51 and growing: New York Film Festival offers a bountiful selection


When fall arrives, all of film-crazy New York turns to the annual New York Film Festival (NYFF), this year having just wrapped its 51st session (Sept. 27-Oct. 13) at Lincoln Center and presented by its Film Society. Cinephiles found an even more dizzying five-ring circus of tributes, panels, retrospectives, revivals, special sidebar screenings, dialogues with filmmakers, avant-garde and new media explorations, and even more.

But since the NYFF’s inception, it’s been the fest’s Official Selection program of more than some 30 or so Main Slate features that have filled its “big top” and served as a barometer of attractions coming to market that may soar, tank or, sadly, just disappear. Happily, video-on-demand these days provides the safety net for many of the program’s lower-wire acts.

The Main Slate Official Section comprised a familiar mix of some studio and/or much buzzed-about product (Captain Phillips, 12 Years a Slave, etc.), films smartly culled from previous fests (Cannes winner Blue Is the Warmest Color, etc.), films from many NYFF returning directors (the Coen Brothers with Inside Llewyn Davis, Claude Lanzmann with The Last of the Unjust, Alexander Payne with Nebraska, et al.), films bragging cast “names” that will charm art-house fans (Benicio del Toro and Mathieu Amalric in Jimmy P., Robert Redford’s solo stunner in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost), and great surprises or oddball misfires that found their way into the lineup.

Sony’s Tom Hanks-starrer Captain Phillips, the Fest’s Opening Night selection, has already shown its market might, and come Christmas Fox’s Ben Stiller holiday present, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, might also. A world premiere, the film was the NYFF’s Centerpiece Gala selection.

The concept for this contemporary remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye film is pretty nifty: Life magazine is going from print to digital, a transition that means considerable downsizing of longtime employees and the need for the perfect cover photo for the last print edition. Stiller, who directs and stars, is the loyal Life photo archivist who can’t put his hands on the negative needed that the cruel new boss (cue villain) demands and must embark on a frantic transcontinental search to find its elusive star photographer. But while bearing a clever concept (and handsome production), the film unintentionally challenges viewers to distinguish the hero’s fantasies from his actual adventures as he globe-hops to find the photographer (Sean Penn) who can lead him to the missing negative.

Also a world premiere as the Closing Night Gala selection was the Warner Bros./Spike Jonze surefire hit Her, a brilliant commentary on what the near-future holds for the overly engaged hard-wired and social-media-engulfed younger generations. These are the new order’s nicely compensated tech drones thriving materially if not emotionally in vast metropolises of tall glass, stone and steel skyscrapers and apartments to match. Here the metropolis is L.A. where yuppie Joaquin Phoenix, who composes letters for a social-media site, falls in love with Samantha, his new OS1 operating system, as incarnated by the purring “Her” voice of an unseen Scarlett Johansson. This wise and funny film is not just a triumph of their Oscar bait performances but of visuals and audio that evoke what may lie ahead for the over-connected of the future.

While Her is an upper, Fox Searchlight’s 12 Years a Slave, opening Oct. 18, is, in spite of its hugely important story, a downer in terms of tone and content. Directed by Steve McQueen, this unrelievedly grim and brutal true-life tale follows a mid-19th-century African-American professional from New York (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is kidnapped and sold as a slave in the South. Arriving with tremendous buzz and a big award from Toronto, the film is notable for McQueen’s Oscar-worthy direction, several outstanding performances (particularly Ejiofor and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o), and screenwriter John Ridley’s brave decision with his dialogue. But his script may present a challenge to some audiences as it tries to capture the way people spoke at the time. The film also curiously obscures details of the pivotal kidnapping, an ellipsis that makes the hero’s transition from respected bourgeois family man to chained slave too abrupt.

Like 12 Years a Slave and many other Fest films, IFC’s Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color runs long (about three hours). This involving and realistic lesbian drama (although reportedly starring two “straight” leads and helmed by a “straight” director) should win over critics and fans alike. French star Léa Seydoux plays the older, sophisticated art student and painter who seduces Adèle Exarchopoulos, as a high-schooler from a working-class family. Although a study of lust and love, the film is really about class divides. Filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche creates intimacy (really graphic sex scenes) and intensity by way of a doc style that includes handhelds and lots of close-ups. Performances and casting are perfect, as is the Lille setting and poignancy of a different kind of coming-of-age story. Also nice is the sustained suspense over whether the relationship can thrive. But good luck finding any viewer who doesn’t believe the film would have benefited nicely from a generous pruning. (Where’s Harvey Weinstein when we really need him?)

Paramount Vantage’s Nebraska is further proof that Alexander Payne can do no wrong. With a script by Bob Nelson, this gorgeous, moody black-and-white entry follows some ordinary working-class Nebraskans (and a Montana family) swirling around ur-curmudgeon Woody, who, with senility at his doorstep, is convinced he has won a million bucks from a company peddling magazine subscriptions. Vet actor Bruce Dern finally lands a second role with Oscar potential (he was nominated in 1978 for his supporting role in Coming Home; here he stands a chance for lead) as Woody, the supremely unpleasant old codger who, after trying to walk from his Montana home to Nebraska to claim his prize, is given a lift by his son (Will Forte). Their road trip provides viewers with a funny, poignant insider’s look at rarely seen Plains towns and people (the great Stacy Keach plays one such character) and a unique reminder that hope is almost as vital to human survival as blood.

Also strong among the Main Selections was James Gray’s Radius-TWC period piece The Immigrant, which centers on a desperate young Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard), detained at Ellis Island until she’s rescued (in a fashion) by a sleazy Lower East Side burlesque impresario wannabe (Joaquin Phoenix). Manipulative and scheming, he pushes her around generally and into prostitution specifically until she finds herself attracted to a potential rescuer, a much more decent magician performer (Jeremy Renner). There’s plenty to please here, including the key performances and sets, locations and costumes that convincingly evoke 1920s New York. And that gun introduced early (and loaded with suspense) may or may not change the course of events later.

All is not lost, thanks to Robert Redford who stars alone as a sailor lost at sea in Roadside Attractions’ All Is Lost. Hardly muttering a word except for an early voiceover, he struggles after a collision with a fallen ocean container carrying sneakers that rips his yacht. The challenge is to keep the boat afloat and himself alive in the vast Indian Ocean. Sailboat enthusiasts will especially enjoy J.C. Chandor’s (Margin Call) meticulous details showing his hero tinkering with the yacht in this life-or-death situation. Maersk container ship lines gets a second memorable NYFF product-placement plug (Hanks’ ship in Captain Phillips is prominently a Maersk) when Redford tries to hail a passing cargo ship. But will these elephant-size vessels see his flea of a boat? And will Chandor’s controversial ending satisfy his see-worthy viewers?

And what would the Fest be without a lavish, handsome Euro period drama? Sony Pictures Classics had The Invisible Woman, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, in the lineup. He plays Charles Dickens in this apparently true story of the great author’s secret affair with a young actress (Felicity Jones) whom he gets pregnant. The costumes and production design (fussy dresses, dark decor) are luscious and the colorful characters oh so Victorian. Familiar faces like those of Kristin Scott Thomas as Jones’ mother and Tom Hollander as Dickens’ intimate and fellow writer Wilkie Collins also light up the screen. Most memorable is Joanna Scanlan as Dickens’ wife, who puts up with so much. If only royalties could soothe.

And what would any New York Fest be without a good laugh or sweet smile? Eliciting the latter was Roadside Attractions’ release Gloria, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s delightful look at a single middle-class Santiago mother’s new adventure in romance that turns out to be more elusive than expected.

The Steve Coogan starrer Alan Partridge, based on his famous dim and egotistical failed TV host-turned-radio personality character, provides the occasional heartier laugh. It’s a much cruder but watchable comedy trifle with a hook that has Partridge’s North Norfolk Digital radio station, under new ownership, taken hostage by a disgruntled, downsized employee (Colm Meaney)—and it’s Partridge to the unlikely rescue. Too many lines and visual jokes are so lowbrow they barely hit the chin, but Coogan fans, long awaiting Partridge’s migration from British TV to the big screen, will find this new iteration relaxing and sometimes amusing, if not intellectually or emotionally rewarding in any way whatsoever.

From the foreign front, the Fest always serves up some serious narratives. From Japan came Like Father, Like Son, an involving switched-at-birth drama that is beautifully played and directed. From China came the more disturbing, politically charged drama A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke’s anecdotal drama from Kino Lorber that conveys the troubled state of things in today’s Chinese state. With brutality and honesty (and bravery, considering China’s grip on entertainment content), Jia presents four unrelated stories of modern China as painfully, harshly and violently experienced by a simple coal miner who dares fight corruption and the over-privileged, a migrant empowered by a gun, a young sauna worker used by men and pushed to the edge, and a young worker at a giant laundry who finally finds romance but loses his grip on a life not always worth living.

Less serious but equally worthy was Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s curiously titled When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, a haunting film about a film director, his work, his actress, food, and some cannily honest ways people pause or interact.

Again this year came a film that unexpectedly impresses. Such was Strand Releasing’s French entry Stranger by the Lake, Alain Guiraudie’s surprisingly graphic, sexy thriller that unfolds during summertime at a beautiful remote lake beach frequented by gays. Hero Frank (Pierre Deladonchamps), cruising for love in the right place, also happens upon a murder there as dusk has settled and most of the cruising crowd has left. He gets involved amorously with the apparent perp and complications pile up. This intriguing and believable film, combining passion and menace, carries its suspense to a surprisingly effective end.

Again, the Fest served up a few films that divided viewers. CBS Films’ Inside Llewyn Davis, from Joel and Ethan Coen, is an account of the eponymous early-’60s New York folk singer struggling in the Greenwich Village scene where Bob Dylan and others built their careers. The beefs: Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is an entirely unlikeable and uncharismatic guy, a guitar-playing loser with, very arguably, not a whole lot of talent. Both Villagers and Upper West Siders are portrayed as unappealing characters and both locations look dreary. There’s an abundance of music, which is, also very arguably, mediocre. And the Coens seem to be poking witless fun at folk performers of the era, whether of the Dylan, Highwaymen or Clancy Brothers variety. The “hero” spins on an endless downward spiral and the film just ends. On the other hand, there are those who are sure to embrace the movie. But no one should count on any homages to the Village’s Dylan or Harvard Square’s Baez. The Coens are doing something else here, whatever that might be.

Another film threatening to divide is Music Box Films’ not entirely bon-bon Le Week-end, directed by Roger Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson) and saved by the terrific performances of its two leads, Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan. They are a long-married and late-middle-aged British couple—he a philosophy professor and she a teacher, on a short anniversary visit to Paris. Sure, the marriage is going stale and each reveals other problems going on, but they are decent middle-class souls confronting the passage of time, especially the good times. The couple bump into Jeff Goldblum, an oddly irksome and pretentious former ex-pat colleague of Broadbent’s and fall into his pretentious circle of Parisian literati. Let the fans and detractors line up, but please give it up for those performances.

Working Title, pioneers on the lighter, sunnier side of flashy British output, had Universal’s About Time, from writer-director Richard Curtis. For those who take to sci-fi and time-travel stories strongly sweetened with feel-good elements, this modern romance will do the trick. But About Time asks others (maybe a minority) to buy the gooey, preposterous notion of an upper-class London family whose paterfamilias has for generations passed on to sons the ability to rewind incidents so they can be relived more wisely with hindsight. Those feel-good elements pile up so that many doubters will be charmed and left helpless to protest the excesses and clichés. But that’s something entertaining movies are meant to do.

Several other films had a lot of fingers scratching heads. Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, a period film about a European therapist treating a war veteran Indian patient; Sundance Selects’ Bastards, director Claire Denis’ messy sidelong swipe at the recent DSK French sex scandal; Agnes B.’s My Name is Hmmm..., a potentially interesting take on child abuse that isn’t; James Franco’s period drama Child of God, a depressing American Gothic tale which is almost redeemed by Scott Haze’s scarily intense performance as a sociopathic, necrophiliac hillbilly monster; and Catherine Breillat’s equally challenging Abuse of Weakness, about a filmmaker (Isabelle Huppert) who, in spite of a severe and crippling stroke, struggles to get her movie made.

The Fest can also be counted upon to deliver some terrific docs and these included Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust, largely a fascinating 1970s interview with former rabbi and controversial Jewish Council leader Benjamin Murmelstein, who worked with the Nazis in their transport efforts to get Jews to the camps; and Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, her ongoing document of Egypt’s struggles to find a stable government as suggested by those who were involved in the historic events at Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Of interest was American Promise, about two New York African-American kids sent to Manhattan’s elite Dalton School where one succeeds and one doesn’t, and Rithy Panh’s personal hybrid work The Missing Picture, a Strand release that is a consideration, largely with doc footage, of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge atrocities. But for want of material covering his own family’s involvement, he recreates some scenes with clay figures and other materials.

Frederick Wiseman’s very long look at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, At Berkeley, unfortunately left nothing identified—not people, classes or locations. Smart as they are, audiences need more help.

Again this year, worthy docs also lived in the Fest’s “Spotlight on Documentary” section. The Dog is an intimate and hugely entertaining look at real-life motor-mouth New Yawker and bisexual outlaw John Wojtowicz, whom Al Pacino so memorably played in Dog Day Afternoon. It’s a foray into lowlife New York and, in lowlife fashion, could be described as a very slim, chewy slice of Italian-American pizza with colorful gay topping to add spice.

Sony Pictures Classics might see some action with Tim’s Vermeer, a doc from Teller (of the Penn & Teller magic duo) about an obsessive genius-entrepreneur’s dogged determination to prove that 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer used a crude camera obscura to achieve the remarkable detail in his works.
The buzz among NYFF press this year was that, as a whole, the Main Selection was not as strong as usual. Also an anomaly was the fact that so many films had running times edging beyond two hours. But, per usual, many Main Selection films came in with distributors attached.

“Orphaned” films viewed this session may find the commercial light of day post-fest, but have lights that flicker and burn out quickly. But it’s the new era to the rescue with so many VOD and self-distribution options available. These may be confusing times for content producers and consumers in general, but the multitude of options make for the best of times for every film embraced by the New York Film Festival. And also rewarding times for all filmgoing New Yorkers and companies that can count on the New York Film Festival to carry on with business as usual.