New York Film Festival: 51 and counting

September 27, 2013

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The 51st New York Film Festival kicks off tonight, with a lineup that runs the gamut from mainstream action (“Captain Phillips”) to Spike Jonze’s latest, “Her” (his first since critics and the public unjustly crucified his film of “Where the Wild Things Are” for not being a warm and fuzzy cartoon).

I’ve been going to the New York festival almost as long as I’ve been going to the one in Toronto; this will be my 26th NYFF. But it’s intriguing to approach it this year, from a different perspective.

Since the last New York Film Festival, I’ve been to five other festivals (where, normally, I’d spend time at Sundance and Toronto and, to a lesser degree, Tribeca). The trips to those other two festivals – in Dubai and Karlovy-vary – reminded me of what I like best about film festivals: the sense of surprise and discovery they can bring.

Not true of New York. Or, to a significant degree, Toronto.

Toronto has turned into one of the fall starting lines for the Oscar race (along with Telluride and Venice). So the films at Toronto tend to include big-name efforts that have either already had a premiere at Cannes or are by filmmakers or feature stars so major that the movie has been chattered about for months before anyone actually sees it.

By contrast, Sundance’s competition films – and even a number of its special presentations – are debuts of films that have been made independently, on the cheap and under the radar. Though it always has a couple of films that played Toronto or even Cannes the year before, Sundance truly feels like a place where you can find something new and unexpected.

Once upon a time, New York was the same way. When it started, it was a showcase for world cinema and American independents that otherwise rarely were featured outside of arthouses. In the past 25 years, of course, New York morphed into something else entirely. While it still showcases world cinema (especially from Asian and Middle Eastern filmmakers in the past decade or so), the films that people actually want to see at NYFF are the ones everyone is talking about already.

This year, that’s “Captain Phillips” (which has mostly ducked the festival circuit), Jonze’s “Her” (a debut) and a lot of other stuff that’s been elsewhere, mostly from Cannes (“Like Father Like Son,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “All is Lost”) and Toronto (“Le Week-end”).

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The other thing about the New York festival is its size: small, about three-dozen films in the main list (though there are several sidebars). Where you can immerse yourself in film at Toronto or Sundance (including the press screenings), I’m lucky to find days at New York where there are three press screenings in the same day, let alone three I want to see. Call it the boutique approach – or the snob’s version. Either might fit.

Still, I’ll say this about that approach: This isn’t a festival (as Toronto and Sundance are) about hyping the next big thing. No tweets or emails about which title has sold to who – it’s not about this. It feels more like a pure showcase which, again, is what film festivals are meant to be.

I’d give this year’s festival a passing grade, just in terms of featuring movies that neither challenge you to make sense of them nor to stay awake. The ratio of the plodding and pretentious seems lower than in the past two decades, when the festival seemed devoted to what I once characterized as “oat-bran cinema”: movies that are supposed to be good for you.

“Life Father, Like Son,” for example, is a beautifully realized Japanese film about a striver of a father – climbing the corporate ladder while his wife raises their 6-year-old son. He and his wife are shocked to learn that, in fact, the hospital made a mistake and gave them the wrong baby six years ago. Now what? It’s a spare but moving drama about the nature of nurture and the connection that proximity creates, as opposed to simply coming from the same genes.

I also like “Le Week-End,” which I missed in Toronto. Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan have a wonderful blend of friction and comfort in this script by Hanif Kureishi, as a pair of aging married Brits on a brief holiday in Paris. The penny-pinching Broadbent and the more free-spending Duncan both have secrets that eventually come out, some of them during a daffily uncomfortable dinner party hosted by, of all people, a character played by Jeff Goldblum. It’s a hard movie to pigeonhole, which is what makes it interesting, but also what may doom its commercial chances.

Some critics sniffed at the idea of including “About Time,” a romantic-comedy mildly about time travel written and directed by Richard Curtis. Perhaps the best contemporary purveyor of romantic comedy (as the writer of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill,” and writer-director of “Love, Actually”), Curtis here tells the story of a slightly eccentric family, where the oldest son, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), learns shortly after his 21st birthday the family secret: His father (the invaluable Bill Nighy) reveals that the men in the family all have the ability to travel back in time, within their own lives. It leads to a wonderful romance between Tim and Mary (Rachel McAdams), as well as an exceptionally moving father-son relationship later on.

Of course, the one everyone is talking about already is “12 Years a Slave,” which exploded out of Telluride and Toronto, trailing the words of cooing Oscar pundits who hailed it as an immediate awards front-runner. Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, it is a searing film with the calmest, most studied pacing I can recall for a film that is so terrifyingly powerful. Ejiofor is electrifying (though it’s far too early to start making Oscar pronouncements).

It’s early Friday morning as I finish and post this and I’m already heading in to see the press screening of “Captain Phillips.” I’ve had a, let’s say, bumpy relationship with the New York Film Festival in the past. This year feels like something of a fresh start.

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