Tomorrow night, the 51st New York Film Festival opens, bringing the crème de la crème of global cinema to Lincoln Center. The varied lineup includes the big world premieres of Captain Philips (starring Tom Hanks, directed by Paul Greengrass), which is the festival's Opening Night selection; Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; and Spike Jonze's Her as well as the much-buzzed-about Steven McQueen film 12 Years A Slave, Hayao Miyazaki's "last" film The Wind Rises and the Palme d'Or-winning lesbian coming-of-age drama Blue Is The Warmest Color.
This is the first year that NYFF Programming Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones has shaped the festival; its previous programmer, Richard Peña, left last year after 25 years. We spoke him yesterday about the upcoming 17 days celebrating cinema.
How is it following in the footsteps of Richard Peña?
It's interesting to have split three years ago, and then come back. And to see—actually it was four years ago, but I accepted this position a year ago—it's interesting to come back and and see a whole new place, really. This staff is just spectacular. In many cases they are people that I've worked with before, but then there are a lot of other people that I haven't worked with before and the way everyone is working together is just incredible. So, that's been great.
Your question implies something of a more monumental level of passing off the baton in the race of history. And I guess, I don't know, let's just say it's an honor. I mean I'm only the third person who's ever done this, and it's just an honor to be coming after Richard Roud and Richard Peña, and Amos Vogel too, in the beginning, because he programmed it with Richard Roud.
How have you reshaped the festival this year? I know there's a new focus on documentaries
There's not a new focus on documentaries. Richard actually showed a lot of documentaries last year and in the past. Let's say that I grouped them together differently. I like the idea of doing grouping sort of based on what's there. So in other words what I saw when I went through the documentaries was a lot films that were portraits.
Now that's not that surprising because there are a lot of documentaries now that are portraits. Somebody wants to make a film about someone's life, they want to make a film about someone who's gone through a certain situation, who's famous for this, for that. And then in other cases you have films that wind up being portraits of people who are not well known and then are framed in a different way. I thought it makes sense to me to just take a lot of those kinds of films and put them together so that you would get a variety of approaches to the question of "What is the creative documentary film portrait?"
Still from "Google and the World Brain"
Then, a smaller one, which is the Applied Science category. Three films that just seem to make perfect sense and really were talking to each other as movies about projects. One of them is about a very personal project for a guy who actually recreated the conditions under which Vermeer painted and painted his own Vermeer. One of them is about Google's attempt to digitize every book ever written. And then the other one is about the search for the Higgs Boson at CERN.
Then, I had really wanted to show all of Michael Camerini and Sheri Robertson's movies about the immigration battle together as sort of one epic work, because I've watched those movies come together over the years and I'm in awe of them. And so, that's How Democracy Works Now. There are other documentaries of course. Fred Weisman's film, American Promise, Claude Lanzmann's The Last of the Unjust, and The Square.
It's not that I have a particular predilection to show documentaries, it's just that I have a predilection to show good movies.
How do you guys make the selections?
We watch a lot of movies, starting in January. There are festivals at the beginning of the year, Berlin obviously is the first big one. There's Rotterdam right around the same time. There are other little festivals along the way or festivals that are less high-profile but where there's still good work. I went to Buenos Aires, to an International Film Festival this year, and I have a lot of friends down there.
We always spend a lot of time asking around, talking to people, finding out what's being made, what's in the pipeline. Asking whether there's anything that we don't know about, asking when something is going to be read that everyone is sort of talking about already. Or, if indeed it will be ready, that kind of thing. Then, of course, Cannes comes around. That's the one festival in the world that everybody's really focused on, and so we spend a lot of time there watching as many movies as possible.
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in "Blue is the Warmest Color," the Palme d'Or winner at Cannes this year
And then in the summer, during the whole time, there are films that are being submitted through Withoutabox, which gives anyone who wants to submit to the New York Film Festival the ability to do so. So there are a lot of movies submitted that way. There's a pre-screening committee that looks at a lot of those films, and then in addition there are always more movies coming in.
During the summer, there's a an intensive two week period where we're looking at movies sitting in the theater that we've gathered from all over the place, from a lot of those movies that were submitted directly, through Withoutabox, through stuff that we've gone after and through stuff that people are submitting to us through major studies or from known filmmakers all around the world. Stuff that might be going to Venice, Toronto, Telluride.
Of course, the Opening, Centerpiece, and Closing selections are different in the sense that they're World Premieres. And so that's obviously just different. The number of films that we're talking about is smaller in that case. But it's always based on a very simple idea: That we're looking for the best movies we can find.
How many films would you say you see in a year?
Oh, hundreds. I wouldn't even know how to give you a number. It's in the hundreds.
It sounds like a pretty awesome gig, but does the fun of watching a movie kind of dissipate when you see hundreds and hundreds of them in one year?
You have to preserve it. You have to preserve the sense of surprise and wonder. That's really important, because I think if you don't you can see it sometimes. It happens. But that's one of the most important things that you can do, I think, in programming.
Do you take a little break from watching films from November to January?
Not really, in the sense that I'm always ready to show something to my friends, that I know that they're going to want to see. And what I really, really do love is re-watching things. I really love re-visiting things because that's a deepening relationship with certain movies. There's this great essay by Hazlitt about the pleasures of rereading and how much he hates reading new books but he loves reading old ones. Well, I don't hate seeing new movies but what I really love is to revisit older ones and deepen the relationship.
No matter how many times I've seen most of Hitchcock's films, every time I see them they stun me. Same with most of John Ford's movies. And I'm revisiting Godard now, preparing for that retrospective which is part of the film festival. It's been an incredible experience. So, no. That's the answer to that question.
From "American Promise": Idris Brewster, Miles Brewster, Joe Brewster (Photo: Conrad Louis-Charles)
Are there any selections this year that you really want New Yorkers to see? Any thing in particular that stands out?
I really do want people to see the How Democracy Works Now films, I think that they're incredible. I really want people to come and see stuff and just react to it. That's what I'm looking forward to. If somebody says that they hate this or that movie I don't care, it's about their reaction and sharing in the common conversation about movies that occurs in the everyday life of a festival.
By adding the two theaters across the street in addition to the amphitheater as a space to have conversations, and also the Walter Reade, the festival has become more of a hub, and I really love that. I think that that's great. So, in general, I just want people to come and react.
People should see American Promise [Brooklyn filmmakers documented their sons' experiences at Dalton], people should see Burning Bush by Agniezska Holland, people should see Stray Dogs by Tsai Ming-Liang. I'm really excited by the selection and the span of the selection, so I'm not going to say that I like this or that movie more than another. But in terms of stuff that's sort of less high-profile than other works, those are things that I could point to.
Is it hard to strike a balance when you're making selections between more high-profile Hollywood films and the international films and documentaries? Because I know The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has gotten a lot of buzz in general and Her and things like that...
Still from "Stray Dogs"
Well, again, the Opening, Centerpiece and Closing are world premieres. So that's different. In terms of the rest of the slate—No. It's not hard at all. I just think that it's important—you know, there's good movies made everywhere in a lot of different ways at a lot of different levels of expertise and finance. So, on the one hand, a movie like Stray Dogs which has an extremely small number of shots. I mean the last shot of the film lasts maybe 11 minutes. I don't know. That's one approach to cinema.
The Wind Rises is another one. The Burning Bush, An American Promise are two more. In other words, they're all cinema. And I know that sometimes when people try to define cinema what they try to do is narrow it down but I don't think that that's ever really a good idea. I think that the idea is precisely in the variety of approaches. The variety of approaches to just making a film - to the question of what is a movie? We got a lot of great comedies, a couple of films that are sexually explicit, some epic documentaries, films that are violent in a very particular way. It's a great span of movies.
It's a really interesting selection. This is my first time going to the New York Film Festival so I'm not really sure what to expect. It's pretty exciting. I know that the New York one is a little more finely curated—how does it differ from some of the bigger festivals?
What kind of bigger festivals are you talking about?
We were talking about Cannes and Venice. I know there are no awards [at the NYFF]...
Yeah, that's one big difference. The festival started in 1963 as a way of introducing cinema into the conversation about art. Well, cinema had already been introduced into the conversation about art but giving it a kind of official cultural perimeter. That's the idea in creating this festival. The reality of this festival is that it was programmed by really really smart people who had a feel for everything that was exciting about cinema at the moment. When I look at Roud's programming and when I look at what Richard did from his beginning. [These are two people] who have two very different temperaments—just as Richard and I have very different temperaments—who both had equally passionate responses to the question, "what is happening in moviemaking right now all over the world?"
It's always been based in the idea of curating. It's never been based on the idea of awards. And it's never been based on the idea that it's about star power. Even though star power is a part of it, that's not what defines it. That's not really true of Cannes or Venice, strictly speaking, but Cannes is the center of the movie universe because that's the one festival everyone is really zeroed in on throughout the year. Venice is one of the oldest film festivals in the world. New York and North America is now venerable and known as the festival that stands really firmly for curation and not for those other elements.
What do you think of the awards season frenzy?
I don't know. What do you think of it?
I think that there are certain films that everyone just expects to win certain awards and they do and so...
It seems that way. I guess that that's true. But along the way some of them happen to be really good films. And some of the don't [laughs]. But it's not just the Oscars anymore, of course. The Globes. The frenzy, and that's a word that's used pretty frequently, by the way—the frenzy and the fact that there's a whole season of awards. I don't know. I'm not even sure what to say about it. It's a lot of work. I think for the people who have made the movies—I know that certainly a lot of work for the people who manage the campaigns.
Brigitte Bardot in "Contempt"
I love going to Film Forum. I really do. Bruce Goldstein and I are really old friends. I really love the atmosphere of Film Forum. I think it's great. I just love walking in the place. I love the mix of movies. I love the ceiling and the lobby. They've also got great popcorn.
Anything you've seen there recently?
I haven't, recently. Unfortunately, I haven't had time to.
I was going to go last week and see Contempt by Goddard on the big screen again before we did our show [there's a big retrospective on his work at the NYFF] but I just didn't have time.
I also really like going to the theater in Jersey City. It's right across the street from Journal Square, the PATH station. It's a half-destroyed movie palace and they show old chestnuts. I've been going there with my sons since they were young. They really loved that. Its the kind of place where I saw movies when I was a kid.
How old are your sons now?
My sons are 19 and 15.
So they've graduated into the movie appreciation era...
They've graduated into the movie appreciation era. Particularly my younger son, he's really genuinely captivated by movies.
The 51st New York Film Festival begins tomorrow. Some of the films we're excited for include the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, Roger Michell's Le Week-End, Alexander Payne's Nebraska, Jia Zhangke's A Touch Of Sin, the restored print of Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and, yes, the 20th Anniversary Reunion Screening of Dazed and Confused. There's even an app to let you know when tickets open up for certain screenings.