The New York Film Festival is not like most film festivals. There are no awards won at its end, though there is a Main Slate series of films meant to stand as emblematic. In-between, there are events geared to delight New York film-lovers all over – from a gorgeous new restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, to the premiere of Frank Oz’s director’s cut of Little Shop of Horrors, to the terrific Princess Bride cast reunion screening.
The action is generally concentrated to Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, yet though it may be more screening-oriented than other festivals, there are plenty of surprises to be had across the fest’s two-week run if you’re willing to get adventurous. In the festival’s fiftieth year (and on a bittersweet note, the final one for program director Richard Pena), here are a few of those surprises that were most interesting to us.
Robert Zemeckis’ Use of Music Is As Subtle As Ever
After Robert Zemeckis’ twelve-year sojourn into the motion-capture hell of the uncanny valley, expectations have been reasonably high for his return to actual live action filmmaking, with Flight marking his first non-motion-capture effort since 2000’s Cast Away. Though not a complete return-to-form, Flight still manages to work as an uneven yet compelling character study (that is, until the film derails in its final ten minutes), with Denzel Washington really impressing as his darkest character since Training Day. The centerpiece plane crash sequence is a particular, nerve-wracking standout.
However, though the film generally represents a more oblique and mature outing for the Polar Express-helmer, his use of pop music remains as ham-fisted as ever, with The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” greeting the introduction of Denzel’s character’s gregarious drug dealer. Think that’s not obvious enough? Just wait until a character shoots up to the sounds of “Sweet Jane”!
Greta Gerwig Proves Herself As More Than A Mumblecore Queen
Frances Ha is one of the festival’s absolute highlights, and the effortless charms of the witty script and jaunty direction find an appropriate match in lead Greta Gerwig, who manages to prove once and for all her potential as a lead in films made for more than a few grand in Joe Swanberg’s apartment. Alternately whimsical, manic, and spacey (with an impending melancholy shading everything in between) Gerwig manages to inhabit Frances, and become both Frances’ sharp observing wit and gentle soul.
Life of Pi Never Resorts To Coldplay
The trailers for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi showcased some breathtaking visual beauty as well as some phenomenally corny montages set to Coldplay and the normally great Sigur Ros. Yet though the film’s spiritual core doesn’t quite cohere, Lee manages to deliver sequence after sequence that inspires genuine awe and beauty, and thankfully, all without Coldplay cropping up on the soundtrack to ruin the mood. (Mychael Danna’s score manages to actually be affecting and not cheesy as hell!) Pi takes a little bit of time to get going, but once it does in a bravura shipwreck sequence, it’s pretty terrific cinema.
Leos Carax Remain As Bold As Ever
As much as we love Frances Ha, our favorite movie of the festival has to be the achingly strange and human new film by Leos Carax, Holy Motors – Carax’s first film in the thirteen years since Pola X. While it’d be something of a fool’s errand to try and summarize the increasingly bizarre series of events that comprise Holy Motors, it’s as vital, personal, and freewheelingly out-there as anything he’s ever done before. Still not enough to catch your interest? Within the span of two hours, Holy Motors manages to be everything from a darkly comedic monster movie about a subterranean troll who kidnaps a model played by Eva Mendes, to a disarmingly poignant slice-of-life between a father and a daughter. There’s a musical number in there somewhere too. And chimpanzees. It’s awesome.
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