The New York Film Festival lifts the curtain on its 56th edition tonight, with its three tentpole slots devoted to Venice prize winners The Favourite, Roma and At Eternity’s Gate, surrounded by the usual array of eclectic, curated titles from near and far.
Since its debut in 1963, against a backdrop of wildly fluctuating festivals jockeying for supremacy, and a downtown counterpart rising in Tribeca, the NYFF has remained remarkably consistent apart from a major renovation of Lincoln Center. At times over the years, that steady trajectory has struck some regulars as something verging on complacency, but in a culture and film industry marked by upheaval, staying the course has come to be a virtue.
“The great thing about the festival is that it’s always been allowed to stick to the mission of programming,” director Kent Jones told Deadline in an interview. “There’s no pressure from anyone to adjust and get more stars on the carpet or bend the programming in any way.”
That’s not to say there isn’t some sparkle, of course. Opening night selection The Favourite will bring Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman to Alice Tully Hall, with the customary after-party at Tavern on the Green apt to stretch into the wee hours. Also among the 30 titles in the main slate are Her Smell with Elizabeth Moss; Non-Fiction with Juliette Binoche; High Life with Robert Pattinson; and Wildlife, Paul Dano’s directorial debut, whose cast is headed by Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. Special events also include Watergate, a documentary by Oscar-winner Charles Ferguson that links Richard Nixon’s administration with our current one, and a screening at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre of Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk.
None of those is a world premiere, but that’s never been the point at the New York fest. For many stylistically eclectic films, especially international titles like Christian Petzold’s Transit, Ying Liang’s A Family Tour, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War or Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Cannes charmer Shoplifters, New York is the gateway to a U.S. arthouse run. For some, that can also mean Oscar attention. Last year’s main slate included eventual Oscar darlings Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird, though it also included some titles not fated for gold, including tentpoles Wonderstruck, Wonder Wheel and Last Flag Flying.
One theme from the festival circuit that is likely to be more muted here than it has been in Europe is the debate about Netflix films being in the mix alongside more conventionally funded work. Jones, himself a director who followed acclaimed documentaries like Hitchcock/Truffaut with this year’s scripted feature Diane, is not one of the alarmists on the streaming/cinema front.
“This year, the overriding question is Netflix,” Jones acknowledges. “For a lot of audiences, the primary delivery system for them is streaming.” As a company, Jones points out, Netflix’s largesse has not only supported a range of original work on the platform, but also the completion of long-abandoned Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind. The film will screen at NYFF, the only title that will be projected from a 35mm print.
While Cannes had a falling-out with Netflix after a 2017 slate featuring its titles incensed the French industry, Venice opened its doors wide. Netflix brought six films to the Lido and eight to Toronto, the leading edge of its push on behalf of 25 film releases in the closing months of 2018.
Jones has paid close attention to the discussion through the year, but he feels some of it misses the point. “Calling Roma a Netflix film is something I would hesitate to do,” he added. “It is first and foremost an Alfonso Cuaron film.” The film’s sound mix, he added, is something to which only a theatrical presentation can do justice.
The other facet of the streaming debate is whether episodic work should be showcased alongside features. Major fests including Toronto and Sundance include special section devoted to such work. New York has not taken that leap, though Jones noted that the first two episodes of Netflix’s Mindhunter screened last year — in large part because they were directed by David Fincher.
In sifting through hundreds of films each year, Jones says he has noticed the effect of series designed for binge-watching in 10-hour chunks. Sometimes that can make a work less coherent, he said, but in the big picture, he considers it a healthy sign. “It’s great that people are no longer afraid of bursting the barrier of 90 minutes to 120 minutes,” he said. “That’s a great side effect.”