The first New York Film Festival, in 1963, featured Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, the then-30-year-old director’s Polish-language feature debut. “Film Fete Places Accent on Youth”, The New York Times headline read. Mr. Polanski was joined by established directors like Alain Resnais, with Muriel, and lesser-known names like Glauber Rocha, with Barravento, his feature debut at the fest.
That inaugural festival ran from Sept. 10 to Sept. 19, and the Sept. 20 cover of Time featured two of the actors from Knife in the Water, with the headline “Cinema as an International Art.” Two American directors were featured at that inaugural festival: Alex Segal, who had previously worked almost entirely in television, and Adolfas Mekas, with his debut feature, Hallelujah the Hills. The festival’s official program depicted a film canister covered in shipping labels and addressed to Lincoln Center – its international origin obscure.
This year, Mr. Polanski’s work will return to a festival that has changed a great deal since his debut. He will show Carnage, a Brooklyn-set theatrical adaptation with an A-list cast including Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet, which will be screened at an opening-night gala, buttressed by a centerpiece screening of My Week With Marilyn (directed by British TV veteran Simon Curtis, and starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe) and a closing night screening of The Descendants (Alexander Payne’s return to cinema, starring George Clooney).
There are also two more galas planned, one in honor of David Cronenberg’s new Freud/Jung drama A Dangerous Method and, the other to toast the Antonio Banderas thriller The Skin I Live In, directed by Pedro Almodóvar.
While he will not and—given his longstanding legal issues in the U.S.—cannot be in attendance, Mr. Polanski’s history looms over the festival from its first night. The director’s repute and sway grew on the back of his early success and his desire for mass acceptance. The same could be said of the festival’s. But in contrast to Mr. Polanski’s internationally minded art, the festival at which he first gained acclaim can seem inward-looking, often celebrating films that already have distribution and are surefire Oscar-season winners.
In recent years, the galas have been a convenient spot to slot the highest-profile films and directors in the run-up to early winter’s Oscar race, as exemplified by of the two additional galas beyond the opening, closing and centerpiece screenings, which allow Messrs. Cronenberg and Almodóvar parties of their own. The opening-night spot that went in 2001 to Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir and in 2004 to Agnes Jaoui’s Look at Me—films that, despite their directors’ pedigrees, would seem to the mass American audience to illustrate that distancing that has occurred from that 1963 Time headline about “Cinema as an International Art”—went in 2005 to George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, in 2006 to Stephen Frears’s The Queen, in 2007 to Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, and in 2010 to David Fincher’s The Social Network. (2008 and 2009 saw The Class and Wild Grass, hugely anticipated French films that had played at Cannes.) Justin Timberlake et al. posed on a red carpet for last year’s opener, and Kate Winslet, fresh from promoting Carnage at the Venice Film Festival, may well do the same this year.
Has the gala changed the opening night? “I don’t know that they’ve changed that much,” said Richard Peña, program director for the Festival. “I think perhaps they’ve become, at times, a little more sparkling. When the N.Y.F.F. started it was quite literally the only game in town. Now, we’re not the only game in town, we’re not the only game on the continent, we’re not the only game in the country. So our opening nights are the chance to send out a little bit of a signal.”
“Certainly over the last 24 years of my reign, there have been less foreign language films, for example, as opening nights and more films that might feature bigger stars. I think that’s a function of a lot of things that have changed.” Mr. Peña (who, in the interest of disclosure, taught a lecture course on film that this reporter took in college) declined to comment on the quality of both Carnage and The Social Network, though he mentioned without prompting that both high-profile films were of “a slightly different breed than when the festival was opening with Truffaut 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
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.”