How the New York Film Festival bolsters Oscar front-runners with prestige and selectiveness

We’ve covered Venice (currently ongoing) and TIFF (beginning this week), so last but definitely not least in our analysis of the fall film festivals and their overall impact on awards season is the New York Film Festival, Film at Lincoln Center’s annual celebration of cinema that’s going into its 60th edition.

The very first New York Film Festival took place in 1963 with the opening night film being “The Exterminating Angel” by Luis Buñuel, and over the next 59 years, the festival carefully balanced contemporary world cinema with the work of prominent American and Canadian filmmakers.

One of the reasons the New York Film Festival is so important is because there are a ton of motion picture academy voters living in New York City, who will have their first chance at seeing a number of new and upcoming awards contenders, but also many films that premiered at Cannes screening in New York for the first time. There is no competition involved with this annual cinema love-fest, but there’s still a lot of prestige for the filmmakers who are frequently asked to return.

This year the New York Film Festival is opening with Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise,” which also just opened the Venice Film Festival, with Baumbach having been attending NYFF since “The Squid and the Whale” in 2005, as well as returning in 2017 with “The Meyerowitz Stories” and two years later with “Marriage Story.” This year’s Centerpiece is Laura Poitras‘s Nan Goldin doc, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” which just premiered at Telluride and is already being hailed as her second Oscar contender following “Citizenfour,” which also premiered at NYFF. Elegance Bratton‘s “The Inspection” is the Closing Night Selection, although it will first premiere at TIFF.  Chinonye Chukwu‘s “Till” is another notable World Premiere for this year’s festival, as is Maria Schrader‘s “She Said,” starring Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan.

Martin Scorsese is another regular at the fest, conveniently enough, since he is also a New York-based filmmaker, as is Woody Allen – 2017 was his last year there with “Wonder Wheel.” The Coen Brothers are also regulars with Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” having been the 2021 Opening Night gala. The festival’s prestige and its relations with filmmakers have led to secret screenings and work-in-progress screenings of movies such as Scorsese’s “Hugo” and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” both which became Oscar players.

Many movies that have played at NYFF have gone on to Oscar gold with some notable Best Picture winners like 2011’s “The Artist” and 2014’s “Birdman” screening there. Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” also got a big boost while theaters were still shuttered in New York and Los Angeles due to the COVID-19 pandemic, getting a drive-in premiere held by Film at Lincoln Center.

In 2019 Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” played at NYFF months after its Cannes premiere, which helped it build word-of-mouth. That same year Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” had NYFF premieres, and both of those were still in the Oscar conversation four months later. The boost for “Parasite” mirrored many other international films’ successes including Michael Haneke’s “Amour” in 2012, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” in 2018, and then last year Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car.” The last played with relatively little fanfare, but NYFF helped it be seen by the New York Film Critics Circle, who later that year heralded it with their own top prize.

My own first New York Film Festival was in 2003 when Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” opened a fest that closed with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “21 Grams.” The former received five Oscar nominations, winning two for performances by Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, while the latter received two acting nominations.

But things haven’t been all wine and roses …

In 2015 all three galas – Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,” Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” and Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” – were Oscar non-starters, and that began three years of the festival diverging away from movies that fared well with academy voters.

In fact, last year was an exceptionally rare time when the Oscar-winning Best Picture wasn’t represented at the New York Film Festival, but that’s because it was the first-time ever that a movie that premiered at Sundance (“CODA”) went on to win Best Picture. On the plus side, Jane Campion was back at NYFF last year with “Power of the Dog,” her first time at the film festival since “Holy Smoke” in 1999, and she ended up winning the directing Oscar for it.

In some ways, the highly selective New York Film Festival is just as much about the movies that don’t screen there. For instance, this year it’s not showing Iñarritu’s “Bardo” despite having a long relationship with the filmmaker, and that might be somewhat telling, as it corresponds with the mixed reactions the movie received out of Venice and Telluride. That makes a NYFF selection an especially strong endorsement, so Todd Field’s “Tár” is likely to get a massive boost by playing there, as will its star, Cate Blanchett, who may very well be considered the front-runner for her third Oscar. Sarah Polley‘s “Women Talking,” with an amazing ensemble cast, has already been getting early festival buzz, and NYFF should help clinch its nominations.

Ultimately, the New York Film Festival has had its ups and downs over its 60 years, but there’s no question it’s one of the more prestigious events of the season, if only due to the fact its programmers are so selective, so their choices might bolster the odds for an eventual Oscar winner.

You can see a comprehensive list of every movie that’s ever played at the New York Film Festival here.

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