THE BLOG
10/11/2014 06:36 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2014

In the New York Film Fest the Outsize Egos of Artists Rule

There's sometimes a common theme or recurring character that threads through a film festival. This can be especially striking in a fest as tightly curated as the New York Film Festival. Such convergences usually happen by accident, according to Kent Jones, director of programming at the NYFF.

Often... what it has to do with is the time. Obviously, when people are all making movies at the same time, it's inevitable that some of them are going to be responding to similar events, occurrences... what's happening on the horizon... you get movies that talk to each other and that's always great.

I'm not sure how it's related to the times, but the 52nd New York Film Fest abounds in characters who make art -- on the page, in a concert hall, in movies and theater, or on a canvas. Why so many artists inhabit the fest lineup in this supremely materialistic age I'm not sure. Like most everything, it's likely connected with the modern plague of economic inequity. Yes, the folks who increasingly own much of the planet can "buy" an artist. But no one can buy talent. Thus the artist's become a sort of unlikely hero for our times.

Top ranked among these artist-centric films is the not-to-be-missed Mr. Turner by Mike Leigh. It resurrects JMW Turner, the English Romantic landscape painter (late 1700's to the mid 1800s) known as "the painter of light," along with a supporting cast of eccentrics to delight Dickens. Awarded Best Actor at Cannes, the superb Timothy Spall captures Turner in his last 25 years in all his curmudgeonly glory. The film departs from Leigh's trademark loosey goosey accounts of Britain's working and underclass, harking back to the meticulous period recreation of Topsy Turvy and Gilbert and Sullivan's creation of The Mikado.

Some will find Turner plotless -- but in fact, Turner offers a deep-in plot, as Leigh traces an artist's inner journey to push his gift to its farthest limits. And going the distance means, for Turner, to hell with everyone else! Leigh's portrait is unsparing in its revelations of Turner's odious treatment of a cast-off wife and daughters, as well as a devoted woman servant he occasionally humps like a beast.

This sorry business is leavened by an interlude depicting Turner's rather charming romance with his landlady at the seaside town of Margate, the inspirational site of much of his work. Leigh drenches the screen in images that arguably make Turner the most gorgeous film of the year. On display are not just the glorious landscapes -- Leigh and his brilliant production designer and DP Dick Pope have bottled and put up on the screen nothing less than the palette and light of Turner's paintings ; the viewer is literally bathed in them.

There are brief, throwaway images -- Turner sitting in a boat on a shadowed pond amidst shafts of light, anyone? -- that will make you sit up and gasp. Timothy Spall's ingenious arsenal of grunts seems the perfect "language" to convey his unique style of courtship, dismissal of critics, struggle to surpass his own art -- and the sheer difficulty of living.

Featuring Jason Schwartzman as a Philip Rothian-type novelist, Listen Up, Philip offers a way less illuminating portrait of the artist's swollen ego. Much of Alex Ross Perry's film tracks the interaction of the writer as self-centered shit with his live-in girlfriend Elizabeth Moss (miscast and misused). Jonathan Pryce, an older, once-eminent writer who has equally alienated most everyone, invites Philip to his upstate country house to write and regroup. This leads to a college teaching gig that gives Philip a fresh opportunity to play toxic boyfriend.

The film's fearless display of metastatic ego and satire of things literary is, I suppose, good for a few hollow laughs. And a drunken bacchanal involving Schwartzman, Pryce, and two game women they've picked up at a singles event is shot in lurching, tipsy verite. But the treatment of the women as mere furniture in a male escapade -- they literally get tossed out into the night -- leaves a sour taste. And if I never see a woman tearing up over some asshole behaving badly, even if he is a literary genius, it won't be too soon. Perry's quirky, off-balance style offers a welcome antidote to canned studio fare. Even so, how did his minor effort make the fest's main slate?

Musical artists take center stage in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. Anchored by Miles Teller and his awards-fodder turn as a jazz drummer, this may just be the feelgood film of the year. This despite the suffering the artist-musician undergoes in his drive for perfection. I have nothing to add to the glowing reviews, except: great screenplay, great acting, jazz to die for -- what's not to love? It's in theaters. Go see it.

Then there's the curious case of NYFF closer Birdman. A departure in style for gloom mongering Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, it's an antic, literally high-flying account of a former iconic film star's attempt to make a comeback by mounting a Broadway play. Given all the buzz and plaudits from the Venice Film Fest, I came with high expectations. Just think: Michael Keaton in a barn burning role that parallels his own Batmanic past as a movie franchise star; Edward Norton as a loose cannon of an actor intent on screwing up Keaton's production of a play based on a story by Raymond Carver; and presiding over it all, the genius of D.P. Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life).

The seamless sweep of the camera tunneling through the backstage corridors and planing over the great old theaters of Broadway -- not to mention Keaton taking to the sky, birdman style, in cunning CG segments -- gives the illusion of a film created in a single take. But will the average moviegoer get that? I doubt it. They'll get the adrenalin rush, but not the technical leger-de-main. Sometimes programmers paint themselves into a vacuum.

As Keaton's strung-out daughter, Emma Stone uncorks an impassioned monologue about how the viral world has made old dad obsolete (a highlight, though her features are so harsh they belong on Mount Rushmore). Stone's tirade echos and "talks to" a similar one by Kristen Stewart giving Juliette Binoche the news that she and her ilk are old school, over.

Less riveting is the ego battle between Keaton and Edward Norton, the latter scampering about in his skivvies, displaying a gut in need of gym time. Birdman unwittingly betrays a disgust with human bodies; Norton's come-on line, "play with my balls," stands in for witty repartee. The women revolving around the two alpha males, including an ex wife, abandoned gf, and hot-to-trot daughter, are too carelessly drawn to engage us. Given the many challenges of life in 21st century America, it's no wonder that Birdman takes to the skies.