New York Film Festival: The Perils of Popularity

54e36c4b73b710d476cfc777_the-walk-sympathy-for-the-daredevil This year’s New York Film Festival opens with a couple of virtuosic balancing acts. 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. 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. It’s a tough trick, one the festival pulls off by putting a crowd-pleaser like Mr. Zemeckis alongside the rarefied likes of Chantal Akerman. Ms. 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. Two other high-profile world premieres bookend the festival, with “The Walk” getting the party started on Saturday and “Miles Ahead,” Don Cheadle’s biographical portrait of Miles Davis, bringing it to a close on Oct. 10. 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. 720x405-junun1500_new-744x600-1 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. 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. There’s also a Special Events catchall with new documentaries from Paul Thomas Anderson (“Junun”), as well as Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, who have trained their conjoined visions on another director, Brian De Palma. 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. All these programs — some of the others include Projections, the avant-garde showcase, and the self-explanatory Spotlight on Documentary — are helping make the New York Film Festival a somewhat more democratic event than it might have been by giving nonmembers more of a chance to sample its offerings. The festival’s parent organization, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, makes tickets first available to its 5,000 members. That’s swell for them, but by the time the festival officially opens on Saturday, more than a third of the main slate and some of the other high-profile titles will be available only on standby. 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. maxresdefault Among those titles worth waiting in that standby line during the festival’s first few days are “Mia Madre,” from the Italian director Nanni Moretti, which like most of the main slate has theatrical distribution. 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. Beautifully played by Giulia Lazzarini, the mother is based on Mr. Moretti’s mother, a beloved Latin teacher who died in 2010. Mr. 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. 1118full-mountains-may-depart-poster “Mountains May Depart,” from Jia Zhang-ke, is essential viewing. Once again, Mr. 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. Among the festival’s strongest surprises is “Les Cowboys,” a terrific debut from the French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain that opens with a high-flying American flag and some French-accented country twang only to turn into “The Searchers” before heading East (as in Middle). 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. Certainly it’s satisfying to see movies like “The Martian” and “The Walk” early, especially if you want to experience them before they go through the critical stations of the cross, becoming loved and loathed ad infinitum. (“The Walk” opens in select theaters on Wednesday.) Whatever you do, make sure to see both on the biggest, brightest screen you can find, and if you’re seeing “The Walk,” you may think about packing some Dramamine because Mr. Zemeckis puts you right on that wire too, all 110 freaky stories up. Big-studio releases like these haven’t always found a place in the New York Film Festival, which makes their inclusion feel somewhat like a curatorial statement. In his brief note that opens this year’s program guide, the festival’s director, Kent Jones, ends by defining programming as “seeing work and sharing what you love with the audience.” There’s more to that, as you might guess, including grinding hours watching terrible submissions, because these days everyone really is a filmmaker. Yet what Mr. 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. That sounds obvious, but anyone who attends festivals knows better. Each festival is its own ecosystem. 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. There’s a lot of jockeying for position amid the major ones, as programmers try to bag the kinds of stars and auteurs that will attract worldwide media attention, which in turn helps keep the festival going, and also explains why some of these festivals show far too many bland movies that exist only to win Academy Awards. That doesn’t happen in New York. 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. Gomes and Mr. Zemeckis both belong in that conversation. Unlike Mr. Gomes, Mr. Zemeckis may end up making a real run for the Oscar, but that’s not why his movie is here. In 1974, the same year that Philippe Petit took his famous walk, Richard Roud, the festival’s director at the time, said that the New York Film Festival was a way of “alerting people to new talent” or “to what is promising.” That hasn’t changed. Source