Reel Dad: New York Film Festival spotlights the best in film

20th Century Women, starring Annette Bening, was one of the highlights of the New York Film Festival.

20th Century Women, starring Annette Bening, was one of the highlights of the New York Film Festival.

Once again, the New York Film Festival makes us believe in what going to the movies is all about.

After another year filled with big-budget bombs, superficial sequels and ridiculous reboots, the festival’s curated collection of the best in cinema restores our faith in what creative filmmakers can accomplish when they want to inform, entertain and enlighten.

What have we learned at the 54th annual event at Lincoln Center?

Take a look.

Be brave.

Director Ava DuVernay could have followed her acclaimed film Selma with a big studio picture that opened in thousands of theaters in the summer. But she chose to follow her heart to explore how prisons in the country have become big business, why more blacks than whites fill those prisons, and what happened to the intent of the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution to end slavery. The result is 13th, a powerful documentary that also has the audacity to be playing in theaters and on Netflix at the same time. No matter how you see this film, see this film. Its power will connect if you watch on the big screen, home screen, tablet or phone.

Be real.

Writer/director Mike Mills could have followed the success of Beginners – for which Christopher Plummer won an Oscar – with a traditional studio entry. But he chose to pay tribute to the passions, pressures and priorities of his mother in the beautifully crafted 20th Century Women. This masterful comedy/drama – as it carefully makes us laugh and cry – introduces an unconventional collection of well-intended souls who live together in California in 1979. The matriarch – brilliantly etched by Annette Bening – dares to open the mind of her 15-year-old son to the hopes, fears and challenges of being a woman at a time of social change. And she never lets him stop believing how much she loves him. A lovely film.

Be personal.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan could have recreated the sibling dynamics of his dynamic film You Can Count On Me with his new look at family tension in Manchester By The Sea. But writer Lonergan is so daring in his willingness to examine what lies beneath the surface of tragedy that he gives director Lonergan a look at how people grieve, attempt to recover and rely on time to heal their wounds. Without letting the drama exaggerate to soap opera dimensions, Lonergan makes us believe in the obstacles people face to move forward. And, with a breakthrough performance by Casey Affleck as a tortured soul, Lonergan reminds us how good he is capturing the nuance of an actor’s work.

Be fresh.

Actor/director/writer Lonny Price could have told the well-known backstage story of the ill-fated musical Merrily We Roll Along in his entertaining documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. But Price reaches beyond show biz buzz to create a thoughtful look at what it can mean to appear in a Broadway show – albeit one that didn’t last very long – at a young age. While some original cast members – including Jason Alexander and Tonya Pinkins – may have become household names, others carved lower profiles. Some 35 years after the show quickly opened and closed, they reunite to pay tribute to a show that lives on in memories and lives. And they openly share how what it meant, then and now, to share a dream.

The New York Film Festival concludes this weekend at Lincoln Center in New York City. For more information on showings this weekend, go to filmlinc.org.

Greatest hits from the New York Film Festival

Thank goodness for the New York Film Festival.

Each year this curated collection of cinema takes us places we can only imagine. And playing the festival can send a film on the road to Oscar nominations and wins.

Here are a few of the festival’s greatest hits from the past.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Few people expected much from this costume drama about two athletes who compete in the 1924 Olympics. This was, after all, the year Warren Beatty triumphed with Reds, Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn touched hearts in On Golden Pond and Steven Spielberg dazzled with Raiders of the Lost Arc. But Chariots grabbed the audience at the New York Film Festival and, a few months later, was an upset winner for the year’s Oscar for Best Picture.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Not many could imagine how an animated film – or cartoon as popularly labeled – could be serious enough to be shown at the festival. But the Disney folks decided to screen an unfinished “work in progress” version of this classic at the 1991 event. With a musical score by Alan Mencken and Tim Rice, the movie played like the best of Broadway shows, with every moment and movement perfectly timed as it fed an audience hungry for entertainment.

Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

Woody Allen’s tribute to the egos of the New York stage tickled many funny bones at the 1994 event. Aside from Allen’s razor-sharp humor and keen sense of observation, the film highlighted another superlative supporting performance from Dianne Wiest. While it was rare for a comedy to get a slot at the NYFF, the successful showing launched the film’s Oscar campaign. And, the next spring, Wiest won her second Oscar.

Mystic River (2003)

The lifelong tragedy of child abuse reached center stage at the festival in Clint Eastwood’s harrowing adaptation of the novel by Dennis LeHane. With Sean Penn and Tim Robbins as boyhood friends who spent their adult lives coping with what happened in their youth, Eastwood probed how people refuse, reimagine and reinvent in an effort to survive. When it came to Oscar time, Penn and Robbins were victorious in career-defining roles.

The Queen (2006)

From the moment Helen Mirren stepped onto the screen at the festival, the journey to Oscar began for this legendary lady’s rendition of Queen Elizabeth II. Looking at the days immediately after the death of Princess Diana, this Stephen Frears film may have invented some facts but never served Her Majesty with anything less than respect. And, from festival time, Mirren was the favorite to win the year’s Best Actress Oscar. Which she did.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen may not have considered the most likely moviemakers to adapt this brutal C0rmac McCarthy novel for the screen. The film was set in West Texas, far from the Coen’s usual stomping ground, and its band of characters offered little hope for redemption. But the Coens knew precisely how to make the book work as a movie. And the festival showing launched their road to Oscar where the film was named Best Picture.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

A look at history can inform how far we have come and how far we still have to go. Director Steve McQueen wanted to learn more about how slavery defined the Black experience in America. And he hoped to better understand the tensions of today by taking a clear look at the stresses from the past. “I could not remember when I learned about slavery, but all I could feel was shame,” he said on a road to Oscar that started at the festival.

Birdman (2014)

When Alejandro González Iñárritu stepped on stage at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, after the world premiere of his master work, he remarked, “The film is about a man’s battle with his ego, and I am losing my battle with mine.” He had reason to be proud. His exploration of a man’s fear of failure – looking as though it was shot without any edits – confirmed what a camera can accomplish with an artist looking through the lens. And it still thrills.

No one can predict which of this year’s films will be honored on Oscar night.

For the moment, let’s continue to savor their moments at the 54th New York Film Festival.

See you at the movies.

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