New York Film Festival seeks to shake up award season

The New York Film Festival will include heavy-hitting dramas 'Gone Girl,' 'Inherent Vice,' 'Birdman' and more

Film festivals in Toronto and Telluride, Colo., jockeyed intensely for premieres this year, and Venice offered several splashy debuts.

But some of the year's biggest movies waited out those late-summer gatherings to land somewhere else entirely — at the New York Film Festival, which when it opens Friday will offer a high-stakes scenario for several films.

"Gone Girl," David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's bestseller, will screen for an audience for the first time Friday night.

The following weekend will bring the premiere of "Inherent Vice," Paul Thomas Anderson's crime drama, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in a film that marks the first full-on film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel.

And making its official North American premiere on the festival's closing weekend will be "Birdman,"‎ Alejandro G. Inarritu's dark, meta look at an actor (Michael Keaton) as he threatens to come unhinged while staging a Broadway play. "Birdman," which shot largely inside a Broadway theater, opened Venice and had a sneak screening at Telluride but will celebrate its formal U.S. debut at New York, less than a week before the film is released. "It's a very New York film, so it's appropriate that it's playing there," Keaton said.

NYFF marks one of the last significant stops on the all-important festival circuit, though Los Angeles' AFI Fest in November sometimes debuts a December release, as it will with J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year" at its 2014 edition.

The New York fest can also be a place to create buzz around a newsworthy release, as the boutique distributor Radius will seek to do when it world premieres Laura Poitras' long-awaited "Citizenfour" at the festival.

Poitras, an investigative journalist and filmmaker who was instrumental in bringing Edward Snowden and his WikiLeaks revelations to light, has been working in relative secrecy on the documentary for several years. Radius executives describe the picture, which opens Oct. 24, as "an unprecedented fly-on-the-wall account of one of the most groundbreaking moments in recent history."

Staged by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, this year's NYFF seeks a balance between a long tradition of high-end world cinema and a more recent pattern of movies that seek to immediately inject themselves into the award-season bloodstream.

"There's no question that it's very exciting when we have world premieres, and we want to continue to bring them to the festival," said Lesli Klainberg, who is overseeing the festival as Film Society executive director for the first time, replacing Rose Kuo, who left the post in December.

"But I think we've been pretty clear in not engaging in any kind of Toronto-Telluride premiere/non-premiere big discussion," she added, referring to the Toronto International Film Festival's decision for the first time this year to decline a choice slot to films that played the Telluride gathering that precedes it. "That just isn't our math."

In part, that's because, with a more exclusive slate, the New York Film Festival has the luxury of creating events around an elite handful of films, compared with Toronto and Telluride, which prefer to pack their days with a range of world premieres.

New York's opening-night choice has been a major award-season and box-office factor over the past few years — not least in 2010 with Fincher's "The Social Network." That movie — along with "Life of Pi" in 2012 and "Captain Phillips" last year — each effectively used the high-profile slot as a springboard to an Oscar best-picture nomination and at least $200 million in global ticket sales.

This year, a press conference with Fincher, Flynn, Ben Affleck and other stars in the early evening Friday will be followed by a glitzy event at the festival's Alice Tully Hall, all meant to stoke word of mouth ahead of the Fox film's commercial release Oct. 3.

A similar series of events will follow next weekend with "Inherent Vice," whose starry cast and genre overtones gives Warner Bros. high commercial hopes for when the film opens Dec. 12. "Vice," which has been screened for almost no tastemakers or critics, is a wild card that could shake up the race, particularly given Anderson's standing among critics and voters; at 44, the filmmaker is a five-time Oscar nominee for three films.

The parallels between "Vice" and "Gone Girl" — two major American directors wading into crime drama — are not lost on festival director Kent Jones. Still, he said filmgoers
might be more struck by what sets them apart.

"It's wild to think of both these films side by side in the same year," he said. "Paul is an immersive filmmaker who gets into gestures and tone of the time so that film itself becomes a kind of time machine‎. David has a completely different way of making a movie where things become much more complex and layered in the structure of the film. With Paul," he added, "a lot of that happens within the frame."

"Birdman,” for its part, will look to capture the mojo of last year’s closing night film, Spike Jonze’s “Her,” which rode a buzzy screening to an Oscar best picture nomination.

The festival in recent years has also engaged in so-called secret screenings, which created enthusiasm around a an anticipated title when it made an unannounced appearance accompanies by its filmmaler; both "Lincoln" and "Hugo." began their award-season journeys in this manner.

Organizers say they aim for a sneak showing this year but that it will likely not be a world premiere. Pundits have previously speculated that Brad Pitt's upcoming World War II drama, "Fury" (which would be a world premiere), or Julianne Moore's Alzheimer's drama, "Still Alice (which would be a U.S. premiere), could be the secret-screening choice.

It's also been a year of change once more at the festival and the organization that runs it, the Film Society of Lincoln Center. A group that once measured its leaders' tenures in decades — longtime chief Joanne Koch had run the Film Society for more than 30 years when she stepped down in 2003 — has seen significant turnover recently. A turbulent two-year run by Mara Manus that ended in 2010 saw Kuo, a former AFI honcho, step into the spot, only to leave the organization in December.

Klainberg, who as managing director of the Film Society produced the previous three festivals, says she does not plan major changes. But with an extensive background in producing documentaries, she does believe there is more room for nonfiction films at the traditionally narrative-heavy festival.

This year the documentaries include Nick Broomfield's Southland serial killer documentary "Tales of the Grim Sleeper," Frederick Wiseman's museum picture "National Gallery," Ethan Hawke's study-in-creativity documentary "Seymour," as well as world premieres that include Poitras' "Citizenfour" and Albert Maysles "Iris," a look at the fashion-world nonagenarian Iris Apfel by the documentary legend.

Jones, meanwhile, marks his second festival after taking over for the retired Richard
Pena, who oversaw the festival for a quarter-century. Jones said that he "would be shocked if people didn't see changes" between under his regime but that "a number of the films would also be the same" under Pena.

A highlight reel of festival debuts from the first half of the year ahead of their fall release—including Damian Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” Alex Ross Perry's "Listen Up Phillip," Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” and Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner”--will also screen at the festival. Perry noted that he was still bowled over by the selection of his indie literary drama; the festival has not typically been known for playing a lot of the kind of U.S. microbudget films that premiere at Sundance, as "Phillip" did.

Events at the festival this year alo include a conversation with Hawke, who hopes to launch an awards bid for his turn as a complicated dad in "Boyhood" and also brings "Seymour," which he directed, to the fest. Last year, the festival held a similar event with "Blue Jasmine" lead actress Cate Blanchett, and it proved to be a key stop in a campaign that took her all the way to the Oscar podium.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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