The 50th New York Film Festival premieres this Friday with Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” and closes on Sunday night, October 14, with Robert Zemeckis’s “Flight.” Along the way, it will make a pit stop to honor “The Paperboy” actress Nicole Kidman for refusing to play it safe in her cinema choices, and program director Richard Pena, who is retiring after 25 years. The prestigious festival, held at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, cherry-picks the best films from European film festivals like Cannes and Berlin and adds a broad sweep of international films, spiced up with a few star-heavy Oscar hopefuls and unexpected independent finds. Past festivals have led with Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother,” and David Fincher’s “The Social Network.”
“Life of Pi”: Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) opens the fest with a daring 3D adaptation of Yann Martel’s magical best-seller about an Indian boy named Pi Patel (newcomer Suraj Sharma) shipwrecked on the Pacific Ocean en route to Canada with a tiger, an orangutan, a hyena, and a zebra. Irrfan Khan (“Slumdog Millionaire”) plays the mature Pi. This is the adventure’s world premiere and it’s rumored that the print will arrive “wet” to the first screening on Friday.
“Frances Ha”: Bedmates Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg”) and Greta Gerwig (“To Rome With Love”) collaborate on a black-and-white comedy that plays like “Annie Hall” as if penned by a woman. Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach, stars as Frances, a happy-go-lucky Manhattanite coming to terms with the fact that her dream to be a dancer may fizzle, and that financial instability is only romantic for so long. Gerwig’s writing adds a beneficial lightness that blunts Baumbach’s bitter edge without sacrificing the insight into contemporary Left Coast life. Add in Mickey Sumner (aka the daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler) as Frances’s BFF, and we’ve got a sophisticated “Girls” gone wild without the self-pity.
“The Paperboy”: “Precious” director Lee Daniels goes crazy-town in this much-hyped Southern Gothic about a journalist (Matthew McConaughey), his brother (Zac Efron), a colleague (David Oyelowo), and a felon-lover (Nicole Kidman) trying to free a Florida death-row inmate (John Cusack at his most raggedy). Recalling the scene in “Precious” where Mo’Nique’s vicious mom drops a television on the head of her daughter (Gabourey Sidibe), this overheated thriller is out-there nuts. The scene where Kidman’s older woman urinates on jellyfish-stung swimmer Efron is an instant camp classic.
“Caesar Must Die”: Italy’s pick for this year’s foreign-language Oscar features actual inmates mounting a production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at Rome’s Rebibbia prison. Concentrated, intense, and largely in black-and-white, this modern look at betrayal, murder, and justice gives life to the text, and meaning to the reality of living life behind bars. From brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (“The Night of the Shooting Stars”), the drama-within-a-drama earned the Golden Berlin Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
“Flight”: Director Robert Zemeckis returns to live-action filmmaking for the first time since “Cast Away” in 2000 with a supercharged thriller. Denzel Washington stars as a pilot who makes a daring emergency landing — and then comes under intense scrutiny when it’s revealed he was flying high. The closing-night film makes its world premiere at the New York Film Festival.