NEW YORK — With a pair of much-anticipated book adaptions, two heavyweight American filmmakers frame the 52nd annual New York Film Festival.
The Lincoln Center event, arguably the most prestigious film festival in the country, kicks off Friday with the world premiere of David Fincher's "Gone Girl," a thriller starring Ben Affleck and adapted from Gillian Flynn's best-selling novel. On Oct. 4, Paul Thomas Anderson's stab at translating Thomas Pynchon to the screen, "Inherent Vice," with Joaquin Phoenix, will premiere at the festival's centerpiece.
With a finely curated main slate of about 30 features, as well as a particularly robust documentary sidebar, a batch of restored revivals and a retrospective of Joseph L. Mankiewicz ("Cleopatra," ''Guys and Dolls"), the two-week festival is, as ever, a cinephile's dream of big-screen delights. But the gala screenings of Fincher's and Anderson's latest films cast long shadows over even the most illustrious of programs.
"You're talking about two of the most genuinely visionary talents in cinema," says Kent Jones, director of the festival. "They're both L.A.-based, yes, but they have very different ideas about what it is to tell a story, about what a movie is, about the image."
There's little that obviously binds them except for their high regard and — even in period films — their electric contemporariness. Fincher, the director of "Se7en," ''Fight Club" and "The Social Network" (which also opened the NYFF in 2010), has regularly plumbed the darkest depths of psychology with cool precision. Anderson ("Magnolia," ''There Will Be Blood"), on the other hand, is a student of Robert Altman and embraces a deliberately looser approach, building his films organically.
In "Gone Girl," Affleck stars as a husband under the suspicious glare of the media and the scrutiny of the police when his wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing.
"It is one of those movies where you sort of put your (privates) in a vice and two and half hours of twisting later..."says Fincher, chuckling. "We had meetings (with Affleck) and discussed that. I said, 'This is not a Cary Grant role.' It's oddly more of a Michael Douglas role where the lead — the avatar for taking the audience through the movie — gets tortured."
While a page-turner like "Gone Girl" is ready fodder for a movie, "Inherent Vice" is the first adaptation of Pynchon, the elaborately dense post-modernist. The trippy, '70s-set So-Cal detective tale continues Anderson's series of California stories.
The megawatt premieres of both have boosted the festival-circuit presence of the New York Film Festival, but Lincoln Center's Film Society has always sought to stay above the fray. It gives no awards and hosts no film market for distributors.
"The fact that we've stuck to our mission is why people want to come and do their films with us," says Jones, who's in his second year as director after 25 years of Richard Pena's stewardship. "It's exciting when the world premieres are movies by David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson. But in each case, it's incidental to the fact they're great movies."
"Citizenfour" is another premiere of a much different variety. Directed by Laura Poitras, who shared in the Pulitzer Prize awarded earlier this year to The Washington Post and The Guardian, it documents her early meetings with Edward Snowden, who first contacted Poitras about leaking thousands of National Security Agency documents.
Poitras' film leads a strong selection of documentaries including Ethan Hawke's "Seymour: An Introduction," Frederick Wiseman's "National Gallery," Albert Maysles' "Iris," Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Look of Silence" and Nick Broomfield's "Tales of the Grim Sleeper."
A number of films that present quintessentially New York tales will debut in the city of their inspiration. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" (the closing film of the festival) stars Michael Keaton as a former superhero movie star trying to mount a serious play in Broadway's St. James Theatre.
The Sundance hit "Whiplash," which culminates at Carnegie Hall, is about the drama of an ultra-competitive Manhattan music conservatory. The Martin Scorsese co-directed documentary "The 50 Year Argument" profiles the New York Review of Books and its impassioned literary minds.
Oren Moverman's "Time Out of Mind" stars Richard Gere as a New York homeless man. Moverman shot Gere panhandling to unknowing passersby, capturing him with long lenses from distance and soaking up the surrounding cacophony of New York.
"This is the way I hear the city," said Moverman after a screening of the film. "We wanted to do everything that most people who shoot in New York take out of the movie. They want clean sounds so they work with it and manipulate it. We wanted it to be dirty."
The festival runs through Oct. 12.