Sure, the New York Film Festival has its big names and red carpet premieres, but the celebrities aren't the only stars of the show. High profile titles are actually in a minority at the Lincoln Center gathering, which begins its 51st edition on Friday with the world premiere of Paul Greengrass' Somali pirate kidnapping drama "Captain Phillips." That means attendees get to brush shoulders with Tom Hanks at the after party, just as they'll get a chance to see Ben Stiller up close for the unveiling of his adaptation "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the festival's centerpiece screening. And Spike Jonze comes to town with his "Her" star Joaquin Phoenix for the festival's closing night screening on October 13.
Then there are the Cannes darlings: The Coen brothers will bring home their musical drama "Inside Llewyn Davis," where it's unquestionably poised to continue generating fanfare, while the divisive Palme d'Or-winning "Blue is the Warmest Color" is sure to keep fueling conversations about its explicit depiction of young lesbians in love. Robert Redford gets the chance to keep reminding audiences he can still act with his nearly wordless turn in the tense man-at-sea survival drama "All Is Lost," and Claude Lanzmann also proves his lasting relevance with the astonishing four-hour Holocaust documentary "The Last of the Unjust."
Each of those movies invites plenty of wild expectations and have been well-positioned to satisfy the crowds. But NYFF is a massive 17-day program filled with all kinds of pleasures hidden beneath the headline-grabbing entries with extensive track records. Here's a look at some of the under-the-radar entries at this year's festival that deserve just as much attention as their better-known brethren.
"Norte, The End of History"
Much has been said -- at least among those with the time and interest -- about Philippine director Lav Diaz's tendency to let his movies run long. At just over four hours, "Norte, The End of History," Diaz's loose treatment of "Crime and Punishment," has nothing on his five-hour-plus "Batang West Side" or the six-hour "Century of Birthing." But the running time of "Norte" is sublimated into the storytelling so well that it's practically beside the point. Making a rare foray into color, Diaz's poignant opus takes place in the northern Philippines, where a crazed man kills the woman to whom he owes money and an innocent husband and father takes the blame. That setup arrives an hour into the movie, when the quasi-revolutionary chatter and casual social encounters have created a fully realized world; then "Norte" gets truly fascinating, as killer Fabian (Sid Lucero) recedes from the picture and Diaz foregrounds the plight of the other man's family and his own gripping survival tale behind bars -- then shifts gears with the disheveled Fabian's reemergence as a mesmerizing face of fascist extremes. Each moment flows beautifully to the next in this extraordinary rumination on how time, contrary to popular belief, doesn't heal all wounds -- but it can make them more vivid.
Reviewing "MANAKAMANA" at the Locarno Film Festival in August, I called this latest effort from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab that produced last year's experimental fishing documentary "Leviathan" the must-see cinematic experience of the year. I believe the hyperbole is justified, but only if you're willing to give yourself over to an extremely immersive, introspective viewing process: Shot with a static camera exclusively within the confines of a cable car as it travels up and down the Nepal Valley for a series of 10-minute rides, "MANAKAMANA" contains nothing traditionally movie-like in its progression. And that's exactly what makes it one of the most engrossing cinematic achievements to come along since... well, since "Leviathan."
"The Missing Picture"
Cambodian director Rithy Panh's diary film focuses on his nightmarish childhood experiences witnessing his family's dissolution under the dictatorial grip of the Khmer Rouge in the late '70s. Panh provides a mesmerizing gateway to his memories with a provocative blend of nostalgia and dread. The title refers to the lack of photographic documentation of his experiences due to their destruction by the regime, a void that Panh fills with clay figures recreating scenes of his old town as well as the harsh labor forced on his relatives. Panh's first-person voiceover provides an intimate guide to the dioramas that's about as close as anyone can come to actually being there -- and yet Panh mercifully makes the experience into an elegant expression of grief rather than simply an overview of his loss. Just as Lanzmann deepens his Holocaust documentaries by avoiding the use of archival footage, Panh's imagery invades viewers' imaginations and obtains a greater sense of realism than any single image could possibly convey.
A decade after "Control Room," documentarian Jehane Noujaim's seminal portrait of Al Jazeera, the director returns with another look at changing attitudes and political upheaval in the Middle East. "The Square" captures the intensity of the Arab Spring by following the extreme unrest at the center of Tahrir Square over the past two years through the experiences of various activists. The movie received a fair amount of acclaim when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, but that was before it became readily apparent that the goals of the revolution were far from obtained. The new cut of "The Square," which has been estimated at nearly 70% different from the Sundance version, contains footage shot as recently as last August and includes discussion of recent Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi's fall. But "The Square" smartly avoids a cerebral breakdown of the country's political dysfunction, instead emphasizing the convictions driving its protestors -- among them, Khalid Abdalla, the star of "The Kite Runner," whose revolutionary father has been exiled from the country -- as well as citizens stuck in a state of uncertainty about their allegiances, including one fascinating member of the maligned Muslim Brotherhood. While Egypt's future remains uncertain, "The Square" now has a definitive end, as Noujaim expertly foregrounds the notion of political revolution as a constant way of life.
"What Now? Remind Me?"
The first image of "What Now? Remind Me," Portuguese film industry veteran Joaquim Pinto's 164-minute portrait of his one-year experience taking experimental medication for AIDS and Hepatitis-C, sets the tone perfectly: In a lush extreme close-up, a grey slug oozes across the screen, its pores magnified to expressive degrees. In a voiceover that remains continuous for the remainder of the movie, Pinto introduces himself and observes that his world has moved past him. Coupled with that telling visual aid, Pinto effectively conveys the slow, thoughtful pace of his story as it maintains a solemn gracefulness throughout. Even as the movie covers a specific period of his life, it drifts from moments of abstract observations and reminiscences with the ease of a Chris Marker diary film, the closest precedent for Pinto's self-reflexive approach. Though he has directed a handful of features, Pinto's worked for years as a sound engineer for luminaries of the Portuguese film industry like Raul Ruiz and Manoel Oliveira; the background shows in this expertly realized immersion into Pinto's troubled psyche, a world equally haunting and lyrical.