The 41st New York Film Festival (October 3rd-19th)showed an alarming number of extremely violent films, perhaps as a comment on the wobbly state of world affairs. The violence came in different shapes and sizes: fiction, documentary, physical, mental, western, eastern. Real discoveries can be found in smaller festivals in the Big Apple, such as the Urbanworld Film Festival and the IFP market.

The festival was nicely bookended this year. It started with Sean Penn pulling the trigger to dispense justice as he saw fit in Mystic River, and it ended with Sean Penn just pulling the trigger for the sake of it in 21 Grams. In between were the trigger-happy high school students of Gus van Sant’s Elephant, the luckless wastrels of Barbara Albert’s dour Austrian feature Free Radicals and a documentary called S21, The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, by Rithy Panh. The programmers of the Film Society of Lincoln Center were definitely tapping into some sort of zeitgeist. A film festival has never given me nightmares, but this one did.

The best antidote to the dark vibes in the screening halls of the Lincoln Center was a French film called Since Otar Left by Julie Bertocelli. This former assistant of the Paris-based Georgian director Otar Iosseliani has made a warm, authentic-looking portrait of life in post-Soviet Georgia. Unlike other Western filmmakers who use the sad state of affairs in the former Soviet Union as comic relief or to make sweeping statements, Bertocelli’s film is about three generations of women slogging it out while waiting for news and dollars from their Paris-based relative. When he suddenly dies, mother and daughter decide to hide the news from grandmother by writing fake letters.

More relief came in the form of Goodbye Dragon Inn by the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, which was minimalist even by his standards. The film is without a distributor in the US, perhaps because it will be hard to find an audience for a film that shows King Hu’s martial arts classic of the same name and a handful of characters getting restless in a cinema theatre where it’s shown. The only piece of dialogue comes half-way. "This theatre is said to be haunted by ghosts." Tsai has already used this decrepit cinema, and some of the same shots, in his previous feature What Time Is There?, which makes Goodbye Dragon Inn feel like a nice in-betweenie, rather than a new masterpiece. Nothing wrong with that, especially when the bullets have been flying through the theatre on a fairly regular basis.

Compared to Andrew Lau’s Infernal Affairs, which was shown in the New Films/New Directors festival earlier this year, Johnnie To’s PTU was a rambling, but no less charming affair. PTU also examines corruption in the Hong Kong police department, but with a nod and a wink – sprinkled with farcical slap-stick humour. This is an old-school Hong Kong flick with its own rhythm and logic from the days before Wong Kar-wai and his fast-paced visual magic.

Artistically, the highlight of the festival was Distant, a low-key study of a disillusioned Istanbul photographer and the country cousin who blags his way into his nice middle-class apartment. Filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan had already impressed with his previous film Clouds of May, but he really struck gold at this year’s Cannes, where the film won the Grand Jury Prize and the award for best actor.

Distant is also screened at the London Film Festival, like much of the New York selection. Both festivals rely heavily on film distributors to bring some extra marketing power to the table. This means they will screen films which have already secured a cinema release. Whereas London has a bigger programme with extensive side bars and on-stage events, the New York Film Festival is basically a roundup of the year’s Best of the Fests. Nothing wrong with that, since there are very few of us, present company included, who can do Berlin, Cannes AND Venice – but the festival is presented with a lot of pomp. There is the obligatory nod to the avant-garde (Jonas Mekas’ childhood in Williamsburg) and repertory (Piccadilly by E. Dupont, restored by the BFI), but that’s about it. No catalogue, no new discoveries and no tickets. Like its London cousin, which caters for BFI members, the tickets are all sold out in advance to members of the Lincoln Center Film Society, which is the official organiser.

So where do you go to the Big Apple in search of real discoveries? In this city that thrives on ambition, there is always someone running a film festival somewhere, trying to reel in sponsorship money – especially hard these days – and creating their own platform. There is a Bicycle Film Festival, Roof Top Screenings and ‘watch-a-film-during-hypnosis’ sessions.

This year’s fall season started with the more substantial Urbanworld festival (Sept 17-21) for black, Asian and Latino filmmakers, which is aimed at both the public and the filmmaking community through screenings, panels and screenplay readings. While the quality is wildly varied, Urbanworld does offer the pleasure of the odd discovery – such as the hilarious animated short The Bootyguard by Noel Rustia. In this 17 minute film, Gary Coleman (the diminutive actor from the TV series Diff’rent Strokes and recent candidate for California Governor) gets a job protecting J Lo’s ass. He’s doing just fine, but his bodyguard skills are severely tested by one B. Clinton.

My favourite feature film was Dark, a debut by Chicago-based Darryl Bullock that went on to pick up the festival’s Mecca Award for best film. Dark Freeman (played by actor-to-watch Jason Bonner) is a college student and bike courier who needs to decide which road to take. He cycles like a madman through the canyons of Chicago’s skyscrapers, but the adrenaline can’t make the decision for him. Bullock shows life on the South Side through a surprisingly European lens, leaving room for introspection and interpretation, which is a rare thing in the world of American indie. Since winning Urbanworld, the filmmaker has picked up an L.A. agent and possibly a US distribution deal – putting the festival on the map as a NY event to watch.

Urbanworld gathered to celebrate itself at the 25th Annual IFP market (Sept 21-26), which is more of an industry event. The market has its origins as a sidebar of the New York Film Festival, but is now organised by the independent filmmakers’ organisation IFP. The market promotes scripts hoping to pick up a distributor and shows films hoping to pick up distribution. There is an international co-production market modeled on Rotterdam’s Cinemart. The festival ended with Rosie Perez handing out $130, 000 worth of prize money to a work-in-progress feature, a screenplay and a short. Hopefully by next year, some of these will have trickled down the fertile soil that is the New York festival landscape.