The New York Film Festival turns 50 this year and is appropriately throwing itself one heck of a birthday bash. The golden anniversary celebration kicks off tonight with the world premiere of Ang Lee's Life of Pi, an adaptation of the best-selling novel that ranks among the fall season's big Oscar hopefuls. Over the next two weeks (the festival runs from September 28 to October 14) a plethora of big-ticket films and events will be unspooling at the festival's headquarters at Lincoln Center on New York's Upper West Side. You can visit the official NYFF website for the full schedule and ticket information. In the meantime, we've gone through the festival line-up (and have even seen a few of the movies) to highlight some of this year's key titles.
Flight of the Concord
Life of Pi nabbed the opening night slot, but the movie that really has Oscar prognosticators excited is the closing night selection, Flight, the Robert Zemeckis airline disaster picture starring Denzel Washington as a pilot who pulls a Sully by landing a tailspinning plane, only to have his heroism called into question when it comes to light that he may have been flying under the influence. Besides being Zemeckis's first live-action feature in over a decade (the last one prior to his grand experiment in motion capture was 2000's Cast Away, which also featured a memorable plane crash), this is also Washington's first big dramatic turn in a non-action movie since the self-directed The Great Debaters in 2007. If both men have come back bringing their A-game, this could be the kind of Oscar bait that's also a legitimately great movie.
Cannes Falls on Manhattan
You can always count on seeing a number of celebrated titles from the Cannes Film Festival at every NYFF and this year is no exception. The most prestigious name amongst the current batch of imports is Michael Haneke's terrific Amour, a portrait of an elderly couple nearing the end of their marriage (and their lives) that picked up the Palme d'Or back in May. A less overtly gruesome tale than some of the director's more recent films (particularly his English-language remake of Funny Games), Amour is still a typically unsparing and unsentimental Haneke film that builds towards a final scene of haunting power. NYFF's token Romanian film Beyond the Hills was also lauded at Cannes, picking up awards for Best Actress and Best Screenplay. This is the new film from Christian Mungiu, who previously directed the deservedly acclaimed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, about two young women attempting to secure the services of an abortionist in '80s-era Romania when abortion was illegal. Hills takes place in the present day on the grounds of an isolated monastery, where a young nun has invited her friend, a non-believer, to stay with her awhile. But when her pal stars to act out in odd ways, the other believers seek to heal her spirit in the only way they know how. If you've ever wondered what a Romanian New Wave version of The Exorcist might look like, this is your answer. Although it went winless at Cannes, Leos Carax's film Holy Motors attracted quite the cult following on the Riviera and it's not hard to see why. It's a wonderfully strange, witty and dreamlike film that plays like a cross between David Lynch, Jacques Tati and David Cronenberg and also boasts one of the year's best performances from star Denis Lavant. To say too much about it would spoil the fun -- just buy a ticket and take the ride.
Another NYFF movie that originated at Cannes is The Paperboy, Lee Daniels's follow-up to his much lauded Precious, which, as you may recall, was based on the novel Push by Sapphire. His new movie could be subtitled Based on the Novel by Lee Daniels and it's a hoot and a half, although how much of the humor is intentional is up for debate. This is the movie that's most famous for including a scene where Nicole Kidman -- playing a Southern tart complete with frizzy blonde hair and push up bra -- pees on Zac Efron after the poor kids is stung by a jellyfish. That scene is just as ridiculous as the description makes it sound. In fact, the whole film is patently absurd, but damned if Kidman doesn't throw herself into her role with gusto. The Paperboy is screening as part of the NYFF's gala tribute to the actress and, even if it's a risible film on its own terms, it is a reminder of just how versatile a performer Kidman can be.
Shining Happy People
If you can only see one documentary at the NYFF this year, make it Room 237, Rodney Ascher's absorbing documentary about die-hard fans of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining who have their own unique theories about what themes and ideas the movie is trying to communicate. We saw and loved this film at Sundance back in January, at which point we weren't sure whether it would ever be able to screen anywhere else due to licensing issues. The good news is that after a run on the festival circuit, Room 237 is getting a theatrical release courtesy of IFC Films. The bad news? That release isn't until next March. So Shining fans who aren't based in New York will have to wait a little longer to see 2012's finest non-fiction feature.
Back in the New Jersey Groove
David Chase has been abiding by his own personal omerta ever since the series finale of The Sopranos cut to black in 2007, but he's picked the NYFF as the place to re-enter the limelight. His feature filmmaking debut Not Fade Away is serving as the festival centerpiece and it's the '60s-set story of a group of Jersey rockers who are inspired by the Rolling Stones to start their own band. And because it's not a David Chase vehicle without Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini pops up in a supporting role. We have absolutely no idea what to expect from this film, but we're glad that Chase is sharing it with us New Yorkers first.
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