The New York Film Festival, held this year Sept. 30 through Oct. 16, is an institution in Manhattan. In fact, next year, it will celebrate its 50th year. The prestige of the festival attracts both studio and independent films, as well as the big names who made them. This year was no exception. The likes of directors Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Wim Wenders, and Pedro Almodovar made appearances. And the actors? How about Jodie Foster, George Clooney, Antonio Banderas, and Michelle Williams, just to name a few?
Produced by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the New York Film Festival is longer (at 17 days) than the usual film fest and draws large audiences. Also, unlike most of the smaller festivals, the NYFF does not hold any competitions for the chosen films. While I love the small festivals that give lesser known independent filmmakers an opportunity to show their work, there is a lot to be said for an event like the New York Film Festival.
First, the films are universally exceptional and include features, shorts, and documentaries that were made around the world. Second, the venues at Lincoln Center where the films are shown are comfortable and house large screens. Many smaller fests, understandably, just don’t have the budget for these kinds of theaters. Third, and most importantly, the festival gives moviegoers the opportunity to see some of the most popular actors and directors in the industry in person, often during question and answer sessions after the films.
The 2011 festival’s opening night feature was Roman Polanski’s new movie, Carnage, starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly. It’s based on the Tony-Award winning play, God of Carnage. The closing night film was the latest George Clooney offering, The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways).
The other film that was heavily anticipated was My Week with Marilyn, starring a transformed Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe. Gala evenings were held for David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, with Viggo Mortensen playing Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender playing Carl Jung, and for Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In starring Antonio Banderas.
I attended a press conference for that film with Almodovar, Banderas, and actress Elena Anaya after a screening. The Skin I Live In is a departure for both Almodovar and Banderas. Not quite a horror film, but decidedly horrific, “more austere” is how Almodovar described it compared to his previous work.
“In this movie, I tried to fight against my sense of humor,” he said. The story follows a famous plastic surgeon who becomes obsessed with creating skin that can withstand fire and injury … and he experiments on a human being. Get the idea? Truly disturbing and creepy, but also fascinating, with touches of both Frankenstein and Nip/Tuck. Almodovar also explores the issue of gender identity in the narrative.
Banderas said he chose the role because he was “hungry to work with someone who breaks the rules of cinematography.” Almodovar asked him to show almost no emotion throughout the film, and this proved to be surprisingly effective. In the hands of a lesser actor, however, it could have been a disaster.
I also attended a press conference with the cast and director of The Descendants, including George Clooney. At the end of the conference, he insisted we all take a photo of the backs of the cast, so they turned around for us. This was only one of many lighthearted moments initiated by the very funny Clooney.
When asked how he and director Alexander Payne “found each other” for the film, Clooney’s first quip was “at a Turkish bath.” Payne then said Clooney was his “first and only choice” for the character. The Descendants, which was shot in Hawaii, explores the themes of betrayal and forgiveness in a touching story about a man who struggles to establish a relationship with his daughters after the death of his wife.
The film A Separation from Iran received a great deal of buzz during the festival, but I was unable to work in a viewing. Other talked-about films included The Turin Horse, The Kid With a Bike, The Artist, and Shame.
Sean Durkin’s first feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, also received a lot of buzz. A brooding and eerie account of a girl who has just escaped a cult, the film stars Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, and the remarkable Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of the Olsen twins, who turns in an Oscar-worthy performance.
An Israeli film directed by Nadav Lapid called Policeman was screened at Alice Tully Hall. The feature is a dimensional portrait of several characters, showing them in moments when they express great love, moments when they lie, and moments when they’re violent. The characters include a policeman, as well as a group of young terrorists, whose misguided and often intensely personal motivations are examined. While the movie is more slow-moving and cryptic than most American films, it seemed to me that Lapid was saying we are all largely the same, and we all have violence in us.
Ben-Hur, Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush, and other films from earlier eras were also a part of the festival. The Royal Tenenbaums was given a 10th anniversary screening, which was attended by stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, and Angelica Huston.
The most moving experience for me during the festival was a screening of the HBO documentary, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the third film about the West Memphis Three, who were wrongfully accused of murdering three boys in Arkansas nearly 20 years ago. The three men had been released from prison just weeks before the screening, and all three of them appeared at Lincoln Center. Two of them – Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols – took part in the question and answer session after the screening, along with the filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Jessie Misskelley was present, but understandably shy about speaking in front of hundreds of people just weeks after becoming a free man following 18+ years of imprisonment.
Echols, who was on death row, said he believes he would have been executed years ago had it not been for the directors’ previous two HBO documentaries about the case, which were released in 1996 and 2000. Baldwin plans to go back to school and become an advocate for other teenagers who are wrongfully incarcerated.
“Everything happens for a reason, and sometimes, you can decide the reason,” he said. The directors said it was a dream come true for them to have their film shown at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. The documentary will air on HBO next year.
When you plan a visit to New York, it would be worth planning it around next year’s New York Film Festival. Locals who do not yet take advantage of this annual event should make plans for it next fall. I can’t wait to see what films and stars will be featured at the 50th year 2012 fest.