By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 1, 2013 at 1:35PM
As soon as I saw the impressive footage from "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" at CinemaCon, I knew Ben Stiller's ambitious cinematic retelling of the classic James Thurber short story was a potential Oscar Contender. And the New York Film Festival likes it enough to accord it the prestige Centerpiece Gala for a World Premiere on Saturday, October 5 at the 51st NYFF (September 27 – October 13). Opening night is "Captain Phillips." Closing night will be a high-profile fall title that that has not been announced for Venice or Toronto, such as Cannes hit "All is Lost," which I hear could earn Robert Redford an Oscar nomination for his virtually silent performance. Will David O. Russell's "American Hustle" be finished in time? "Foxcatcher"? "The Wolf of Wall Street"?
Last year Twentieth Century Fox used its CinemaCon presentation to wow exhibitors with glorious footage from Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," and instantly established the 3-D epic as a major Oscar contender. It also went on to play the NYFF on its way to 11 Oscar nominations and four wins including Best Director.
What's great about "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is that this updated story of a daydreamer (played by Stiller) allows full rein (like "Slumdog Millionaire") to cut anywhere, anytime, into full-blown fantasies. Where this one seems to depart from the original (and the 1947 Danny Kaye movie) is that it allows our hero to act out his dreams and become a man.
The movie co-stars the always-welcome Kristen Wiig, as plodding Life Magazine photo librarian Mitty's winsome love interest and co-worker, and Shirley MacLaine as his mom, who points out that the travel diary given to him by his father remains empty. This two-year journey "is the most challenging and exciting and creative experience I've had making movie," said Stiller at CinemaCon, commending the script by "soulful writer" Steve Conrad ("The Weather Man," "The Pursuit of Happyness").
"It's about the aspirations and dreams everyone has," and "speaks to that yearning like nothing I've ever read. It's entertaining, funny and real." The movie is realistic and a fairy tale at the same time, Stiller said. "It's the kind of movie I love going to the movies for, that you can't categorize. It will make you feel something, maybe feel better. It's about the possibilities that are out there." When co-star Sean Penn carried his own equipment off a glacier on location in Iceland--where there was a three-day windstorm--"then I had to do it too," Stiller said.
And clearly, Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos plans a no-holds-barred year-end Oscar campaign.
This is the first year that the NYFF selection committee-- post-Richard Roud, it is now lead by Director of Programming Kent Jones--no longer brings in outside critics to pick the NYFF films, which was always a refreshing departure from other festivals. Now it is entirely made up of employees from the Film Society of Lincoln Center, including Dennis Lim, FSLC Director of Cinematheque Programming; Gavin Smith, Editor-in-Chief, Film Comment; Amy Taubin, Contributing Editor, Film Comment and Sight and Sound; and Marian Masone, FSLC Associate Director of Programming.