I’ve been covering the New York Film Festival since 1987 and have, over the years, developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with it, as an institution (specifically, Film Society of Lincoln Center) and as a festival.
This year’s festival, the 52nd, hits its halfway point today and I will admit that, while I’ve seen several of the films in the festival, I’ve only been to two press screenings so far.
Of the three dozen or so films in NYFF52, there are only a handful that I haven’t already seen that I actually wanted to see. Even then, because I live and work in New York, I’m able to see other screenings, aside from the NYFF press screenings, for most of those. Several others are films that I saw at Sundance or Toronto.
The NYFF51 film selections – the first after the 25-year reign of tedium of former festival director Richard Pena – seemed to promise a less numbing devotion to intellectual exercises in cinematic aesthetics. But this year’s slate seems to be a reversal of fortune, with an unfortunate devotion to what I refer to as “oat-bran films,” movies that are supposed to be good for you.
As I said, as of today, I’ve been to two press screenings at NYFF52. One was the grippingly human film, “Two Days, One Night,” by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which offers an Oscar-caliber performance by Marion Cotillard. She plays a woman in Belgium, whose boss has announced that her colleagues get to vote: Will they receive bonuses or will she keep her job? They’ve already voted for the bonuses, but, late on a Friday, the boss has agreed to a re-vote on Monday, because the foreman pressured the workers to vote a certain way.
She is forced to spend a weekend prior to he final vote, essentially going door to door among her coworkers, asking them to vote for her. It’s a performance that demonstrates great range without being showy or otherwise actorish. It’s decidedly more watchable than the directors’ last film, “The Kid With a Bike.”
Unfortunately, the only other film I saw at a press screening at Lincoln Center was exactly the kind of movie that has been turning off NYFF-goers for the past decade. Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja” is so slow and pointless that it makes Terrence Malick look like Michael Bay.
The film stars the magnificent Viggo Mortensen, who is forced to wander a desert in front of the director’s static camera, searching for his missing daughter, seemingly in real time. Apparently, in Alonso’s native Argentina, there is no word for “Cut!”
Unfortunately, that’s how it goes with the NYFF. Either they’re showing no-brainer selections like “Gone Girl,” “Foxcatcher,” ”Birdman” and “Whiplash” – or it’s obscure, impenetrable fare like “Jauja.”
It’s not as if NYFF hasn’t salted its lineups in the past with films that were pretentious, pointless or simply laughable. (Hello? “Dancer in the Dark”?) Though the festival’s selection committee has shifted over the years, there has always been a taste for the kind of airless, plodding foreign and domestic entries that make audiences hate the critics who lured them into seeing them. Pity the poor fool this year who plunks down money to see the 3D film by Jean-Luc Godard, exhibit A of the kind of overrated, over-the-hill filmmakers this festival has always favored.
There’s no challenge to cherry-picking the hits of the coming fall season. Where NYFF52 misses the boat is in otherwise concentrating on films that will vanish from memory by the time the festival is over.
What else is new?