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The complex interface between the class schedule of a college student and that of the New York Film Festival results in an fascinating kind of liminal experience. No thank you to Cemetery of Splendour, Right Now, Wrong Then, and the new creation of my beloved Chantal Akerman, No Home Movie–saddled as they are with Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon slots, I have to put my studies first. In their stead, the more reasonably scheduled films are almost invariably those hovering at the margins of the Festival. Low budget, under-promoted, or made for TV, these passion projects provide a certain buoyancy to the heft of a Steve Jobs or Bridge of Spies. Quite often, as it happens, these films are documentaries. (Ethan Hawke’s plaintive Seymour: An Introduction was one of the three or so movies I was able to catch at last year’s Festival, as well.)

Swimming through the manic sea of NYFF with these intimate projects as my guide, I couldn’t help but feel like Double Exposure’s Robert Christgau, attending to the fleeting minutia of whatever movie moseyed along my path. My relationship with these movies is no less serious for its swiftness or its profligacy, and like Christgau I feel the tug of some subterranean reflex to write about them. What better way to do that than with the kind of compact, sharp-tongued–not to mention graded–capsules associated with the man himself? (No better way! Good, you’re catching on.)

Everything is Copy:

Nora Ephron eulogized by her journalist son Jacob Bernstein for HBO, and insofar as this is a movie with a specific look and feel, it’s sadly the last of those proper nouns that dominates. Copy has a formulaic made-for-TV documentary sheen and then some: pans across photographs à la Ken Burns, clean digitally shot interviews/genuflections, that same goddamn pizzicato soundtrack. But throw a stopper on your formal sensibilities and the weight and warmth of Ephron comes to life. Many will watch for the part where Lena Dunham and Reese Witherspoon read through her old columns. Or the section detailing her acrimonious breakup with Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein. I liked the part about her late-career bombs, some of them just as essential as Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally. Anyone remember Hanging Up? Lucky Numbers? How about Mixed Nuts? B

The Witness:

Another project initiated by the sibling of a much-loved figure gone too soon, here we have the brother of Kitty Genovese, the paraplegic Vietnam vet Bill Genovese, reinvestigating her death about fifty years after it shocked newspaper-readers and psychology professors throughout America. The inquiry starts cleanly enough, even if its thematic load is heavy: did Kitty really die of multiple stab wounds on a street in Kew Gardens while thirty-eight witnesses watched, apparently unmoved? The movie soon spirals out of control, as often happens when a character as foolhardy as Bill can’t stop asking the right questions. The penultimate scene, no joke, finds Bill enlisting a young actress to scream bloody murder in the dark of a Kew Gardens night, to see if yet again she will be ignored. It’s bonkers–the kind of inexplicable spark all too absent from these documentaries. A-

We Are Alive:

There were maybe about ten people in the theater for this 10AM offering from Marxist documentarian Carmen Castillo. Scan the synopsis and you’ll see why: a feature-length appreciation of the late French Trotskyist Daniel Bensaïd? Umm…maybe later. Bensaïd, I’ll have you know, plays a marginal and frankly cumbersome role in the film, reduced to excerpts from his various studies and the occasional dewy-eyed anecdote. The meat here is Castillo’s wayward travels to Chile, Mexico, France and various other locales to locate the pulse of active political resistance in the world today. Her globe-hopping seems a bit slapdash but Castillo is no Chris Marker: she’s there to listen, not to pontificate cleverly over sweeping pans of African villages. Unfortunately, even the most vigorous among her interviewees’ articulations aren’t going to make the audience wake up. B-

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs from September 25 to October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.