Twinkling lights and Chinese lanterns festooned the trees at Tavern on the Green’s New York Film Festival party last Friday. The belle of the ball was a luminous Helen Mirren, holding court after the premiere of her (and Miramax’s) The Queen, in a floor-length pearlescent white-and-black Stella McCartney dress. Ms. Mirren’s vanity-free performance as Queen Elizabeth in the week following the death of the Princess Diana has already gotten plenty of Oscar talk from those who insist upon talking about such things in late September. For, just as the chill in the air forced the ladies smoking on the patio into their dates’ jackets, so is it commonly accepted that the New York Film Festival ushers in the official start of the serious movie season. In other words: Sayonara, Snakes on a Plane! By the end of this month, the same people who Fandango’d tickets to Jackass Number Two will be pretending they like to read subtitles.
These are the months when studios trot out the films they think have a shot at getting rewarded with Oscar statues. And the crowd at Tavern on the Green—made up of executives in the movie industry, as well as critics, publicists, journalists and self-anointed film aficionados—certainly fancied itself the kind of crowd that knows just which films those gold statues might be going to.
Many stuck to the conventionally held (and reviewed) opinion that Ms. Mirren’s performance was unbeatable; others were quick to hiss that the film has been overhyped.
“If you give this four stars, I will beat you,” said one partygoer to Us Weekly’s Thelma Adams. (“I already did, I think,” she replied.) Some talk was devoted to non-festival entrant The Departed, from past festival darling Martin Scorsese, already getting the usual “This is Marty’s year” treatment. More than a few guests dismissed Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. (“It’s like sticking your hand in a giant meringue. Mark my words, no one will see it but gays and girls”), while still others griped that many of the guests hadn’t adhered to the evening’s black-tie requirements. (“I mean, he’s not even wearing a tie!”) One man who had followed the rules—his tux looked like a million bucks—poked at his plate of pasta glumly and said, “This has got to be the exact same pesto they’ve been serving for the last 44 years.”
A few days later, The Queen’s much-lauded British screenwriter, Peter Morgan, didn’t hesitate in answering whether he’d had a good time at the party.
“No,” he said. “It was absolute madness. I went there, I got claustrophobic, and I left. That’s how anybody in their right mind would have been.”
Mr. Morgan has not only The Queen but also The Last King of Scotland making its way through the festival circuit. He’s also got a stage play, Frost/Nixon, just ending a run in London, which he said Ron Howard might be making into a film. “The opening night in New York befits the city,” he said. “You feel it’s a more discerning, sophisticated and yet somehow violent experience. Just the business of getting to the New York Film Festival—I’m not a religious man, but I always privately mouth ‘Thanks’ when I arrive anywhere in New York. You generally arrive anywhere in the state of car sickness, fairly traumatized by the violence of the journey getting there.” The New York Film Festival has a proud reputation for keeping things stubbornly the same. In fact, they’ve been banking on it since the festival’s inception in 1963, when festival director Richard Roud started introducing New York City audiences to Luis Buñuel, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and to show roughly 25 features handpicked by a distinguished panel out of thousands of submissions. The mission has remained pure, even while new North American festivals have cropped up to court the festival-goer’s fancy: the overwhelming six-movies-a-day of Toronto, the wool caps and furry boots of Sundance, the glitzy downtown circus of Tribeca.
“Do I ever feel pressure? Not really,” said New York Film Festival program director Richard Peña. “I’m sort of lucky in that way. One of the things about the New York Film Festival is that I think I’m really given extraordinary freedom and latitude to pretty much do what I want. We sell out every year, and that’s a wonderful privilege.”
This year, the festival has its usual expected exotic offerings: Paprika, a Japanese anime that is described as a “head-on collision between Hello Kitty and Philip K. Dick”; Offside, about Iranian girls who dress up as boys to watch “footie”; festival favorite (and centerpiece holder) Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver, starring Penélope Cruz; and Inland Empire, the latest from David Lynch.
But there’s also easily digestible fare on this year’s menu, too: the Marie Antoinette fashion strut; The Host, an already-popular monster movie from South Korea that had Toronto audiences buzzing; and the film adaptation of the beloved Tom Perrotta novel Little Children, starring Kate Winslet. “To be honest, I think they got a little scared of Tribeca,” said an industry veteran of this year’s program. “Wouldn’t you, if you had $4 million from Amex going down there and your budget is only one third of that? Tribeca has a premiere every two seconds and stars walking the red carpet. The New York Film Festival, they need to sort of glitz it up again. The y need movies with Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst there.”
Mr. Peña insists that Tribeca is not a factor.
“Frankly I don’t think it’s really affected us. The way it could is if we were losing films and audience—and neither seems to have happened. We’re really different styles, and people see that and judge accordingly.”
As for this year’s selections, he said: “I just think this is the way the winds blew this year. There is always a sort of tension between mainstream and art cinema. I think it’s a little bit inscribed in the founding of the New York Film Festival, which in 1963 had a watershed moment when arts cinema started to go one way, creating one sort of world, with mainstream cinema going towards another way. So I think the mission of the popular is something that always lingers around our choices.”
What everyone does seem to agree on is that the New York Film Festival carries a certain class within its Alice Tully Hall walls. Because it doesn’t give out awards, filmmakers and movie studios are able to feel that just getting into the New York Film Festival is an award unto itself.
“The New York Film Festival favors quality over quantity,” said director Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth nabbed the coveted closing-night spot. “They always take a stringent point of view, a very selective eye on what they are showcasing, so it automatically becomes a great honor to be there. It’s not a festival about favorites as much as it is a discerning point of view in cinema, right now, from all over the world.” “It’s always meant a lot to me. I got in a film called Careful in 1992, and for years it was the highlight of my filmmaking career,” said Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, whose Brand Upon the Brain!—a silent movie narrated by an in-the-flesh Isabella Rossellini and accompanied by a live orchestra and a castrato—is part of the Special Events program in the Walter Reade Theater (“I don’t see it as a ghetto,” Mr. Maddin said). “Some festivals are more important for craft versus markets and sales. But the New York Film Festival—just in pure, powerful iconography terms—is so important. It always has a great audience who are knowledgeable to the point of it being a bit overwhelming sometimes.”
“This is the first festival in America to play people like Victor Nunez and Gal Young ’Un,” said Little Children director Todd Field. “It was before independent film became a buzzword and a marketing tool. When there really was an independent-film movement—where people had to struggle and scrape to get money together and make films—it was the only place that recognized that. Before there was a Sundance film festival, there was the New York Film Festival.
“When I moved to New York in 1984,” Mr. Field continued, “my experience with movies was based on being a projectionist in a second-run movie house in Portland, Ore. I had never seen what we would consider independent-minded film, or specialty films, or even many foreign films. I was working across the street at O’Neill’s Saloon, and I met all sorts of extraordinary people—but the most important thing that happened to me is that someone said to me, ‘The New York Film Festival is on, and you need to go to it.’ And I came over here, and they were screening Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, and it completely blew my mind. And I thought, Oh my God! This exists? They let people make films like this? It was like discovering another country.”