Curtain goes up on a documentary-rich film festival
NEW YORK – Ninety-nine feature films dotted the sparkling lineup at the 55th New York Film Festival, which kicked off Thursday night with Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying.” There is no way, really, to take as a whole an 18-day festival that will include new films from Todd Haynes, Woody Allen, Agnes Varda, Claire Denis, Greta Gerwig and Hong Sangsoo.
But the common denominator at the sober-eyed New York festival has always been quality, as discerned through an especially global outlook. The only currency that matters at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual uptown event is the movies, themselves – not red carpets (they’re typically short and perfunctory), not prizes or even Oscar buzz. The New York Film Festival generates a lot of conversation by keeping the noise at bay.
“I see a lot of things shifting in the film festival world, and they’re shifting for reasons that have to do with things other than the art of cinema,” says Kent Jones, the festival’s director. “We’re 55 years old now and we’ve always stuck to our mission. And I think that means a lot to the audiences and the filmmakers.”
The festival’s main slate, its most curated selections, numbers 25 films this year. Most of them (“Lady Bird,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Mudbound,” “The Square”) have been plucked from the standouts of Sundance, Cannes, Telluride and other festivals.
But this year’s festival is also intent to play by a different set of rules than other major international film festivals. The main slate is light on world premieres, a much-sought designation for prominent entries elsewhere. Others will play in a different format: Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghost” will screen in a director’s cut that differs from the version that opened the Cannes Film Festival in May.
There will still be several much-watched premieres. Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” the 81-year-old filmmaker’s second film for Amazon Studios, is the closing night film. A “return to form” is often said of Allen’s later works but the gala slot is a clear sign of belief in Allen’s latest.
Opening the festival is “Last Flag Flying,” a road trip reunion of three former Navy men (Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne) who are something like older, grown-up versions of the main characters in Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail” (1973). In Linklater’s film, which Lionsgate and Amazon will release Nov. 3, the trio reunites to bring home the dead son of Carell’s character, a young soldier killed in Iraq.
“I thought it was such an interesting portrait of middle age, and I hadn’t done a lot of that, although I’m there myself, age-wise,” said the 57-year-old Linklater, whose career (“Boyhood,” “Before Sunrise,” “Dazed and Confused”) has often chronicled seminal stages of life.
“It was fun to deal with these themes of memory and past experience and reuniting with old friends, comrades: What does that mean? How are we the same? How are we changed? These are big questions in all of our lives,” said Linklater. “There’s nothing like an impromptu reunion with people who you went through something with a long time ago to make you examine your own life.”
Linklater has a gift for giving thoroughly planned, minutely detailed scenes an easy naturalism. Chloe Zhao’s sensational sophomore feature, “The Rider,” goes further in blending fiction with nonfiction. A deeply heartfelt heartland elegy, it stars real Sioux cowboys in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, following a rodeo star (Brady Jandreau) forced to contemplate quitting.
Including Zhao, a third of the films in the main slate are directed by women – many of which rank among the class of the festival. Zhao is just starting out but Agnes Varda, the 89-year-old French filmmaking legend, has been at it for decades. Her “Faces/Places,” which she co-directed with the much younger photographer JR, chronicles the unlikely duo traveling the French countryside, looking – and finding – chance encounters that they then memorialize with massive photographs JR pastes across buildings, barns and other structures.
The festival’s documentaries as a whole are a vibrant, varied bunch, teaming with big personalities like Joan Didion, Steven Spielberg and Jane Goodall.
“Odds are, if you just walked into something at the multiplex, it might not be that good,” said Jones. “The average documentary is good. The films that we’re showing, as far as I’m concerned, are well above average. I think it’s possible to be so much faster and more fluid with documentary filmmaking than it was in the pre-digital age. There’s a richer sense of character in a lot of documentaries that I see than in the average fiction movie.”
One case in point in Rebecca Miller’s tender and intimate character study of her father, the playwright Arthur Miller. Just as personal is Travis Wilkerson’s “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” wherein Wilkerson investigates a tragedy in his family’s past. His great-grandfather killed a black man in 1946 Alabama in a crime that went unpunished.
Alex Gibney’s inquiry into the past in “No Stone Unturned” is more journalistic. He calls it “a hardcore criminal investigation.” The documentary peers into the 1994 Loughinisland murders in Northern Island, where six men were gunned down in a pub.
Initially scheduled to premiere at April’s Tribeca Film Festival, the film was postponed at the last minute due to legal concerns around naming the suspects. “We won the argument,” Gibney said after a recent screening, saying his film was little changed.
The tale is just one of the thousands of unsolved murders from the Troubles, the 30-year conflict that ended in 1998. But for Gibney, the story of Loughinisland is a microcosm of how injustice gets buried after times of great violence.
“We’re hoping that the police will finally bring a case. I just can’t believe that they haven’t already,” said Gibney. “There has to be some justice.”