Amazon brings world premieres to 55th New York Film Festival


Curtains are again raised, as are cinephile expectations, for another satisfying edition of the New York Film Festival (NYFF). Running Sept. 28 through Oct. 15 at Lincoln Center, the fest is bookended by two world premieres: an opening night screening of Richard Linklater’s Amazon Studios release Last Flag Flying and, on closing night, Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel (also Amazon).

These two premieres, major highlights among the fest’s 25 main slate selections, glitter with great casts: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne in Linklater’s opener about three aging Vietnam vets who take to the road and, in Allen’s 1950s Coney Island-set period film, Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, James Belushi and Juno Temple.

A number of the other main slate films also generate excitement, as they arrive on puffy clouds of good buzz from other prestigious fests like Toronto, Berlin, Telluride and, of course, Cannes. (Note that not all films were caught by press time and reviews are embargoed until they’re shown. Full information on films and events is available here.)

NYFF is smaller and more manageable than most of the other similarly prestigious film festivals. But, ironically, its programming somewhat resembles the loud, glittery fest/market that is Cannes. NYFF, likes Cannes, has a lot of French fare on tap. Also like its bigger, older dowager cousin, it plays a range of globally harvested product.

So how logical (and wonderful) that acclaimed French documentarian and former New Waver Agnès Varda puts in an appearance with Faces Places, a collaboration with young visual artist JR that, as a road trip through unfamiliar French locales, mines their shared love of photography and simple, decent folk who here get their highly unexpected 15 minutes of fame. Also represented at the fest is Arnaud Desplechin, with Ismael’s Ghosts: Director’s Cut. The faintly autobiographical work unspools here and in its subsequent Magnolia Pictures run with 20 minutes added from its Cannes debut. Its big-name cast (Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard, among others) is sure to resonate with art-house audiences.

Other French favorites are the remarkable Isabelle Huppert and filmmaker Claire Denis. The versatile and often intense Huppert has, at least as it appears on paper, the perfect vehicle in contemporary Jekyll-and-Hyde spin Mrs. Hyde, Serge Bozon’s vehicle for the forceful and tireless French actress (and NYFF favorite). Denis’ Let the Sun Shine In, a Sundance Selects release, has the ever-terrific Juliette Binoche as a Parisian artist moving into middle age as she searches for meaningful love.

Director Philippe Garrel is represented with Lover for a Day, an intimate black-and-white drama of l’amour fou. Strand Releasing’s Alain Gomis-directed Félicité, winner of Berlin’s Silver Lion, takes viewers to a gritty corner of the Congo’s Kinshasa in a drama about a fiercely independent club singer dealing with the tragedy of her seriously injured son.

In addition to the French phalanx, American independents are quite strong this year, as are female filmmakers, who are represented with eight works in the main slate. In addition to the Linklater and Allen premieres, the NYFF has as its centerpiece Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, a children’s fantasy that bears some resemblance to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. (In fact, its source material's author, Brian Selznick, also wrote the book upon which Hugo is based.) Wonderstruck, like Wonder Wheel and Last Flag Flying, will be released by Amazon, giving the distributor the fest's three highest-profile slots. 

Other American indies on deck include A24’s Lady Bird, actor Greta Gerwig’s lightly autobiographical solo directorial debut. Co-starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe, it arrives at the fest on the magic carpet that is strong word of mouth.

Riding that same carpet into Lincoln Center is Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), a return to the filmmaker’s preoccupation with family. Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Emma Thopmson and Adam Sandler co-star.

Also buzzed about is Dee Rees’ Mudbound, a period drama set in 1940s Mississippi that boasts another fine cast in Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell, among others.

The Orchard’s BPM (Beats Per Minute), from Robin Campillo (the highly regarded LGBT drama Eastern Boys), looks inside a Parisian cell of ACT UP AIDS activists in the early ’90s as they battle a foot-dragging pharma company accused of withholding potentially life-saving drugs. Sony Pictures Classics has secured theatrical rights for I Am Love director Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name, about a teenage boy (Timothée Chalamet) who strikes up a romantic relationship with the older grad student (Armie Hammer) spending the summer in his family's Italian villa.

Fans of Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure won’t want to miss his Palme d’Or winner The Square, a satire set in the art world. Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West brighten the canvas. Magnolia Pictures distributes.

Also from overseas is Janus Films’ The Other Side of Hope, directed by Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki, yet another NYFF favorite. Fans of the director's Le Havre should make a point of catching his latest effort, which explores the role of human kindness in the ongoing struggles of immigrants. 

From Poland, NYFF returnee Agnieszka Holland is represented with Spoor, a tough drama set on the rugged Polish-Czech border, where an animal-welfare activist battles regressive forces in her remote community.

The fest doubles down with two main slate films from South Korean director Hong Sang-soo. The first, The Day After, is about the romantic problems of a publisher. The director goes autobiographical (as he frequently does) for Cinema Guild release On the Beach at Night Alone, about the relationship between a director and a young actress (Kim Min-hee, also starring in The Day After).

Elsewhere in its main slate, NYFF goes the genre route with titles like Before We Vanish, Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s mystical, low-tech spin on an alien invasion. Joachim Trier’s Thelma, to be distributed by The Orchard, tackles horror through its titular heroine, whose psychic powers may be an unintended gift from repressive parents. And Valeska Grisebach’s Western brings, appropriately, a modern take on the Western genre to the fore. In the Cinema Guild release, German construction workers are brought into a Bulgarian community, where they must work the land and adjust to the local culture. Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, meanwhile, delivers historical fiction. In it, a late 18th-century Spanish officer assigned to a remote corner of South America longs for a transfer to a more prestigious location.

Documentary and narrative filmmaking techniques meld seamlessly in Chinese-American filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, about an impoverished young rodeo rider living on a South Dakota reservation. More straightforward docs get their due in NYFF’s Spotlight on Documentary sidebar. It’s a strong lineup that includes new works on playwright Arthur Miller (Arthur Miller: Writer, directed by his filmmaker daughter Rebecca Miller), artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Sara Driver’s Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat), Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand man Leon Vitali (Tony Zierra’s Filmworker), writer/journalist Gay Talese (Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s Voyeur), acclaimed animal activist Jane Goodall (Brett Morgen’s Jane) and celebrated writer/journalist Joan Didion, profiled in actor/filmmaker Griffin Dunne’s Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. Dunne is also Didion’s nephew, proving—as Arthur Miller: Writer does—the beauty of family access.

Other film notables represented in the doc lineup are Alex Gibney with the world premiere of No Stone Unrturned, about a cold case originating in Northern Ireland during the Struggles; Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story) with The Rape of Recy Taylor, about a little-known case that spurred the early civil-rights movement; Vanessa Redgrave debuting as a documentarian with Sea Sorrow; and veteran filmmaker Barbet Schroeder with The Venerable W., about a power-driven Burmese monk. Once again, Schroeder gets up close and personal with fascists and extremists, as he did in his award-winning works on Idi Amin and Klaus Barbie defender Jacques Vergès.

In addition to main slate and documentary selections, NYFF looks back with its revivals sidebar, which offers a bounty of past cinema treasures, among them Jean-Pierre Melville’s French noir masterpieceBob le flambeur. Robert Mitchum, who over five decades formed a monumental (and storied) career, gets a retrospective of his own.

On top of its screenings, NYFF features a lot of talk. There are free Directors Dialogues with Agnès Varda and Lucrecia Martel, and the annual “On Cinema” special event puts Richard Linklater in conversation with NYFF director Ken Jones.

The special events sidebar includes an evening with filmmaker Ava Duvernay, a conversation with Kate Winslet and, for cinematography fans, a Master Class with Vittorio Storaro (Wonder Wheel) and Ed Lachman (Wonderstruck). This sidebar also offers more intriguing films, among them the world premiere of Claude Lanzmann’s Four Sisters, the Shoah filmmaker’s four portraits of female Holocaust survivors from different corners of Eastern Europe; veteran documentarian Susan Froemke’s The Opera House, offering a history of New York’s Metropolitan Opera (in a festival first, it will screen at the Metropolitan Opera House itself); and the world premiere of HBO’s Spielberg, a cinephile must-see that features interviews with many of the great Hollywood filmmaker’s famous colleagues.

And again, NYFF looks ahead with its Convergence sidebar, offering talks and experiences regarding the latest in gaming, VR and AR and digital storytelling. The Projections sidebar again ventures into the experimental and unexpected with daring new film and video works, mostly shorts but also some longer forms. And there’s no short shrift of the shorts genre as the Fest offers dozens in its Shorts sidebar.

About the fest generally, animal lovers among filmgoers should be cautioned that a number of films contain scenes or snippets that might disturb. And more film business-oriented fans may want to explore a possible correlation between the NYFF’s endurance over so many decades with its preponderance of arty and indie fare and the recent emergence of the city’s energized art-house market and its new builds.