One way to explain the perennial attraction of the New York Film Festival is that alongside a few movies destined for the multiplexes and a larger handful that will never make it beyond the precincts of film festivals, it offers the first U.S. glimpses of certain titles that will become the cream of the art-house circuit in the weeks and months following their early-autumn debuts at Lincoln Center.

That’s the pragmatic appeal, at least. For me, though, there’s a dreamier, more subjective attraction that’s at least as important. Though one never leaves a narrow slice of the Upper West Side, attending the festival is like jumping aboard an airplane and hopping around the globe to revisit our favorite cinematic hotspots and, if the gods are smiling, discover some new ones. This year the tour covered destinations as intriguingly diverse as Oregon, Cambodia, Taiwan, Iran, Quebec, Russia, Denmark and…North Carolina.

The Tar Heel entry, Ross McElwee’s long-in-the-works Bright Leaves, is another droll essay by the state’s nonfiction poet laureate. Back when he was the priapic whippersnapper of Sherman’s March (1986), the Boston-based filmmaker was broodingly conflicted about his Southern roots. Now a 50-something dad with an adolescent son, he’s unapologetically nostalgic, calling North Carolina “the most beautiful place on earth.” His latest cinematic return, though, is full of paradox, since it focuses on a native plant that itself is beautiful but provides us with much that’s not: tobacco.

The film gets its title and premise from the vintage Gary Cooper drama Bright Leaf (1950), which Ross is convinced contains a fictional portrait of his great-granddad McElwee, a would-be tobacco baron who was driven to ruin by James B. Duke. With that impetus, Ross has plenty of reason to moon around Duke campus and Brightleaf Square, and to share the musings of folks like Allan Gurganus, longtime muse Charleen Swansea, and even Bright Leaf co-star Patricia Neal, whom he encounters at the Carolina Theatre.

With its characteristic mix of autobiographical detail, wry ommentary and anecdotal whimsy, the film will please fans of this natural-born storyteller who also happens to be one of the most original voices in American documentary film. Bright Leaves deserves kudos, too, for probing beneath the simplistic cant that clouds both sides of the tobacco issue. Though not as seamlessly successful as some of his films (the last third meanders a bit much), McElwee’s latest continues to weave the filmmaker’s and his native state’s fortunes into a chronicle that will no doubt engage Southerners for generations to come. I understand the film is still being courted by distributors, so it’ll probably be months before it hits theaters.

In a great year for documentaries, one of the most impressive to date was brought to the festival by McElwee’s Boston pal Errol Morris. The Fog of War, Morris’ portrait of ’60s Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (I’d forgotten the S. stands for Strange), offers a riveting first-person view of three crucial decades of American warfare and foreign policy, from the U.S. firebombing of Japanese civilians in World War II (the grisly statistics here are truly shocking) to the slow-motion train wreck of Vietnam. Though Morris was a protester back in the day, he found McNamara a sympathetic and eloquent subject, and that bond gives the film a humanity and a subtlety that a more distanced approach might have missed.

Still, I’ll be eager to hear what historians make of The Fog of War, since Morris gives McNamara the floor and doesn’t provide other views as to the accuracy of his remarks. One unquestionable element, however, is that though the film was started before 9/11, it resonates so forcefully with what’s going on right now, Vietnam prefiguring the emerging quagmire of Iraq and the “arrogant, autocratic” McNamara looking like an eerie precursor of Donald Rumsfeld. Thanks partly to historical twists that are strange indeed, Morris’ hypnotic, beautifully crafted film emerges as extraordinarily thought-provoking.

While The Fog of War will head into theaters toward year’s end, no doubt to great acclaim, two other festival documentaries dealing with war’s horrific consequences are perhaps more likely to show up on television. Both are worth seeking out. In S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, the gifted Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh probes his nation’s 1970s holocaust by having a few surviving inmates and their captors return to the detention center where the Communist government interrogated and tortured 17,000 men, women and children, with only seven emerging alive. Though it’s hardly appropriate to speak of such a work in aesthetic terms, Panh’s film has a moral gravity and a stylistic acuity comparable to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

Though made in a much slicker, PBS-type style, Sebastian Denhardt’s Stalingrad provides an utterly enthralling, epic-length account of the ferociously devastating WWII battle in which hundreds of thousands of German soldiers were left stranded in Russia’s wintry wastes by their vain Fuhrer, who couldn’t stand losing the city named for his Soviet evil twin. First-person accounts by survivors and staggering documentary footage of the period are expertly interwoven in this haunting three-hour film.

The tragedy at Columbine High School may have claimed only a fraction of the lives lost in Vietnam, the killing fields and Stalingrad, yet its lingering hold on the imagination has particularly affected cinema. At last year’s Cannes Film Festival a special award was won by Michael Moore’s polemical Bowling for Columbine, which went on to become an Oscar winner and the highest grossing documentary ever. This year at Cannes several top prizes, including the Palme d’Or, went to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a fictional account of the crime. I was intrigued by those Cannes awards; now I see how well-deserved they were.

Van Sant, one of our most original and innovative stylists, doesn’t dramatize or analyze Columbine (which he transfers to his native Oregon) so much as he meditates on the yawning distance between its sheer factualness and ultimate incomprehensibility. Using real high-schoolers as his cast, the director sends his camera gliding in their paths down school corridors and through classrooms in a manner that suggests the improbable fusion of a Frederick Wiseman documentary and an Antonioni-esque modernist reverie. The formal attack (like some of the kids it surveys) is so beautiful as to force the question of what place beauty has in a contemplation of tragedy. What’s more, Van Sant only presents the crime; he doesn’t attempt to explain it.

The word on Elephant from Cannes was that it divides audiences. No doubt it does, and will continue to. Yet I find its form of provocation both principled and purposeful. In forcing the question of the crime’s meaning back on the viewer, Van Sant recognizes its enormity–and its troubling power over us–in what finally may be the most responsible and morally scrupulous way possible. I can understand why some object to Elephant‘s luminously challenging reticence. To me, though, it makes for the year’s best film so far.

By any measure, Van Sant’s low-budget, sleekly minimalist wonder stood in stark contrast to the portentously overblown American crime films that bookended the festival. While the opening night entry, Clint Eastwood’s gripping but flawed Mystic River [see review “The Feminine Mystic,” Oct. 15], at least has its vividly imagined Boston setting in its favor, festival closer 21 Grams, by Amores Perros director Alejandro Gonzlez Inrritu, founders in a morass of cultural vagueness. That’s because the film, a dark tale of unintentional homicide, revenge and the odd consequences of a heart transplant, was developed in Mexico, then shifted to an unspecified American location to attract stars including Naomi Watts (who’s great), Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro. Only its solid acting and arty achronological structure save this heavy-handed, self-important film from being a total bore.

If the Mexicans fell short, though, the Canadians came through in a way that confounded expectations. While the promise of a French-Canadian The Big Chill filled me with the deepest dread, Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions proved to be one of the festival’s most pleasantly persuasive surprises. In Arcand’s thoughtful, superbly crafted comedy, the characters of his 1986 Decline of the American Empire reunite when one, a cantankerous academic, enters the final days of a battle with cancer. The obvious themes of aging, cultural change and evolving affections are treated with refreshing complexity here, but what’s most surprising is how acutely Arcand limns his characters’ mature reconsideration of the naive leftism and kneejerk anti-Americanism of their younger days.

A re-examination of bygone leftist follies of a far more virulent sort informs the Italian drama Good Morning, Night. In dramatizing the cruel 1978 kidnapping and murder of political leader Aldo Moro by the fanatical Red Brigades, veteran director Marco Bellocchio seems to enter a somber mea culpa for a generation of now-graying European radicals. Meanwhile, though, a cousin of the political soft-headedness bemoaned by Bellocchio kicks up its heels with unapologetic abandon in Dogville, the latest postmodern confection by Lars Von Trier.

Like a Marxist Our Town staged by Brecht in a cavernous Danish soundstage, Dogville offers a three-hour chronicle of humiliation (and rather surprisingly, revenge) involving a woman played by Nicole Kidman, who comes to a 1930s western town trying to hide from her gangster father and finds herself first aided, then roundly abused by the townsfolk. Since his artistic apex Breaking the Waves, my regard for Von Trier’s showily self-conscious iconoclasm has been plummeting, and the empty, operatic expanse of this film leaves me convinced that he basically has nothing to say. Still, he may be the most disconcertingly ambitious director working in Europe today, and I can’t agree with the indignant charges of anti-Americanism that have been hurled at his latest. I don’t think Dogpatch–I mean Dogville–has any real politics; its facile America-baiting feels like a desperate bid to sell tickets.

The festival’s best foreign film, for my money, was as serious and tightly focused as Von Trier’s film was frivolous and excessive. Crimson Gold, the latest from Iranian master Jafar Panahi, starts out observing a crime going awry in a Tehran jewelry store, then flashes back to show us what led to the bungled heist. For a long time what follows feels like an interesting but largely aimless account of an urban unhappiness peculiar to Iran, a country beset with both a repressive regime and a faltering economy; the protagonist is a heavyset pizza delivery guy who’s as doughy and impassive as the product he ferries around Tehran. In its penultimate scene, though, the film pulls off a subtle and brilliant cinematic coup; suddenly all the narrative and emotional strands that have seem so disconnected before come together, and we’re left with a vision that’s as compelling as it is haunting. Scripted by Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi’s quiet triumph will go into release next year.

I have great personal affection for the oddly similar film communities of Tehran and Taipei, so it was a happy coincidence that the cinematic intelligence of Panahi’s film was matched by that of Goodbye Dragon Inn, by Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang. A critic’s favorite, Tsai is one of the world’s most renowned and distinctive directors, yet his films (including Rebels of the Neon God, The River and last year’s terrific What Time Is It There?) are so drolly rarefied as to suggest the musings of a Sino Samuel Beckett, and thus, unfortunately, they seldom make it beyond the art houses of the biggest U.S. cities.

Tsai’s latest, alas, won’t broaden his audience because it’s even more spare and hermetic than his recent work, yet it’s another uncompromising tour de force. The action (a word that hardly fits here) all takes place in a seedy Taipei martial arts movie house that’s about to close. As the crippled cleaning woman clumps through the back halls, the theater’s few patrons alternate between watching the King Hu classic on screen and pursuing more private fantasies. There are maybe 30 seconds of dialogue in the whole movie, which functions as a slyly comic tone poem about desire, regret and the fading of film culture. Exquisitely modulated, the film may not be widely seen, but that’s all the more reason for it to be displayed with pride and no apologies in a forum like the New York Film Festival. EndBlock