Last year’s New York Film Festival may have celebrated its golden anniversary, but the 51st edition—launching half a century plus a couple weeks after Lincoln Center’s inaugural fest—has distinctively, determinedly expanded in breadth, offering the closest NYFF has come to a something-for-every-cineast saturnalia. Among the bevy of sidebars alone are “Revivals” (11 little-screened repertory picks, including two by Holy Motors auteur Leos Carax), “Applied Science” (three docs based on ambitious non-film projects, like Google’s digitization of every book ever written), “Motion Portraits” (eight of those; don’t miss the austerely magical cable car curiosity Manakamana), “Emerging Artists” (spotlighting three features each from Mexico’s Fernando Eimbcke and the U.K.’s Joanna Hogg), plus the return of “Views from the Avant-Garde,” featuring a whopping 45 blocks of radical mind-benders.
Largely plucked off the prestigious vines of Cannes, Venice, Locarno, and Berlin, over half of this year’s record-breaking 36 main slate titles represent new work from returning NYFF filmmakers such as Catherine Breillat (Abuse of Weakness), Arnaud Desplechin (Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian), Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin), and Spike Jonze (closing-night selection Her). It’s a sucker’s game to find rhyming themes among this wisely curated lot of formalist documentaries, one-man thrillers, period dramas, and modern comedies, so just imagine programmers Kent Jones, Dennis Lim, Marian Masone, Gavin Smith, and Amy Taubin have locked down a Netflix-style algorithm called “Masterworks and Other Bold Cinematic Visions, Minus That Mediocre Alan Partridge Farce, That You Didn’t Have to Fly to Europe to See.” With an unsurprisingly measured ratio of challenging slow-burners to red-carpet–friendly crowd-pleasers, it’s business as usual, just more so.
The action kicks off September 27 with the world premiere of Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, a grimly docudramatic recount of the real-life Massachusetts seaman’s calamitous 2009 kidnapping by Somali pirates. With the director’s trademark aesthetic of handheld kineticism and punctuating zooms, this suspenseful high-seas misadventure could be seen as his third entry in some Wiki-thrills trilogy (following his similarly dour white-knucklers about historical chaos, Bloody Sunday and United 93). Politically conscious but emotionally underwhelming, Greengrass’s and screenwriter Billy Ray’s ship might have had more tug if it spent more than one scene and a couple lines of dialogue establishing how desperate motives are deeper than easy vilifications (cf. A Hijacking), but Tom Hanks—chewing through a Boston accent as the besieged Phillips—is absolutely unsinkable.
More tales of survival (uh-oh, themes are materializing): Straightforward in its storytelling and therefore a relentless, visceral experience, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave—presented here by Film Comment—tackles America’s ugly heritage of human bondage as a harrowing first-person experience without being couched in melodrama (Roots), exploitation (Mandingo) or flat-out insincerity (Django Unchained). Its dedication to authenticity and overall lack of editorializing means plenty of thoughtful year-end conversations (and cringe-inducing think pieces) about closure and reconciliation will follow, but don’t be duped by the hyperbolic who, following Telluride and Toronto, proclaimed it the one movie to cure cancer, save Christmas, or at least be the Bestest Best Picture of all time.
Forget all that hype and draw your eyes first to Jehane Noujaim’s potent doc The Square, an even more crucial, immersive, and exhilarating tale of the fight against oppression, which proves that the Egyptian Revolution didn’t end in 2011. Obviously, social media and YouTube played vital roles in the nonviolent takedown of Mubarak’s regime, but Noujaim’s intense, you-are-there observations of the passionate activists camping in Tahrir Square (including The Kite Runner star Khalid Abdalla, whose televised testimony to Anderson Cooper is enough to inspire some overturning of police cars) are more than just muckraking journalism. There’s plenty of distressing and shockingly timely footage (some shot as recently as August) that is rarely-to-never aired by American news outlets, but it doesn’t take a bullet or tear-gas pellet whizzing by the camera to frame the film as a provocative indictment of media negligence, and perhaps the limp inadequacy of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Considering the hellacious frustrations those citizens still experience, nobody had better bitch about their poor gluteal muscles after screenings of Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush, her Czech miniseries about political self-immolation; Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah footnote, The Last of the Unjust; or Lav Diaz’s tough-minded Dostoyevsky reimagining, Norte, the End of History—all hovering around four hours in length. So, too, does Frederick Wiseman’s terrific microscope-view of higher education’s inner workings, At Berkeley, one of the vérité godfather’s richest features yet (a mere four and a half decades after he directed High School). Culled from several weeks of refined, riveting, fixed-camera footage, Wiseman audits a class, embeds with a large-scale student protest, sits in on meetings full of exasperated, resource-challenged faculty members, witnesses a Ph.D. student retooling bionic limbs for a disabled soldier, and winds up speaking volumes about quintessentially American struggles through the institutional microcosm. Don’t miss it, even if you think you learned these lessons from the fourth season of The Wire.
There’s far too much to cover here—including gala tributes to Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett, the 12-feature-long “How Democracy Works Now” series, and a sampler for the Film Society’s forthcoming Jean-Luc Godard retrospective—but allow me to heartily recommend double features with explicit queer sex (the Palme d’Or–winning Blue is the Warmest Color and the French minimalist thriller Stranger by the Lake), fantastic soundtracks (Claire Denis’s Tindersticks-scored, unnerving noir Bastards, the Coen brothers’ ’60s-era Greenwich Village folk panorama of a talented almost-was, Inside Llewyn Davis), and giant steps forward for directors named Jim (Jarmusch’s chic, comically downbeat vampire riff, Only Lovers Left Alive, and James Gray’s formidable, old-fashioned 1920s-set melodrama, The Immigrant).
Oh, but please stop asking about Nebraska. Every festival needs their misfire to make the other programming shine brighter, but Alexander Payne’s dull-as-dirt road trip through the Midwest—as seen through the caricatured relationship between cantankerous dad Bruce Dern and his quietly incensed son Will Forte—is the kind of condescending look at funny-looking, weird-talking Americana that gives New York aesthetes a bad name.