Ticketing for the New York Film Festival began today. Film Society members got to start to hand in their ticket requests. I've sent in mine, we'll see what I end up getting seats for.
In honor of that I'm going to say a few words about the Grand Dame of the New York film festivals.
This is the 48th festival and what a long bumpy ride it's been. It's a festival that has a great deal of prestige, but which of late has had some of its thunder stolen by some of the other festivals, such as Toronto and Venice, both of which seem set up to get the big fall films.
This isn't to say that the festival has lost its luster, only that it gets a few less big films. This year all of the hype surrounds the three tent pole films; David Fincher's Social Network, Julie Taymor's Tempest, and Clint Eastwood's Hereafter. Outside of those three titles many people I know are scratching their heads as to what the films are.
Truth be told the festival's strongest point is that it tends to find great films that no one has really heard of, but which suddenly become a big to-do. All one need do is look at the schedule over the past few years and you'll see it's full of films that made you wonder what they were thinking until you saw them. Last year had Lebanon, Mother, Vincere, The White Ribbon, Kanikosen, Ghost Town, Antichrist,and Art Of The Steal. This year the festival is hyping that this was the place that Last Tango in Paris was first shown and how that changed everything. The fact that they can pull out films that surprise you is one of its great strengths.
The films for the most part tend to be good, or if not good, interesting enough to warrant notice. That doesn't mean they don't pick some dogs; every year there are a few real bad ones, or at least ones that make you wonder what were they thinking (two recent ones which spring to mind are Serbis, about life in an adult movie theater in the Philippines, and Police, Adjective, which some people love, but I find like watching paint dry, or at least watching someone eat soup).
My first trip to the festival was to see Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books. It was a head trip and a wonderful experience because I actually got to see Greenaway in person doing a Q&A. For me it was almost like seeing god. The fact that I got to see the director was such a huge plus it hooked me on the festival. (I always groan when the directors don't show up)
This really is a film festival that does some amazing things not only in the main slate but in the sidebar, where you get things like the director dialogs, consisting of a director, an interviewer and an audience full of questions. You also get this year's talk by Mike Leigh about filming in London, or last year's talk on Raymond Chandler and the movies, which was supposed to run 90 minutes and instead had to be stopped at close to two hours because it was threatening to overrun the film that followed it. For me the sidebar is the place where everything is really special since that's where you get events that will never be repeated.
Of course it's not without its flaws.
First off the festival is expensive. The main slate films are $20 for members and go up to $40 a seat for the opening night film Social Network (it's even more for non-film society members). I understand the festival makes a great deal of money for the Film Society, but in many cases those films are coming out within weeks of showing at the festival (Social Network starts a week later). Granted the sidebar events are cheaper (about $12 for members), but it's still a tough nut to crack if you want to see a great number of movies (see our coverage of Tribeca, New York International Children's Film Festival or the New York Asian Film Festival for how we do festivals).
The festival also tends to be a bit too snooty with the main slate. If you look at the main slate for this year you'll see that the festival isn't really daring in its subject matter. Yes there is a cannibal film (We Are What We Are), but at the same time the description makes it out to be less about blood and guts and more about the relationship of the family. Sure every now and again you get a wild film, but it's usually only one Host, Police Story, Ashes of Time, or Paprika. I really wish the festival was more daring, especially in light of the programming that has been going on at the Walter Reade with The New Directors New Directions, NYAFF and the Summer Meltdown.
For me the real disappointment this year is the weekday scheduling. For whatever reason over the last few years the festival seems to have been creeping toward the schedule that they have this year, which is films only at 6pm and 9pm. Where are the earlier screenings? Where is a variety of start times? As someone who has to commute I find the start times perfectly wrong for me. I either have to lose a chunk of a day from work in order to get into the 6pm showing or with the 9pm screenings I have to miss any Q&A in order to get a train home. It could be argued that I'm not the audience since I want to see it all, but at the same time if the schedule affects me it will also affect others, probably more so, since I'm willing to change my schedule for a movie, whereas most people won't. I know most of my friends who don't work in Manhattan are only looking for weekend screenings because the times are all wrong.
Complaints aside I still wouldn't miss the festival for the world. I mean lets get real, I love movies and here is (hopefully) a whole bunch of great films.
My choices for this years festival, or at least what I've put in for tickets:
The David Fincher Dialog. An hour of talk with a favorite director, I'm there (even if it may get me in trouble with a family obligation).
My Joy. A Russian film about a truck driver getting lost in the back roads of the country.
Of Gods And Men. How monks deal with religious extremism.
Oki's Movie. A woman in love with two men (full disclosure-its a 6pm film that fits with My Joy's 9pm screening.)
The Robber. Marathoner who doubles as a bank robber.
The Hole. Joe Dante's low budget film about a hole in a basement that leads to some place black. Oh yeah, it's in 3-D.
Nuremberg. Restored film on the trials along with a post film discussion.
Mike Leigh Shooting London. Master filmmaker talks about how the city is a character.
There are a good number of other films I would love to see but I can't really fit them into my schedule. Hopefully I'll get to a few more screenings, but it all depends upon what I can move about.
I'll keep you posted.