Curtain raiser: The 51st New York Film Festival begins

Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver partake in the folk scene of the 1960s in the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis." Credit: Alison Rosa
Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver partake in the folk scene of the 1960s in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Credit: Alison Rosa

The 51st iteration of the New York Film Festival marks a slightly new direction. Longtime head Richard Pena, who took over in 1988, turned over the reins last year, handing them to the great writer, programmer and sometime filmmaker Kent Jones. Pena’s austere, sometimes punishing tastes remain: No NYFF would be the same without the new Tsai Ming-liang (“Stray Dogs”) or Jia Zhangke (“A Touch of Sin”). But the Main Slate is both larger and slightly more mainstream. One can’t imagine Pena making room for the latest from rom-com king Richard Curtis (“About Time”) or giving the Centerpiece slot to the new Ben Stiller (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”). Here’s some of the bigger titles in store over the next fortnight and change:

‘All is Lost’
Hope you like Robert Redford, because he is in fact the only person in this survival tale. The Sundance Kid, billed as “Our Man,” plays a sailor struggling while adrift at sea in “Margin Call” director J.C. Chandor’s sophomore film. What’s more, Redford only utters one line, and it’s one we can’t print.

‘Blue is the Warmest Color’
Adele Exachopoulos and Lea Seydoux won a joint acting award at Cannes this year for the fest’s biggest winner: an epic look at the relationship between two young women, which includes some graphic (if not wholly realistic) sex scenes. We can’t imagine why this is getting so much press.

‘Captain Phillips’
“Bourne” films director Paul Greengrass’ style often gets him lumped in with incoherent image-makers like Michael Bay — but his whiplash camerawork and hyper-editing are carefully selected and the opposite of chaos, if you’re paying attention. His shtick should work wonders on the tale of a ship overcome by hijackers, after it did little with the bland War on Terror saga “Green Zone.”

‘Her’
Of course Spike Jonze’s fourth feature stars Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely man in love with a Siri-esque operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
Get this: The Coen Brothers have made a film everone’s crazy about. Their slightly tardy follow-up to “True Grit” finds them again back in time, heading back to the 1960s to trail around a miserable folk singer (Oscar Isaac) as he makes everyone’s lives miserable. Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and a cat include his victims.

The Immigrant’
Before he shed his celeb image to become the fake rapper of “I’m Still Here,” Joaquin Phoenix’s last performance was in James Gray’s “Two Lovers.” Now back, he re-teams with Gray for this heavy period drama, playing a duplicitous burlesque manager who preys upon Marion Cotillard’s Polish immigrant.

‘Jimmy P.: Psychoanalysis of a Plains Indian’
There are fewer joys than when director Arnaud Desplechin teams with frequent star Mathieu Amalric (exhibits A and B: “Kings and Queen,” “A Christmas Tale”). Here, they drag themselves out to 1950s Midwest America, so an exquisitely eccentric Amalric can treat a Native American vet with head trauma (Benicio del Toro). Programmer Kent Jones has a co-writers credit, but the film would have been anyway.

‘Nebraska’
The once- (and sometimes still)-hilarious Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendents”) drags Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk into his more serious digs with this road movie centered on Forte and dad Bruce Dern. The latter won a long-deserved acting trophy at Cannes.

‘Only Lovers Left Alive’
You’re not really an auteur until you’ve done your “twist” on the vampire genre. Here, Jim Jarmusch recruits Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton into his deadpan realm, with the former as an irritated rock star who’s chosen Detroit as his current home.

’12 Years a Slave’
Believe it or not, Steve McQueen’s almost-traditional biopic about Solomon Northup — a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1850s — has not yet won the Best Picture Oscar. Also believe it or not, it’s very good, with expected fine work from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and Michael Fassbender as his remorseless, alkie torturer.

‘The Wind Rises’
This isn’t the first time that Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away”) has cried retirement, but it seems he means it this time. The 72 year old takes a predictably fanciful — and predictably anti-war — look at the life of Jiro Hirokoshi, who designed WWII fighter planes.

Steve Coogan (finally) brings his most signature character to the big screen with "Alan Partridge." Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Steve Coogan (finally) brings his most signature character to the big screen with “Alan Partridge.”
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Off the beaten path:

‘Alan Partridge’
He’s not as legendary on this side of Atlantic as he is on the other, but after ages of threats Steve Coogan’s most signature creation — the buffoonish and unfailingly dense radio personality Alan Partridge — comes to the big screen. Cohort Armando Iannucci has a good track record taking TV to film (see: “In the Loop”), so no worries about a loss in translation.

‘At Berkeley’
There are a lot of super-long players at NYFF this year, and little shock that one of them is from documentarian Frederick Wiseman. The arguable master of fly on the wall cinema, he returns to the subject of education he first explored in 1968’s “High School,” hanging back and watching as institutions struggle to hold together and do their duties.

‘Bastards’
Claire Denis (“Friday Night,” “35 Shots of Rum”) is at her almost-most elusive and ellipsis-heavy with her latest, with Vincent Lindon starring as a mysteriously vengeful man preying on the wealthy and a possible sex ring.

‘Jealousy’
Since the 1960s, the filmmaker Philippe Garrel has been cranking out films of great mystery and beauty. He once again casts his floppy-haired son Louis (“The Dreamers”), seen engaged in a relationship with another actor, all set to a John Cale score.

‘Nobody’s Daughter Haewon’
South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo doesn’t exactly make the same movie every time, but he comes close. His most recent finds the usual batch of semi-articulate, hard-drinking woulbe-lovers mixing and matching amidst playful narrative structures, but finds its maker pulling Canada and San Diego into his orbit.

‘Stranger by the Lake’
While the lesbian-themed “Blue is the Warmest Color” is getting all the press, little has been heaped upon this similarly explicit study of gay cruising. Experimental filmmaker Alain Guiraudie hangs about lakeside sex grounds that suddenly become the location of a murder investigation.

‘Stray Dogs’
One of world cinema’s most mysterious masters, Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang returns after a bit of a stretch with a film on an unusually down-to-earth subject: the lives of the homeless. Tsai regulars Lee Kang-shen and Chen Shiang-chyi return, this time as salt of the earth types trapped in an unforgiving metropolis and their directors sometimes unforgivingly long static takes.

‘A Touch of Sin’
Historically, China’s Jia Zhangke has tended towards playful quasi-documentaries critiquing his nation’s multitude problems (and has thus found said films banned). Here, he goes for a more classical narrative, albeit an experimental one, depicting four stories of horrific violence.

Jean-Luc Godard — The Spirit of the Forms
At 82, the crankiest — and often times most brilliant — of the French New Wave filmmakers is still going. His latest was even in 3-D. NYFF gives him the massive honor he deserves, devoting a sideline to nearly every one of his films, from his acknowledged greats (“Breathless,” etc.) to those that aren’t even on video, including those from his hardcore Marxist and video period in the 1970s.



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