dog-day sins, and we’re doing it at the altar of the New York Film Festival.

The first salvo against vacuous summer delights was launched in late July, with the announcement that the French, female director Agnès Jaoui’s Look at Me would open the NYFF on Oct. 1. It was a statement that however “big tent” and commercial Sundance, Toronto, Cannes and Tribeca have gotten, the New York Film Festival would be sticking to its 42-year-old roots: giving priority to qualité over célébrité. “Obviously, we like to have an opening film that sends a signal.” said Richard Peña, the festival’s director for 17 years, sitting in a warren-like Film Society office in Lincoln Plaza with a tan jacket hanging on his thick frame.

This year, the NYFF will screen just 25 films over a 17-day period. It will fête NYFF stalwart Pedro Almodóvar—his Academy Award–winning Talk to Her closed the festival in 2002, and All About My Mother opened it in 1999—and show his most recent work, the noir Bad Education, starring the smoldering Gael García Bernal, as the centerpiece film. Alexander Payne—another NYFF regular—will close the festival with Sideways, starring a misanthropic Paul Giamatti and a hilarious Thomas Haden Church ( Wings) as two aging college buddies.

This small and super-exclusive slate stands in stark contrast to what seems like every other notable film festival on the planet. In January, Sundance screened 255 films, with 82 world premieres. In March, Tribeca answered with 250 and 30, respectively. Cannes clocked in at 56 and 46, in May, and Toronto trailed in earlier this month with 328 and 100. All of these events have become mega-malls of the film world: one-stop shopping for every buyer’s needs.

The New York Film Festival used to be a hot spot for acquisitions, but that time has come and gone. Its boutique size, elitist philosophy and penchant for auteurism make it an anachronism. And we are all better off for it.

“It is by far the last of its kind,” said New York industry veteran Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which has four films in the festival. “What’s great about it, and always been great about it—it’s about cinema.”

The New York Film Festival has held onto the one thing that is hardest to replicate in the film industry, or any industry: prestige.

“One of my first weeks at [Fox] Searchlight was attending the festival with Boys Don’t Cry,” said Nancy Utley, the subsidiary’s president of marketing, invoking the movie that won Hilary Swank an Academy Award in 2001. “And that screening led to a ton of free publicity and was one of the factors in getting the ball rolling toward all of the acclaim that the film got.”

Last year’s festival alone sent Mystic River, Barbarian Invasions and 21 Grams barreling toward Academy Award nominations.

To be sure, every year people dispute the quality of both the omitted and the included. Most recently, Mr. Peña felt the wrath of documentary behemoth Michael Moore for not accepting Bowling for Columbine. Mr. Moore repeatedly denounced the festival in subsequent interviews (our call to him was not returned), and according to Mr. Peña, whose committee did accept Mr. Moore’s first work, Roger and Me, the two had a short falling-out. All seems well now, though: Mr. Moore recently graced the cover of Film Comment, the society’s official publication.

Telling directors whose work he has admired in the past that it will not make the cut this year is just part of the job description for Mr. Peña. “Every year, I think it is important that the audience feels that our selection, whatever it is, has been an honest one,” he said. “And that we chose films because we really believe in them.”

“Nobody buys their way into the New York Film Festival,” said Mr. Bernard. “Nobody bullies their way in. No one is selected unless they are deemed worthy by the committee. It gives a movie a certain pedigree with the critical community that can’t be bought.”

In the independent-film world, acquisitions executives are constantly on the lookout for the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Bend It Like Beckham. But at the NYFF, there is nary a (working) film buyer in sight; almost all of the films arrive at the festival with distribution already secured. Overall, far more sweat is produced by filmmakers awaiting their reviews in The New York Times than by publicists or agents hustling for their clients.

This year, big Hollywood heavyweights seem particularly marginalized. Last year’s opening-night entry of Mystic River had more stars—Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden, just for starters—than all of the films this year combined. “I would be lying if I said that there weren’t certain moments where people said, ‘Well, there aren’t big stars here,’” Mr. Peña said. “But then we thought, ‘We’ve never been a big-star festival.’”

At the NYFF, the red carpet is reserved for the directors. Ever since its inception in 1963, a year after critic Andrew Sarris published Notes on the Auteur Theory, those behind the camera have taken center stage at the NYFF. “Now, how do you define auteurism?” asked Mr. Peña, who teaches film theory to both undergraduates and grad students at Columbia. “You could define the notion of auteurism in every sense from the notion of the centrality of the director, in terms of the creative process, to a kind of sense that once you discover certain artists, you follow all of their work.”

But that doesn’t mean the festival promotes auteurs for auteurs’ sake. “I think if you follow the festival over the years and see work by certain directors, often that work deepens and grows in the sense that auteurist criticism argues,” Mr. Peña said. “But even our dedication to certain auteurs never guarantees them a slot.”

Call it mere coincidence, then, that there’s such an abundance of legends this year. Jean-Luc Godard will screen his latest movie, a visual poem about war, Notre Musique. Ingmar Bergman has Saraband, the sequel to 1973’s Scenes From a Marriage and more than likely his last film. The aforementioned Mr. Almodóvar contributes a sexually charged investigation of Catholic boyhood. New Wave director Eric Rohmer has Triple Agent, a love story set in 1930’s Paris. Hero ’s Zhang Yimou, who opened the festival in 1995 with Shanghai Triad, returns with another kung-fu masterpiece, House of Flying Daggers. The Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien returns with an indirect tribute to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu in Café Lumiere. And the U.K.’s Mike Leigh offers up Vera Drake, a compassionate tale about a maid who helps women get rid of unwanted pregnancies.

It is a tony list, to be sure. But at this point, any discerning cineaste might wonder: What’s in store for American art-house cinema?

It’s an eclectic array: Alexander Payne’s Sideways, Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, David Gordon Green’s Undertow and Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane.

“At best I was thinking a night at Anthology Film Archives or Galapagos or Hole in the Wall Coffee Shop in Williamsburg, but never, never this,” said first-time director Mr. Caouette, 31, from his home in Astoria, Queens.

An impressionistic account of his troubled relationship with his own mother, who is mentally ill, Tarnation was put together using iMovie software, weaving together home-video footage, pop-culture references and phone-message recordings into a unique emotional and narrative tapestry. Total cost: $218.32. You read that right.

“It’s unbelievable that this film has gone from my desktop computer to a 35-millimeter print with a worldwide release in, like, less than a year,” Mr. Caouette said.

Championed by Hedwig and the Angry Inch director John Cameron Mitchell and Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant (both signed on as executive producers), and previously screened at Sundance, Cannes and Toronto, Tarnation is the most surprising success story of the festival calendar.

“I would love to think that this film could be a catalyst for anybody that’s never felt like they’ve had a voice,” Mr. Caouette said. “I was always intimidated by the film industry and the whole idea of raising money to make a film. And we don’t really need to necessarily live in that kind of world anymore. I really, really—as God is my witness—really believe that filmmaking is really as easy as picking up a pen and paper now.” (Let us be the first to say that this might not be a good thing.)

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Mr. Green’s Undertow, a fictional account of two Southern brothers (Jamie Bell from Billy Elliot and child actor Devon Alan) who run away from home after their disturbed uncle (Josh Lucas) returns from prison. Chaotic confrontations with their father (Dermot Mulroney) ensue. The film is framed as a recollection of previous events.

“Their faded memory, their confused memory—that’s what interests me,” said the 29-year-old Mr. Green in a Southern twang, sitting Indian-style on the floor of a conference room in Toronto. Even with two features under his belt ( George Washington and All the Real Girls, both well-received by critics), he still looked like a fresh-faced film-school student.

“If somebody comes home from a hard day of work and has something funny to tell me, they better exaggerate it and make it really good,” said Mr. Green, expounding on his theory of narrative. “I don’t want to hear just this normal version; I don’t want to hear what really happened. Who comes back from a date and talks about the peck on the cheek? Nobody—it’s not interesting. Don’t tell me that shit.”

Mr. Green was mentored by director Terence ( Badlands) Malick, who became the producer on Undertow.

“I respect his movies because they feel like the movies that you can touch,” said Mr. Green. “It’s nothing remarkable; it’s just well-done earth. You know? It’s just capturing life, and moments and thoughts—that kind of odd, lyrical journey.

“I don’t in any way try to imply that I have an armpit of that guy’s talent,” he added with a grin.

Palindromes, Todd Solondz’s fifth film in 15 years, is characteristically controversial. A 13-year-old girl is played by several actresses of varying ages, including a 42-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh. The girl, Aviva, runs away from home after her mother (Ellen Barkin) forces her to have an abortion. She winds up in the hands of the Sunshine Family, Christian zealots who take in physically and mentally handicapped children abandoned by their parents, and has a sexual encounter with a truck driver three times her age.

“There’s nothing that I address in my work that isn’t already out there in a much more sordid display, on TV or in papers, any day of the week,” said Mr. Solondz, the granddaddy of the group at 44, dining on a bowl of oatmeal with sliced banana in Toronto. Still looking for distribution as of press time, Mr. Solondz was hoping to avoid the censorship fiasco of Storytelling, where Universal forced him to cover up certain scenes with a big red box.

“In a certain sense, [ Palindromes] is my most discreet, most very tactful movie,” he said. “What makes it difficult is that it’s not a polemic. It’s a film that is full of all sorts of ambiguity on subjects that are very hot-button. What is shocking is that maybe it does not come with a liberal bias—that it isn’t functioning as a kind of statement or message movie along those lines.”

The title, he said, is a reference to how people remain the same throughout life, no matter how much they seem to change on the surface—sort of like a palindrome, a word that’s spelled the same forward and backward.

“While some people may, of course, describe me as hateful and misanthropic and cruel—and there are a few other adjectives that I’m omitting along those lines—I think in part it’s because of the expectations of what a movie is supposed to do for you,” Mr. Solondz explained in his nasally voice as The Observer continued to scratch its head over the whole palindrome thing. “But for me, it’s hard to make a celebration of humanity when I read the newspaper every day, and I see every day the atrocities that go on.”

No less disturbing in its way is New York native Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane, a naturalistic tale of a man dealing with the abduction of his daughter. When the man, William Keane (Damian Lewis), meets a single mother with a daughter the same age as his at a transient hotel in North Bergen, N.J., his questionable mental stability slowly begins to unravel, and the audience begins to fear the worst for the newly befriended young girl. The movie was shot entirely with a handheld camera and never waivers from its protagonist, a deliberate ploy to make the audience truly feel Keane’s grief and despair.

The protagonist is seen in every shot of the movie. “I thought that it would have the greatest emotional impact,” said Mr. Kerrigan, 40, in a phone interview. A slow worker, this director has made three films in 10 years. His 1998 film Claire Dolan was nominated for the Palmes D’Or at Cannes, the festival’s highest honor. And his first feature, Clean, Shaven, screened at MoMA’s New Directors/New Films in 1994, on the same day as the birth of his daughter, the muse behind Keane.

“The impetus for the movie came because my daughter is very independent and free-spirited, and I actively encourage it,” Mr. Kerrigan said. “And I would lose track of her in various public spaces, as most parents do with their children. The dread associated with that was really the impetus for the film.” He added, “All the films that I’ve made have started with some event that has really affected me in a visceral way.”

After seeing Palindromes and Keane, one will probably be very thankful to relax into Alexander Payne’s Sideways. A funny, insightful take on male vanity, Sideways chronicles the misadventures of a failed writer, Miles (Paul Giamatti), and a failed actor, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who embark on a bachelor party/road trip to California’s wine country to celebrate Jack’s impending wedding. While traveling, they encounter a lusty barmaid (Sandra Oh) and her good friend, a waitress (Virginia Madsen). The film marks a comeback of sorts for Ms. Madsen, the once-hopeful ingenue of Dune, who delivers a poignant monologue that will have audiences kvelling.

When The Observer met with Mr. Payne, 43, back in Toronto, he was dapperly dressed in a white button-up shirt, black pants and expensive-looking loafers, and politely offered a glass of water and then some grapes.

He talked briefly about how he uses sex in all of his films, from the blowjob scene in Election to a naked Kathy Bates in About Schmidt.

“It’s like Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors,” said Mr. Payne. “Mia Farrow says, ‘You use sex to express every emotion except love.’”

Alas, the interview quickly devolved into a tirade against the Bush administration.

These five American directors, along with the 19 foreigners at various stages of their careers, will be thrust to the forefront of art-house film criticism in the coming weeks. Every nuance of their labors will be examined for cracks and weaknesses. It is a grueling, unnerving process that a New York audience, with its congenital Schadenfreude, is particularly primed to enjoy.

“Happily, we live in a city where you can still put on a festival like this, where there are many people who have extremely exacting standards when it comes to cinema,” Mr. Peña said. “I would like to think that there are many other cities where you have this kind of audience, but I don’t really know if there are. The great ace in the hole for the New York Film Festival is New York.”