Every film playing in the 54th New York Film Festival this fall is a must-see in the eyes of Festival Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones, but a handful of titles are particularly indispensable. During a presentation on Tuesday morning unveiling the 25 films that will make up NYFF’s Main Slate, Jones shared some insights into the festival’s selection process.
“We’re not interested in selecting a movie just because we can put stars on the carpet,” Jones said, adding that films thought to be award contenders also carry no additional weight with the festival’s selection committee. “If we started worrying about being viable for awards season, we’d be lost. We’d be throwing away our mission.”
Though certain directors have become NYFF regulars over the years, Jones insisted that no filmmaker gets an automatic invitation. “Some filmmakers are working on such a high level that it’s less likely that we won’t show them, but there are very, very few of them,” Jones said, citing director Olivier Assayas, whose latest film “Personal Shopper” is part of this year’s Main Slate. “We’re selecting them because we think they’re good films.”
Here are five of Jones’s top picks from this year’s fest.
“Selma” director Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the American prison industry is the first documentary to be selected as NYFF’s Opening Night film. The doc is a historical synthesis of mass incarceration in the U.S. that is “meeting the moment head on and redirecting the conversation about an issue that is recognized but that isn’t really understood formally by a lot of people,” Jones said. “She does it in a way that is absolutely electrifying.”
“I, Daniel Blake”
English director Ken Loach came out of retirement to make “I, Daniel Blake,” which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The movie centers on a middle-aged carpenter struggling with the ridiculous red tape that comes with securing government benefits. “It’s something that resonated deeply with a lot of people because it’s about getting lost in the bureaucratic maze,” Jones said. “It really doesn’t pull any punches [and] it also has one of the most shattering scenes that I’ve seen all year.”
The third film from German director Maren Ade, “Toni Erdmann” is a dramatic comedy about a father trying to reconnect with his adult daughter. The movie took the press by storm at the Cannes Film Festival as “everybody who saw it came away feeling like that was very rare experience,” Jones said. “It’s very up to the minute into addressing what’s going on with Europe and the world, and it’s a rare thing because it’s a big success and a crowdpleaser at the same time.”
Director Alison Maclean’s first fiction feature in more than 15 years, “The Rehearsal” follows a young actor faced with a moral dilemma while enrolled in drama school. The film is an adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s novel of the same name. “It’s a beautiful film with one of those endings that seems almost impossible to pull off,” Jones said, “but she does.”
“The Lost City of Z”
NYFF’s Closing Night film, James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z” follows real-life British soldier-turned-explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) in his search for a lost city in the Amazon. “It’s an impassioned work and it’s also a kind of movie-making that really is almost gone now — immaculately crafted and epic in scope,” Jones said. “It’s a movie that really becomes abstract in a surprising way.”
NYFF Special Events, Spotlight on Documentary, Retrospective, Convergence and Projections sections, as well as filmmaker conversations and panels, will be announced in the coming weeks. The festival runs September 30 – October 16.