Take it as shameless boasting or a necessary disclosure, but I begin my coverage of the Fiftieth New York Film Festival by qualifying my opinions as those of an insider, almost—an outdated insider, let’s say. Having been a member of the selection committee for the thirtieth festival and a few after that, I fall easily into the retrospective mood that attended the fiftieth. I also feel a personal stake in the concurrent retirement of the festival’s longtime director, Richard Peña, who is certainly inimitable and might have been called indispensable as well, if not for the brilliantly reassuring decision of the Film Society of Lincoln Center to name Kent Jones as his successor. Although I am not involved with these people and their colleagues on a daily basis—and although my own day was about twenty years ago—I still take it for granted that their work is valuable and vital and enlightened and good. And if you don’t agree, go ahead and wait fifty years for a better film program to come along.
This is to say that I took particular interest this year in the films of directors who were young in my time, or at most slightly middle-aged, and have since become great eminences of the festival, whether for better (Abbas Kiarostami, Olivier Assayas, Léos Carax, Alan Berliner) or worse (Michael Haneke). But I also found much to admire in work by a now established younger generation, including Pablo Larraín, Miguel Gomes and Cristian Mungiu (whose Beyond the Hills was, for me, one of the year’s masterpieces); in first films by Song Fang and Antonio Méndez Esparza; and in the urgent, astonishing documentary The Gatekeepers by the young Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh.
There were also US studio releases to bookend the festival—with the usual mixed results—and a quasi-independent American star vehicle, The Paperboy, to fill the annual “What Were They Thinking?” slot. It’s important to show these products: they keep the festival in touch with the normal movie world, and despite a hit-or-miss character to their inclusion (the result of the festival’s having to make the most of available opportunities), these selections often reflect a carefully nurtured relationship with a filmmaker. So let me start with these pictures, if only to set the context for what the festival does best.
The opening and closing nights this year imparted a theological tone to the festival. The main slate began with Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s shaggy God novel, Life of Pi, and ended with a redemption story by Robert Zemeckis, Flight, in which Denzel Washington takes a couple of hours to admit his helplessness and ask for help from a higher power. I can say that Life of Pi shows how beautiful a 20th Century Fox release can look, and how the contents that pump up the glittering balloon can be so much hot air. Flight, by contrast, plays like an essay in social realism (or as close to it as Zemeckis ever gets), beginning with a scene of Denzel, as a great but reprobate airline pilot, passed out in an Orlando, Florida, establishment labeled American Values Motel. The lesson in this case was how exciting a Paramount release can be—for the first twenty minutes or so. After that, the nightmarish action sequence was over, Denzel had to stop being a fully unbuttoned bad guy, and all of the adrenaline drained away.
As for Lee Daniels’s The Paperboy, a would-be scandal of a film about crime and family dynamics in late 1960s Florida, you’ll be familiar with all of its racial and sexual themes if you’ve ever read James Baldwin. The difference is that Baldwin owned this subject matter, had pressing reasons to write about it, and never cluttered his prose with the equivalent of unmotivated color-filter effects or lingering beauty shots of Zac Efron. Nicole Kidman (who was honored at the festival with a gala tribute) played the story’s fatal dame and showed once more that she’s game for anything. But then, she married Tom Cruise and played the lead in Dogville, so we already knew that.