A Very Literary NY Film Festival

It’s that time again. Along with the autumnal equinox, the Jewish New Year, and, this year, the East Coast visit of the Pope, the New York Film Festival is kicking off its fifty-third lineup with a signature mix of high-brow fare from around the world and mainstream entertainment. As always, a significant portion of the program promises to be literary-minded, so I’ve compiled a list of the adaptations that intrigue me most.

“Arabian Nights Volumes 1, 2, and 3”
Portuguese writer/director Miguel Gomes (and co-writer Mariana Ricardo) uses folk tales from the eponymous book to paint a portrait of Portugal’s current (and rather bleak) economic realities. At roughly 338 minutes, it is not for the faint of heart (The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis called it an “indulgence“) but the ever-maverick Gomes channels a rich, intellectually rigorous absurdism that suits the film’s sketch-within-a-sketch anthology format.

“The Assassin”
Based on a short story written by Tang Dynasty author Pei Xing, legendary Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s newest is a ninth-century-set martial-arts drama that juxtaposes opulent visuals with a brooding examination of family and national codes. Shu Qi stars as the assassin in question, who was kidnapped as a young girl, trained to murder government officials, and now must kill a lord who is also her cousin. With expert cinematography and shifting narrative perspectives, Hou has crafted another powerful treatise on alienation and honor.

Director John Crowley has done ample justice to Colm Toibin’s eponymous novel in this lovely, 1950s-set saga about twentysomething Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), who is torn between her native country of Ireland and her new home of New York City. In the last decade, novelist Nick Hornby has established himself as a premier screenwriter of literary adaptations; here, he respectfully captures the spirit of Toibin’s book even as he is forced to sacrifice some of its wonderful detail. With twinkly eyed veterans like Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent rounding out the cast, this period drama captures the immigrant experience with sensitivity and charm.

With his penchant for classic melodramas and subversion and his exploration of queer identity, Todd Haynes may be the perfect director to adapt The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s prescient 1952 novel about two women in love. In a far cry from her “Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” incarnation, the always-intriguing Rooney Mara stars as a mousy department clerk who embarks on a romance with swoony socialite Carol (Cate Blanchett). For some (including me), this is one of the most anticipated adaptations of the year; early reports suggest it is an exquisite artifact that will not disappoint.

“Journey to the Shore”
About a young widow who embarks on a trip through East Japan’s small towns with the ghost of her deceased husband (yes, that would be the weirdest second honeymoon ever), this adaptation of Kazumi Yumoto’s 2010 novel is less of a supernatural thriller than a melancholy meditation on marriage and loss in the spirit of the British drama “Truly Madly Deeply.” Taking his cues from the natural scenery, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa sidesteps any sentimentality by allowing this tale to unfold with an admirably deadpan precision.

“Steve Jobs”
Easily the most notorious biopic of the year (the casting dramas alone have sold many a Variety subscription), “Steve Jobs” boasts a pedigree worthy of its subject, the Apple founder who died in 2011 after essentially launching the twenty-first century with his digital revolution. Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionare,” “127 Hours”) directs the Aaron Sorkin-penned screenplay adapted from Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography; Michael Fassbender stars as Jobs himself (I smell Oscar), Seth Rogen makes a rare dramatic turn as co-founder Steve Wozniak, and the always-brilliant Kate Winslet costars as Joanna Hoffman, a member of the original Apple team.

“The Walk”
Based on Philippe Petit’s memoir, To Reach the Clouds, this major motion picture stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the French high-wire artist who walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Gordon-Levitt, who’s always boasted an old-Hollywood agility, may be perfectly cast, especially with Sir Ben Kingsley as his mentor. The real question is whether screenwriter-director Robert Zemeckis has the agility to match; his last effort, “Flight,” suggests he may not bring as much subtlety and sinew as did “Man on Wire,” the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary on the same subject.

This was originally published in Word and Film.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy