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Previewing the 51st New York Film Festival

by Ethan Alter September 26, 2013 4:01 pm
Previewing the 51st New York Film Festival

It's that time of the year again when Manhattan's Lincoln Center area transforms itself into a mini-Toronto and/or Cannes with the start of the annual New York Film Festival, which runs from September 27-October 13. For its 51st year, the NYFF has programmed a wide range of cinematic offerings, from star-driven Oscar contenders (like the Opening Night feature, Captain Phillips) to anniversary retrospectives (like a 20th anniversary screening of Richard Linklater's last-day-of-high-school masterpiece Dazed and Confused) to experimental fare (like the sort-of documentary Manakamana, which consists of a stationary camera positioned inside a cable car in Nepal that records the various passengers comings and goings). Visit the festival's official site for the full rundown, but here are some of the highlights we particularly wanted to draw your attention to:

Captain Phillips Sets Sail, Along with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Her
Since the NYFF comes at the tail end of festival season, well after major movie gatherings like Venice, Toronto and Telluride, many of its highest-profile films arrive in New York having already premiered elsewhere. But in recent years, the programmers have scored some big world premieres, including The Social Network and Life of Pi, both of which went on to be major Oscar players in their respective years. For the 2013 edition, the NYFF will debut three yet-to-screen awards hopefuls for its Opening Night, Centerpiece and Closing Night screenings respectively. The aforementioned Opening Night feature is the Paul Greengrass/Tom Hanks collaboration Captain Phillips, a recreation of a real-life high-seas hijacking when an American cargo ship headed up by the titular seaman was seized by a group of Somali pirates. The material seems like a fine fit for Greengrass's brand of documentary-style dramatizations and Hanks is at his best when playing an Average Joe who finds heroism thrust upon him. The Centerpiece spot is taken by Ben Stiller's dream project, an adaptation of James Thurber's seminal short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, about a dreamer with a very active imagination. Directed by and starring Stiller, the movie's exceedingly artsy trailer suggests that this won't be a simple kiddie romp like the Night at the Museum films. But will Stiller get tripped up by his own ambitions and wind up with the next Toys instead? Finally, the NYFF saves its most exciting premiere for last, Her, Spike Jonze's first film in far too long. Written by the Adaptation director, Her stars the resurgent Joaquin Phoenix as an isolated writer who falls for the supple female voice (provided by ScarJo, natch) emanating from a new computer operating system. Jonze may only have three movies to his name, but there's not a bad one in the bunch.

Experience Some New York Stories
Given that this is the New York Film Festival, after all, it's only natural that there'll be some Big Apple-centric pictures, which this year happen to be period pieces transporting audiences back to long-vanished versions of Manhattan. A favorite at Cannes, the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis brings the early '60s Greenwich Village folk scene to vivid life, with Oscar Isaac playing a down-and-out troubadour with the style and sound (but not the success) of a young Dylan. Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and Coen stalwart John Goodman round out the supporting cast. Meanwhile, James Grey's The Immigrant travels even further back in time, setting viewers down in the '20s, when a Polish migrant (Marion Cotillard) gets mixed up with the owner of a burlesque club (Joaquin Phoenix again). Both pictures should lead to some cognitive dissonance when you emerge from the theater into a city filled with Apple stores and Best Buys instead of automats and flop houses.

Old Dudes Doing Work
It's a showdown of the '70s (and age 70) stars as 77-year-old Robert Redford and 77-year-old Bruce Dern headline two new lion-in-winter style movies. J.C. Chandor's All is Lost is a true solo expedition for Redford, as he plays a veteran sailor whose ship gets lost at sea during stormy weather, forcing him to rely on his wits and years of sailing to survive. On the other hand, Alexander Payne's black-and-white road movie Nebraska is kind of a double act, pairing Dern up with Will Forte (making his dramatic debut) as an estranged father-and-son who work on their relationship while travelling to see a guy about lottery winnings. And while he's not in front of the camera, let's not forget fellow septuagenarian Hayao Miyazaki, the animation master whose final feature (sob!), The Wind Rises is playing at the festival as well. It's just a reminder that great artists don't have to stop when they turn 50.

12 Years of Oscar Hype
If you go by the Oscar pundits, Steve McQueen's rapturously received depiction of the 19th century slave trade, 12 Years a Slave, already has Best Picture in the bag. But let's see how it stands up to the long knives of the New York press, who have been known to pick apart frontrunners. No matter what slings and arrows they might aim at the film, however, we have a feeling it's still in the Oscar race for the long haul.

Blue is the Angriest Color
It seems like so long ago now that the director and stars of the French sensation Blue is the Warmest Color were happily accepting the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival with grins plastered on their faces. Fast-forward a few months and those grins have turned upside down, with the lead actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux -- playing a lesbian couple whose rise-and-fall romance makes up the three hour narrative -- accusing director Abdellatif Kechiche of fostering a hostile work environment and the director firing back that they were equally unpleasant to work with. Kechiche is about to face the media and public again when Blue screens at the NYFF, so it might be a smart movie for the festival to have a referee on hand during post-screening Q&As.

Be In On the Secret
During the 2011 edition of the NYFF, festival programmers launched the new gimmick of a top-secret premiere screening of a yet-to-be released movie. That year it was Martin Scorsese Hugo and 2012 brought Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. So what's the surprise going to be this year? Probably not Scorsese's latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, which reportedly isn't close to ready. So what's it going to be instead? If the NYFF really wanted to cause a sensation, they'd tap The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but a more likely candidate is Ridley Scott's The Counselor or hometown boy Spike Lee's Oldboy. One last possibility? David O. Russell's American Hustle, the one still-unseen movie that could seriously halt 12 Years a Slave's momentum.

Watch Some (Non) Fiction
For all the eye-catching narrative films on display, there are some pretty great documentaries to check out as well, including the latest opus from doc master, Frederick Wiseman, At Berkeley. This four-hour portrait of the eponymous California college is said to capture what life is really like on campus today, for both students and teachers. Other notable non-fiction works include The Square, a you-are-there portrait of the events in Tahrir Square during the early months of the Arab Spring and Tim's Vermeer, the directorial debut of Teller (yes, the back half of Penn &), which profiles an engineer who puts his technical know-how to work recreating a painting by the celebrated Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer.

Think you've got game? Prove it! Check out Games Without Pity, our new area featuring trivia, puzzle, card, strategy, action and word games -- all free to play and guaranteed to help pass the time until your next show starts.

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