City’s First Festival Ages Well

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The New York Sun

Back in the dark and wild years before YouTube, marathons like the New York Film Festival served as essential cultural portals for the would-be cinematic wonderkids of the world. Every nouvelle vague first lapped at American shores each September at Lincoln Center, whose film society began producing the event in 1962 — concluding just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis — and has unspooled more than a thousand films since.

The 44th annual showcase opens tonight with screenings of “The Queen,” Stephen Frears’s nimble social study that redeems comedy from tragedy — the 1997 death of Princess Diana — in its portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) reluctantly defrosting herself to deal with a nation’s outpouring of grief. Ms. Mirren, who can do regal even when fluffing around in a nightgown, is the perfect opening night star. She’s the graciously accessible grande dame-in-the-making whose face betrays no touch of Botox, and when, as Her Royal Highness, her stiff upper lip finally quivers, that minute tremor is a necessary reminder: They had faces then, but a few still have faces now.

That touch of old-school gravitas also is a reminder that the New York Film Festival, at middle age, is an institutional bulwark that must stay afloat of the times, even as it casts a retrospective glance at past glories. Back in the 1960s, when it was still breaking Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette — or the ’70s, when the names to drop were Fassbinder and Herzog — there wasn’t much competition. These days, if cinephiles aren’t sitting at home with their 46-inch flat panel screens, director’s-cut DVDs, and the Independent Film Channel, they have spicier sprawls from which to choose.

There’s Toronto’s supersized festival, a populist eruption at 200-plus films. Even in the NYFF’s back yard, there’s a promising new arrival in the Tribeca Film Festival, which attracts less critical esteem but wields more glitz. The Sundance Film Festival generates more buzz, though its trade-fair aspects detract from the actual moviegoing. Meanwhile, while no one was looking, the South by Southwest Film Festival — an offshoot of the annual independent music gathering in Austin, Texas — has steadily been bubbling under as a site for exciting discoveries.

Yet, because the NYFF limits its choices, those choices take on more weight. There are 25 new films on the program this year, plus three revivals (including Warren Beatty’s “Reds”), and various sidebars (notably, the 50-year review of the Janus Films catalog, which outruns the main event by 10 days).

As an introductory promotional clip reminds audiences before each screening, the festival has been in the business of minting auteurs since Martin Scorsese was a teenager, but only those who meet the festival’s insanely demanding criteria. New Yorkers, naturally, would accept nothing less. Stroll through a photo gallery adjacent to the screen at the Walter Reade Theater, and you can take a gander at many of those whose reputations were born, celebrated, canonized, or eulogized at the festival, from Vincente Minnelli and Robert Altman to Jim Jarmusch and Wong Kar-Wai.

Though its efforts to anoint new talent sometime look premature (see Sofia Coppola’s return with the poorly reviewed “Marie Antoinette”), the festival continues to bolster the credibility of younger directors, even those not named Todd (as in Solondz, Haynes or, this year, Field, whose new middle-class melodrama is “Little Children”). It is loyal to its chosen, and tends to reap the rewards of its aesthetic investment. The much-adored Pedro Almodóvar has this year’s pride-of-place centerpiece slot, with “Volver,” which marks the literal return of his wayward muse, Penelope Cruz, from Hollywood atrocities like “Vanilla Sky,” to contend with Carmen Maura as a ghost.

Another film likely to have considerable post-festival traction is Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” in which myth and monsters materialize in the Fascist Spain of the mid-1940s. The closing night feature, “Pan’s Labyrinth” illustrates how the festival can define that uneasy division between the art-house sensibility of yore with the pseudo-indie commercial mentality of the Weinstein Brothers.

The festival’s treats are often less obvious. While anyone should expect the premiere of David Lynch’s new “Inland Empire” to be a hot ticket — despite negative buzz from Cannes, where it was hooted — they might be wise to save their time for the film’s November theatrical release and seek out efforts that are less likely to see such wide exposure. Jafar Panahi’s “-+,” about a group of Iranian girls who disguise themselves to attend a forbidden World Cup qualifying match, is a joyous act of dissent, its young cast possessed of improvisatory zeal as the director literally had to evade military intrusion into the production. There are new adventures in dystopian sci-fi anime (Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika”) and Asian eco-horror (Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host”), as well as more transcendental fare (Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “The Go Master”).

If Asia and the Middle East are more noticeable, thanks to prevailing cultural or political currents, the heart of the festival still pulses with European old mastery. Alain Resnais (“Private Fears in Public Places”) is back, at age 83. So is Manoel de Oliveira (“Belle Toujours”), at 98. Such latter-day vitality is encouraging, especially as cinema — the art form of the 20th century — becomes another disposable file to download. May the New York Film Festival thrive as long, and as heartily, as its icons.

The New York Sun

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