New York Film Festival Walks the Tightrope Between Art and Commerce

26 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

New York Film Festival 2015: What you need to know, and see.

The New York film festival, like the city in which it’s hosted, is large, glitzy and fiercely individualistic. For the better part of its 53 years, the event has screened award-season bait (Life of Pi, The Social Network and Gone Girl all world-premiered as opening-night films), alongside artier selections that make no effort to cater to mainstream sensibilities. The selection was “Birdman,” and after the Michael Keaton-starring drama closed the confab last year, it went on to win four Oscars, including best picture. One, “The Walk,” the latest from Robert Zemeckis, features Philippe Petit’s nosebleed stroll from one World Trade Center tower to its twin on Aug. 7, 1974. In addition to the usual selection of movies set in the city, the event’s main slate features three world premieres from marquee talents set largely in New York.

When the 53rd edition of the festival begins again Saturday, with the debut of Robert Zemeckis’ whimsical high-wire drama “The Walk,” a new crop of hopefuls will try to track “Birdman’s” flight. The other high-wire act is far less dangerous, but comes with its own hazards because it means pleasing constituencies as different as film society patrons and everyday cinephiles, critics who complain that it’s too elitist and those who sniff at the very idea of pleasurable, old-fashioned entertainment. Critics, audiences and awards prognosticators will also have their first looks at a new film from two-time best director Oscar winner Steven Spielberg and two-time best actor winner Tom Hanks, as well as a buzzed-about biopic from director-star Don Cheadle. Blockbuster director Robert Zemeckis opens the festival with The Walk, an eye-popping 3D awards contender, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, the man who crossed the Twin Towers on a high-wire in 1974 and was the subject of James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire. The festival and the Film Society of Lincoln Center will again highlight the film-restoration work of native filmmaker Martin Scorsese and pay tribute to the late documentarian Albert Maysles.

There will also be a centerpiece screening of Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle’s biopic starring Michael Fassbender as the Apple innovator, which was first unveiled at the Telluride film festival, where it stood out and started to gain awards buzz. But coming as it does, at the beginning of Autumn, it’s also pretty much the last chance for films to make their best case for being included in Top Ten lists and awards discussions.

Akerman is a titan of European art cinema and her latest, “No Home Movie,” occupies one of the 26 slots in a main slate that includes the great Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, here with a rapturous beauty, “The Assassin,” and Hollywood’s favorite son, Steven Spielberg, whose Cold War thriller “Bridge of Spies” will have its world premiere on Sunday. Less commercial selections this year include Nanni Moretti’s motherly drama Mia Madre, Jia Zhangke’s experimental epic, Mountains May Depart, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s brazenly bizarre The Lobster – starring Colin Farrell as a man who must secure a life partner, lest he becomes an animal of his choosing.

Since NYFF tweaked its rules several years ago to require that at least two of its three high-profile slots (opening, closing and centerpiece) must be world premieres, those platforms have been invaluable to Hollywood players. Well, audiences will get their first look at “Bridge of Spies,” a movie with an impressive pedigree – directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks.

In between, there’s yet another world premiere: “Don’t Blink – Robert Frank,” Laura Israel’s documentary about the photographer and filmmaker, along with dozens more titles culled from the festival circuit. It’s a true-life, Cold War story about the downing of a super-secret American surveillance plane, and given Spielberg’s and Hanks’ genuine interest in history and respect for the military, it’s bound to be solid. Kent Jones, who succeeded Richard Peña as the festival’s director of programming and selection committee chairman in 2013, says he has only one criterion to meet when putting together each year’s slate: “that it be good”. Though the festival, which is run by and hosted at the upscale Lincoln Center, spans two weeks, there are just 28 films in the main selection, chosen by a small selection committee of film critics and experts.

And, as in recent years, this increasingly ambitious festival is stuffing its theaters with events that bring the total number of features to 70 and the shorts to 132. Of commercial versus art-house fare, Kent says: “They are one in the same; I’ll put it this way: we are only interested in showing movies that we like, period.” Says Jones: “For me, there’s no distinction between ‘arthouse fare’ and ‘Oscar fare’. First among the added attractions is a retrospective dedicated to Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler, whose films should be at the top of any serious movie lover’s to-see list. I find the consumer categories that are constantly reiterated in all media, day in and day out – ‘arty’, ‘popular’, ‘fast-moving’, ‘slow’, ‘esoteric’, ‘audience-friendly’ – worse than useless and demeaning to film-makers.” Since the NYFF was first founded in 1963 by Richard Roud and Amos Vogel, the festival has never had a juried competition, nor served as a hotbed for film sales.

Although you may feel as if – after another a couple of previous features and a recent documentary – there’s nothing to left to learn about the man, Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” arrives with an Aaron Sorkin script and a Michael Fassbender performance. The Revivals slate is observing the 25th anniversary of the Film Foundation, the nonprofit organization that Martin Scorsese presciently helped found to preserve and protect motion picture history.

This year, notable selections not part of the main lineup include a 15th anniversary screening of Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with the cast and directors in attendance; a free tribute to documentary icon Albert Maysles, who died this year; and a screening of Laurie Anderson’s autobiographical experimental film Heart of a Dog. The festival world in general, and New York in particular, have come a long way from the days, not that long ago, when even a high-profile slot was likely to be a cineaste offering for local audiences. And while in the past Michael Moore has had the odd habit of annoying his supporters, and delighting his detractors – he’s just such a tempting target – his new bit of agit-prop, “Where To Invade Next,” drops a lot of the anger while keeping the sarcasm, as it argues that there’s something we really need to steal from Europe: Their utterly humane way of life. Laura Poitras, whose documentary Citizenfour won the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary shortly after debuting at the NYFF, is also in the mix this year, with a selection of short-form episodic works, presented as part of Poitras, AJ Schnack and Charlotte Cook’s Field of Vision, a new, film-maker-driven documentary unit.

The elevated status of award season and the power of social media to shine a light on it has turned these slots into buzzworthy–and, for studios, mission-critical–events. Also bringing previous plaudits with them to their New York berths: “Carol,” a ’50s-set story of romantic obsession, with Rooney Mara, an already acclaimed Cate Blanchett and direction from Todd (“Far From Heaven”) Haynes. One of these includes Asylum, in which the director shadows WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as he publishes classified diplomatic cables and seeks asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy.

This includes the controversial Holocaust drama “Son of Saul,” which was at Cannes and is here being presented by Film Comment, the Film Society’s bimonthly magazine. Similarly set in Eisenhower-era New York: The very different, completely charming “Brooklyn,” an absolutely lovely story starring Saoirse Ronan as a newly arrived Irishwoman tentatively embracing America. Other films I’m be looking forward to: The searing Holocaust drama from Hungary, “Son of Saul”; the exhaustive documentary “De Palma”; Don Cheadle directing and starring in the labor-of-love Miles Davis bio, “Miles Ahead”; more mad cinematic surrealism from Guy Maddin, “The Forbidden Room”; and revivals of “Ran,” “Heaven Can Wait” and “Rocco and His Brothers,” among others.

Whether consultants have figured out how to maximize attention and goodwill from a NYFF screening or whether the festival simply has a sharp eye for movies that already were well on their way, the correlation between an NYFF debut and Oscar heat is strong. “Steve Jobs,” which focuses on three key moments in its subject’s life, hits theaters Oct. 9; it played Telluride before coming to New York (as “Birdman” did) and hopes to gain momentum at the festival. “Miles Ahead,” meanwhile, which focuses on its own turbulent and even funny period in the jazz legend’s creative life, will open next year, with distributor Sony Pictures Classics seeing 2015 as too packed to toss another entry into the mix. This tear-soaked comedy turns on a filmmaker (Margherita Buy) who is struggling to make a movie about a labor protest with a preposterously miscast American star (a wonderful John Turturro) even as she tries to deal with her mother’s failing health. Ewan McGregor also stars in “Miles Ahead,” which is the festival’s closing night selection (Oct. 10). “Carol,” director Todd Haynes’s 1950s-set tale of forbidden love, has already wowed festival crowds across the globe.

Star Rooney Mara won the best actress award at Cannes earlier this year, and now the movie, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt,” is making its push into the Oscar race. Moretti has a habit of crossing the line from pathos to bathos, but he imbues this movie with such honest sentiment that he can evoke a lifetime of feeling with just the shot of an empty chair. “Mountains May Depart,” from Jia Zhang-ke, is essential viewing. You understand that there comes a time when you just have to do it, and I think anyone who does anything creative can identify with the part.” NYFF also can reintroduce audiences and tastemakers to features that debuted at another festival.

Jia takes the pulse of China, this time by taking stock of its past, its present and possible future in a story about an entrepreneur, a coal miner and the woman who chooses one over the other. “The Lobster,” a surrealist lark from the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, opens with a cruel joke that nearly derails it before it gets going, but it recovers nicely with some fine turns from Rachel Weisz and a pudged-out and tender Colin Farrell. The sold-out shows may frustrate those who want to sample the full expanse of this year’s event and you are probably out of luck if you want to catch Sunday’s sneak peek of “The Martian,” Ridley Scott’s latest, which opens Oct. 2. Adapted by Nick Hornby from a Colm Toibin book, it is being released by Fox Searchlight, the studio behind “Birdman” and “12 Years a Slave” that has won best picture two years running. Searchlight is looking to give the immigrant tale a charge after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival as many as eight months ago. “It’s one of those films that remind us how great things happen when we begin in a new place,” Michelle Hooper, Searchlight’s executive vice president of marketing, said of the parallels between its themes and its rollout.

This year, the slate includes seven films, including John Ford’s 1940 Eugene O’Neill adaptation “The Long Voyage Home” and “Black Girl” (1965), storied director Ousmane Sembene’s first feature. Jones seems to be asserting, in league with his compatriots on the selection committee – Amy Taubin, Gavin Smith, Marian Masone and Dennis Lim – is an expansive idea of cinema that avers that a festival selection fundamentally needs to be good above all else. To put it another way, just because a movie comes out of a major American studio doesn’t make it bad and just because it has foreign-language subtitles and is interminably long takes doesn’t make it worth programming.

Maysles and his brother David created several documentaries—including the Long Island-set “Grey Gardens” and the Rolling Stones-focused “Gimme Shelter”—which are acclaimed for pushing the boundaries of the form. The tribute, to be co-hosted by the filmmaker’s family, will also touch on Albert Maysles’s Harlem-based nonprofit documentary center and his work to expand the art of that kind of filmmaking. The nonfiction movies about famous people offer a complement to the three showcase selections, which this year all look at well-known figures. (Indeed, the subjects of both “The Walk” and “Steve Jobs” have had acclaimed documentaries made about them.) “All three of the big slots have movies about real people, and two of them are unorthodox biographies, which I think tells you a lot not just about the films but how audiences now are able to handle shifts and tones in registers,” Jones said.

Some push a regional angle or a certain type of movie, director or cause, while others make do with whatever is left over after the big festivals have had their pick. I don’t love everything in this year’s slate and I particularly don’t love “Arabian Nights,” a six-hour-plus, three-part indulgence from the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes. Yet this is also exactly the kind of work that makes sense for New York, which will help usher it into a wider movie conversation and, by programming it alongside “The Walk,” is insisting that Mr.

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