51ST NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL – 2013 EDITION

The 51st Annual New York Film Festival came to town from 27 September through 13 October. As expected, the Hollywoodification of the New York Film Festival was in full effect with the Galas (they love to have those parties) for the Opening Night, Centerpiece and Closing Night. Paul Greengrass’ CAPTAIN PHILLIPS from Sony led the charge as the Opening Night selection. A middling Tom Hanks programmer, the publicist directed buzz of a Supporting Actor nod for first time Somali actor Barkhad Abdi is in full swing. He’ll probably get nominated but shouldn’t win. The Centerpiece was Ben Stiller’s reinterpretation of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY from Fox. It is mediocre to say the least and probably will fail at the domestic box office. The festival closed with Spike Jonze’s HER from Warners featuring Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who has never quite appealed to me. The tom tom drums are going off like crazy for Scarlett Johansson to be nominated for Supporting Actress. If they had a voiceover category, okay. But like CGI (see Gollum), I don’t think special effects or voice should be compared to on camera acting by a live human being. A sexually appealing woman with a coquettish voice doesn’t mean they can act – nice to look at and fantasize about but acting, well, that’s a stretch. Look at the multitudes of cheesecake and beefcake studio execs and producers stuff into films on a regular basis. A screenwriter friend of mine once wrote a screenplay that was designed to have multiple minor roles for the producers and investors to cram boyfriends and girlfriends into without ruining the picture.

The distributors have decided that the NYFF should be Part 3 to Toronto and Telluride to launch their Fall slate (or, to use it as a cost effective way to have press screenings without paying for them). Universal has in the running Richard Curtis’ ABOUT TIME, a time travel romcom from old Blighty with Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan’s kid), Rachel Adams and Bill Nighy. The film doesn’t quite work (interesting concept) so go for the droll Bill Nighy who never goes wrong. Roadside Attractions steps up its game with J.C Chandor’s ALL IS LOST, Redford’s man lost at sea pic. Because it’s Robert Redford there will be a big ado about getting him nominated. He was alright but from a business perspective I don’t see Roadside stepping up with the right Academy campaign. Roadside’s second entry is the Chilean/Spanish co-pro GLORIA by Sebastian Lelio. More for the “mature adult” I don’t see the film doing much business. Lead Paulina Garcia should be able to pick up select US feature work if she’s speaks a modicum of English. It was great to hear on the soundtrack the original Italian version of “Gloria” (by Umberto Tozzi) best know to American audiences by the late Laura Brannigan’s rendition in 1982 that hit #2 on the Billboard Charts selling over 2 million copies.  Trivia: Which song kept her from getting to #1? Lionel Richie’s “Truly”.

CBS Films (for those who know their industry history, CBS launches film distribution companies and then they crash and burn) brought us Joel & Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWLYN DAVIS, an homage to the ’60s Folk Music scene in NYC, especially David Van Ronk (they licensed his autobiography in order to use some of the stories).   The lead, Oscar Isaac, is rather annoying and in turn the film is off-putting, like many of the Coen Brothers films.   On the flipside, Sundance Selects unveiled (and that’s putting it lightly) the hot lesbian sex scene film BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR by France’s Abdellatif Kechiche. This will draw the raincoat brigade who alas may be put off by the 3 hour run time (they’ll wait for the dvd to fast-forward). The film is a bit overhyped (the distributor is salivating those box office revenues) but is worth seeing. If actress Lea Seydox plays her cards right, she’ll have a successful career on both sides of the ocean. Sundance Selects also presented Claire Denis’ latest BASTARDS, her take on film noir Gaul-style and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON from Japan, which is worth checking out.

The Weinstein boys are being rather aggressive with James Gray’s THE IMMIGRANT starring Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner. The film just doesn’t come together the way it should. I doubt a re-edit will help (they’ve changed the title a few times already) so expect Radius-TWC (if it’s with Radius that means VOD) to fiddle with the release date and then just dump it to recoup their costs. Paramount Vantage (another art subsidiary that bit the dust) showcased Alexander Payne’s black & white masterpiece NEBRASKA starring Bruce Dern. Dernsie will definitely get an Oscar nomination but more so, a wonderful discovery (to me at least) is the local Nebraskan theatre actress June Squibb who plays his wife, and nearly steals the film which in turn should help her to get a nomination too.

Sony Classics returns again this year with two contenders. Ralph Fiennes’ Dickens bio adaptation THE INVISIBLE WOMAN flatlines early and stays that way. Jim Jarmusch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE with Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston and John Hurt is a delight. Jarmusch’s films are not always for everyone but the TWILIGHT crowd should see this to see how a vampire film should be done right. Not since Kathryn Bigelow’s NEAR DARK and Tony Scott’s THE HUNGER has vamps been so hip. Fox Searchlight has one of the hot Awards film on display in Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE. It’s a decent picture but for those into hunting down rarities, track down the American Playhouse production of Gordon Parks’ SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY (on dvd with Monterey Media) and compare Avery Brooks’ portrayal of Solomon to Chiwetel Ejiofor. The film will be up for a number of Academy Awards but probably win one or two for the wrong reason.

Declan Lowney’s French-UK co-pro ALAN PARTRIDGE starring Steve Coogan is from Magnolia. Music Box Films, which hit the Grand Slam with THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO trilogy, has Roger Michell’s LE WEEK-END featuring UK stalwarts Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan. Disney is highlighting the latest Japanese anime classic from Hayao Miyazaki, THE WIND RISES, which may cause some political stirrings during this WW2 Pacific War anniversary as the film is about the designer of the Zero, best known to Americans as the kamikaze plane.

Agnieszka Holland’s Czech mini-series (which shouldn’t be in the festival as it’s not a feature) BURNING BUSH is the best thing I saw. Someone will snap this up for VOD with a brief theatrical run, probably Kino Lorber. Catherine Breillat’s ABUSE OF WEAKNESS ripped from her own diaries featuring Isabelle Huppert is yet another French entry (hail Richard Roud!) which is probably going to Strand for US release. Wonderboy James Franco goes American Gothic with his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s CHILD OF GOD. Now that he’s directing, look forward to him re-imagining War & Peace as a musical. A minor distributor will grab this one to exploit on VOD.

Strand which will probably be picking up a handful of the films without US distributors debuts Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s animated memoir THE MISSING PICTURE. Think Wallace & Gromit but political. Panh is a fantastic filmmaker best known for his documentaries (S21: THE KHMER ROUGE DEATH MACHINE – First Run Features). My favorite film is an early fiction rarity RICE PEOPLE finally released a couple of years ago on dvd by Facets Multimedia in Chicago. Their other confirmed release is Alain Guiraudie’s STRANGER BY THE LAKE, another French gay cruising film compatible with the Strand catalog.

Other minor films that will probably get limited US theatrical distribution include Philippe Garrel’s JEALOUSY from France based on the filmmakers’ philandering father and featuring his own son, Louis and OMAR by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad best known for PARADISE NOW. Another French film in the acquisitions running is Arnaud Desplechin’s JIMMY P.: PSYCHOTHERAPY OF A PLAINS INDIAN. It meanders about but is worth checking out if you’re fans of actors Benicio del Toro and Mathieu Amalric. Amalric is hard at work as a director on a new film that will probably be in next year’s festival, as he’s becoming a fave of the programming staff. From the Philippines comes another festival epic, Lav Diaz’s NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY, clocking in at 250 minutes. As it’s a rethinking of Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment I’ll give it a tentative pass. The latest Romanian New Wave entry, Corneliu Porumboiu’s WHEN EVENING FALLS ON BUCHAREST OR METABOLISM most likely will land with a minor distributor coming to the Romanian party late and overpaying for the film, not recouping it at the box office.

Asian filmmakers are becoming a glut that even the “new masters” are having a hard time finding US theatrical distribution due to the Millennials being illiterate or preferring to watch navel gazing mumblecore over films with subtitles. South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo presented NOBODY’S DAUGHTER HAEWON and Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa is back five years later with REAL. Taiwanese darling Tsai Ming-liang brought the US premiere of STRAY DOGS and China’s Jia Zhangke’s A TOUCH OF SIN has already nabbed Kino Lorber for US distribution.

As usual, the documentaries are hit or miss. Joe Brewster & Michele Stephenson’s AMERICAN PROMISE is a dishonest doc about race in the American education system. If you can afford to send your kids to Dalton and do, you’re part of the problem not the solution. Frederick Wiseman returns yet again with an opus verite AT BERKELEY clocking in at a staggering 244 minutes. The only good thing to say about the film is, unlike Andy Warhol’s SLEEP, Wiseman at least used some of the editing skills he learned nearly a century ago. A chainsaw should have been used rather than a razor blade. One of the films that I missed which was on my “must see” is Claude Lanzmann’s THE LAST OF THE UNJUST, a French/Austrian co-pro which basically is an excerpt left out of his masterpiece SHOAH and will get you to reconsider your thoughts on Adolph Eichmann and Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Jewish elder of Theresienstadt. The film will probably wind up with a distributor who wants to honor his forefathers. I’ll catch it on the release then. Jehane Noujaim who directed the great doc CONTROL ROOM presented her US/Egyptian co-pro THE SQUARE that I found lacking. It’s got buzz so rumor has it Netflix is grabbing it in their attempt to go after Sheila (HBO) Nevin’s doc queenmaker slot and go for the Academy Award.

Probably soon to be forgotten this year is French fashion designer agnes b.’s MY NAME IS HMMM…  You have to keep sponsors happy. The same can be said about a large number of the various sidebar titles. It used to be you paid off people by playing the crappy short they’re championing; now it’s feature length titles that shouldn’t be in a film festival that wants to think they’re prestigious. There are other film festivals in town where these films belong. Then again, some films should just have their negatives burned.