03 October, 2011

49th New York Film Festival

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

The 49th edition of the New York Film Festival, a sure sign of the Fall season, is underway, and in its substantially expanded format, there is literally something for everyone at this year’s event. The Festival, which has prided itself on being a boutique as opposed to the bazaar offered at such events in Toronto, Cannes and Berlin (and at New York’s own Tribeca Film Festival) still offers the cream of the crop from those other festival celebrations, with a sprinkling of highbrow curiosities geared to the most serious of cinephiles. However, this year’s program is a good 25% larger than previous sessions, a result of the increased screen space available since the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the event’s presenter, opened its three-screen Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Between the newly refurbished gala center Alice Tully Hall, the intimate jewel box of the Walter Reade Theater and the three screens at the Film Center, the Festival now has the ability to play it both large and glamorous and intimate and no frills, all in the same program.

The highest-profile titles are in the main selection, including the opener, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit CARNAGE; the centerpiece (Simon Curtis’s MY WEEK WITH MARILYN with Michelle Williams channeling the fragility and grit of Marilyn Monroe); and the closer, Alexander Payne’s first film in five years, THE DESCENDANTS, starring George Clooney as a Hawaiian patriarch that has Oscar nomination written all over it). MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is a world premiere, a rare occurrence for this Festival, which mostly shows the top flight films that had their openings at other festivals, mainly Cannes, Venice and Toronto. However, New York still is an important player in the festival sweepstakes because much of the nation’s media community resides here. So such films as A DANGEROUS METHOD, Canadian director David Cronenberg’s intense drama of sexual desire and psychoanalytic competition (Dr. Freud meets Dr. Jung) and THE SKIN I LIVE IN, Festival fave Pedro Almodovar’s playful yet horrific sampling of Hitchcockian suspense, use the Festival as the launch of their media campaigns for eventual theatrical release.

That speaks to the interesting phenomenon that also distinguishes the New York Film Festival. More than 75% of the film presented in the main slate come with distributors already attached. This is quite different from the previous festivals mentioned, where part of the excitement is the industry’s first introduction to these long anticipated titles and possible bidding wars that are followed by the industry trades to see which companies walk away with the most dazzling jewels. While it makes no difference to the enthusiastic New York audiences who attend (although at $24 per ticket, the Festival is quite a pricey affair in a time of economic austerity), it remains rather industry lite. Distributors are already attached to such high profile titles as THE ARTIST (Weinstein Company), FOOTNOTE (Sony Pictures Classics), GOODBYE FIRST LOVE (Sundance Selects), THE KID WITH A BIKE (Sundance Selects), LE HAVRE (Janus Films), MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Fox Searchlight), MELANCHOLIA (Magnolia Pictures), MISS BALA (Twentienth Century Fox) ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (Cinema Guild), PINA (Sundance Selects), A SEPERATION (Sony Pictures Classics), SHAME (Fox Searchlight) and THE TURIN HORSE (Cinema Guild).

Where the New York Film Festival can make a difference, in furthering the careers of its films at least, is with the titles that come here without a distributor attached. This is not to say that the films are unknown (most have played at Berlin, Cannes, Venice or Toronto) but a strong response from critics and audiences here can make the crucial difference in an eventual distribution pickup. That is what is on the line for such films as 4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH, New York cult director Abel Ferrara’s apocalyptic valentine to his home city; THE LONELIEST PLANET, director Julia Loktev’s examination of the unraveling of a couple on a trekking holiday in the Caucasus Mountains, with a charismatic lead performance by Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal; PLAY, an immigrant story that is both disturbing and heartening by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund; POLICEMAN, a gripping political drama from Israeli debut director Napav Lapid; SLEEPING SICKNESS, a meditation on the life of a white European doctor working in a troubled Cameroon directed by Germany’s own Ulrich Kolhler; THE STUDENT, the story of a university student who becomes involved in radical politics in Argentine director Santiago Mitre’s smashing debut; and THIS IS NOT A FILM, a video diary by Iranian director Jafar Panahi on the eve of his appeal for disloyalty that has been a Festival staple since its premiere in Cannes.

The Festival offers other delights and curiosities in its other sections, including a Masterworks section of famous and infamous films from the past, and a wide-ranging programs of Special Events, Directors Dialogues, a four-day program of Avant-Garde works and a tribute to the pulp genre films of Japan’s legendary Nikkatsu Corporation, a production and distribution institution that has been steadily producing and releasing films since 1912. We will be reporting on these and other aspects of the Festival in the days ahead. For more information, visit: