NEW YORK (AP) — Change isn’t undertaken haphazardly in the halls of Lincoln Center. This year, for example, is the first time the New York Film Festival is being led by someone not named Richard.
The 51st New York Film Festival, which opens Friday with the premiere of Paul Greengrass’ Somali pirate docudrama “Captain Phillips,” marks the start of new program director Kent Jones’ stewardship. Jones, a critic and sometimes filmmaker, is only the third program director of the festival, following Richard Roud and Richard Pena, who stepped down last year after 25 years with the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
As the most prestigious film festival in the country, the NYFF has always been a fixture: a highly curated selection of the best films of the year from around the world. It’s an annual appraisal of cinema and where it’s going.
And at a time of upheaval for the movies — when everything from how they’re made to how they find audiences is being reexamined for a digital world — this year finds the New York Film Festival in transition.
“Moving images have proliferated so much and they’re so many now who make them who have a pretty spotty consciousness of the history of cinema, that it’s something that’s becoming increasingly fragile,” Jones said in an interview over coffee at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, which in 2011 added several smaller screens to Lincoln Center.
“How I’m coping with it or deal with it, I don’t know. All I know is that it’s something that’s on my mind. It’s on the minds of everyone in the selection committee. And somehow it manifests itself in the way that the festival’s programmed.”
This year’s festival is filled with a sense of expansion, which began under Pena and with the addition of the Munroe Film Center. Ranging from the Coen brothers’ folk revival “Inside Llewyn Davis” to Alexander Payne’s black-and-white Midwest road trip “Nebraska” to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Cannes Palm d’Or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the 36 selections are the most ever in the main slate.
Three big world premieres punctuate the festival, which runs through Oct. 13. After the opening night of “Captain Phillips,” with Tom Hanks, there’s the centerpiece “Her,” Spike Jonze’s futuristic romance starring Joaquin Phoenix. Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” his ambitious adaption of the James Thurber short story, will close the festival.
Though premieres have always been a part of the festival, the NYFF is growing as a fall season platform for Hollywood’s prestigious awards contenders. Last year, Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” and Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” premiered at the festival, and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” had its first screening.
Rose Kuo, executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center since 2010, says the festival is looking for films with “high anticipation value.”
“In the three bigger slots, we like having world premieres,” says Kuo. “We always get to miss that high-concentrated frenzy that’s located in the first week of September between Telluride, Venice and Toronto. So when films decide to release in October or later, we know we’re going to have a chance at grabbing them for our festival.”
The festival will also include gala tributes to Ralph Fiennes (whose second directorial effort, “The Invisible Woman,” is a festival entry) and Cate Blanchett, most recently star of Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.”
“A festival can’t be too festive,” says Jones. “By festive, what I don’t mean is adding on a lot of movie stars and red carpets. Movie stars and red carpets are part of it. But it means offering new things in a thoughtful way.”
The 52-year-old Jones, who has collaborated with Martin Scorsese on several documentaries, has the distinction of also having co-written a film at NYFF, Arnaud Desplechin’s “Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian,” which stars Mathieu Amalric and Benicio Del Toro. (Jones recused himself from its selection process.)
This year’s film festival is rife with films that, to Jones, wrestle with the idea of what a movie is. There’s Jia Zhangke’s overlapping plotlines in “A Touch of Sin” and J.C. Chandor’s near-wordless “All Is Lost,” starring Robert Redford. The Convergence section, in its second year, incorporates transmedia entries that apply filmmaking in new storytelling ways.
The first thing Jones sought for the festival was a staggeringly thorough retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard: “He’s reinvented our idea of what cinema is over and over and over again.”
That the movies have become staid and in need of new ideas has been much discussed recently. A summer of blockbusters left even Steven Spielberg contemplating “the implosion” of Hollywood. Citing formulaic films like the famous flop “The Lone Ranger,” Jones wonders if the long, mutually beneficial dichotomy of art and commerce in the movies is “winding down.”
But if the moviemaking business is in some tumult, the New York Film Festival can feel like a safe harbor.
“What’s there in the festival, that’s cause for optimism,” says Jones. “When you see a movie like ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ you want to stand up and cheer. Believe me, I would have except I was all alone in the screening room the first time I saw it.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle