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New York Film Fest: Topper’s First Slate Full of Surprises

Gotham fest director Kent Jones leans toward slotting a wider range of movies

When Kent Jones took the reins of the New York Film Festival last year from its leader of 25 years, Richard Pena all eyes were focused on how his stewardship would shift the tenor, tone and aesthetic of the venerable 50-year-old fest. Now, with the full 2013 lineup ready to launch Sept. 27, observers can start to tease out the differences between the new and the old.

Just don’t ask Jones what they are. “Richard and I are different people with different temperaments, but that’s something I have to let other people describe,” he says. “Besides, going into something with a preconceived idea of how you would overhaul it doesn’t strike me as a good idea.”

Still, take a look at Jones’ main slate and sidebar programming for the 51st annual NYFF, running through Oct. 13, and certain elements stand out. The main slate follows the trend of the past few years, stretching from prestige studio fare (Paul Greengrass’ opener “Captain Phillips,” the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Spike Jonze’s closer “Her”) to international titles both buzzy (Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises”) and challenging (Tsai Ming-liang’s “Stray Dogs,” Corneliu Porumboiu’s “When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism”). But whereas in the past the fest’s main slate often comprised between 27 and 30 pics — the 2012 roster came in at 32 — this year’s weighs in at 36.

Comedies also make up a large chunk of the 2013 edition, from Ben Stiller’s centerpiece fi lm “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to Declan Lowney’s “Alan Partridge” to Richard Curtis’ ultra-accessible romantic comedy “About Time” — a light-hearted surprise in a fest known for serious-minded selections. A sizable contingent of pics hail from the U.K., including “Partridge,” “About Time” and Ralph Fiennes’ sophomore helming effort “The Invisible Woman.”

Festival organizers may demur at enumerating the differences between Jones and Pena, but when Jones acknowledges, “We run discussions differently, I suppose,” his laid-back vibe suggests a notable change from Pena’s intensity. And when talking about the main slate’s inclusion of “About Time,” Jones owns up to an abiding love for an earlier Curtis crowdpleaser: “I am an unapologetic fan of ‘Love Actually,’ ” he says. It’s not something you can imagine coming out of Pena’s mouth.

As Jones characterizes his first NYFF lineup, the recurring theme is surprise — all the pics on the main slate astonished him in some way, from the resonance of Agnieszka Holland’s four-hour miniseries “Burning Bush” to the thematic complexity of “The Wind Rises.”

He espouses the span of the 2013 festival, from the artsy to the accessible, as a snapshot of film not as an industry but as an art. “There is such a thing as cinema that stands apart from commercial forces and can be looked at seriously and critically, separate from the marketplace,” he argues.

With a bigger main slate this year, it’s tempting to conclude that under Jones, the festival’s definition of what constitutes cinema is less narrow than it has been. But that’s not accurate, according to fest organizers. “The addition of a few more films just means that Kent liked a few more films this year,” says Rose Kuo, exec director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which presents the festival every year.

Jones says the tight, rigorously curated main slate is a defining feature of the festival that won’t change.

A longtime film writer and critic, Jones was associate director of programming at the Film Society from 1998 to 2009, and beginning in 2002, was also on the NYFF selection committee. Even when he exited those gigs to become exec director of the World Cinema Foundation, he continued to write for FSLC publication Film Comment.

Recent years have seen the rise of three showcase NYFF screenings (opening, centerpiece, closing) often reserved for high-profile world premieres, plus “secret screenings” that have yielded awards-season buzz magnets “Hugo” and “Lincoln.” All of that has helped raise an overall awareness that the New York Film Festival traditionally provides a notable U.S. berth for the movies that will dominate year-end awards discussions — a thrust NYFF organizers have been touting all along.

That’s something Sony’s Columbia Pictures is banking on as it brings Tom Hanks starrer “Captain Phillips” to the fest’s opening night after having bowed “The Social Network” in the same spot in 2010.

“I think when you have an opening night slot, it’s meaningful,” says Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal, whose studio will debut “Captain Phillips” in theaters Oct. 11, two weeks after its NYFF premiere. “It affirms the pedigree and importance of our movie, and the buzz out of the New York Film Festival builds incredible momentum that will carry us through to our opening and beyond.”

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