By William Wolf


You might think that in its 49th year the New York Film Festival (September 30-October 16) could be getting sluggish. Wrong. This year’s Festival is bigger than ever and shows a new burst of vitality that indicates even greater future growth and popularity. The demand for tickets to the opening night attraction of “Carnage” (see review under Special reports) was so huge that extra screenings had to be added.

The choice of “Carnage,” based on the play “God of Carnage” to start the Festival was an inspired one, given that it was directed by the much-lauded but controversial Roman Polanski. Of course, he couldn’t attend as a result of the prison sentence hanging over him. But whatever he does on screen is intriguing in the wake of his track record of a long line of skillfully-made films.

The opening night party bash at the Harvard Club was also impressive. In former days the after party was at the Tavern on the Green. But that is now defunct, and last year the event moved to the Harvard Club. The venue was repeated again this year. Frankly, the club is lot more impressive than the old setting. The building is an attraction in itself, with its huge rooms, high ceilings, portraits of Harvard’s famous alumni on the walls, and the overall feeling of old-world elegance.

Drinks flowed generously, and there was plenty of food, including assorted hors d’oeuvres, sliced beef, chicken, pasta and an array of tempting desserts. The place was packed with elegantly dressed women (men tended to be more casual despite the black tie designation on the invitation) and there was lively conversation debating the merits of the opening film. Was it as good as the play? Better? Most of the differences stemmed from evaluating the performance of Jodie Foster, who some thought was powerful and others thought was shrill and over the top.

As people flitted by tables I was delighted to get a chance to talk with my favorite documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who, as always, is at work on various projects, and also with producer-director Joe Berlinger, whose “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” his further expose of a major injustice, is being shown as part of the Festival.

As for the overall programming, in addition to the main line-up of 27 feature films, the Festival is loaded with other attractions that include the Masterworks program featuring showings of the 1959 “Ben-Hur,” directed by William Wyler, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” Nicholas Ray’s “We Can’t Go Home Again” and others.

There is a program of shorts, and there is a series of forums offering Festival-goers an opportunity to hear various directors and actors. One of the major opportunities is tied in with the closing night gala attraction, “The Descendants,” directed by Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney. The “On Cinema” section has scheduled a conversation with Payne.

Commented Rose Kuo, Executive Director of The Film Society of Lincoln Center in a press release: “We are delighted to welcome back Alexander Payne to the New York Fim Festival. Payne’s nuanced character studies capture the moral chaos lurking just below the surface of everyday American lives. ‘Election,’ ‘About Schmidt,’ ‘Sideways’ and now ‘The Descendants’ are sophisticated comedy dramas that have marked him as one of the unique and distinctive talents in contemporary American cinema and we cannot think of a stronger conclusion to the Festival’s remarkable lineup of films.”

As the Centerpiece in the schedule, the Festival is presenting “My Week with Marilyn,” directed by Simon Curtis, with Michelle Williams playing Marilyn Monroe in a screenplay set during the filming of the 1957 “The Prince and the Showgirl” and attempting to show Monroe as a person, not just as the iconic star.

The new, recently-opened Elinor Bunin Film Center at 144 West 65th Street creates expanded venue possibilities in addition to Alice Tully Hall and the Walter Reade Theater. This enlargement of facilities of The Film Society of Lincoln Center, which presents The New York Film Festival, is a major development that not only enables expansion of the Festival but will play a major role in the Society’s year-round programming.

As for the general content of films chosen for the Festival by the selection committee, Richard Peña, the Committee Chair and Program Director of the Film Society, had an interesting observation expressed in press material that was distributed. He noted that many films expressed confrontational attitudes and resistance involving issues in society. As he put it: “In many of the films in this year’s Festival, characters pass from recognition of a problem or situation to actual resistance. This confrontational attitude is perhaps a sign of our increasingly polarized times.”


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