For those out there wondering what the biggest films of the year will be, the 51st New York Film Festival offers a pretty persuasive round up. Opening Friday and running until October 13, the festival's incredibly diverse selection of films remind us why even at 51 years young, this festival is still the country's cinema festival crown jewel.
For the first time in 25 years the festival is not led by the directorial vision of Richard Peña. Kent Jones, the festival's third program director ever, is now at the helm. As part of his defining strokes, Jones has included a retrospective on Jean-Luc Godard, added more comedies than usual, and filled the festival with films that explore growing global tensions.
Over recent years the festival has made a name for itself as an early home for award season contenders — last year Flight, Life of Pi, and Lincoln all had screen time. This year with 36 films screening over 17 days, we've narrowed down the list to the nine that take our top billing. These are the movies you'll be hearing about for the rest of the year.
1. 'Captain Phillips'
Last year Ang Lee’s Oscar winning Life of Pi opened the festival, and this year the coveted spot belongs to Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips. Starring Tom Hanks, the film is based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips who in 2009 was held hostage for five days by Somali pirates. The film follows the hijacking of the first U.S. cargo ship in 200 years and the ultimate face-off between the pirates and the Navy SEALS. Greengrass, who also directed United 93, obviously has a penchant for films that dive into real-life crises and everyday heroism. To quote Hanks in an interview, “A hero is somebody who voluntarily walks into the unknown.” Portraying that type of heroism is Greengrass' specialty.
The world premiere of Her acts as the closing night bookend of the festival. As Spike Jonez films are want to do (think Being John Malkovich), Her probes some pretty meta, heady, and heavy questions. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence operating system (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). As Jonez put it, “the film is about technology and the way we use it to try and connect, but it’s also about this moment and the way we’re living our lives.”
3. 'The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty'
Directed by, and starring, Ben Stiller The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is making its world debut in New York. Based on a 1939 James Thurber short story, the film follows an every-man office worker whose imagination and fantasy world take him across the globe. The film co-stars Adom Scott, Sean Penn, and Kristen Wiig. You can read Thurber's short story here.
4. 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
By the end of the year, everyone will know how to pronounce the name Llewyn. This latest film from the Coen brothers (their 16th feature) focuses on Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) a struggling (seriously struggling) folk singer in 1960’s Greenwich Village. Isaac’s performance, and the Coen brothers' script are the stuff Academy Awards are made of. The film, a runner-up for the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes Film Festival, also features Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, and Justin Timberlake.
5. 'Blue is the Warmest Color'
The French film won this year’s Palme d’Or but has been heavily embroiled in scandal ever since. The film, a lesbian love story, first came under scrutiny due to a lengthy sex scene between the film’s two female stars. Now director Abdellatif Kechiche is saying the film should not be released after it was “sullied” by a destructive press tour which devolved into allegations of on-set abusive behavior. That said, the film was so celebrated at Cannes that the competition jury recognized not just the film and director, but also the film’s two young actresses, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos.
Alexander Payne likes to dive headfirst into locations. In Sideways we explored the California coast, in The Descendants he took us to Hawaii, and now with Nebraska he takes us on a journey through the American Midwest. The film is a father son road movie, of sorts, and stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte (trading in SNL comedy, for some black and white seriousness) on a journey to claim $1 million the father allegedly won in a sweepstakes. For his performance Dern won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
7. 'A Touch of Sin'
This controversial Chinese film took home the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes and is the latest from China’s celebrated art house director Jia Zhangke. The film weaves together four story threads of ordinary Chinese people who under the oppressive financial and social limitations of life in China, resort to violence. The film is bleak and beautiful and filmed with hints of the traditional martial arts films, wuxia.
8. 'The Missing Picture'
Directed by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, The Missing Picture is a must-see documentary about four year’s under the Khmer Rouge’s devastating reign. Using clay figures, archival footage, and narration Panh sets out to recreate the “missing images” stolen from his life by the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. In his films S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Dutch, Master of the Forgers of Hill, Panh used documentary to explore the horrors of the Cambodian genocide. In this latest work he makes these historic moments even more personal by recounting them through the lens of his teenage years.
9. 'Child Of God'
A challenging film that comes with a New York Film Festival disclaimer “not for the faint-hearted,” Child Of God is sure to be one of the year’s most talked about if for nothing more than its buzzworthy shock moments (on screen defecation, being one). Based on Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel about a sociopath in 1960s rural Tennessee who descends into the life of a cave dweller, the film is a James Franco offering; it was written by, directed by, and features Franco. While this film is still looking for a distributor, it seems about time we start really paying attention to Franco as a filmmaker. He is taking risks very few would dream of.