critics' picks

10 Films to See at the New York Film Festival

Photo: New York Film Festival

The New York Film Festival kicks off its 51st year tonight with a screening of Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, and over the next sixteen days, it will present what may well be its strongest slate in years. (Not an easy achievement, as this is the festival that has recently premiered films such as The Social Network, Lincoln, and Life of Pi.) What makes that doubly impressive is that this has been a transitional year for the fest: Longtime artistic director Richard Pena left last year, and the festival is now under the guidance of Kent Jones, an estimable (non-academic) writer with a soft spot for auteurist darlings and horror pictures.

With that transition comes a challenge — to continue the fest’s recent run of high-profile premieres while also returning a bit more to its roots as a celebration of artistically challenging, innovative work. New York magazine film critics David Edelstein and Bilge Ebiri have only seen a fraction of the films screening at the festival, missing out on some major titles like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, James Gray’s The Immigrant, Spike Jonze’s Her, and Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but they are already impressed. And one notable bonus: A stupendous and comprehensive Jean-Luc Godard retrospective. Here are ten of their picks from this year’s New York Film Festival.

The opening presentation of this year’s New York Film Festival is another of Paul Greengrass’s shaky handheld camera imitation docudramas, this time based on the real story of a captain (here played by Tom Hanks with a Maine accent and low-key Nor’ East demeanor) taken hostage by Somali pirates. As Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) drove to the airport and the camera hugged the back of Hanks’s neck, I found myself wondering if the director had any other way of shooting people. But his approach is gangbusters in the movie’s second half, which takes place in a tightly confined closed lifeboat. The climax is like a vise that keeps tightening as options run out, and you can’t believe how often your sympathies shift between Phillips and his hapless captors (led by an extraordinary actor named Barkhad Abdi). And in what kidnapping thriller has the denouement — it’s a medical exam — been even more overpowering than the action climax? —David Edelstein Photo: Jasin Boland/? 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
J.C. Chandor’s second film (the first was Margin Call) is a tour-de-force of acting and filmmaking — a survival-genre masterpiece. Robert Redford plays a man who’s on his yacht in the China Sea when he strikes a metal cargo container and then … one hesitates to use the phrase a “perfect storm,” but nothing thereafter goes right. The man is amazingly resourceful, though. And so is Redford, the only person onscreen for nearly two taut hours. You watch his face and see the wheels turning in his head, see him reviewing his options (the film has almost no dialogue), and think, When has Redford been so riveting? Never. It’s the summation of a lifetime of work. —David Edelstein Photo: Daniel Daza
Richard Curtis’s romantic time-travel drama is floridly, unabashedly sentimental. Domhnall Gleason is the clumsy young man who discovers that the males in his family can jump backwards (never forwards) in time and tries to use his power both to win the nerdy-cutie (Rachel McAdams) he loves and protect his self-destructive sister (Lydia Wilson). Bill Nighy steals the film (again) as Gleason’s dad: His tender, hesitant delivery gives every word emotional heft. About Time’s time-travel “rules” are confusing and its climax wet, but Curtis certainly cuts to the heart of our time-travel fantasies. Much like the makers of Groundhog Day, he understands our feeling that life has passed us by and we weren’t there — hence the dream of going back. —David Edelstein
Benicio del Toro is an Indian (no one here says Native American) back from World War II and given to seizures that might or might not be psychosomatic. Matthieu Almaric is the French anthropologist-therapist summoned to examine him at a Midwest veterans’ hospital. At first, French arthouse darling Arnaud Desplechin’s English-language movie seems strangely un-strange. A film built around psychotherapy that isn’t ironic? Then the weirdness creeps in — via Jimmy P.’s dreams and the spiritual displacement they evoke. It’s a static, often rhythmless film — but I need to see it again before pronouncing a Final Judgment. —David Edelstein
America’s greatest tag-team filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, are back with a low-key, finely tuned, deeply evocative portrait of an unsuccessful and generally unpleasant early sixties Greenwich Village folk singer (the completely convincing Oscar Isaac) at loose ends. The Coens are always sardonic and often cruel, but they might hit new levels of bleakness here: Employing a rags-to-riches showbiz template, they dash our hopes at every turn. But there’s something else in the mix: the music, which leavens the hopelessness and raises the story to the level of myth. One to brood on! —David Edelstein Photo: Photographer: Alison Rosa/? Alison Rosa
In what looks to be Hayao Miyazaki’s final film (the septuagenarian Japanese animator announced his retirement last month), the dream of flight becomes the nightmare of war. Ostensibly a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the “Zero” airplane, this is more a hallucinatory reverie about the artist’s role in a turbulent, cruel world. Guided by visions of Giovanni Caproni, the early twentieth century Italian designer who wound up creating WWI bombers, the young Horikoshi revolutionizes flight while working with the Japanese government during WWII. But The Wind Rises is more than mere allegory. It’s a sublime journey into the very nature of inspiration, from one of the world’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers. —Bilge Ebiri
Director Jia Zhang-ke (The World, 24 City) made his name telling expansive, formally restrained tales about the human costs of a rapidly modernizing China. In his latest, the focus is similar, but the darkness has become all-consuming. Opening with a shocking act of violence and proceeding to explore the disparate lives of four individuals driven past the edge, Jia seems to be indulging in genre territory, as each story leads to spectacular bloodshed. Maybe “indulge” is the wrong word, because this roundelay of violence still exhibits the director’s masterful sense of control, revealing how the relentless nature of progress can consume ordinary lives. A perplexing, at times breathtaking film. —Bilge Ebiri
The great Frederick Wiseman (Titticut Follies, Hospital) delivers what at first seems like another typically accomplished, epic documentary: a four-hour, fly-on-the-wall look at one of America’s foremost universities. We see classes, a cappella concerts, planning meetings, everything — spending just enough time in each situation to become involved in what’s going on (don’t be surprised if you find yourself taking class notes) before Wiseman whisks us away to the next thing. But oddly, it’s one of the few films he’s made about an institution that most of his audience will have had direct experience with. Perhaps that runs counter to the director’s usually incisive, exacting approach — we know the topic too well, and feel freer to question his choices of what to leave out and include. But so what? At Berkeley has a warm, familiar glow about it. It’s kind of like being back in college, without all the tests. —Bilge Ebiri
The Egyptian revolution has already fueled a number of documentaries, but Jehane Noujaim (The Control Room) moves the story further by using the stories of several Egyptians — including a member of the much-reviled Muslim Brotherhood — to explore how the revolution eventually came to fragment and betray itself. Throughout, Tahrir Square itself remains a symbol, both of the dream of a unified, free country and of the shattering chaos that ensued. Alternately despairing and hopeful, the film’s uncertain finale — after all, the violence in Egypt continues to this day — just adds to its poignancy. —Bilge Ebiri
At first glance, this comedy about an aging couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) visiting Paris for the weekend seems like it’s going to be a frivolous romp through the usual fish-out-of-water terrain. But it’s looser, more alive than that. Wisely, director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and writer Hanif Kureishi (Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) don’t force these two immensely talented performers into artificial plot devices. And so, the film turns into something darker, as the fissures between the obliging yet droll academic husband and the clinical, frustrated wife reveal themselves gradually, organically. Things come to a head when our heroes run into a former school chum, now a best-selling public intellectual type (played with unnerving, oily charm by Jeff Goldblum). The final act is a masterful showcase for Broadbent’s particular blend of avuncular venom. —Bilge Ebiri
10 Films to See at the New York Film Festival