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What to expect from the New York Film Festival amid the coronavirus pandemic

This year has not been a normal year for movies – or for film festivals, either. Truth be told, we're lucky to have any kind of film festival during the year of COVID-19 — and after months of lockdown, virtually streaming films, press conferences and filmmaker talks doesn't seem all that odd.

What's more, because this year's New York Film Festival has gone virtual, audiences from around the country can partake in its offerings, which wasn't the case when screenings were limited to theatres in Manhattan. In addition to online offerings, many films are also being shown at "drive-in" venues in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, allowing for proper social distancing. 

With no competition or awards getting in the way, the New York Film Festival has traditionally been one of the best-curated festivals, featuring U.S. or New York premieres of internationally-acclaimed movies by some of the most invigorating filmmakers. Launching last week, the festival will continue through October 11, with each film available for screening online prior to its standard release — or what counts for a standard release in these times.

Even if you miss a virtual screening, you can catch illuminating conversations with filmmakers on the Film at Lincoln Center YouTube Channel, such as this chat with the director Sofia Coppola and actors Bill Murray, Rashida Jones and Marlon Wayans of the comedy "On the Rocks":

On the Rocks Q&A with Sofia Coppola, Bill Murray, Rashida Jones & Marlon Wayans | NYFF58 by Film at Lincoln Center on YouTube

Below are a few of the festival highlights that have already been previewed, along with promising coming attractions. The list will be updated as more films screen for the press.

"Lovers Rock" – This 70-minute film by Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave"), packaged as part of a series of films titled "Small Axe" but actually a standalone story, recreates the atmosphere of a 1980 house party of West Indian immigrants in London. We see the preparations, almost smell the food cooking, and witness as men and women congregate, dance, enjoy reggae music and each other. There is no real script per se, and the characters do not cut deep, but there is a tactile feel for the period, through the clothes, music and décor, while the male-female tensions are timeless. A notable scene: the dancers sing a capella, proving you don't even need a DJ to feel enraptured by music. Kudos to cinematographer Shabier Kirchner.  Screens October 3-5.

Two additional episodes of McQueen's "Small Axe" anthology – "Mangrove" and "Red, White and Blue" – will screen October 3-5. "Small Axe" will be released by Amazon Studios November 30.

To watch a trailer for the "Small Axe" anthology click on the video player below:

Small Axe Anthology Trailer | Prime Video by Amazon Prime Video on YouTube

"Nomadland"Director Chloé Zhao's last entry to the New York Film Festival, 2017's "The Rider," was a somber and moving testament to a fading Western character – a quasi-biographical depiction of a Lakota rodeo rider recovering from a near-fatal injury. In her new narrative feature, Zhao again blurs fiction and non-fiction in a story inspired by journalist Jessica Bruder's "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century," an account of nomadic van dwellers eking out a life amid the fallout of the 2008 economic crash. Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a widow who clung onto life in a Nevada backwater until the mine shut down, and with it the town. Living out of a van, she shuttles from state to state, job to job, living an itinerate life among similarly nomadic seniors whose quasi-retirement resides on a razor's edge of personal fulfillment on their own terms and despair. Zhao's direction is finely attuned to those on the margins, with a cast that includes some of the real-life people documented in Bruder's book, while McDormand brings a stoic self-assuredness to her performance of a woman ill at ease with accepting others' characterizations of her situation; she'll be the final arbiter of what's right for her, thank you. Screens September 26. To be released by Searchlight Pictures December 4.

To watch a teaser for "Nomadland" click on the video player below:

Nomadland | Teaser | NYFF58 by Film at Lincoln Center on YouTube

"MLK/FBI" – Sam Pollard's documentary examines the efforts of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the 1950s and '60s to surveil or infiltrate the civil rights movement and its most prominent leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Available to stream through September 26. An IFC Films release.

Watch a clip from "MLK/FBI":

MLK/FBI | Clip | NYFF58 by Film at Lincoln Center on YouTube

"Night of the Kings"The inmates who run a prison in the Ivory Coast welcome a new prisoner who has been chosen to be their "Roman" (or storyteller), with the responsibility of telling a tale, Scheherazade-like, during the blood-red moon, or risk death. Director Philippe Lacôte's staging evokes the traditions of West African griot storytelling and modernist theatrical productions, as Roman tells the tragic life story of a noted criminal figure, a tale replete with superstition, magic and fated death. Screens virtually through September 29, with a drive-in screening September 30. A Neon release.

To watch a clip from "Night of the Kings" click on the player below:

Night of the Kings | Clip | NYFF58 by Film at Lincoln Center on YouTube

"City Hall"The work of documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is recognizable for his fly-on-the-wall technique of shooting and editing, with no appreciable editorial influence, except that Wiseman's arm's-length (and lengthy) movies engulf the viewer in a host of interpersonal dynamics while its protagonists are caught in seemingly impersonal bureaucracies. In his latest, "City Hall," Wiseman delves into the myriad challenges facing a city government — in this case Boston's — whose mayor, officials and civil servants are engaged in the work of everyday life, from marrying couples, paving streets and explaining budgetary pressures to constituents, to witnessing citizens under stress demanding social services. The four-and-a-half-hour length covers a lot of ground, and by the end of it, no one should be dismissive about what good government does, if the people in charge are in tune to the needs of citizens. Screens through September 30. A Zipporah Films release.

To watch a trailer for "City Hall" click on the player below.

City Hall | Trailer | NYFF58 by Film at Lincoln Center on YouTube

Coming up:

From among the festival's other films not yet previewed at press time, here are some intriguing offerings:

"Time" – Garrett Bradley's emotional documentary follows a determined Louisiana woman fighting for decades for her husband's release from prison after he was sentenced to 60 years for robbery. Screens September 25.  An Amazon Studios release.

"Hopper/Welles" – The producer and editor who restored Orson Welles' "The Other Side of the Wind" resurrect 1970 footage of a conversation between Welles and actor-director Dennis Hopper, two filmmakers then on alternately declining and rising trajectories in Hollywood, who discuss the life of an independent artist in an industry not known for welcoming auteurs. Screens September 28-October 3.

"The Disciple" – A young musician seeks fulfillment in his pursuit of performing Khayal Indian music, in a world where commercialization increasingly overwhelms tradition. Screens September 29-October 6.

The Disciple | Trailer | NYFF58 by Film at Lincoln Center on YouTube

"The Woman Who Ran" – A South Korean woman experiences visits with her friends without, for once, her husband in tow, in this comedy devoid of men. Screens October 2-7. A Cinema Guild release.

"David Byrne's American Utopia" – Spike Lee directed this filmed rendition of Byrne's recent Broadway concert, spilling over with timeless Talking Heads tunes. Screens October 4-9. An HBO release.

David Byrne's American Utopia (2020): Official Trailer | HBO by HBO on YouTube

"The Truffle Hunters" – A documentary about dogs in Italy who lead their elderly owners to a supreme prize: the precious white Alba truffle. Screens October 5. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

"Notturno" – Gianfranco Rosi (director of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Fire at Sea") presents a meditation on persistence amid the shattered landscapes of Iraq, Kurdistan, Lebanon and Syria, in schools and hospitals, and in the ordinary rhythms of work for those whose lives have been torn by war. Screens October 6-11. 

"Undine" – German director Christian Petzold ("Transit," "Phoenix," "Barbara") returns to the festival with a romance tinged with supernatural undertones. Screens October 9-14. An IFC Films release.

"French Exit" – Facing impending insolvency, socialite Michelle Pfeiffer and her son Lucas Hedges flee to Paris, because, why not? Screens October 10. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

The festival also features restorations and revivals of classic films, including William Klein's documentary of boxer Cassius Clay, "Muhammad Ali, the Greatest"; Bela Tarr's "Damnation"; Wong Kar Wei's "In the Mood for Love"; Joyce Chopra's "Smooth Talk"; Ivan Dixon's "The Spook Who Sat by the Door"; and Jean Vigo's "Zero for Conduct."

Free talks

Click here for the festival's schedule of conversations with filmmakers.

Films to watch for:

These films' festival screenings have already expired, but they are worth watching for:

"On the Rocks" – Director Sofia Coppola reunites with her "Lost in Translation" star Bill Murray for another disjointed romance. Here he stars as the father of Rashida Jones, a married mother of two who suspects her husband of having an affair.  Murray (who plays Bill Murray better than anyone) assumes the role of detective to try to catch his son-in-law in the act, while at the same time confirming his worst insecurities about women and the emotional detachment of males. Coppola's ear, and her eye for New York City, is winning. An Apple/A24 release.

To watch a trailer for "On the Rocks" click on the player below:

On the Rocks — Official Trailer | Apple TV+ by Apple TV on YouTube

"The Monopoly of Violence" – Director David Dufresne's powerful documentary combines talking heads with intense video footage to produce a thoughtful treatise on the legitimacy of violence, whether it is wielded by the state (via the police), or by the hands of demonstrators. Centered on the "yellow jacket" protests for social justice that occurred in France between November 2018 and February 2020, the film features interviews with law professors, social activists, demonstrators and police officials, who serve as witnesses to video footage shot of confrontations on the streets of Paris and other cities. The debate over use of preventative arrests and non-lethal force (in which projectiles can still maim for life) is heated, and extends far beyond the points of public anger that launched the protests in the first place, and to the very roots of democracy (and its more authoritarian cousin, what one subject dubs a "democ-tatorship").  U.S. distributor to be announced.

To watch a trailer for "The Monopoly of Violence" click on the player below:

The Monopoly of Violence | Trailer | NYFF58 by Film at Lincoln Center on YouTube

For more info:

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