If the New York Film Festival only featured high profile films that automatically commanded our attention, it wouldn’t be a very big program. While the 52nd edition opens on Friday with David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” includes a centerpiece premiere screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” and concludes on October 12 with Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s “Birdman,” there’s a much bigger picture outside of the obvious targets. Stretched across 17 days and featuring 31 titles in its main slate—not to mention several short films, sidebars and a retrospective—NYFF offers a broad swatch of possibilities, many of which have been buried on the festival circuit earlier this year. The time has come to exhume them.
You could see everything at NYFF this year and still not catch the full story of 2014 in cinema. For the first time in years, the Palme d’Or-winner at Cannes — Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s sprawling Brechtian study of wealth and greed, “Winter Sleep”—didn’t make the cut. Neither did several films considered to be frontrunners in the burgeoning Oscar race, including the Benedict Cumberbatch vehicle “The Imitation Game” and the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything,” featuring Eddy Redmayne as its ailing, brilliant lead.
But NYFF generally aims for quality over comprehensiveness, and many of this year’s acclaimed breakouts from other festivals have indeed made it in there: Jean Luc-Godard’s spectacular 3-D essay film “Goodbye to Language” is sure to continue jolting audiences into the realization that the New Wave legend has lost none of its innovative spirit; Bennett Miller’s unnerving “Foxcatcher” will continue the celebration of Steve Carrell’s spookier side with his portrayal of the delusional wrestling-obsessed billionaire John E. du Pont. Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” unveils the unexpectedly engaging trio of Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz for an insightful treatise on celebrity, while Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” gives Jason Schwartzman his best role since “Rushmore,” as a bitter young writer alienated from the world around him.
These are all safe bets. Then there are the unknown quantities that hold plenty of promise: “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ ultra-secretive documentary on Edward Snowden, and cinema verite master Albert Maysles’ “Iris,” a profile of interior designer legend Iris Apfel. And let’s not forget that “surprise screening” on Sunday. Start your bets now, people.
So there’s a lot to anticipate about this year’s lineup, but even more titles that don’t automatically grab your attention. These are the true gems of NYFF 2014. If you only see these 9 titles at this year’s festival, consider these underdog options first.
On the surface, this documentary history of the New York Review of Books isn’t your typical Martin Scorsese picture. Then again, the seminal New York director couldn’t have picked a more essential New York subject. Co-directed by David Tedeschi, “The 50 Year Argument” chronicles the publication’s half century of existence in its own words. Far from the typical “death of media” stance found in countless other non-fiction profiles of print outlets, the movie opens with longtime editor Robert B. Silvers celebrating the publication’s longevity before delving into a riveting overview of the many ideas that came out its provocative coverage. Rather than focusing solely on the writing, however, “The 50 Year Argument” emphasizes the personalities that developed within its community during a period of intellectual upheaval in American society. From a wonderfully testy exchange between contributors Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal to a superb showdown about feminism between Mailer and Susan Sontag, the movie never slows down to look at the bigger picture. It’s easy to get lost in the nuances of the altercations — an apt summation of the publication’s legacy.
A gritty, relentless wartime drama that blends its action set pieces with palpable despair and historical observation, “’71” maintains a polished intensity that fares well for first-time feature director Yann Demange. Centered on a gripping performance by Jack O’Connell, as a British soldier marooned in a sharply divided Belfast over the course of a single, violent night during the height of the Northern Ireland conflict, “’71” constantly thrills without sensationalizing its surprises. The war-is-hell ethos drives it forward, so that the movie retains its suspense in conjunction with its dour outlook. Forget the hype surrounding the Brad Pitt WWII movie “Fury”: This is the war movie of the year.
French director Mia Hansen-Love has quickly established a talent for understated dramas littered with textured moments: “Goodbye First Love” was a tender ode to heartbreak, while “The Father of My Children” portrayed the tragic life of a loving family man with suicidal inclinations. With “Eden,” the director brings the same gentle touch to an unlikely topic: the history of French House music. Tracking the experiences of a French DJ (Felix de Givry) responsible for a pioneering form of electronic music in the nineties, Hansen-Love’s film stretches from Paris to New York as it covers soul-searching and heartbreak against the backdrop of lively dance sequences. With bit parts by Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet, cameos by the members of Daft Punk and a thumping soundtrack that covers more than 20 years of events, “Eden” marks the most ambitious project in Hansen-Love’s filmography, but retains her assured control of tone. The result is a miraculous blend of hard-partying attitude and bittersweet lament. Anyone who has ever grooved to a beat at a loud gathering will appreciate this thoughtful breakdown of the world that gives life to the party.
The Safdie brothers are among the few New York-based filmmakers to capture the city’s grimy, subterranean qualities without diminishing its livelier ingredients, as their first two narrative features “Daddy Longlegs” and “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” make clear. But the masterful “Heaven Knows What” takes that potential to a new level, showcasing the pratfalls of a young heroin addict — played by newcomer Arielle Holmes and based on her actual experiences — as she contends with her destructive boyfriend (Caleb Landry Jones). Think “Kids” meets “Panic in Needle Park”: a ruthless account of addiction that’s fully believable and compelling, portraying a world of characters simultaneously close to death and fighting hard to evade it.
Portuguese director Pedro Costa has already exhumed the demons of wartime trauma and troubled class issues with several films, most recently with “Colossal Youth.” That 2006 feature was the third set in the squalid Lisbon neighborhood Fontainhas and focused on the plights of Cape Verdean immigrants haunted by the country’s Carnation Revolution. “Colossal Youth,” which starred real-life immigrant Ventura as he drifted around town and contemplated his troubled existence, followed “Ossos” and “Vanda’s Room” to form an unofficial trilogy of experimental narratives set in Fontainhas and exploring its troubled state. Now the trilogy has become a fascinating quartet, with “Horse Money,” another darkly poetic examination of Fontainhas’ impoverished residents through the lens of Ventura’s quiet soul-searching mission.
A rich, almost impermeably strange example of Costa’s slow-burn approach to abstract storytelling, “Horse Money” is more subdued and cryptic than its predecessors, to the point where it might be more appropriately described as a cinematic tone poem. Each new scene ventures into surprising territory, right down to a lengthy climax set in the confines of an elevator. Persistently haunting and beautiful, “Horse Money” is a brilliant conversation-starter with no easy answers, but endless interpretations.
Lisandro Alonso’s name may not jump out to every moviegoer, but he’s certainly a VIP at NYFF this year, where he’s in town as the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Jaeger LeCoultre’s Artist in Resident. This patient, image-oriented director has made a number of acclaimed experimental narratives in recent years, including the visually arresting and nearly wordless 2008 travelogue “Liverpool,” in which a seaman travels across Argentina to visit his aging mother. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Alonso unveiled his grandest feat to date, the impressionistic fantasy “Jauja,” starring Viggo Mortensen. Shot in the square 4:3 “Academy ratio” with a stylish frame around its edges throughout, this delicate, colorful tale features a Danish man and his daughter in 19th century Argentina in search of a utopia they never quite find. When the daughter suddenly vanishes halfway through the picture, her dad spends much of the running time wandering the barren landscape, eventually arriving in a place of complete abstraction that explores the deterioration of innocence in strange and exciting ways.
The premise of the “La Sapienza” could easily provide fodder for a clichéd indie drama: an estranged couple travels to the countryside in a desperate attempt to raise their weary spirits, bonds with a pair of troubled teens and by helping them work through their problems, finds a renewed sense of hope. Gag. But in the hands of French-American filmmaker Eugéne Green (“The Portuguese Nun”), whose movies blend understated storytelling with literary themes, “The Sapience” is anything but familiar. Instead, the writer-director crafts a work that’s both weighted with scholarly inquiry and an undercurrent of poignancy unlike anything else.
Argentine director Matias Piñero has steadily developed a penchant for borrowing from one of the most famous storytellers in history — no less than William Shakespeare — yet brings a confident sensibility that pushes the original text in fresh directions. For “The Princess of France,” the latest entry in a loose trilogy of Shakespearean experimentation, the director incorporates the playwright’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” into another gentle contemporary fable with similarly compelling results. Piñero’s light touch once again provides a keen access point to a secretively advanced narrative technique. Shifting focus from his previous female-centric dramas, the filmmaker focuses on Victor (Julán Larquier Tallarini), a young theater director last seen trying his hand at directing Shakespeare in Piñero’s “Viola.” Resurfacing in town after his father’s death in the hopes of turning “Love’s Labor Lost” into an internet radio play, Victor drifts through a series of romantic entanglements while spreading gossip about his latest relationship. In essence, he’s an unreliable narrator in a movie that follows suit: Pure Piñero.
Debra Granik’s followup to “Winter’s Bone” isn’t another haunting study of alienation. Instead, she’s shifted focus from a character lost in the world to a defiant man determined to reclaim it. A documentary portrait of aging Vietnam vet and biker Ron “Stray Dog” Hall (who played the big part of Thump Milton in “Winter’s Bone”), the movie follows its hulking, good-natured figure through his ongoing attempts to make peace with his violent past and develop a happier present. Exploring new love, family life and taking a stab at community activism, “Stray Dog” is a walking paradox — at once playing into clichés and defying them with extraordinary resilience.