What a gift the 51st New York Film Festival has lavished on the city and movie buffs of all stripes. Credit Kent Jones -- in his debut at the fest's helm -- along with his selection committee with delivering one of the most exciting and provocative lineups in years. Doubtless sensitive to past criticism of "elitism," the organizers have added accessible studio films to the mix -- such as Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty -- along with the usual challenging work from auteurs such as Claire Denis (Bastards), Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lak"), and the four-hour-plus Norte, The End of History by Lav Diaz (judged by one of our premier critics to be the fest's jewel in the crown). And then there's the cross-over art film, The Invisible Woman, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes in a wickedly fine portrait of Charles Dickens.
The main slate is to make the head spin -- there's hardly a film in the lineup that doesn't beg to be seen. And it's bolstered by a greatly expanded number of sidebars, including Spotlight on Documentary and an unprecedented retrospective of movies by Jean-Luc Godard, manna for cinephiles. If Lincoln Center once appeared arid and uninviting, with its isolation and air of officialdom, it now feels like a hive, a true cultural emporium humming with excitement.
A Tuesday this week included a Robert Redford sighting on the red carpet, followed by his appearance on the stage of Alice Tully to talk up his riveting new film All is Lost, along with director JC Chandor of the flowing dark locks. Wednesday brought Catherine Breillat's spiny but rewarding film Abuse of Weakness, screening in the stunning David Rockwell-designed Eleanor Bunin Munro theater, while one of the fest's free events, a panel of some sort, was in progress in the Munro's beautiful, blond amphitheater. It's fair to say that since the kickoff of this year's NYFF, West 65th Street feels like the city's premiere cultural destination.
Kent Jones has said of his first lineup that if there's a recurring theme, it's surprise -- all the pictures on the main slate astonished him in some way. Well, JC Chandor's All Is Lost, a one-hander with Robert Redford, continues to surprise and resonate days after the screening. The first surprise is that it works at all. Here's a film with just one actor -- even if it's the redoubtable Redford -- no language (except for an early grim voiceover and, later, a shouted expletive), no backstory, which is set over eight days on a sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Redford plays a lone sailor struggling to keep his yacht afloat after a collision with a discarded shipping container gouges a hole in the boat's hull. The title pretty much describes the narrative arc. Yet defying expectation, Chandor has pulled out a riveting, elemental work with multiple metaphors.
Anyone can relate to the film because it's about survival. The hole in the hull proves just the first in a number of assaults, including a monster storm, visited on Redford and his vessel. The audience is right in there rooting for him -- identifying with him -- as he beats back panic and draws on his maritime skills to keep alive till his battered craft crosses a shipping lane where he'll likely encounter other boats. Watching Redford cope, viewers will graft on their own personal experience with life's setbacks.
Cruelly, the immense cargo boats in the lane, seemingly unpopulated, steam on by, blind to a lone sailor's distress -- a metaphor for the indifference of powerful nations toward the world's neediest? And is the floating dreck that wrecked Redford's boat a comment on a despoiled ocean? The film's ending, too, is rich in multiple meanings.
JC Chandor -- who broke out from the starting gate with his accomplished first feature Margin Call -- has created a scrim through which the audience is invited to imagine the world of the character. We're enlisted as co-screenwriters! Chandor himself seems conversant with the precincts of money and privilege. In fact, the hero of Lost feels patterned on the type of rich guy who could afford to own such a nifty yacht and free up the time to sail it to exotic ports. Maybe there was a wife who said, Don't go, since the opening voiceover implies the hero's need to justify himself. You've doubtless seen such sporty types talking about their exploits, man against nature and its spiritual rewards blah blah, on Charlie Rose. But even should you not care about this man as an individual, Chandor has you under his spell. Because the film is about struggling, failing, trying -- then trying again -- which is all anyone can do.