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With new digs, NY Film Festival carefully expands

A sense of expansion presides over this year's New York Film Festival, the 49th and first since Lincoln Center's new $41 million film center was opened.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A sense of expansion presides over this year's New York Film Festival, the 49th and first since Lincoln Center's new $41 million film center was opened.

But as with all things NYFF, any growth is measured and restrained.

The annual movie event, which begins Friday and runs through Oct. 16, is the country's most prestigious film festival. Presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, it has long defined itself by its boutique selections of international cinema: a small slate of 26 films; no awards; no rabid industry marketplace auctioning; no fluff. There's a purity of movie-going to the festival, with the intention of gathering the best pictures a year has to offer.

Earlier this year, Lincoln Center expanded its cinema footprint by opening the 17,000-square foot Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, which includes two more theaters, an auditorium, café and bookstore. That's in addition to the Walter Reade Theater and Alice Tully Hall, the grand, 1,100-seat concert hall in which all main slate festival selections play.

That means more films, more screenings and a larger audience. Amid an increasingly cacophonous festival world, the New York Film Festival, as it nears its 50th anniversary, is carefully broadening.

"When we looked at it, the decision was to not change the festival," says Rose Kuo, the Film Society's executive director. "We realized that we weren't going to change as much as add to the festival."

This will be the first NYFF Kuo has overseen. Formerly the artistic director of the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, Kuo came aboard in July 2010, replacing former studio executive Mara Manus, whose relatively brief stewardship of less than two years was marked by staff turnover.

On adjusting to Lincoln Center and its passionate patrons, Kuo says, "It's like a marriage: The good things are better and the bad things are worse than you thought."

"I'm very aware of not deluding the reputation and the heritage of the festival, so the tweaks have to be modest and really thought out," she says.

This year's festival includes more free screenings and events, and more family programming and panel discussions presented by film industry groups such as the Writers Guild. The new theaters allow for more screenings of festival selections, and the flexibility of devoting a theater to such presentations as a complete retrospective of the Nikkatsu Corporation, the famed Japanese studio. More anniversary screenings, such as those scheduled for Oliver Stone's "Salvador" and Wes Anderson's "Royal Tenenbaums," are also now easier to mount.

"Our public has been expanding quite a lot in recent years, more and more as the festival has grown, perhaps, more international in profile," says Richard Pena, selection committee chair and program director of the Film Society. "We're bringing in a lot of new people."

The festival opens Friday with Roman Polanski's "Carnage," an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's Tony Award-winning play "God of Carnage," starring Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly. It's the first film by Polanski (who will not be attendance Friday) to screen at the festival since his directorial debut, "Knife in the Water," in 1963.

The centerpiece is Simon Curtis' "My Week With Marilyn," which stars Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe during the production of Laurence Olivier's "The Prince and the Showgirl." Playing as gala screenings are David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method," about the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender); and "The Skin I Live In," the latest from Pedro Almodovar, a festival mainstay. The closing night film is Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," an early Oscar favorite starring George Clooney as a father of two young daughters whose wife is critically injured.

Other highlights include Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," Martin Scorsese's soon-to-be-televised documentary "George Harrison: Living in the Material World," Steve McQueen's "Shame," Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist," Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky's "The Turin Horse" and the Dardenne brothers' latest, "The Kid With a Bike."

The NYFF is sometimes considered less relevant because many of its selections play first at other film festivals, such as Cannes in May and Toronto in September. Kuo says, "We must have films that are selected outside of Cannes and Toronto," but Pena doesn't consider world premieres an object of the festival.

"I don't even think about it," he says. Recalling a conversation with Joanne Koch, former Film Society executive director, he adds: "She pulled me aside and said, 'You have to remember that this is a festival for the people of New York City. And for the people of New York City, these are all world premieres."

The festival will also include a newly restored and hardly ever seen film by Nicholas Ray, "We Can't Go Home Again" (accompanied by a documentary on Ray, "Don't Expect Too Much"). An updated cut of the new documentary "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" will also screen. The film, the third of a trilogy, is about the "West Memphis Three," three men who were recently released from prison after being convicted of the 1993 murder of three 8-year-old boys.