New York Film Festival: 5 movies you should know about

Reviews of the biggest and buzziest movies from the annual festival, including Inside Llewyn Davis, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and more

Inside Llewyn Davis
(Image credit: (Allison Rosa, 2012 Long Strange Trip LLC))

Over the past two weeks, New York cinephiles have been buzzing over the wide range of movies screening at the 51st New York Film Festival, which included many of this year's most anticipated Oscar contenders. I've attended my fair share of New York Film Festival screenings, and while scheduling conflicts meant I couldn't cross every film off my list — sorry, 12 Years a Slave and Nebraska — I did manage to catch five of the biggest and buzziest films playing at the festival. Here, five movies you should know about from the 51st annual New York Film Festival:

1. Inside Llewyn Davis

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

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Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and John Goodman

What is it?

A struggling musician (Oscar Isaac) navigates the blossoming folk music scene in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1961.

Should you see it?

Yes, but keep your expectations in check — despite a magnetic lead performance by Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis is an unfocused and deliberately alienating film that doesn't quite measure up to the Coen Brothers' other recent efforts. The film is episodic in nature, which gives it the opportunity to include a wide range of talented character actors and some first-rate musical performances. Unfortunately, that scattershot nature also makes it feel slighter and less satisfying than the tightly focused True Grit, the more profound A Serious Man, or the bleakly satirical Burn After Reading. Even the weakest of the Coen Brothers' work merits serious consideration, but Inside Llewyn Davis definitely belongs on the second tier.

2. Captain Phillips

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, and Barkhad Abdirahman

What is it?

The true story of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), who led his crew in a heart-stopping attempt to fend off a hijacking by Somali pirates in 2009.

Should you see it?

Definitely. Captain Phillips is a riveting film that remains deeply suspenseful even if you remember the ending from news reports in 2009. As Phillips, Tom Hanks turns in his best performance in well over a decade (and possibly ever), conjuring up an impressive blend of courage and fear. Despite its title, Captain Phillips also manages to squeeze in a fair amount of screen time for the Somali pirates that represent the film's would-be villains; director Paul Greengrass skillfully cuts between the men on the cargo ship and the desperate, impoverished men attempting to seize it. It's an impressively nuanced angle on an event that's far larger and more complicated than the men who directly experienced it.

3. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Directed by Ben Stiller

Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, and Adam Scott

What is it?

As Life Magazine prepares to publish its last issue, a milquetoast employee with a runaway imagination (Ben Stiller) travels the world in a last-ditch attempt to find an elusive photographer (Sean Penn).

Should you see it?

No. Walter Mitty packs some stunning visuals, but the film itself is frustratingly bland. There's potential in the idea of revisiting James Thurber's legendary short story with an eye to the modern day, but this adaptation quickly abandons the central conceit in favor of a far less interesting story about a man trotting the globe in a quest that he resolves far too conveniently. Walter Mitty boasts an exceptionally strong cast, but apart from Stiller and Penn, they're relegated almost entirely to one-note characters — particularly Wiig, who's almost totally wasted in a role that asks her to do nothing more than channel her inherent likability. There are some striking moments worth seeing in the film — but fortunately, most of them are readily available in its highlight reel of a trailer.

4. All is Lost

Directed by J.C. Chandor

Starring Robert Redford

What is it?

When his boat collides with a wayward shipping container in the middle of the sea, a solitary sailor (Robert Redford) mounts a desperate attempt to survive.

Should you see it?

Yes. All is Lost is an impressively focused film, with Redford successfully carrying the entire film on his shoulders — a feat that's all but unmatched in recent cinema. (Castaway is the most obvious point of comparison, but All is Lost is far less sprawling and sentimental.) There are long stretches in which All is Lost features no dialogue whatsoever, but the immediacy works in the film's favor, as Redford's ambiguous character (credited simply as "Our Man") uses all his knowledge and resources to mount a one-in-a-million chance to survive. The premise may sound simple, but there's more to All is Lost than may first be apparent, from its intriguing spiritual overtones — it's not for no reason that "Our Man" sounds like "amen" — to a clever ending that will serve as a kind of Rorschach test for the audience.

5. Her

Directed by Spike Jonze

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams

What is it?

In a futuristic Los Angeles, a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) forms an unexpected bond with "Samantha," a Siri-esque operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) — but the boundaries between humans and machines continually threatens the stability of their unlikely relationship.

Should you see it?

Absolutely. Her is a singular movie — gorgeous, sweet, and sad. "Sometimes I think I've felt everything I'm ever going to feel," worries Phoenix's character near the beginning of the film, but Her's tragic kind of optimism argues that there are always deeper pools of emotion for us to sink into. (Ample credit also goes to the film's two leads: Phoenix, who spends long, riveting stretches of the movie alone on-screen, and Johansson, who turns "Samantha" into a three-dimensional character with the sheer power of her voice.) Jonze's strong script manages to make the bond between Phoenix's character and Samantha humane — turning a story about society's growing, machine-induced isolation into a genuine love story that feels surprisingly, universally relatable.

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