Apocalypse: If Not Now, Maybe Next Week?

The New York Film Festival has landed -- with Roman Polanski's Carnage, a gala event deprived of my presence on account of the fact that I wasn't invited, so I can't report on it. Neat, nasty and New-York-set, Carnage (which I caught earlier) makes a nice opener. It's about two couples who meet with civilized intentions to resolve a schoolyard fight between their two sons, but everyone ends up going postal. Despite wickedly honed turns from the likes of Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly, the film doesn't quite work, unable to bust through its origins as a stage piece by Yasmina Reza.

What does work: the overall programming of this 49th fest. Credit recently appointed Executive Director Rose Kuo, who's into making the Film Society (focusing on the new Elinor Bunin Munroe theater) a film-lover's destination; and such programmers as genial, smart Scott Foundas.

In past years the fest has been labeled elitist and obscurantist, accused of overly catering to cinephiles whose idea of fun might be genital mutilation (Antichrist by Lars von Trier), humping trash cans (Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers, which is in fact a brilliant, dark vision of America's marginalized that I can't wait to see again), or the oeuvre of Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr, whose The Man from London was so turgid the spilkes in my row in Cannes caused the entire theater to vibrate. (His new The Turin Horse promises better.)

This year, though, the fest has achieved a near-perfect balance between accessible films, even -- GASP -- crowd pleasing, and art house. Come to think of it, even the auteurs in this iteration are pleasing crowds, to judge by Le Havre by Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki, and The Descendants from Alexander Payne (about which more later).

A second hallmark of this year's fest: a sense of impending doomsday. Apocalypse -- if not now, next week. Artists are like canaries in the mine. They pick up the news faster than the rest of us, or at least articulate what keeps us awake at night. Two films literally take on the end of the world. First, Abel Ferrara's rather goofy 4:44 Last Day on Earth, a step backwards after Go Go Tales, a screwball comedy centered on a Manhattan dancing club. Ferrara has an endearing New Yawk gruffness, and how can you not like a filmmaker who grew up in Peekskill? Last Day on Earth self-destructs, though, by focusing on Willem Dafoe and his much-younger painter girlfriend (Shanyn Leigh), who looks like a painter like I look like Jackson Pollock. Mainly they have sex in their loft and watch the clock. Displaying flashes of Ferrara's comic schtick, the Manhattan awaiting doomsday outside the loft is as frenzied and nuts as regular New York: there's a priceless tussle between Dafoe, his current squeeze, and his ex-wife, yelling on Skype. And there's a well-meaning attempt to hitch the planet's demise to global warming. But older guys in the sack with babes? C'mon, enough already. Dialog overheard on the queue for the movie: Shanyn Leigh's not much of an actress. Oh, you didn't know? She's Ferrara's girlfriend, etc.

Melancholia by Lars von Trier also hangs in the prelude to Earth's end. It boasts arguably the most gorgeous opening minutes ever filmed, including images of Kirsten Dunst floating Ophelia-like among the lilies à la John Millais, standing with electric current streaming from her fingers, and dragging a bridal train weighed down with nets and debris -- an inspired metaphor for depression. In fact, the rest of the film never quite delivers on the promise of that prelude -- set to Wagner's prelude to Tristan und Isolde, no less. Also, maybe using the Tristan is an easy shot; you could film the phone book to that score and make it sublime. That said, and despite some longueurs, Melancholia leaves one ecstatic.

The title refers both to a planet on course to collide with Earth and the crippling depression of new bride Justine (Dunst, rightful winner of Best Actress in Cannes), whose mental illness drives away her groom during a wedding reception from hell. She's tended by sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, whom my son feels is reason to see any film). The balance of power shifts as Claire, the sane one, goes bonkers at approaching doomsday. Justine, though, quasi embraces it, with some of cinema's most chilling language (but what did you expect from Lars?). Essentially the world according to the Danish provocateur ain't worth much. "I hate you and your firm," Justine tells the boss of her PR agency, in a typical von Trier swipe at capitalist endeavor. She later reassures her sister, "The Earth is evil; we don't have to grieve for it." The filmmaker's famous depression has gone cosmic. Tomorrow I meet some of the folks behind this masterwork and hope to report further.