The New York Film Festival Nears 50

The annual event, which once focused on small international films, now has five galas and a bounty of already-celebrated films

Polanski. (Photo: Miguel Medina / AFP / Getty Images)

The first New York Film Festival, in 1963, featured Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, the then-30-year-old director’s Polish-language feature debut. “Film Fete Places Accent on Youth”, The New York Times headline read. Mr. Polanski was joined by established directors like Alain Resnais, with Muriel, and lesser-known names like Glauber Rocha, with Barravento, his feature debut at the fest.

That inaugural festival ran from Sept. 10 to Sept. 19, and the Sept. 20 cover of Time featured two of the actors from Knife in the Water, with the headline “Cinema as an International Art.” Two American directors were featured at that inaugural festival: Alex Segal, who had previously worked almost entirely in television, and Adolfas Mekas, with his debut feature, Hallelujah the Hills. The festival’s official program depicted a film canister covered in shipping labels and addressed to Lincoln Center – its international origin obscure.

This year, Mr. Polanski’s work will return to a festival that has changed a great deal since his debut. He will show Carnage, a Brooklyn-set theatrical adaptation with an A-list cast including Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet, which will be screened at an opening-night gala, buttressed by a centerpiece screening of My Week With Marilyn (directed by British TV veteran Simon Curtis, and starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe) and a closing night screening of The Descendants (Alexander Payne’s return to cinema, starring George Clooney).

There are also two more galas planned, one in honor of David Cronenberg’s new Freud/Jung drama A Dangerous Method and, the other to toast the Antonio Banderas thriller The Skin I Live In, directed by Pedro Almodóvar.

While he will not and—given his longstanding legal issues in the U.S.—cannot be in attendance, Mr. Polanski’s history looms over the festival from its first night. The director’s repute and sway grew on the back of his early success and his desire for mass acceptance. The same could be said of the festival’s. But in contrast to Mr. Polanski’s internationally minded art, the festival at which he first gained acclaim can seem inward-looking, often celebrating films that already have distribution and are surefire Oscar-season winners.

In recent years, the galas have been a convenient spot to slot the highest-profile films and directors in the run-up to early winter’s Oscar race, as exemplified by of the two additional galas beyond the opening, closing and centerpiece screenings, which allow Messrs. Cronenberg and Almodóvar parties of their own. The opening-night spot that went in 2001 to Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir and in 2004 to Agnes Jaoui’s Look at Me—films that, despite their directors’ pedigrees, would seem to the mass American audience to illustrate that distancing that has occurred from that 1963 Time headline about “Cinema as an International Art”—went in 2005 to George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, in 2006 to Stephen Frears’s The Queen, in 2007 to Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, and in 2010 to David Fincher’s The Social Network. (2008 and 2009 saw The Class and Wild Grass, hugely anticipated French films that had played at Cannes.) Justin Timberlake et al. posed on a red carpet for last year’s opener, and Kate Winslet, fresh from promoting Carnage at the Venice Film Festival, may well do the same this year.

Has the gala changed the opening night? “I don’t know that they’ve changed that much,” said Richard Peña, program director for the Festival. “I think perhaps they’ve become, at times, a little more sparkling. When the N.Y.F.F. started it was quite literally the only game in town. Now, we’re not the only game in town, we’re not the only game on the continent, we’re not the only game in the country. So our opening nights are the chance to send out a little bit of a signal.”

“Certainly over the last 24 years of my reign, there have been less foreign language films, for example, as opening nights and more films that might feature bigger stars. I think that’s a function of a lot of things that have changed.” Mr. Peña (who, in the interest of disclosure, taught a lecture course on film that this reporter took in college) declined to comment on the quality of both Carnage and The Social Network, though he mentioned without prompting that both high-profile films were of “a slightly different breed than when the festival was opening with Truffaut films.”

The New York Film Festival Nears 50