Some festivals are like endless buffets, offering hundreds of titles and secret goodies just waiting to be discovered. The New York Film Festival doesn’t play like that. The fest, running from Sept. 30 through Oct. 16, is a relatively small affair, tightly curated. There are only 25 films in the Main Slate, plus bulky sidebars for documentaries, the avant-garde and revivals. These are the best of the best, and in some cases (Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” James Gray’s “The City of Z,” Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women”) you’ll get to see them first. Here’s what’s what at this year’s movie deluge (and check back at metro.us for reviews throughout the fest):
First off, there’s an accidental “Twilight” reunion afoot: Between the two of them, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have four films at NYFF. That’s because once the emo vampire saga ended, the two each had the same idea: skip Hollywood to team with the world’s most interesting filmmakers.
So Stewart reunites with Olivier Assayas, her “Clouds of Sils Maria” auteur, for“Personal Shopper,”a more divisive but arresting-sounding character study (but with ghosts!). She also pops up in the three-story drama"Certain Woman," the latest from "Wendy & Lucy's" Kelly Reichardt, and“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,”the latter a war drama which was shot in a format so radical and new that it reportedly makes the viewer feel like they're in the movie.Meanwhile, the former Edward Cullen only scores“The Lost City of Z,”but it is both the closing night picture and the latest from “The Immigrant”’s terrific James Gray.
One of the fest’s most-anticipated titles comes fresh off storming the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. It’s“Moonlight,”Barry Jenkins’ belated follow-up to 2008’s indie romance “Medicine for Melancholy.” At least it was worth the wait: Following a kid from the Miami ghetto from boyhood through young adulthood, from shy to hard, it’s a devastating yet hopeful look at black American life that ought to be required viewing for Trump supporters (and everyone else).
North American masters
He’s only made three films in 16 years, but that’s enough to make Kenneth Lonergan one of the greats. In “You Can Count On Me” and “Margaret,” the playwright showed he could push the boundaries of cinema. We haven’t yet seen his latest, “Manchester by the Sea,” but by all accounts it’s another further step-up, with Casey Affleck struggling with the recent death of his brother (played the world’s current most likable actor, Kyle Chandler).
Jim Jarmusch is still pushing himself in new directions, too, finding new ways to surprise us four decades on. “Paterson” might be his most soothing film yet, following a low-key poet/bus driver played by Adam Driver in the opposite of his Kylo Ren vein. The director Mike Mills (“Beginners”) is still relatively green, so we’re interested to see what happens with “20th Century Women,” set in Santa Barbara in 1979 and concerning a single mother (Annette Bening) and the coterie (including Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning) who share her bohemian house. And though he’s an expat who works in Europe, not America, the NYC native Eugène Green has become a most fascinating director, favoring shots and acting that are deliberately minimalist. With the French-made “Son of Joseph,” he does his own version of Jesus’ story, complete with Mathieu Amalric.
To grossly generalize, many of the filmmakers regularly feted by NYFF tend towards the austere. One of the best films of the fest, Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” though, sounds a lot like a German Adam Sandler movie, only almost three hours long. Indeed, it shares almost the same plot as “That’s My Boy”: an eccentric, estranged father (Peter Simonischek) tries to save his grown child (Sandra Huller) from a workaholic life, then almost destroys it. Can a movie be narratively challenging, emotionally raw and gut-bustingly funny? This movie says, improbably, yes.
It’s been too long since Ade’s last film, 2009’s funny-spikey “Everyone Else,” but at least the German filmmaker didn’t have to wait as long as New Zealand’s Alison Maclean. In 1999 she made the terrific “Jesus’ Son.” Then nada (apart from shorts and TV work). Her first feature in 17 years is “The Rehearsal,” a sprightly and empathetic look at youths in a drama school. At least there will always be another Pedro Almodovar film. Witness “Julieta,” another of his lush, mildly self-aware, time-jumping melodramas, this one about a woman (Adriana Ugarte) reckoning with her messy life.
Is Paul Verhoeven considered one of the greats? He should be. He’s made some of the most daring blockbusters in Hollywood history: “RoboCop,” “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct” and that vulgar masterpiece “Showgirls.” No, we’re not kidding about the latter. And if you need further proof that Verhoeven knows exactly what he’s doing, witness “Elle,” his first proper film in nine years. Isabelle Huppert plays a woman who is raped in the first scene, and what follows is both psychologically fascinating and (no, really, trust us) darkly funny.
As it happens, Huppert pops up again in another movie about a woman dealing with trauma. In “Things to Come,” from Mia Hansen-Løve (of last year’s DJ epic “Eden”), she “only” deals with the death of her mother and the collapse of her marriage. Fellow French person, the very funny Alain Guiraudie — last seen with the gay cruising saga “Stranger by the Lake” — is at his abstractly absurdist best with “Staying Vertical,” about a lonely wanderer who’s fluid about where he lives and who he shtups.
Let’s globe-trot. For Romanian New Wave fare, you have your pick of both “Sieranevada,” which finds Cristi Puiu (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) observing the downs and, well, not ups of a family gathering; and “Graduation,” from Cristian Mungiu (“4 Weeks, 3 Days, 2 Months”), which steadily charts the fall-out when a father tries to help his college-bound daughter cheat on her exams. In South Korea, Hong Sang-soo does his thing — cryptic looks at stupid, horny, soju-swilling men — with the more-mysterious-than-usual “Yourself and Yours.” Over in Brazil, we witness a killer Sonia Braga facing down both house hunters and mortality in “Aquarius.” And in Chile, we see Pablo Larraín (“No”) not once but twice, with both “Neruda” (about Pablo) and the just-added Natalie Portman-starrer “Jackie” (about Onassis) — both biopics that radically play with the genre’s boundaries.
Usually the opening night film is a splashy, star-studded work of fiction. This year, the NYFF committee decided to give its opening night slot to “13th,” the first film Ava DuVernay has made since “Selma” and a blistering, vital look at the history of racism in America, and how it never actually went away. Surely there will be some crossover with “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck’s film essay, which takes inspiration from James Baldwin’s unfinished final manuscript “Remember This House.”
Documentaries are sometimes thought of as mere journalism, but something like “Fire at Sea” — about Europe’s migrant crisis — uses the medium as a way to create sensations and experiences as striking as any fiction film. Errol Morris is one of the kings of stylish non-fiction, and while “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” isn’t as in-your-face as “The Thin Blue Line” or “The Fog of War,” that’s also because it’s the nicest film he’s ever made, starring someone nobody in the world could not love.
Elsewhere, Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) tries his hand with a straight-up issue film with “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” which chronicles a Chinatown bank that undeservingly became the only financial institution prosecuted in the wake of the 2008 economic catastrophe. Jazz trumpeteer Lee Morgan gets profiled in “I Called Him Morgan,” and we get to learn about the Stasi in “Karl Marx City.” And watch as the New York Ballet’s principal dancer faces the limits of her aging body in “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.”
The New York Film Festival runs from Sept. 30 through Oct. 16. Visit the site for showtimes, tickets and more of the line-up.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge