The past and future of film mingle like a pair of moviegoers huddled in debate outside a movie theater at the New York Film Festival, which on Friday launches its 60th edition with the premiere of Noah Baumbach’s Don DeLillo adaptation “White Noise.”
In those six decades, the Lincoln Center festival has been arguably the premier American nexus of cinema, bringing together a teeming portrait of a movie year with films from around the globe, anticipated fall titles and restored classics. It’s a festival that’s traditionally more stocked with questions than answers.
“One question we ask ourselves is: What is a New York Film Festival main-slate film? It shouldn’t be something expected,” says Dennis Lim, artistic director of the festival. “It shouldn’t be something that automatically seems like it should belong in the pantheon.”
Canon — and stretching its definitions — has always been top of mind at the New York Film Festival, where films by Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Agnès Varda, Pedro Almodovar and Jane Campion have played over the years. The first edition of the festival, in 1963, featured Luis Buñuel, Yasujirō Ozu, Robert Bresson, Roman Polanski and Jean-Luc Godard. NYFF, which gives no awards and offers no industry marketplace, is strictly defined as a showcase of what programmers consider the best.
“We honor those 60 years of the festival by continuing to be true to its mission, why it was created, what it was intended to serve and the relationship, first and foremost, that it has had with the city of New York,” says Eugene Hernandez, executive director. “It’s a bridge between artists and audiences, and has been for 60 years now.”
In the last two years, Lim and Hernandez have sought to reconnect the festival with New York, expanding its footprint around the city. But the pandemic made that difficult. The 2020 festival was held virtually and in drive-ins around the city. Last year’s festival brought audiences back, although with considerable COVID-19 precautions. “It’s been a three-year journey to get to this moment,” says Hernandez, who departs after this festival to lead the Sundance Film Festival.
The 60th NYFF, which will hold screenings in all five boroughs during its run through Oct. 16, this year emphasizes those New York connections with a series of galas for hometown filmmakers. Those include the opening night with Baumbach; a centerpiece for Laura Poitras’ Nan Goldin documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”; closing night with Elegance Bratton’s semi-autobiographical “The Inspection”; and an anniversary celebration featuring James Gray’s “Armageddon Time,” based on his childhood in Queens. Another high-profile New York story, “She Said,” a drama about The New York Times investigative journalists who helped expose Harvey Weinstein, is also one of the festival’s top world premieres.
In many ways, little has changed in 60 years. (Godard will be back again this year, with the late iconoclast ‘s “Image Book” playing for free on a loop.) Except, perhaps, that it’s gotten larger, with more sidebars and a busier main slate.
“The festival for much of its life had only 20, 25 films in its main slate. I think if you tried to do that now, you’re not really going to really get a full picture of contemporary cinema,” says Lim. “The landscape is so immense.”
Every NYFF brings a mingling of master auteurs and younger filmmakers, but the dichotomy between the two is especially rich this year. Aside from seasoned veterans like Claire Denis (“Stars at Noon”) and Park Chan-wook (“Decision to Leave”), the festival will welcome back longtime regulars Frederick Wiseman (“A Couple”), Martin Scorsese (“Personality Crisis: One Night Only,” a documentary about New York Dolls singer-songwriter David Johansen) and Paul Schrader (“Master Gardner”). Jerzy Skolimowski (“EO”), the 84-year-old Polish filmmaker, and 94-year-old James Ivory (“A Cooler Climate”) will each bookend their inclusion at the third New York Film Festival, more than half a century ago.
A film like “EO,” which trails a donkey between brutal interactions with humans, is directly engaged with cinema history, paying homage to Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar.” But it also beats a ragged path of its own, something Schrader, the “Taxi Driver” writer and maker recently of “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter,” has been doing, himself, with torturous rigor for decades. These are filmmakers for whom cinema is an unending crusade, full of pain and transcendence.
Other filmmakers are earlier on their journeys. Several standouts at the festival are debuts. Bratton’s first narrative feature, “The Inspection,” is deeply personal for the 43-year-old director and photographer. Led by a striking performance by Jeremy Pope, it dramatizes Bratton’s own experience as a gay man in boot camp. The treatment he receives there is brutal, with echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.” But in some ways, it’s an improvement from his harsh reality back home.
The Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells also channels personal experience in her brilliantly composed, acutely devastating first feature, “Aftersun,” starring Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio as a father-daughter pair on vacation in Turkey. To a remarkable degree, the film is attuned to every fleeting gesture between the two, and the currents that may be driving them apart.
Intimacy might seem less relevant to “Till,” the Emmett Till drama making its world premiere. Films about such indelible moments in American history often take a wide lens to capture the full societal scope. But Chinonye Chukwu, in her follow-up to her 2019 breakthrough film “Clemency,” keeps her film centered, often profoundly so, on Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, played spectacularly by Danielle Deadwyler. “Till,” like many of the films at the festival, is a reminder of just how powerful one person’s testimony can be.