Sunday, October 18, 2015

Nightcap 10/18/15- NYFF 53 is done-I had fun- but they need to change programmers

Another New York Film Festival has come and gone. We are now left to recover and prepare ourselves for next year’s onslaught.

For those of us in the press corps it was a long four weeks of films and functions. At the same time this year's the festival was rather low key. Outside of the three tent poles and BRIDGE OF SPIES things there didn’t seem to be that much excitement since most of the films had played elsewhere or in many cases were due to be released to theaters shortly after their NYFF appearance.

For me the problem this year was that the selections were rather bland. While I pretty much liked everything there was very little that really excited me.There were no real discoveries as far as features were concerned. The real place where there was any passion, generating both intense love or hate, were the shorts. Some of the best films of the festival were in the short collections-also some of the worst.

I think part of the problem this year with the festival was that a huge chunk of the festival had been decided back at Cannes. I think the programmers found twelve of the 26 Main Slate films back in May and then built everything around them. The reason I’m pretty sure of this is that if you look at the July/August 2015 issue of Film Comment which listed their contributors top films from Cannes- most, and in the case of Kent Jones all, ended up as the bulk of the Main Slate:


THE COWBOYS was not on their list of best films but did screen at Cannes, as did SON OF SAUL which ended up as a special presentation.

If you want to take it further another 10 Main Slate films premiered elsewhere including STEVE JOBS- which was one the true coups until Telluride stole it. (I'll stay away from the other sections because it will get very messy). That means 22 of the 26 main slate features played elsewhere- with one short of half coming from Cannes.

How can you have a living festival of the stature of NYFF when all of the films come from somewhere else, and from one film festival  in particular? Isn't NYFF supposed to stand alone and not be Cannes West?

The fact NYFF has been picking over other festivals is a problem that has really haunted it for the last three or four years. New York is no longer a place to make discoveries rather it’s a place to see stuff you couldn’t see because you haven’t been able to travel. Consider that local press who are able to trek to Toronto didn’t show up for films like CAROL or BROOKLYN at NYFF because they saw it up north. Alternately they put off seeing films at Toronto because they can catch up later. Excitement is muted, and in the minds of many of the people I talked to the festival isn't what it once was.

I understand part of the problem is that other festivals have stolen the festivals's thunder but for god’s sake this is the NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL,It should be making it's own thunder. This is the festival that used to be the stuff of legends, but now there is very little in the way of excitement. The last bit of legendary excitement might have been an audience member collapsing during the ANTICHRIST screening in 2009. This is now a once proud and glorious festival that is rapidly becoming an also ran,

The programmers have to get out and start fighting for films. They have to make bold and daring choices. While I don't know what goes on behind the scenes it seems as though they haven’t done that in ages with the result that the festival has declined in the years since the recent high point of the 50th. To me the most daring feature of the last three years was Asia Argento’s MISUNDERSTOOD. It was bold and ballsy and the sort of cage rattler the festival should be running. Outside of that there really hasn't been anything, good bad or indifferent that made you sit up and realize that you're seeing something special or at the very least the work of a bold new filmmaker.

On some levels the festival feels as if it is calcifying and decaying. I truly believe the festival's reliance on people who have been programming it for years, if not decades has stagnated the festival. NYFF- I love you but I don't really remember the current crop not being involved in some way with programming over the last six or seven years with Amy Taubin seeming to have been there the whole 25 years I've been going (I'm probably wrong but it feels like it). The result is there are no bold steps forward- or even intriguing bold steps off the road into the ditch (Oh how I would love a glorious misstep)-basically the festival simply is the same old same old. Its so same old same old that they always trumpet  a new film from a director who had been there before-whether the film deserved to be noticed.

Let's be honest- NYFF is safe- which in the current form of the festival means its dull and boring. If you follow a year's films you can actually guess with a high degree of certainty what many of the NYFF choices will be. I don’t know if the programmers want this or if its reflection on the patrons of Lincoln Center many of whom seem to want a certain type of film. Whatever the reason the selections over the past few years have steadily gotten weaker. They aren't bad, but they are of a type, and when you compare the films of this year to say those of 6 years ago when I started covering NYFF for Unseen I was more excited by the choices then as opposed to the ones this year. (And this year don't tell me nothing was available I saw some great stuff from other fests that would have been great here had they chosen to steal them)

At the risk of getting banned from the festival I’m going to make the bold request that the programmers step aside and let a new crop take to the lead, perhaps with some of the young guns who did the shorts (though not whom ever did the International shorts). Or if not step aside add a new crop of voices to balance things out.

Why do I want them to step aside? Because since the programmers have been there years and years  I can pick out what films they are going to claim as their own and introduce or do the Q&A. Worse if I didn’t correctly guess who programmed it I can tell what sort of a movie I’m going to get when the each programmer strides on stage. The sole exception is Gavin Smith who’s eclectic tastes are a constant source of wonder as he shows up at the darnest things both at NYFF and elsewhere. If he’s involved in programming something I’m interested, so he should probably stay. Ultimately the festival needs programmers who will think outside of the box and will fight to get more than the leftovers of other festivals (and do more than create what amounts to Cannes on the Hudson). I don’t think, outside of Smith, they have that now and the festival is dying as a result.

Understand- I’m saying this because the festival is the one that is nearest and dearest to my heart. I’ve been going to it the longest- 25 years and counting. It was always the biggest deal in the world growing up- and it was the first festival that let me come as a member of the press. NYFF is part of me and I don’t want to see it wither, I want to see it grow and prosper. I don’t think it’s heading in a direction that will allow that. If it doesn't start rattling cages it will be just another dull and boring film festival in New York, of which there is now an increasing number.

To be honest I don't think anything will come of this request. The festival events seem to be crowded and sold out so why change? The festival has the Film Society membership to assure a certain size audience so,again, why change? I don't know, But the festival should consider the unscientific fact that during every other of the 45 festivals Unseen covered or mentioned this year our readership double or tripled, but that the numbers for most of the NYFF coverage this year remained flat (with some direct to DVD horror films scoring a higher readership)

That said I am looking forward to seeing what next years festival brings- I'm hoping its a return to glory.

For those curious my best and worst films of the festival are as follows:

MIA MADRE- you will double over with laughter moments after crying your eyes out and back again.
MILES AHEAD (Here because its the festival's most daring film)
HEART OF A DOG- a trip into grief and memory
JIA ZHANGKE, A GUY FROM FENYANG- a great film on film
The opening Pet Shop Boys sequence from MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART
The act of seeing JUNUN big and loud
brouillard passage 15- visually cool
HARD AS OPAL- great filmmaking
CARRY ON- a wonderful story expertly told
The whole pf the Horror shorts- this is what shorts programming should be
BAD DANCING- Adult, funny and a calling card for a director who I expect great things from

WE ARE ALIVE- This is why Marx and Engels have faded into obscurity their ideas as written are boring as hell.
The experience of seeing Nathaniel Dorsky's films one after another was painful
MONACO- a horrible short where nothing happens and you have to read the notes to know basics
ROLLING- I doubt the Children's film festival would even run this

And now we close with a huge backlog of Randi's links

Nazi Bombs are still dangerous perhaps more so
Yogi Beara
Happy Birthday
Last Wishes
The changes Julie Taymor wanted to make to the Lion King
Lights in the sky
Tribute to Winsor McCay
No Man's Land
Ghana's Anti-corruption film
Does James Bond product placement go too far
Asia's weird undersea creatures
Radio's scariest episodes
The Birth of Superheroes
Smellovision revisited
A Mammoth found near Detroit
The Rocky Horror Picture Show cast reunites
The letters of Ian Fleming
Terry Gillam webchat
Attention KMart shoppers
Hidden comic book heroes
SHows that never made it to Broadway
Red Solos cups can't be recycled


  1. "How can you have a living festival of the stature of NYFF when all of the films come from somewhere else"

    But... that's literally what the NYFF has always been. World premiering movies only started like 5 years ago.

    1. I will concede that you are right in that a lot of titles came from elsewhere but there always seemed to me to be greater number of world premieres-certainly beyond the tent poles. But you have to agree that half the Main Slate coming from Cannes is extreme

    2. I went and looked at some random years. 1985 had 2 world premieres in the main slate, both docs. 1990: same. In 1995: Dead Presidents and Kicking & Screaming. 1 in 2000: Boesman and Lena. 1 in 2005: Methadonia. 2010 had The Social Network and LennoNYC.

      This year, they had 4 (2 if you're not counting the tentpoles?) in the main slate. (Also 5 in the doc section and 1 in the special events: Junun.)

      True, it is a lot from Cannes.