New York Film Festival celebrates 60 years

The past and future of cinema mingle as a pair of moviegoers in a heated debate at the New York Film Festival, which kicks off its 60th edition on Friday with the premiere of Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel “ White Noise” (known in Spanish as “Ruido de fondo”).

In those six decades, the festival held at Lincoln Center has been America’s premier film destination, creating a vibrant portrait of filmmaking year after year with films from around the world, early releases and restored classics. But it is a festival that is usually more full of questions than answers.

“A question we ask ourselves is: What is a main film of the New York Film Festival? It shouldn’t be expected,” said Dennis Lim, the festival’s artistic director. “It shouldn’t be something that automatically seems like it should belong on Olympus.”

The canon — and expanding its definitions — has always been a priority at the New York Film Festival, where films by Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Agnès Varda, Pedro Almodóvar and Jane Campion have been featured over the years. In its first edition, in 1963, the festival showed films by Luis Buñuel, Yasujirō Ozu, Robert Bresson, Roman Polanski and the recently deceased Jean-Luc Godard. The NYFF, as it is known by its acronym in English, does not give awards and does not have a market for the industry, it is strictly defined as a showcase of what the programmers consider the best in cinema.

“We honor those 60 years of the festival by staying true to its mission, what it was created for, what it was intended to serve, and the relationship, first and foremost, it has had with New York City.” said Eugene Hernandez, executive director of the festival. “It’s a bridge between artists and audiences, and has been for 60 years now.”

Over the past two years, Lim and Hernández have sought to reconnect the festival with New York, expanding their footprint in the city. But the pandemic made this mission difficult. The 2020 festival was held virtually and in drive-ins around the city. Last year the festival had an audience again, although with many precautions due to COVID-19. “It’s been a three-year journey to get to this point,” said Hernandez, who bids farewell to New York this year to headline the Sundance Film Festival.

Taking place in all five boroughs from Friday to October 16, the 60th NYFF highlights those New York connections this year with a series of local filmmaker galas. These include Baumbach’s inaugural film; the presentation of the documentary by Laura Poitras on the artist Nan Goldin and her fight against opioids “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”; Elegance Bratton’s semi-autobiographical closing film “The Inspection”; and an anniversary celebration with James Gray’s “Armageddon Time,” a film based on his childhood in Queens. Another prominent New York story, Ella She Said, a drama about The New York Times investigative journalists who helped expose Harvey Weinstein, is another major festival premiere.

Largely little has changed in 60 years, even Godard will be back this year with continued free screenings of his 2018 film “Le livre d’image” (“The Picture Book”). Perhaps what has changed the most is that the festival has gotten bigger, with more side events and a busier main lineup.

“For much of its life the festival had only 20 or 25 films in its main selection. I think if you try to do that now you won’t have a complete picture of contemporary cinema,” Lim said. “The landscape is so immense.”

NYFF typically brings a mix of master auteurs and younger filmmakers, but the dichotomy between the two is especially rich this year. Apart from established veterans such as Claire Denis (“Stars at Noon”) and Park Chan-wook (“Decision to Leave”), the festival will once again welcome Frederick Wiseman (“A Couple”) and Martin Scorsese, with “Personality Crisis: One Night Only,” a documentary about New York Dolls singer David Johansen, and Paul Schrader (“Master Gardner”). The 84-year-old Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (“EO”) and the 94-year-old American James Ivory (“A Cooler Climate”) will return after participating in the third edition of the New York Film Festival half a century ago.

A film like “EO”, which follows a donkey between brutal interactions with humans, is directly linked to the history of cinema, paying homage to Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar” (“Balthazar’s Chance”). But he also creates his own path, something that Schrader, the screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” and recent creator of “First Reformed” (“The Reverend”) and “The Card Counter” (“The card counter”), has done, with tortuous rigor for decades. These are filmmakers for whom cinema is an endless crusade, full of pain and transcendence.

Other filmmakers are more at the beginning of their careers. Several of the festival’s featured films are debuts. Bratton’s first fictional film, “The Inspection,” is very personal for the 43-year-old director and photographer. Headlined by an impressive performance by Jeremy Pope, it dramatizes Bratton’s experience as a gay man in boot camp. The treatment they give him is brutal, with echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (“War Face”). But somehow, it’s better than the harsh reality that he lives at home.

Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells also tackles a personal experience in her brilliantly composed and sharply devastating feature debut “Aftersun,” starring Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio as father and daughter on vacation in Turkey. The film is impressively timed with every subtle gesture between the two, and the forces that drive them apart.

Intimacy might seem less relevant for “Till,” the drama about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was kidnapped, tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955, which will have its world premiere at the festival. Movies about such defining moments in American history often use a wide-angle lens to capture the social moment. But director Chinonye Chukwu’s film, which follows her 2019 breakout film “Clemency,” centers on Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, played spectacularly by Danielle Deadwyler. “Till” is a reminder of how powerful personal testimonials can be.