The New York Film Festival is sometimes pegged as a snooty, exclusive affair — uptown, out of the way, very much the terrain of the clichéd Lincoln Center cultural elite.
Kent Jones, who has been director of the festival since 2012 and is stepping down after its 57th edition, which opens Friday and runs through Oct. 13, would like to stress that’s not at all the case.
"For various reasons, it’s easy for people in what we’ll call general culture, whatever that is, for things to skew in a direction against what is considered to be esoteric," Jones says. "We seem to be labeled as esoteric and that’s precisely the opposite of what we want to do."
This year’s main slate bears that out: It consists of 29 features culled from across the globe, from some of the most important and vibrant filmmakers working today. Few if any of them could be dismissed as simply "esoteric."
The festival opens with one of the most anticipated movies of the year: Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour epic "The Irishman," which reunites the icon with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time since "Casino," in 1995. In the decades-spanning movie, De Niro plays hit man Frank Sheeran; Pesci is the Pennsylvania mob kingpin Russell Bufalino and Al Pacino co-stars as Jimmy Hoffa.
"It represents an opportunity for him and Robert De Niro to go back and pick up the thread that they first picked up in 1973 with ‘Mean Streets,’ and also that Joe Pesci became a part of with ‘Raging Bull,’" Jones says. "And what I mean by that is, a cinema that’s rooted in a life that those guys knew … and it comes alive through the gestures and through the language and through the body language and through the people, so that it’s almost like a beat of music.
"They’re going back to it at a very, very different moment in their lives and able to do something that very few people are able to do, which is to reflect back on what they’ve done before and, at the same time, build from that," he adds.
The centerpiece selection, "Marriage Story," stars A-listers Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s story of a couple divorcing and the impact that has on their son.
"It is really funny and it’s also really harrowing," Jones says.
The rest of the slate includes some of the most acclaimed movies on the festival circuit this year, from "The Host" director Bong Joon-Ho’s "Parasite" to Pedro Almodóvar’s deeply moving "Pain and Glory," which reunites the Spanish master with his longtime star Antonio Banderas.
Other potential discoveries include the French film "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," widely considered by the critics and audiences that have seen it to be among the year’s best movies. It’s written and directed by Céline Sciamma, in which an 18th-century female painter falls in love with her subject, a rebellious young woman. "Varda by Agnès," the final film of the legendary Agnès Varda will play at Lincoln Center, as will new movies from Brazil ("Bacurau"), Uruguay ("The Moneychanger"), Japan ("A Girl Missing"), Portugal ("Vitalina Varela") and elsewhere.
New York-centric movies have a big presence here, too. The festival closes with "Motherless Brooklyn," Edward Norton’s adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel, in which Alec Baldwin plays a thinly-disguised Robert Moses.
The spotlight section includes "The Cotton Club Encore," Francis Ford Coppola’s restored and elongated version of his 1984 epic about the eponymous institution. It’s also got screenings of "Uncut Gems," the Diamond District-set thriller starring Adam Sandler that opens later this year and the New York-filmed "Joker."
Most notably, it will see the world premiere of "American Trial: The Eric Garner Story," a combination of documentary and fiction with real legal teams and no script that imagines the trial for Officer Daniel Pantaleo that never happened.
The only real way to sum it up, is this: NYFF remains a festival purely about the movies, period, programmed by experts who love them and want you to feel something while watching them, too.
"What we’re doing is saying, ‘This is what excites us. And come see it. If you hate it, great. We don’t care whether you hate it, we just care that you come and you react to it. And if you love it, that’s great too," Jones adds. "And if you have questions about it, that’s great. And if you don’t have any questions and you just want a moment, whatever, that’s the whole point. The whole point is sharing it."