NYFF51: A Universe Continuing to Expand

Panel 1

The 51st New York Film Festival, which opens tomorrow and runs through October 13, has a record 35 main slate features.  Discussing his debut festival, NYFF Director of Programming and Selection  Committee Chair, Kent Jones said, “Cinema is a vast terrain…there are multiple approaches to the question ‘What is a movie,’ from the industrial to the hand-made, from the carefully written to the poetically assembled. I love the level of diversity in the main slate selections…documentaries, biographies, comedies, adventures, epics, chamber pieces, elegies, explorations and affirmations.”

Many of the selections have garnered awards at other major world festivals and the roster of directors and actors lists undeniable masters (Frederick Wiseman, Agnieszka Holland–both also participating in HBO Directors Dialogues–Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert, Jim Jarmusch), and those in earlier stages of their careers.  A new main slate subset, Emerging Artists, includes the latest features by Joanna Hogg and Fernando Eimcke in addition to their previous work.  An essential actor, Ralph Fiennes will be honored with a gala/tribute, during which he will premiere his second directorial feature (in which he stars as Charles Dickens), “The Invisible Woman,” on Alice Tully’s giant, glorious screen.

Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused,” a touchstone for many filmgoers who are now 40-somethings, will have a 20th anniversary reunion screening with the director and cast in person.

The festival’s opening night, the world premiere of Paul Greengrass’ thriller “Captain Phillips,” stars Tom Hanks as the commander of a cargo ship seized by Somali pirates.  “Captain Phillips” and many other NYFF films will open commercially in upcoming months (and I’ll blog about several then).  Here are capsule reviews of three that (as of yet) don’t have distribution and one that does–but I couldn’t wait.

Roger Michell’s best film since “Persuasion,” “Le-Weekend,” a story of a long-married middle-aged couple, has the feel of a Mike Leigh film with the edges sanded down–maybe that’s a contradiction in terms–and not solely because one of the leads is played by Leigh spectacular stalwart, Jim Broadbent.  (Lindsay Duncan, luminous and prickly, is the other half of the relationship.)  Marital, familial and career dissatisfactions, while not resolved, yield to a big, broad Godard quote that should play as insufferably corny but rather it’s perfect, irresistible. (In theaters February 2014.)

Catherine Breillat’s brutal self-examination, the harrowing “Abuse of Weakness,” stars peerless Isabelle Huppert as the director (here named Maud Schoenberg), as she suffers her stroke, struggles to reach even an incomplete recovery–she’s left with major physical disabilities–and falls for a charming conman, Vilko Piran (Kool Shen) who she’d summoned after seeing him on TV, doing an interview about his autobiography.  Hoping to star him in an upcoming film, attracted to him in several ways, and lonely, she’s both aware of his manipulaiton and gives into it, writing him checks for more than 800,000 euros.  As she says at the end of the film, “I was myself and not myself.”

An unlikely (but highly effective) pairing of actors, Benicio del Toro and Mathieu Amalric, mirrors the unlikely meeting and relationship between their characters, Jimmy Picard, a Blackfoot from Montana, suffering from a myriad of unexplained medical symptoms after returning from World War II, and Georges Devereux, a psychoanalyst and Hungarian Jew, who lived in France before making his way to the United States and becoming as an anthropologist specializing in Native American, specifically Mojave, culture.

Based on a true story, director and writer Arnaud Depleschin’s “Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian,” recounts the time the two men spent together as patient and doctor at Topeka Winter Military Hospital.  Jimmy, whose Indian name means “everybody talks about him,” has a very particular way of speaking–slow and precise, firmly striking end consonants.  And for him the “talking cure” with Dr. Devereux (the first to cross-pollinate anthropology and psychoanalysis) has success, moving him from “I have always been a man who let a woman die” to a man who finally acknowledges and hopes to care for his teenage daughter.

The great Frederick Wiseman’s latest cinéma vérité  documentary, “At Berkeley,” explores the top-notch  California public university at a time of economic distress (partially caused by right-wing zealots in the state legislature who wield a super majority rule to prevent any tax increases). Wiseman’s omnipresent camera closely studies students, faculty, administrators and staff.

Other sections of this year’s expanded NYFF include Spotlight on Documentary, divided into Motion Portraits, with eight features, How Democracy Works, a series of 12 films on immigration reform, made since 2001 by directors Michael Camerini and Shari Roberson, and Applied Science;  Revivals, including “The Age of Innocence,” directed by Martin Scorsese, who has said that there will be no future for cinema if its past isn’t preserved; “The Spirit of the Forms,” a three-week retrospective of the work of one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers, Jean-Luc Godard, launches  during the second week of the festival and continues through October 30; Views From The Avant-Garde, including free screenings in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center amphitheater; and Convergence, exploring work that lives at the intersection of technology and storytelling.

Panel 2a

Upper Grid, top row, left to right: Tom Hanks, Steve McQueen, Claire Denis; middle row, left to right: Frederick Wiseman, Ralph Fiennes, Roger Michell; bottom row, left to right: Hany Abu-Assad, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorsese.  All images © Robin Holland.

Lower Grid: top row, left to right: Steve Coogan, Catherine Breillat, Isabelle Huppert; middle row, left to right: Mathieu Amalric, Benicio del Toro, Arnaud Desplechin; bottom row, left to right: Jim Jarmusch, Tilda Swinton, Anna Karina.  All images © Robin Holland.

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