WHILE MOST FESTIVALS rush to trumpet the abundance of premieres in their lineups, the Viennale, a two-week cinephile’s delight that concluded last Wednesday, prides itself on a discerning mix of old and new. In fact, the sheer range of its retrospective programming tells you all you need to know about this ambitious, eclectic festival. This year’s edition featured a ten-film retro of the late Filipino director Lino Brocka, handpicked by his younger compatriots, including Khavn de la Cruz and Raya Martin. A parallel retrospective at the Austrian Filmmuseum, titled “The Unquiet American” and curated by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, found examples of the boisterous American character in a broad sample of “transgressive” comedies, from the freewheeling Victor Fleming–Douglas Fairbanks adventure When the Clouds Roll By (1919) to Mike Judge’s dystopian satire of butt-headedness, Idiocracy (2006).
Even the actor tributes have a whiff of the unexpected. This year’s spotlights fell on Timothy Carey, late character-mugger extraordinaire (Paths of Glory ) and director of the underground classic The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), and Tilda Swinton, represented by her Hollywood present (Michael Clayton ), her British past (various Jarmans, of course, but also rarities like Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death  and John Maybury’s Man to Man ), and her idea of a great performance: the title role in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). (“You can project yourself onto that donkey,” she explained in the program note.)
In keeping with the rich local avant-garde tradition, the Viennale has long been a prominent showcase for experimental cinema. This year’s slate featured new work by festival regular Jean-Marie Straub (Corneille-Brecht, a world premiere, directed with Cornelia Geiser), Ben Russell’s psychedelic “Trypps” series, and a program of old and new shorts by bargain-basement innovators George and Mike Kuchar (as well as a new documentary about the brothers, Jennifer Kroot’s It Came from Kuchar). The festival trailer itself is a stand-alone experimental short and a big-name commission to boot (past contributors: Stan Brakhage, Agnès Varda, and, last year, Jean-Luc Godard). This year’s, a remarkable miniature from James Benning called Fire & Rain (after James Taylor), reduces an industrial steel-rolling process to a kind of elemental equation: a stream of molten steel, a spray of water, a cloud of steam. (It’s an outtake from Benning’s latest—and first digital—work, Ruhr, which just premiered at the Duisburg Film Week.)
An event as convivial and well attended as the Viennale gives the lie to the pseudo-populist contention that a rigorous festival is necessarily audience-unfriendly—ticket sales were up this year, and many screenings were sold out or close to capacity. The main slate sweeps up many of the year’s best movies, never mind that they had premiered in Cannes (João Pedro Rodrigues’s To Die Like a Man) or Berlin (Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax). With curatorial taste much more a factor than competitions and red-carpet bait, it’s the kind of festival that offers a clear perspective on the most significant movements in contemporary world cinema. For one thing, Chinese independent film—and especially Chinese independent documentary—retains its capacity to surprise. Yu Guangyi’s video doc Survival Song (2008), which won a prize from the critics’ jury (on which I served), tells the story of a new-China casualty: a forest ranger, displaced by the construction of a new reservoir, turns to the hard work of hunting and herding.
The changing nature of work and a vanishing way of life are also the themes of Agrarian Utopia (2009), by the Thai filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad. The son of farmers, Uruphong left the Bangkok film industry and returned to his childhood village to make his serenely mournful first film, Stories from the North (2006). Agrarian Utopia, about two rural families working the same rice paddy, is even lovelier, with its golden fields and time-lapse skies, but also more tough-minded in its assessment of the economic and political realities that make its title deeply ironic.
Utopia looks like a documentary but is in fact scripted, shot on a rented plot, and cast with nonprofessionals (playing roles not too different from their real lives). This blurring of narrative and documentary has become an increasingly common—and productive—mode, evident in the films of Lisandro Alonso, Pedro Costa, and others. Another case in point: The Anchorage (2009), the first feature by C. W. Winter and Anders Edström (and a prizewinner at the Locarno International Film Festival this year). A meditative, enigmatic portrait of a middle-aged woman who lives alone on a remote Baltic island, it sometimes brings to mind Jeanne Dielman—we are, after all, observing a woman’s everyday life, acutely aware of her environment, the passage of time, and the smallest variations in her routine. (She’s played by Ulla Edström, the codirector’s mother, who lives part of the year on the island.) But The Anchorage is more insistent in its minimalism than Akerman (or Ozu, whose pillow shots are another reference point). There’s no plot to speak of, save for the eerie occasional appearance of a passing hunter. A film that forces and rewards close attention (which means not just watching but also, given the intricate sound recording and design, listening), it’s proof that you can make something, if not from nothing, then certainly from the in-between.