For an event that doesn’t hand out prizes, host swag suites or foster an acquisitions market, the New York Film Festival remains a remarkably essential event on the movie calendar.
More than half a century after its debut, it serves as a cinephile’s cauldron of competing ideologies, storytelling traditions and global perspectives, unspooling against the high-art backdrop of Lincoln Center. One more reason it remains especially relevant in industry circles: It is timed to the start of Oscar campaign season.
This year’s 55th edition, which runs Sept. 28 to Oct. 15, promises to also be something of a referendum on the nature of cinema, capping off a year of vigorous debate about that topic. From Cannes to SXSW, festivals of all sizes and missions have been grappling with the flow of filmmakers, talent and creative capital from independent film to the episodic realm.
Are series created for such streaming services as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu comparable to feature films? Should buyers, sellers or audiences differentiate between a 90-minute feature and a nine-hour show, if both come from comparable auteurs? In this unsettled climate, New York Film Festival has answered those questions by remaining steadfastly New York, holding firm with a main slate of 25 titles and again mixing them with retrospectives, rare conversations and dashes of virtual reality and spectacle.
“We don’t pursue any kind of agenda,” says Kent Jones, director of the festival, speaking while biking across the Manhattan Bridge toward the city. “We pick the movies that mean the most to us.”
This year, on the heels of last year’s Netflix opener “13th,” all three of the festival’s tentpole slots — Opening Night, Centerpiece and Closing Night — are occupied by Amazon Studios titles. Given the company’s traditional film roots — head of marketing and distribution Bob Berney came up through arthouse exhibition — and strategic focus on platform theatrical releases à la “Manchester by the Sea,” Amazon’s strong showing isn’t completely shocking.
Jones also insists that the titles — director Richard Linklater’s opener, “Last Flag Flying”; Todd Haynes’ Centerpiece “Wonderstruck”; and Woody Allen’s closer, “Wonder Wheel” — are all richly deserving on their own merits. (Allen’s is also noteworthy as it will be the first distributed by Amazon alone as opposed to partnerships it has struck with established players like Lionsgate or Roadside Attractions.) “For me, the question of who is releasing them is not that relevant. It’s more about, is the movie good? And the answer is yes. … How movies are disseminated is another topic.”
The Linklater and Allen films are world premieres. “Wonderstruck” launched in Cannes and recently played Telluride. New York often affords distributors with a prime opportunity to fire up what they hope will be months-long campaigns. It doesn’t hurt that major TV networks and international press outlets have easy access to its openings: no shuttles through snow or gondolas through the canal. But it is hardly an automatic ticket to a nom — aside from Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” neither of last year’s tentpole selections, “20th Century Women” and “The Lost City of Z,” became serious Oscar contenders.
Beyond tentpoles, New York will offer North American and U.S. premieres of major fest titles including Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).” As Jones notes, a striking eight titles in the main slate are directed by women.
With nonfiction filmmaking continuing to thrive, the festival also will host several documentary world premieres, including HBO’s “Spielberg,” Netflix’s “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” and “No Stone Unturned,” a new work by Alex Gibney. One landmark event, under the heading “Claude Lanzmann’s Four Sisters,” will include world premieres of four of his docs plus an appearance by the filmmaker, who turns 92 in November. The films, ranging from 52 to 89 minutes apiece, are all offshoots of his epic Holocaust exegesis, “Shoah.”
Jones is also revved up about the fest’s Robert Mitchum retrospective and new restorations of silent masterpiece “Pandora’s Box,” which will play with a brand-new orchestral score in a setting that is ideal for such entertainment.
As he sizes up the landscape, Jones is strikingly less apt to gush about the merging of small and large screens, as other decision-makers have been lately prone to do.
“Episodic storytelling is terrific, but it’s really more of a tool,” he says. “There’s good and bad episodic storytelling. … The line tends to be, it’s more involving because there’s more of it” and sheer volume of episodes designed to “keep you hooked.”
Cinema, meanwhile, “is all about precision and compression,” Jones says. “From our perspective, it’s not about sticking up for cinema versus other forms. But we have always wanted to put the focus on filmmakers and that’s what this year’s festival is all about.”