'13th,' 'Billy Lynn,' and others add social awareness to the Oscar buzz at New York Film Festival

Whether it's “Her,” “Life of Pi”  or “Bridge of Spies,” the New York Film Festival has lately become a world-premiere launchpad for some of the fall’s biggest movies.

This year those ambitions will return as a number of hopefuls make their debuts. But like so much in contemporary Hollywood, the 2016 festival also comes with another element: a social charge.

Beginning with its opening-night screening on Friday of Ava DuVernay’s race-themed prison documentary “13th” and winding down two weeks later with Ang Lee’s class-minded military drama “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” the festival will showcase some of cinema’s current heroes exploring titanic of-the-moment issues.

“There’s a distinction to draw between artistic urgency and national urgency,” said Kent Jones, the director of NYFF. “ ‘Billy Lynn’ and ‘13th’ have artistic urgency, and that’s the reason they’re here. But they also urgently connect to the moment.”

Long-running film festivals have recently sought to find a balance between their age-old local missions and an environment that has grown more global, social media-friendly and awards-obsessed. But few have sat at this fault line like New York.

With only about 25 auteur-minded films in its main selection, the Lincoln Center event has a curatorial emphasis that has helped it operate outside both the Hollywood and news zeitgeists. Movies are chosen by a committee of four or five critic-academics; galas are well-heeled affairs for the upscale New York arts world.

But in recent years the festival has also plugged in to wider realms. NYFF now has an internal mandate that it include at least two world premieres of major films. This year the number is double that.

In addition to “13th” and “Billy Lynn,” the gathering will also feature as its centerpiece director Mike Mills’ ode to the ladies of his life, “20th Century Women” and the awards ambitions it carries for star Annette Bening and costars Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig.

And NYFF will officially close with James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z,” an adaptation of David Grann’s book about the 20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett and the literal and metaphoric attempts to track him down.  

Though the movie won’t open until next year, it contains a number of Hollywood storylines. The 1980s-born stars Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson, for instance, are each looking for fresh dramatic street-cred. “Z” is also the first of several films propelled into life by Brad Pitt — he is a producer through his Plan B banner — since the star’s split with Angelina Jolie.

But it’s “13th” and “Billy Lynn” that bring the global-news intrigue.

The DuVernay piece marks the first time the festival is opening with a documentary. Programmers eschewed high-profile awards contenders to go with the film, which Netflix debuts next month.

“13th” establishes events as diverse as the release of the 1915 “Birth of a Nation,” the privately run legislation-writing group ALEC and the policies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as the complex antecedents to the current climate of mass incarceration and prison profiteering.

Featuring an array of experts and startling numbers (the U.S. contains 5% of the world's population but 15% of its prisoners), “13th” looks at how black and Latino men have been oppressed by the system, with the film making a case that a new kind of slavery has emerged. (The title is a reference to Lincoln’s abolitionist amendment.)

The film goes directly both to the presidential election--Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are featured--and other current realities, many starkly articulated. Among them: "If you're in the prison business you don't want reform;" "We have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than ‎poor and innocent;" and "The objective reality is that virtually no one who is white understands ‎the challenge of being black in America."

That last one is startling in part because of its speaker: Newt Gingrich.

Jones said he thought the idea of putting “13th” in the opening slot — which buzzy Oscar titles such as “Captain Phillips,” “Life of Pi” and “Gone Girl”  all occupied — offered a statement of sorts.

“Ava has made a film that’s a red-hot historical synthesis,” he said. “People will talk about it as a movie. But they’ll also talk about it as a subject.”

Meanwhile, “Billy Lynn,” adapted from Ben Fountain’s acclaimed novel, contrasts the pageantry that attends veterans at home with the PTSD of their experience overseas. Intriguingly starring Joe Alwyn, Vin Diesel and Kristen Stewart, “Billy” hopes to make a splash in the Oscar race when it opens in November.

Maybe more important, it aims to bring the war home in a new way cinematically. “Billy Lynn” will screen in the hyper-real style of 4K 3-D, 120 frames per second — a format so new the festival had to move the screening out of the august Alice Tully Hall to a nearby multiplex to accommodate it.

“Ang is a risk-taker,” Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Rothman wrote in an email, “and all of the partners involved in this film believe that for the movie theater experience to remain relevant for more than just superheroes, we need to support great artists who dare to try new things.  That’s this. "

Lee, who previously experimented with 3-D in “Pi,” was moved to make his new film this way because the visceral experience could jumpstart a dialogue about war. One template is "American Sniper," Clint Eastwood's opus that generated much conversation—and business—two years ago.

Even "20th Century Women"--a more traditional indie Oscar contender, about a boy growing up with a  single mother in 1979 Southern California--comes with a political dimension.

"It's a very intimate story with strong characters, but it's also very much an ode to feminism and parenting at a time when roles are changing," said Archer Gray's Anne Carey, one of the film's producers. "It's a political movie because the underlying premise is about the responsibility of a woman to bring forth highly evolved men into the world."

NYFF occupies a rare place in the Hollywood firmament. Partly that’s a result of timing, coming after the Venice-Telluride-Toronto trinity. But it’s also a function of selectivity.

“The scrutiny is different in N.Y.; the spotlight is hotter," said veteran awards consultant Tony Angellotti. “If you survive and prosper, you’re taken very seriously very quickly. It’s instant credibility.”

And if you don’t?

“Well, instant death is a possibility too,” Angellotti said.

There are examples of each. “Captain Phillips,” “Lincoln,” “Hugo” and Lee's own “Pi” all became best-picture nominees and box-office hits off their NYFF debuts. “Birdman” made its official North American premiere at the festival and rode a strong screening to the Oscar podium.

On the other hand, two big 2015 gambles — Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” and Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” —  sputtered and quickly faded from view not long after their NYFF world premieres.

Also looking for a boost are movies that debuted elsewhere but can benefit from the imprimatur, and press, of an NYFF screening: Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-ager “Moonlight,”  Kenneth Lonergan’s man-adrift story “Manchester By the Sea”  and Maren Ade’s family/globalism serio-comedy “Toni Erdmann,” among others.

Documentaries are on the agenda too, with the world premiere of “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” about a Stephen Sondheim flop, joining the likes of Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin-infused commentary (and Toronto audience winner) “I Am Not Your Negro” and Sam Pollard’s music- and civil rights quest “Two Trains Runnin’.”

Also featured will be tributes to Kristen Stewart (three NYFF movies) and Adam Driver (one). Such appearances can solidify an Oscar candidacy, as it did for Cate Blanchett with “Blue Jasmine” in 2013.

Or, if matters don’t go as well, they could dash those hopes in a New York minute.

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

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