The New York Film Festival Nears 50

The annual event, which once focused on small international films, now has five galas and a bounty of already-celebrated films

What of the rest of the slate? Many of the films included-but-not-feted (there are 22 in all) played in Cannes this year, including Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, a Best Actress winner, and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, a
Best Actor winner. Major directors, including Wim Wenders, the Dardenne brothers and Martin Scorsese (in his second consecutive year at the festival with a documentary, this time about George Harrison), are included as well, reprising past themes: Mr. Wenders’s Pina is a music documentary in the vein of Buena Vista Social Club; the Dardennes’ The Kid With a Bike, a social drama about family. “The Festival represents,” said Mr. Peña, “a choice, a curatorial point of view. We’re not panoramic, we’re not encyclopedic. There are festivals like that and I think they’re very useful. But we’re not like that, we’ve never been like that and as long as I’m here, I don’t think we ever will be.”

As for a uniting theme behind this year’s festival, Mr. Peña stated, “There’s an interesting re-evaluation of what constitutes political cinema—films that deal with politics in a different way.  There’s a sense of opposition, films that, instead of just revealing the world, depict opposition in a certain way. You get the sense of the emergence of a new generation of talent, and we do have a lot of new names in the festival.”

Such political films include The Student, a drama about campus activism set in Buenos Aires and directed by Santiago Mitre; Miss Bala, a look at drug violence and beauty pageants directed by Gerardo Naranjo; and Policeman, an examination of Israeli anti-terror cops directed by Nadav Lapid. In the 1960s, any of these films might have landed that Time cover. Mr. Naranjo is promoting Miss Bala through a Tumblr account.

The oxygen in the room may not be as consumed by the galas as one might expect—even the greenest of New York Film Festival filmmakers have now had their credibility bolstered among the Film Comment crowd with various international festival appearances, and find the festival less competitive than others. After all, Cannes, Venice and Toronto have their own galas, their own politics.

Mr. Lapid, who has already taken his film to the Locarno Film Festival, said of New York: “There are festivals where you come to work and to sweat—there is a kind of harsh competition. You’re very stressed, in a way. And there are festivals where you come for the pleasure of watching movies and being watched by others. I have the feeling and the hope that New York is one [of
the latter].”

Said Mr. Naranjo, the director of Miss Bala, whose previous film I’m Gonna Explode played the Film Festival in 2008: “When I was growing up, one of the best references—the people you could trust about great cinema was the Lincoln Center. For me, it has always been the Lincoln Center. I’m very aware of the curatorial good quality—and I never expected to be in the
elite, and I never expected to be there with my first movies.”

Sean Durkin, director of Martha Marcy May Marlene, agreed. “They just make such amazing choices, and to be playing with the group of directors that’s playing this year is blowing my mind! To look at the list and see yourself on there is amazing.”

There’s room for all sorts at Lincoln Center, it would seem, though the galas—an opportunity for New York Film Festival exclusivity in a red-carpet-glutted world—will always be the province of the stars. Said Mr.Pena: “As always, the festival is trying to reinvent parts of itself. Increasingly, very few people want to do multiple openings. They want one opening. They want this to not only be where the film is shown, but to have the red carpet and the press and stars and its crew. We’re in a way responding to that new perceived need. People seem very happy with that possibility. We want the events to be successful, so we choose from among the films we’ve chosen, some that would have a somewhat broader reach.”

Of those gala screenings, perhaps the most instructive as to the N.Y.F.F. philosophy is My Week With Marilyn—a depiction, Mr. Peña said, of the collision between Lawrence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe: “It was a curious meeting between the two of them. They represent different aspects of film culture, but very vital aspects of film culture.” Disregarding the thesis that Monroe was, as Mr. Peña puts it, “a ditzy icon,” the mélange of uncompromising auteurist vision and the lure of star power make, in both My Week With Marilyn and the festival hosting it, an interesting brew.

Mr. Durkin, though, is more excited for opening night. “I’m dying to see the new Polanski movie,” he said. “He’s an all-time favorite. One of the few. I want to see all of them, but that’s not possible.”

ddaddario@observer.com