This year the New York Film Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary. The NYFF50 launches tonight with the world premiere of Ang Lee’s fantasy Life of Pi and closes on Sunday, October 14th with the world premiere of Robert Zemeckis‘ drama Flight. As always, the annual autumn event at Lincoln Center offers the serious-minded film-goer an opportunity to view a wide-ranging lineup of the best in international, independent, and, sometimes, Hollywood cinema.
For the last 25 of the NYFF’s 50 years, Richard Peña has served as chairman of the NYFF selection committee and programming director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Peña has decided to move on and the NYFF50 will be his last. (Next year, Kent Jones will replace him as chairman of the selection committee, and Robert Koehler will take over his duties as programming director.) Peña leaves behind a legacy of quality programming and the cementing of lasting relationships between the Film Society and such celebrated filmmakers as Pedro Almodovar (9 NYFF selections!), Abbas Kiarostami (6 NYFF selections), Olivier Assayas (6 NYFF selections), and Clint Eastwood (4 NYFF selections). On Wednesday, October 10th at 8:30pm, Peña will be honored with a Gala Tribute.
More randomly, the NYFF50 has also chosen to honor the actress Nicole Kidman with a Tribute on Wednesday, October 3rd at 8:30pm. The event will include a Gala screening of Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, a noirish camp-fest starring Kidman and Zac Efron (!), which was savaged by critics at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. One must ask: if the purpose of this tribute is something more than just selling expensive tickets to raise funds for Lincoln Center, then why not have a sidebar retrospective, devoted to highlighting Kidman’s best work? After all, Kidman has worked with many of the world’s top directors and has given great performances in films as varied as Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Dogville (2003), Dead Calm (1989), The Others (2001), and The Portrait of a Lady (1996).
On the occasion of the festival’s fiftieth anniversary, programmers have sought out the world premiere of three big-studio awards hopefuls for each of the traditional Main Slate Gala screenings …
Shooting in 3D and employing what looks like tons of CGI, Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) brings Yann Martel’s bestselling novel to the big screen. Has Lee succeeded in adapting a book that a number of A-list directors failed to get beyond the pre-production phase? Festival-goers will find out on Friday night.
David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, makes his feature film directorial debut with this coming of age story about a group of friends, who start a rock ‘n roll band in 1964 suburban New Jersey. Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, plays the father of the band’s frontman. The soundtrack, produced by Steven Van Zandt –also of The Sopranos– features plenty of hit songs from the era.
In Robert Zemeckis’ (Back to the Future) return to live-action filmmaking, two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington plays an alcoholic airline pilot, who makes a spectacular crash landing, saving hundreds of lives onboard. Afterwards, he is investigated for his questionable behavior, leading up to the crash. Washington is one of Hollywood’s best and most reliable actors, but will this drama’s portrait of addiction and heroism be worthy of his talents, or just more predictable Oscar bait?
Thankfully, the NYFF50’s Main Slate is not limited to highly-publicized Gala screenings. Of the 29 other features, which comprise this section of the festival, the following are the seven that I’m most looking forward to viewing on the giant screen at Alice Tully Hall …
Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) won his second consecutive Palme d’Or at this May’s Cannes Film Festival for this drama about an octogenarian married couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant & Emmanuelle Riva), confronting sudden illness and death. A number of critics have called this Haneke’s most “tender” film, but is the filmmaker, who gave the world both versions of Funny Games, capable of portraying any degree of tenderness onscreen? We shall see …
Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale)directs this low-budget, black-and-white romantic comedy about a twenty-something (Greta Gerwig, who stole Baumbach’s Greenberg), struggling to make it as a dancer and find an affordable apartment in contemporary New York. Now a real-life couple, Baumbach and Gerwig collaborated on the screenplay together.
Leos Carax’s last feature (and last appearance at NYFF) was his brilliant and undersung adaptation of Herman Melville’s Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, Pola X (1999). His latest stars Denis Lavant (Carax’s frequent onscreen alter ego), as a mysterious shape-shifter, who travels through Paris and has a series of surreal encounters. The film also stars Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue. A huge hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Abbas Kiarostami’s previous film was the masterpiece Certified Copy, a Tuscany-set romance, starring a great Juliette Binoche. This time, shooting in Japan and working with several unknown Japanese actors, Kiarostami crafts a different kind of love story.
One of the world’s most prolific and unique filmmakers, Raoul Ruiz (Mysteries of Lisbon) died last August, following a bout with liver cancer. In what is his final film, Ruiz returns to his native Chile to tell a series of stories built around the themes of childhood, memory, and the passing of time.
Brian DePalma’s first film since Redacted (NYFF 2007) is a remake of Alain Corneau’s corporate thriller Love Crime (2010), which starred Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott Thomas. DePalma casts Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams as his seductive leads. DePalma back in erotic thriller mode is always cause for excitement in my book.
The last time Olivier Assayas (Carlos) made a film about rebellious youth in the early 1970s, he made his masterpiece Cold Water (1994). At the very least, Assayas’ account of teenagers, who were too young to participate in the May ’68 riots, will be quite timely.
In no way does the festival-going experience end with the Main Slate. Careful attention must be paid to NYFF50’s Masterworks section, which could be the best and most expansive ever curated by the selection committee.
This year, festival goers will be treated to such undisputed classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Lawrence of Arabia (in an 8K digital restoration for its fiftieth anniversary!), Fellini Satyricon (1969), and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), as well as a number of welcome rediscoveries. Two restorations, supervised by the Library of Congress, fall into the latter category — Pierre Chenal’s Native Son (1951), starring author Richard Wright as his own controversial protagonist Bigger Thomas, and Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), one of the first American independent productions, since the race films of the 1920s to focus on black main characters.
Perhaps the most anticipated of all the Masterworks screenings, however, is Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). Reviled by critics upon its release and a massive financial disaster, this epic western destroyed its director’s career, brought down an entire studio in United Artists, and ended an era of auteur-driven filmmaking in Hollywood. It also happens to be one of the greatest American films ever made. Digitally restored by the Criterion Collection, Heaven’s Gate will screen on Friday, October 5th at 6:30pm, ahead of its Criterion Blu-ray and DVD release on November 20th. Both Cimino and star Kris Kristofferson are scheduled to attend the event.
Franklin P. Laviola is a filmmaker and writer based in the New York area. He wrote and directed the award-winning short film “Happy Face,” which has screened at over 20 film festivals. Last year, he wrote about the best films of the 2011 New York Film Festival and recently wrote about the Best International Films of 2012 (So Far) and the Best American Films of 2012 (So Far). New York Film Festival tickets are available online and at the Alice Tully Hall Box Office.