The New York Film Festival usually begins, regular as clockwork, on the last Friday in September. This year, though, Opening Night was pushed back a day due to an event that occupied much of Manhattan, not just Lincoln Center. On Friday, Sept. 25, Pope Francis swept across the island, speaking to the United Nations, visiting a school in Harlem, Pope-Mobiling through Central Park, and saying Mass at Madison Square Garden. The day also included an interfaith service at the new memorial to the attacks of 9/11—an event that oddly served as a prelude to the festival’s inaugural film.
If Francis’ benevolent persona seemed to leave many New Yorkers in a state of evanescent exaltation, Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” was the perfect movie to complement and prolong the euphoria. A spectacular, FX-laden, 3D evocation of aerialist Philippe Petit’s legendary 1974 wire-walking between the twin towers of the World Trade Center (an event previously recounted in the documentary “Man on Wire”), Zemeckis’ film resembled the pope’s commemoration both in reminding viewers of the loss suffered at Ground Zero and in using the vanished structures as symbols of human struggle and transcendence—it even climaxes with its hero in a cruciform pose high above an astonished city.
While the papal interruption of festival SOP was the most serendipitous of inconveniences, its Opening Night offering served to underscore some of the changes it has undergone in recent years. From its advent in 1963 the event was a selective auteur festival on the European model, and during most of the subsequent five decades, its prestigious Opening and Closing Nights slots (as well as the Centerpiece, a more recent addition) provided the U.S. launches of foreign-language critical favorites; it was where you went to see the latest by Godard, Kurosawa, Buñuel or Bertolucci. In more recent years, however, as the NYFF has modernized and expanded on various fronts, these prime showcases have increasingly gone to high-profile, awards-aimed American fare (this year’s Centerpiece is Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs”; Closing Night is Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic “Miles Away”).
Whatever the reasons for—and ultimate wisdom of—this shift of emphasis from art-house to more commercial films, the result in the case of this year’s opener proved at once artistically striking and in keeping with the festival’s distinctive angle on celebrating the best of global cinema. For just as the inclusion of “The Walk” makes the case for Zemeckis as one of the most innovative and consistently interesting of Hollywood directors in recent decades, the film serves up some very special frissons for New Yorkers entranced by cinematic representations of their city.
And if the NYFF has long reflected the affinity between the film cultures of New York and Paris, “The Walk” plays on that connection too. It starts off in the latter city, where Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in a second-rate wig but first-rate performance) has evolved from a street mime to a high-wire acrobat by the time his sights shift from the spires of Notre Dame to the new Manhattan monoliths he spies in a magazine. How to conquer the twin behemoths? Petit has a supportive girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon) and the most accomplished of teachers, a Czech circus maestro known as Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). But he also needs a team.
He enlists two buddies in France, where the idea of using an arrow to shoot a walkable wire between the two towers is devised. When the action shifts to New York, the Frenchmen recruit four Americans to help them plot and execute the escapade. Much of the action in this part of the story involves discerning and then overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles, even as the abilities of the team’s wobblier members remain in doubt. It’s a familiar dramatic arc, but the expertise with which Zemeckis and company construct it keeps the narrative tension building with sureness and nervy precision.
The payoff comes in the film’s last 40 minutes, when Petit launches out over lower Manhattan for a display of high-wire daring that’s sure to astonish even those who know that the real incident lasted three hours. (Ironically, this was before the era of cell phone cameras, so there’s no footage of it.) Seen in 3D, the event is transfixing, at once hallucinatory and brilliantly realistic—so much so that it might even be discomfiting for some. Though this reviewer’s acrophobia didn’t result in any problems, there were unconfirmed reports of a few vertigo-afflicted spectators at Lincoln Center heading for the doors and restrooms.
From a technical standpoint, “The Walk” must be counted as an unalloyed triumph. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography, Naomi Shohan’s production design, Kevin Baillie’s visual FX and Jeremiah O’Driscoll’s editing all combine for an effect so enrapturing you sometimes have to remind yourself that these buildings and much that surrounded them no longer exist. Almost everything we’re beholding is pure digital magic, and some viewers are bound to reflect that this aspect of cinema’s powers—the one descended from Georges Méliès—has few recent illustrations as impressive and transporting as this one.
Zemeckis, of course, has long pioneered such cinematic wizardry, in films from “Forrest Gump” to “Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol.” His latest, though, may be his most fully accomplished and satisfying work from an artistic standpoint, in part due to the combination of mythic power, psychological fascination and multivalent contemporary resonance in its story. One of the film’s most surprising qualities lies in how, during Petit’s highly dramatic and nerve-wracking aerial odyssey, it subtly induces us to move beyond excitement and awe into contemplation: to inscribe our own dream of the story’s significance within the film’s spectacular dreamscape.
Whether we read the tale as an allegory of artistic vision and persistence, or an expression of New York’s unique magnetism and endurance, or a reflection of every moviegoer’s wish to surmount the world’s travails through courage and imagination, it is a narrative of endless richness and allusive breadth. During a week of media intoxication over the pontiff’s visit, “The Walk” comprised a persuasive demonstration of cinema’s own potential for sublimity—and in so doing, proved an ideal opener for NYFF 2015.
Every year, from the festival’s earliest days till now, observers have occasion for head-scratching at how certain heralded foreign films don’t make it into its main slate. Last year, the most startling omissions were Cannes laureates “Winter Sleep” by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and “Leviathan” by Andrey Zvyagintsev, which left the main slate with no films at all from the important cinemas of, respectively, Turkey and Russia.
This year the big no-show was "Jafar Panahi’s Taxi,” which at Berlin won not only the Golden Bear but extraordinary critical praise, with some writers calling it one of the most important films of the decade (it opens in the U.S. on Oct. 2). Its non-appearance in the NYFF is surprising because, first, the festival has championed the director’s work through much of his career, from “The White Balloon” to “This Is Not a Film”; and, second, there has been no film by an Iranian director in the main slate in the three years since the previous selection committee head, Richard Pena, was replaced by Kent Jones.
Meanwhile, as also happens every year, the festival contains a number of foreign films that are notable mainly for being notably unexceptional, from cinemas not nearly as currently vital as Iran’s. The first of these to be press-screened this year was Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Journey to the Shore.” From “Ugetsu” to “Kwaidan” to “Spirited Away,” Japanese cinema is full of ghost stories, and Kurosawa’s film is another. It opens when a young woman’s recently deceased husband appears to her. The mismatched couple then undertakes a voyage across Japan to a town where some of the people they encounter are living and others dead; determining which is which constitutes much of the film’s meager dramatic interest.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “Journey to the Shore.” It is made with skill and tastefulness. But it is a film with nothing much to say, and style that’s polished but lacking any real originality or excitement. The main feeling it left this reviewer with was the hope that subsequent foreign films displayed at the NYFF would offer far more compelling reasons that “Taxi” was overlooked.