NEW YORK - The 54th New York Film Festival kicked off Friday under grey autumn skies, cloaked by an unusual degree of topicality.
Ava DuVernay's documentary on mass incarceration, "The 13th," opened the festival, the first documentary to ever mark the start of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's prestigious celebration. Taking its name from the 13th amendment, DuVernay's film traces the criminalization of African Americans from the abolishment of slavery up to today's overcrowded prisons and Black Lives Matter protests.
It's a portrait of racial dominion through history, by names as varied as Jim Crow and the "war on drugs."
"We can no longer say that prison is a place bad people go because it's much more complicated than that," DuVernay said in an interview ahead of the film's premiere.
"The 13th" will go from Lincoln Center to Netflix, where it will debut next week. As the first movie with a streaming release to play in such a coveted spot at the New York Film Festival, the documentary's selection reflects the changing cinematic landscape.
One of the festival's other much-anticipated world premieres, Ang Lee's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," was conceived as an argument for the theatrical experience. Lee's adaption of Ben Fountain's novel about an Iraq war hero on a victory tour in Dallas, was made in 3-D and with a much faster frame-rate than the traditional 24-frames-per-second to boost definition. (Only so many theatres are equipped to screen such a film, so the movie's festival premiere will be held across the street from Lincoln Center, at a multiplex.)
But both films — one made for the immediacy of the small screen, the other a spectacle tailored for the big screen — receive equally significant platforms at the festival.
"I was like: What are you talking about?" says DuVernay of her surprise at being chosen for opening night. "It wasn't made with any intention to be amplified on that scale. I made it to be a resource on Netflix: When you want to know about that thing, this will be here."
But "The 13th" — which DuVernay says was timed purposefully to the election — was immediately hailed Friday by critics as urgent and necessary. The New York Times called it "powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming."
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" will premiere at the festival Oct. 14 ahead of its November release. But there are many other films in the New York Film Festival's carefully curated slate that make forceful cases for cinema, big and small.
There's Kenneth Lonergan's heart-breaking "Manchester by the Sea," Barry Jenkins' lyrical coming-of-age tale "Moonlight" and Maren Ade's celebrated comedy "Toni Erdmann." Between them, they encompass some of the top breakouts of the film festival circuit, from Sundance, Cannes and Telluride.
But unlike those buzz factories, the New York Film Festival, led by festival director Kent Jones, generally offers a more sober place for assessment and celebration of some of the year's best films from around the world.
Also in the main slate is Gianfranco Rosi's migrant crisis documentary "Fire at Sea," Ken Loach's Palme d'Or-winner "I, Daniel Blake," Jim Jarmusch's "Paterson," starring Adam Driver, and Olivier Assayas' "Personal Shopper," with Kirsten Stewart. The stars of the last two will be individually honoured, as well.
Two other world premieres are also on the docket, one which could factor in this fall's Oscar race, another likely to be counted among 2017's best.
Mike Mills ("Beginners") will debut his upcoming "20th Century Woman," a 1970s-set tale about a boy growing up with a single mother in Southern California, starring Annette Bening. And as the festival's closing night film, James Gray will premiere his "The Lost City of Z," an adaption of David Grann's book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP