Reel Dad: New York Film Festival spotlights the best in film

Once again, the New York Film Festival makes us believe in going to the movies.

Each year, the festival celebrates the best in film by showcasing the edges of film, stretching our expectations for what we may see on a screen by screening a range of ambitious projects that refuse to follow traditional paths.

The results can be thrilling as they frustrate, fulfilling as they bewilder. But the selections never bore. Unlike other film festivals that can seem to assemble their screenings, the New York Film Festival always creates a collection, as if placing this year in movies in a time capsule we can always access.

And, after another year filled with big-budget comic books, superficial sequels and ridiculous reboots, the festival’s curated collection of the best in cinema restores our faith in what creative filmmakers can accomplish when they want to inform, entertain and enlighten.

What have we learned at the 56th annual event at Lincoln Center?

Take a look.

Cold War: Dare to look back

At first this bleak look at life in Poland, following World War II, feels like a throwback to the raw cinema images of Roberto Rossellini or early Federico Fellini. Director Pawel Pawlikowski uses the black-and-white camera, in a dated 1.37 aspect ratio, to frame his tale of lovers who find it challenging to pursue their affection against a backdrop of political uncertainty, economic blight and emotional disarray. As the film beautifully progresses through the years, Pawlikowski continues to frame his actors in dazzling images that defy the cold of the story and the location. Unlike other films that try to recreate this chapter in world history, Pawlikowski seems to live it, taking us back to a time when hope seemed impossible to imagine.

Wildlife: Focus on relationships

At first we fear, perhaps, that we may have seen this movie before, only it was called Revolutionary Road. That disappointing translation of Richard Yates’ novel featured an uncomfortable Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio looking as though they were pretending to recreate lives of frustrations amidst mid-century décor in the 1950s. That was then, this is now, and Wildlife becomes the movie that Revolutionary Road tried to be. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal soar as a husband and wife trapped in their expectations of what marriage should be, only to find themselves lost in their disappointment. First-time director Paul Dano beautifully recreates the look and feel of the period, as if channeling the dazzling work of the late Douglas Sirk with his exploration of the layers of design and deception.

Non-Fiction: Clarify the ideas

At first this looks and sounds like one more modern-day drawing room comedy from French director Olivier Assayas. Every few years he seems to pop up at the New York Film Festival with his latest look at eccentric people trying to make sense out of the disorderly lives they fail to manage. And, usually, he places the lovely Juliette Binoche in the middle of the proceedings. The results can be extraordinary, as with a study of an actress in decline in Clouds of Sils Maria that highlighted the 2014 festival, or Personal Shopper, the thriller about decay and decadence that graced the 2016 edition. But Assayas’ new entry is a bit too concerned with its message — warning of the dangers of new media — to entertain as a movie. And his characters, and their relationships, almost seem secondary to the points he intends to make about how shallow people can become when they over rely on technology.

Her Smell: Find the plot

At first the sounds are so striking, we wonder where we are, a confusion not helped by the murky visuals that fill the screen. But we soon learn we are in the rock-and-roll world of a would-be superstar facing the realities of decline before she ever quite attains the stardom she seeks. In this odd variation on the story of A Star is Born — without the music, Lady Gaga or anyone coming close to Bradley Cooper — Elizabeth Moss fills two-thirds of the film in the various stages of rage, at herself, her family, her friends, her fans. She articulates an anger so bitter in its taste and relentless in its frequency that we almost want to check the exits of a theater. She makes us that uncomfortable to be seeing so many layers of a woman intent on destroying herself. And then, miraculously, writer-director Alex Ross shifts the film’s focus to a quiet study of the woman’s inner struggles. And the movie works. If only Ross had trusted his instinct for the quiet rather than rely on all the noise this woman can create.

Thank goodness for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, sponsors of the New York Film Festival. And all the ways they bring movies to us all year long.

More from the New York Film Festival

Thank goodness for the New York Film Festival.

Each year this curated collection of cinema takes us places we can only imagine. And playing the festival can send a film on the road to Oscar nominations and wins.

Here are a few of the festival’s greatest hits from the past.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Few people expected much from this costume drama about two athletes who compete in the 1924 Olympics. This was, after all, the year Warren Beatty triumphed with Reds, Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn touched hearts in On Golden Pond and Steven Spielberg dazzled with Raiders of the Lost Arc. But Chariots grabbed the audience at the New York Film Festival and, a few months later, was an upset winner for the year’s Oscar for Best Picture.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Not many could imagine how an animated film – or cartoon as popularly labeled – could be serious enough to be shown at the festival. But the Disney folks decided to screen an unfinished “work in progress” version of this classic at the 1991 event. With a musical score by Alan Mencken and Tim Rice, the movie played like the best of Broadway shows, with every moment and movement perfectly timed as it fed an audience hungry for entertainment.

Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

Woody Allen’s tribute to the egos of the New York stage tickled many funny bones at the 1994 event. Aside from Allen’s razor-sharp humor and keen sense of observation, the film highlighted another superlative supporting performance from Dianne Wiest. While it was rare for a comedy to get a slot at the NYFF, the successful showing launched the film’s Oscar campaign. And, the next spring, Wiest won her second Oscar.

Mystic River (2003)

The lifelong tragedy of child abuse reached center stage at the festival in Clint Eastwood’s harrowing adaptation of the novel by Dennis LeHane. With Sean Penn and Tim Robbins as boyhood friends who spent their adult lives coping with what happened in their youth, Eastwood probed how people refuse, reimagine and reinvent in an effort to survive. When it came to Oscar time, Penn and Robbins were victorious in career-defining roles.

The Queen (2006)

From the moment Helen Mirren stepped onto the screen at the festival, the journey to Oscar began for this legendary lady’s rendition of Queen Elizabeth II. Looking at the days immediately after the death of Princess Diana, this Stephen Frears film may have invented some facts but never served Her Majesty with anything less than respect. And, from festival time, Mirren was the favorite to win the year’s Best Actress Oscar. Which she did.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen may not have considered the most likely moviemakers to adapt this brutal Carmac McCarthy novel for the screen. The film was set in West Texas, far from the Coen’s usual stomping ground, and its band of characters offered little hope for redemption. But the Coens knew precisely how to make the book work as a movie. And the festival showing launched their road to Oscar where the film was named Best Picture.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

A look at history can inform how far we have come and how far we still have to go. Director Steve McQueen wanted to learn more about how slavery defined the Black experience in America. And he hoped to better understand the tensions of today by taking a clear look at the stresses from the past. “I could not remember when I learned about slavery, but all I could feel was shame,” he said on a road to Oscar that started at the festival.

Birdman (2014)

When Alejandro González Iñárritu stepped on stage at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, after the world premiere of his master work, he remarked, “The film is about a man’s battle with his ego, and I am losing my battle with mine.” He had reason to be proud. His exploration of a man’s fear of failure – looking as though it was shot without any edits – confirmed what a camera can accomplish with an artist looking through the lens. And it still thrills.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan could have recreated the sibling dynamics of his dynamic film You Can Count On Me with this new look at family tension. But the writer Lonergan is so daring in his willingness to examine what lies beneath the surface of tragedy that he gives director Lonergan a rare look at how people grieve, attempt to recover and rely on time to heal their wounds. Without letting the drama exaggerate to soap opera dimensions, the movie maker makes us believe in the obstacles people face to move forward.

No one can predict which of this year’s films will be remembered as the years pass.

For the moment, let’s continue to savor their moments at the 56th New York Film Festival.

See you at the movies.