New York Film Festival: 51 and counting

The 51st New York Film Festival kicks off tonight, with a lineup that runs the gamut from mainstream action (“Captain Phillips”) to Spike Jonze’s latest, “Her” (his first since critics and the public unjustly crucified his film of “Where the Wild Things Are” for not being a warm and fuzzy cartoon).

I’ve been going to the New York festival almost as long as I’ve been going to the one in Toronto; this will be my 26th NYFF. But it’s intriguing to approach it this year, from a different perspective.

Since the last New York Film Festival, I’ve been to five other festivals (where, normally, I’d spend time at Sundance and Toronto and, to a lesser degree, Tribeca). The trips to those other two festivals – in Dubai and Karlovy-vary – reminded me of what I like best about film festivals: the sense of surprise and discovery they can bring.

Not true of New York. Or, to a significant degree, Toronto.

Toronto has turned into one of the fall starting lines for the Oscar race (along with Telluride and Venice). So the films at Toronto tend to include big-name efforts that have either already had a premiere at Cannes or are by filmmakers or feature stars so major that the movie has been chattered about for months before anyone actually sees it.

By contrast, Sundance’s competition films – and even a number of its special presentations – are debuts of films that have been made independently, on the cheap and under the radar. Though it always has a couple of films that played Toronto or even Cannes the year before, Sundance truly feels like a place where you can find something new and unexpected.

Once upon a time, New York was the same way. When it started, it was a showcase for world cinema and American independents that otherwise rarely were featured outside of arthouses. In the past 25 years, of course, New York morphed into something else entirely. While it still showcases world cinema (especially from Asian and Middle Eastern filmmakers in the past decade or so), the films that people actually want to see at NYFF are the ones everyone is talking about already.

This year, that’s “Captain Phillips” (which has mostly ducked the festival circuit), Jonze’s “Her” (a debut) and a lot of other stuff that’s been elsewhere, mostly from Cannes (“Like Father Like Son,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “All is Lost”) and Toronto (“Le Week-end”).

The other thing about the New York festival is its size: small, about three-dozen films in the main list (though there are several sidebars). Where you can immerse yourself in film at Toronto or Sundance (including the press screenings), I’m lucky to find days at New York where there are three press screenings in the same day, let alone three I want to see. Call it the boutique approach – or the snob’s version. Either might fit.

Still, I’ll say this about that approach: This isn’t a festival (as Toronto and Sundance are) about hyping the next big thing. No tweets or emails about which title has sold to who – it’s not about this. It feels more like a pure showcase which, again, is what film festivals are meant to be.

I’d give this year’s festival a passing grade, just in terms of featuring movies that neither challenge you to make sense of them nor to stay awake.

This commentary continues on my website.

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