NYFF 2017: We Debate the Value of New York’s Biggest Film Festival and Who It’s Supposed to Serve

With the 2017 edition of the New York Film Festival kicking off tonight, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, Kate Erbland, and David Ehrlich trade thoughts on the quality of this year’s lineup — and who the festival is supposed to serve.

ERIC KOHN: Among the 15 of the 25 films I’ve seen in the NYFF main slate — not counting the additional titles in Projections and Spotlight on Documentary — nothing stands out to me as a truly provocative choice. But before I get into that, I should point out that this is not a knock on the bulk of NYFF’s neatly curated lineup, which showcases some of the most exciting new work from many of the world’s strongest auteurs.

Read More: 13 Films We Can’t Wait to See, From ‘Lady Bird’ to ‘Last Flag Flying’

For those of us lucky enough to catch film festival highlights throughout the year, it’s an opportunity to see how they fare with the upper echelons of New York’s highbrow film culture: Sure, “Call Me By Your Name” stunned Sundance, but will discerning cinephiles embrace its classical style or roll their eyes? Will “Wonderstruck” find a warmer home than it did at Cannes, thanks to its New York setting and Ed Lachman’s cinematography, or will it be seen as too saccharine for this city’s proudly cynical elite?

Passing the NYFF litmus test is a different beast than wowing the well-heeled midwesterners of Telluride or the industry heavyweights at TIFF; playing well at NYFF gives you cinematic street cred, and it’s a blast to sit on that corner to watch the crowds swarm in.

“The Other Side of Hope”

Personally, I can’t wait to fill in a few gaps from the festival calendar. Aki Kaurismaki is a master of deadpan comedy whose punchlines come heavy with purpose, and I’ve been keen on catching his “The Other Side of Hope” ever since David raved about it out of Berlin. Then there’s Argentina’s Lucretia Martel, who dropped off the map ages ago after becoming one of the most exciting international filmmakers of the past 20 years, back with the apparently cryptic and meaningful “Zama,” a historical meditation on Latin American history with a roaming Spanish officer losing his mind against a range of expressionistic backdrops. The buzz suggests this one requires more than one viewing to fully parse, which is usually a good thing.

That’s the reaction I had to Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”, and it’s a shame the movie opened too early for NYFF consideration, because it would have helped shake things up. As far as I can tell, this lineup mostly plays it safe, with sturdy, familiar directorial visions standing out more than attempts to innovate with the art form. Some will delight in the prospects of Richard Linklater’s opening night entry “Last Flag Flying” for the way it explores wartime trauma on the home front through the lens of down-to-earth humor and pathos, but nobody’s going to call it groundbreaking. Similarly, I doubt the closing night selection, Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” will push the envelope. That’s just not Woody’s forte.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the programmers just work with what they can. The best movie I saw at Telluride this past year, Samuel Maoz’s poignant, shocking and hilarious Israeli military satire “Foxtrot,” would have really kickstarted some exciting conversations, but it didn’t make the NYFF cut. And while I realize Michael Haneke’s pitch-black portrait of bourgeois despair “Happy End” struck some Cannes viewers as a familiar riff on the same old Haneke themes, it was still a masterful look at the way money and power yields excessive corruption across multiple generations.

“Foxtrot”

Both movies are topical, challenging, sure to divide audiences and stir up conversation about the real-world issues that inspired their existence. That, to me, is the essential power of a film festival once you get beyond its industry and marketing value. So I’m holding out hope for NYFF to surprise me or show me a fresh vision of the world. The closest entry this year may be “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker’s gritty and enlightening tale of a six-year-old’s adventures in an Orlando budget motel. The movie delivers a tantalizing new way of looking at the same old problems of poverty and desperation through an innocent gaze. In these troubled, divisive times, it’s a welcome shot of idealism that earns its naïveté. Even cynical New Yorkers can appreciate that.

So am I missing a big picture here? How will NYFF stand out from the cavalcade of fall season offerings and get people riled up?

KATE ERBLAND: As someone who perpetually misses out on Cannes, NYFF has long offered me the chance to catch up on titles that first got cracking in May and are hoping to keep the conversation going well into awards time. I have no problem with the festival liberally cribbing from others that happen to occur earlier and, as you note, the NYFF audience is a very different one, offering up a wholly different viewing experience. If I can’t see it at Cannes, I am more than happy to see it at home with a crowd of diehard cinephiles of every stripe. And, as we push forward into the maw that is the awards season, NYFF presents a key opportunity to bone up on the big titles in our own backyard.

But that all means there is a distinct lack of risk-taking in this lineup, and while NYFF doesn’t usually opt for outliers, it’s still a change from last year, when Ang Lee’s ambitious “Billy Lynn’s Long Walk Home” bowed at the festival. I’d love to see something that compelling and unique make its way back into the NYFF realm.

“Jane”

Still, there are plenty of discoveries to find in this year’s lineup, including a slew of films that bowed elsewhere to less acclaim than they deserved. Perhaps NYFF can push them further into the conversation and get them the boost — or hell, even just the eyeballs — they deserve. These include Brett Morgen’s exceptional documentary “Jane,” as is Nancy Buirski’s “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” was a hit at Sundance, but still needs that next big step, and NYFF could be a proving ground for Sundance’s other big hit, “Call Me by Your Name.” These are all great films, and it’s no coincidence that they’re at NYFF.

At NYFF, the quality is always high, but the risks remain low. I’d love to see that change, because the NYFF audience is interested, educated, film-loving one that could certainly stand it.

DAVID EHRLICH: The question that seems to be driving this conversation is a simple one: Who does the NYFF actually serve? Is it for the film industry, who travels the world all year round in search of the great cinema that ultimately winds up here? Or is it for the Lincoln Center patrons — the locals — who are happy to see the festival as an epic fundraiser that’s curated by some of the most trusted people in the business? In other words, is NYFF for the critics, or is it for the fans?

In my experience, the beauty of the festival is that it has always been aimed at both sides of the divide. Impeccably programmed and intimately aware of what its audience wants (or is willing) to see, NYFF has never coasted on the fact that the biggest film festival in the country’s biggest city is always going to be a major event. NYFF’s prominence has helped to leverage its pedigree, and its pedigree has helped to greatly increase its prominence, so everybody wins.

It’s true that the more you travel the circuit, the less there is to see by the time October rolls around, but NYFF has done a great deal to establish itself as more than a safety net for the year’s best films. Its sidebars are regularly phenomenal (this year’s Robert Mitchum series is unmissable), and its speaking events are eclectic and exciting in equal measure (“An Evening with Ava DuVernay and…” will be a great event regardless of what that mysterious ellipsis is hiding, and the master class with cinematographers Vittorio Storaro and Ed Lachman is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the world through two of its most valuable lenses). Best of all, these events are relatively cheap, and somewhat under the radar since the main slate tends to hog all of the attention.

“First Reformed”

Speaking of the main slate, I definitely share the mild disappointment you two have registered about the lineup. I can’t remember the last time that the main slate didn’t boast a single world premiere outside of its gala selections. And while the repeat titles are a brilliant cross-section that represents the best from Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, and beyond, some of the omissions are hard to ignore. I love Hong Sang-soo as much as the next thirtysomething male film critic, but did we really need two of his films when Paul Schrader’s masterful “First Reformed” is nowhere to be found? And where the hell is Lynne Ramsay?

There’s always some secret feng shui to programming a lineup like this, and I can’t even begin to imagine the headaches involved in securing certain titles, but the familiarity of this year’s crop is hard to ignore. Fortunately, Spotlight on Documentary and Projections are really picking up the slack and then some. Reach around in those two sections and you’ll definitely find a pulse. There’s something there for everybody, and everyone is coming together in the same place to experience a festival of their own. That’s the New York way.

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