Just judging by the slate, last year’s New York Film Festival offered a testament to the nearly six-decade-old fest’s place in the fall awards circuit firmament, and in New York filmgoing culture. Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” world premiered on opening night last year, and a strong slate of future Oscar nominees (“Marriage Story,” “Parasite,” “Beanpole”) all had their Gotham bows at the fest.
This year is a different story, for reasons that should be all too obvious, and the festival is making no bones about its off-year status, right down to a cheeky John Waters-designed poster that brags: “No awards! No world premieres! Fewer films than Toronto!” Not that many New Yorkers are likely to care about such old-normal measuring sticks, especially when the festival is offering a cornucopia of well-curated cinema that will unspool over a leisurely pace, starting Sept. 25 and extending through Oct. 11. Below are some highlights.
At the Drive-In
Taking advantage of 2020’s most unexpected revival, NYFF hosts drive-in public screenings at three area venues: the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn Army Terminal and Queens’ New York Hall of Science. Some of the buzzier films programmed – including Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” and Spike Lee’s “David Byrne’s American Utopia” – screen at multiple venues, and opening night film “Lovers Rock” will unspool at all three. Without the usual out-of-towners amassing in Manhattan for the Lincoln Center galas, broadening the NYFF’s screenings to those three boroughs ought to open up the festival to New Yorkers who might never have paid the old fest a visit. (Nearly all programming also has virtual screening windows, further expanding the fest’s audience.)
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Top of the World
Despite Waters’ claims to the contrary, NYFF hosts a number of world premieres, perhaps most notably Sofia Coppola’s New York-set father-daughter comedy “On the Rocks,” which reunites the director with her “Lost in Translation” star Bill Murray, and the first three installments of Steve McQueen’s five-part BBC-Amazon anthology series “Small Axe” – the first installment of which, “Lovers Rock,” kicked things off Sept. 25. The fest has saved another premiere for closing night, Azael Jacobs’ surrealist New York comedy “French Exit,” featuring Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges.
As usual, NYFF offers New Yorkers early looks at favorites from the year’s previous festivals, and 2020’s devastated festival calendar hardly seems to have presented a problem: Pedro Almodovar’s English-language debut “The Human Voice,” Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes’ topical “All In: The Fight for Democracy” and Garrett Bradley’s Sundance-winning doc “Time” are among the highlights. But some of the most interesting off-the-beaten-path fare are found in the festival’s Currents program. Among the more intriguing prospects: John Gianvito’s “Her Socialist Smile,” about Helen Keller’s lesser-known advocacy for progressive causes; Ephraim Asili’s “The Inheritance,” about a Black arts and activism collective in Philadelphia; and Nuria Gimenez’s experimental debut feature, “My Mexican Bretzel.”
Old Is New
Revivals have long been an important element of NYFF’s programming, and this year presents an intriguing slate of classic material. The most novel offering is surely “Hopper/Welles,” the recently discovered footage of Orson Welles and Dennis Hopper in conversation, while Bela Tarr’s long, and difficult to find, 1988 film “Damnation,” screening virtually for five days. Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” offers a more crowd-pleasing option, and for those who miss visits to New York’s more outre revival houses, the John Waters-programmed drive-in-only doubleheader, dubbed “Art Movie Hell,” pairs Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom” with kindred spirit Gaspar Noe’s “Climax” for a wild night at the Bronx Zoo.