The New York Film Festival unspools its 54th edition Friday night against a larger social backdrop that can sometimes feel dominated by instability and chaos, characterized by everything from the impending presidential election to police-community relations and terrorism fears.

“Life is always complicated,” says festival director Kent Jones in an email. “Sometimes it seems more complicated than usual. I’m not sure that it’s any more complicated now than it was during the last decade, but it’s certainly less sedate: A lot of stuff that had been hidden away is now out in the open.”

As if to reflect the urgency of 2016, the festival opens with Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which explores the epidemic of mass incarceration of African-Americans in the United States.

“Ava’s movie is an impassioned work, created in a fury. ... She’s true to the historical synthesis she’s created because she’s true to herself, and that’s always the crucial difference,” Jones says.

Other selections might seem less overly connected to the here-and-now, but the ties are there.

Kristen Stewart stars in Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” a ghost story centered on a celebrity wardrobe stylist mourning her brother. In the picture, Jones says, “The disturbances of the uncanny and the tension of a thriller direct us to look closely at some of the things we take for granted. ... In this case, it’s the experience of texting: You check your ever-present iPhone, you wait for something to come, to respond, you wait again.”

Beyond those two selections, the slate of offerings is rich with the cinema’s great talents.

“Elle,” a revenge drama from filmmaker Paul Verhoeven (“Total Recall”), finds Isabelle Huppert’s video game executive hunting a man who attacked her.

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, “Julieta,” gets its moment at Lincoln Center, along with top Oscar contenders “Moonlight,” an epic portrait of a gay African-American man in Miami, and “Manchester by the Sea,” in which Casey Affleck cares for his nephew after a sudden and tragic loss.

Other movie stars represented include Annette Bening in “20th Century Women,” Natalie Portman in “Jackie,” and everyone from Steve Martin to Vin Diesel in Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”

In other words, it’d be pretty hard to go wrong.

“For us, it’s a matter of approaching each movie in this frame of mind: Does it excite me? Does it surprise me? Does it sustain all the way to its end point? We’re coming at it with those criteria, period,” Jones says.

IF YOU GO: The New York Film Festival runs from Friday through Oct. 16 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. For more, visit