Cinema Bliss: 54th New York Film Festival offers a refuge from the political season

Movies Features

For the first time, the New York Film Festival (NYFF) this year has serious competition as it goes head-to-head with another kind of theatre—the eyebrow-raising, jaw-dropping presidential campaign of drama, comedy, lies, suspense and unforgettable performances of the flashy but hollow kind. Happily, this 54th incarnation of the world-renowned NYFF again abounds in these genres and themes as it provides a more global, noble approach to its brand of entertainment. As a safe harbor for film fans, it will also function as a much-needed refuge from the too often lamentable off-screen political spectacle unfolding.

The cherished Film Society of Lincoln Center event raises its curtain tonight and runs through Oct. 16. Again, it shows all signs of being in top form (based on the film and event lineups and some early press screenings) as it adheres to its mission to deliver and celebrate the best and most interesting in world cinema. In other words, it looks like mission accomplished just when we need it.

The fest continually attracts attention not just because of its high-quality reputation and consistency—in many cases, selections represent the crème de la crème from the recent Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, etc. fests—but as a reliable harbinger for future Oscar winners. Previous selections like Birdman, The Social Network and The Descendants are but a very few examples.

Traditionally stirring the most anticipation are the fest’s World Premiere Gala selections. This year welcomes Ava DuVernay’s (Oscar Best Picture nominee Selma) Netflix original documentary 13th as the Opening Night selection and a landmark for NYFF as it marks the first time that a nonfiction work has opened the event. 13, which refers to the anti-slavery 13th Amendment, focuses on, among other things, its reverberations on our prison system.

A24’s period comedy 20th Century Women, as the Centerpiece offering, stars Annette Bening as a single mother in the late ’70s raising a teen daughter in a bohemian Santa Barbara household with its share of colorful tenants and visitors. Closing Night is The Lost City of Z, James Gray’s epic about an obsessed British explorer.

Another highlight and late addition to festivities is a special U.S. premiere presentation of Pablo Larraín’s Natalie Portman starrer Jackie, the much-buzzed about-look at Mrs. Kennedy following the President’s assassination. (Larraín is also represented with the selection Neruda, his idiosyncratic fantasy portrait of the great Chilean Communist poet and fugitive.)

Again, in what has become a NYFF tradition, the fest returns some of its favorite filmmakers to the fold. Among these are Terence Davies, with his much-anticipated A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon as famed poet Emily Dickinson. The film unspools as a “Film Comment Presents” offering. (Additionally, in one of many NYFF talk events, “Film Comment Live” has the FSLC’s magazine staffers participating in several panels and talks related to the festival and publication.)

Also welcomed back this year are, among others, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne with Sundance Selects’ eagerly anticipated The Unknown Girl, perhaps another gem from the brothers who manage to find “unknown” talent hiding in their native Belgium and provide them with captivating stories in which to show their stuff; Ken Loach, with his remarkably told and performed I, Daniel Blake, about the horrific consequences of urban bureaucracy on the disadvantaged; Cristian Mungiu, whose corruption-themed Graduation will arouse as much praise as his previous 4 Months, 3 Weeks & Two Days, and Olivier Assayas, with IFC Films’ Kristen Stewart starrer Personal Shopper, which reunites the filmmaker and star after their acclaimed Clouds of Sils Maria. Stewart is also featured in the TriStar Pictures release of Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which will be screened and notch a NYFF milestone as the first full-length narrative film publicly shown that was shot in 4K, native 3D and at the ultra-high frame rate of 120 frames per second.

Also returning to NYFF are Pedro Almodóvar with Julieta, a brilliantly performed and told, color-saturated family drama and perhaps his career best to date; Kelly Reichardt, whose Certain Women boasts a strong cast that includes Laura Dern and Michelle Williams; Eugène Green with Kino Lorber’s The Son of Joseph, a family drama co-starring Mathieu Amalric; Alain Guiraudie with Strand Releasing’s strange Staying Vertical, which follows his successful Stranger by the Lake and provides similar but more gratuitous shock shots of explicit sexuality, and the always unpredictable and intriguing ciné-agent provocateur Paul Verhoeven with Sony Pictures Classics’ controversial Cannes entry Elle, one of two Main Slate Isabelle Huppert films—the other being NYFF returnee Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come, which earned her Berlin’s Best Director award.

Other NYFF Main Slate feature highlights (shorts also unspool in this and other sections) that are sure to generate attention include some unusually powerful dramas: Kenneth Lonergan’s Massachusetts-based Manchester by the Sea, which, among several films, already has the awards buzzards swarming, and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a powerful, magnificently shot and performed coming-of-age tale involving a poor black youth in a drug-ridden Miami neighborhood confronting family and sexual-identity problems.

A big Main Slate surprise features an unexpectedly sweet and affecting Adam Driver in Jim Jarmusch’s unexpectedly sweet and affecting, sublime Paterson, in which Driver fittingly plays a poetry-writing bus driver named Paterson in the Jersey town of the same name.

While dramas from cool to heated warm the Main Slate, often wacky comic relief comes from Maren Ade’s poignant and startling Toni Erdmann, a Sony Pictures Classics release that provides a goofy/wise evisceration of a desiccated corporate culture through a strained father-daughter relationship.

Documentaries, which everywhere seem to be getting stronger (helped by better topics, tools and access), are always a big NYFF draw, especially these days when fact-facing needs to, uh, trump so much fact-dodging. The fest’s “Spotlight on Documentary” program this year will appeal broadly, from film lovers to more serious cinephiles, as several entries also focus on the medium itself from different angles. These include HBO’s joyful, intimate, unpredictable biz- and gossip-dolloped Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a “Hollywood high” of old Hollywood and the contemporary one where Debbie and Carrie continue to live and abide by Reynolds family values. It has love, eccentricity and neuroses warmly, sometimes hilariously and not always comfortably co-habiting.

Also movie-themed but surprisingly so is the fascinating Dawson City: Frozen Time, which, often experimental in style but always coherent, unites the subjects of the Klondike gold rush with silent film, dangerous nitrate stock, and early film exhibition. And Aaron Brookner, with Uncle Howard, provides a nostalgic look at New York’s downtown film and art scene and its denizens (with visits to the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City) of the ’70s and ’80s. Again, art and AIDS collide with his late gay filmmaker uncle Howard Brookner, who was at the center of it all.

Several NYFF docs will push buttons of the socio-politically engaged and generally enraged. A highlight is Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the saga of a recent, obscene near-miscarriage of justice that threatened a decent New York Chinatown Chinese-American banking family and the villainous New York County district attorney and yammering posse after them.

Dealing with the growing numbers of illegal Jewish occupiers of Israel’s largely Palestinian West Bank, the unsettling The Settlers amasses a wealth of archival material and many contemporary interviews with early and recent settlers to suggest a status quo (aka a metaphoric brick wall). There’s much food for thought here for those hungry for peace or a two-state resolution.

I Called Him Morgan examines the scandal behind legendary trumpeter Lee Morgan’s 1972 murder. Karl Marx City is an intimate family investigation with a powerful twist into the Stasi’s (East Germany’s notorious secret police) massive surveillance of citizens. And Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, an intimate close-up of the 30-year career of the former New York City Ballet principal dancer, is a beautiful perfect storm convening an enormously appealing subject (Whelan, dancing since she was three and approaching 49, must slow down or retire), magnificent cinematography (celebrating both the art of dance and its Lincoln Center home), and lessons of teamwork and survival.

NYFF’s film lineup (and attention to the film medium itself) grandly continues in the the Retrospective sidebar, courtesy of Cohen Media Group, with beloved veteran filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema, a personal reminiscence (and must-see for cinephiles) of such Gallic cinema giants as Renoir, Godard and Melville. Other delicious Retrospective entries include rarely seen features by Tavernier’s favorites (e.g., Melville’s somewhat perverse Les enfants terribles) and, in a special tribute to Henry Hathaway (another Tavernier favorite), many of his films: 23 Paces to Baker Street, Niagara and Kiss of Death among them, but not, alas, The House on 92nd Street.

Docs and music merrily roll along in the NYFF sidebars like “Special Events,” which will present Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, about Stephen Sondheim’s and Harold Prince’s journey with the legendary musical Merrily We Roll Along, and Jim Jarmusch’s rock doc Gimme Danger, a fun dose of rock (don’t say punk) history in its portrait of the now-defunct, almost accidental Midwest band The Stooges and its former front man, Iggy Pop (James Ostenberg), now very alive, up front and close up as an ongoing onscreen presence. The doc, a Magnolia Pictures release from Amazon Studios, also delivers terrific archival footage and animation and nostalgic rushes that will have the kids dancing again.

Again, with its Revivals sidebar, NYFF looks back with classic offerings (most restored) like Oscar-nominated The Battle of Algiers, Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, Barbara Kopple’s Oscar winning Harlan County USA, and Jacques Duvivier’s Michel Simon starrer Panique.

In “Explorations,” NYFF’s newest special section, come what the fest describes as “bold global selections from contemporary cinema’s vanguard.” Here, Cinema Guild’s The Death of Louis XIV, surely a big want-to-see as iconic Truffaut discovery Jean-Pierre Léaud stars, will pique much interest. Further in the vanguard in a more experimental vein are the mostly short, internationally represented works in the “Projections” sidebar.

Again, much NYFF talking occurs off-screen with another effusion of star and filmmaker appearances at Q&As, panels, special talks, dialogues and various events. Among those to appear live (and hopefully talkative) are Isabelle Huppert, Cynthia Nixon, Jim Jarmusch and his Gimme Danger star Iggy Pop, Laura Dern, Stephen Sondheim, Brazilian legend Sônia Braga (at the festival with Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius), Paul Verhoeven, Maren Ade, Jean-Pierre Léaud and, at separate NYFF fundraising “An Evening With…” dinner and conversation events, Kristen Stewart and Adam Driver.

The NYFF also explores the future of film with its “Convergence” sidebar of projects, installations and special talks, which promises “immersive experiences” that suggest new ways of storytelling and, in the case of virtual reality, story-experiencing.

Hopefully, this Convergence excursion might provide clues regarding which new media might find a place in the commercial marketplace and when. Asked how the fest’s attention to VR might have changed since last year, considering how much more attention VR itself is getting (not just in the media but at film events worldwide), NYFF Convergence programmer and producer Matt Bolish answered that the NYFF’s program is always changing and shifting focus as technologies and storytellers shift and morph with the times. There are more VR offerings this year, he said, in an effort “to demonstrate various ways that technology can be used to explore story—from documentary to narrative, art installations to journalism.” He added that there are also “two great projects that employ augmented reality in very different and dynamic ways, whereas last year AR [an overlay of VR, which is artificial, with real life] was something few audience members were aware of.”

Helping so much happen at the NYFF are, of course, the 20 or so deep-pocketed sponsors and supporters like American Airlines, HBO, The New York Times and Dolby. (OK, call them soft lobbyists.)

So as film fans try to forget worries as the two major presidential candidates pound away in a political boxing ring of low and lame punches, NYFF 2016 again carries on its cinematic showcase as—no polls needed—a tough act to beat. No matter who wins the election (though it actually does), the NYFF is again a predicted winner with what looms as one of its strongest lineups ever. (That’s a virtual, not yet actual, truth, as far from all selections were caught by this writer; a post fest wrap-up will follow, and in the meantime there’s NYFF LIVE! at