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The Calm Before the Storm, Report from the NYFF

by Brian Whisenant for Awards Daily

I stumbled upon a picture the other day from 2 years ago around this time. It was my second year at The Hamptons Film Festival where I was, for the first time, attempting to cover the event for Awards Daily and simultaneously run their box office. I was sitting on a couch in what I like to call the “cast housing” in front of my macbook pro with a liter of red wine and a blank stare. Before the festival had even begun I had seen “The Social Network” at the opening of the New York Film Festival and at Hamptons had just seen “Up in the Air,” “Blue Valentine,” “127 Hours” and “The King’s Speech.” Although I had managed a decent review of “The Social Network” for this very website, seeing these incredible films in such a small amount of time had given me writer’s block. Random thoughts about all of the films were bouncing around in my head, but I couldn’t seem to organize them in a way to express what I was experiencing. And then I saw “Black Swan” the next day and my head exploded. Eventually, once I started to have fun and really appreciate the wonderful films I was seeing, I was able to write about them.

I, as usual, began this year a bit late when I saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild” months after many of my peers had already experienced it at the various festivals. I knew that the New York Film Festival was coming up and I had many lofty intentions of being a good Oscar blogger and really dedicating myself to the experience. After “Beasts” I tried to play a bit of catch up, finally seeing (and enjoying) both “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” but couldn’t quite will myself to see “The Master” after the press screening I was scheduled to see was canceled less than an hour before the start time. And SO much had already been said about the PTA love it or hate it, that I decided it could wait.

When New York Film Festival began, I skipped a few of the Masterworks and the smaller films and decided to go in with a bang, Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” In what would begin as a trend over the next few weeks, I had never read the book, and was quite excited when they handed it out at the press screening. Right before I went in, Sasha Stone had told me that she was going to write the review for AD, which actually gave me a bit of relief. I could just watch and hopefully enjoy. I found the movie breathtaking. Much more so than the latest television trailers portray. During the scene when the Japanese freighter sinks I grabbed the hand of the very handsome stranger sitting next to me and pretty much held it , tightly, until I felt I could breath again. When I left the theater I was invested in the year, in Oscar. This feeling prompted a movie going extravaganza, mixing NYFF with other press screenings and some films already in theaters. I started with another based on a book I had not read film, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” (LOVED!) Then there was my possibly ill conceived back to back screenings of “The Master” and “Lincoln,” which I followed a couple of days later with my fourth “Brian hasn’t read the book” film, “On the Road.” (Also loved…especially Garret Hedlund!) As you can probably guess I hadn’t written a word and all of these movies were yet again bouncing around in my head. I skipped “Flight” in order to sleep and decided, finally, to get thoughts down…which I started after I procrastinated one last time by seeing “The Sessions.”

With no through line for a piece I almost decided to give up, and in the process annoy every film festival and PR company who had graciously allowed me credentials and invitations over the last few months. And then I came across that picture from 2 years ago. When I was in a similar spot. And then I flash forwarded to that upcoming March when I watched my favorite year of film since 1994 celebrated at the Academy Awards. It wasn’t a year I really obsessed about the Oscars per se…(ok…Natalie Portman losing might have caused glass breakage and xanax eating), it was a year of great filmmaking. I think this is one of those years.

While I was watching “The Master” I was somehow able to let go of pretty much everything I had previously heard about the movie…which is quite surprising. Mostly because I was fascinated with how Paul Thomas Anderson was able to draw me into the Cause…question the Cause…and then wonder…what’s so wrong with it if it makes people happy. There was a serious connection for me in the story of “The Master.” I’ve never been a theologian or interested in Scientology at all which led me, while watching the film to question why I was feeling so connected. Now…I know what you might be thinking. If I was so invested, why am I disconnecting? Not only was I stepping out of the experience to observe it, I pulled out my notebook and started taking notes. Something I have never done…and have actually made fun of (semi-privately) others for doing. I honestly think this questioning began at the “Life of Pi” screening. After it was over I was reading tweets and listening around me at the variety of reasons everyone loved the movie. It varied from the visuals to its explorations of mortality and spirituality. For me it was the idea of things coming into your life when you need them to…only to have them leave when the need over even if the want still lingers.

So, why did I connect with “The Master” so? I realized the “processing” reminded me of warm ups in some of my advanced acting class. When your teacher takes you through an exercise and you recall (not necessarily a past life) a point in your life and the experiences you feel remembering said event are supposed to allow you to reach an almost stillness necessary to “act.” Or not act, I guess. I had a similar reaction to “Black Swan” when the film spoke mostly to me as a performer and the understanding (although obviously not to the extreme Nina takes) for the need to be perfect. Very personal reasons for loving films. And not very critical.

With “Lincoln” I was hoping Spielberg would embrace the politics (with a little bit of the emotion) and that’s pretty much what I got. I was captivated by what it took to get the amendment passed. And so grateful that Spielberg and Kushner must have been fascinated by this as well. And of course Tommy Lee Jones’s and Daniel Day Lewis’s great performances helped! That being said…I read from others that the film was too “talky” for their taste. And I could feel that same thought from some of the non press around me during some of those talk heavy passages. You can absolutely tell when an audience (here, specifically…a part of the audience) gets restless.

Speaking of long passages…I think it’s time to wrap this one up.

Yesterday I received an email from a publicist about seeing “The Central Park Five.” In our email exchange she voiced (what was probably rhetorical but kind) concern that I was having a good, if already stressful Oscar season. I told her it was pretty easy right now because the movies have been so good. But we are in the calm before the storm…perhaps the eye depending on how you see it. Shortly all the films we blogaratti have seen will be available to the public and reviewable to critics. And shortly after that we will all be able to see “Les Miserables,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained.” Inevitably there will come a point when we stop talking so much about how great the year in movies was, probably around the time we get to the Hathaway v/s Hunt or the Lincoln v/s Silver Linings v/s Argo (or will it be PI) with a Django underdog? head splitting debates. Who knows where it’s headed? Not me. Not yet. All I know now is that I am no longer staring blankly at the computer. I don’t know who took the picture from 2 years ago that inspired me to write this, but I am incredibly grateful to them.