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New York Film Fest: New Chief Explains 2013 Picks (Q&A)

Kent Jones New York Film Festival - H 2013

Kent Jones tells THR why he's opening with Tom Hanks' "Captain Phillips," the reasons he chose Ben Stiller's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and how Hollywood is friendly to the Gotham gathering.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

The 51st New York Film Festival kicks off Sept. 27 with the world premiere of Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips. This year also marks a changing of the guard: After 25 years at its helm, Richard Pena stepped down last year, and Kent Jones, 53, who served on the festival's selection committee from 2007 to 2009, has taken over as director of programming.

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How has it been stepping into Pena's shoes?

It's different. Richard and I had worked closely together. So I had a real working relationship with the festival. Having said that, it's from a different perspective now, but I will only know how different after going through the year. Ask me on Oct. 14. I'll probably be asleep.

In the '60s when it was founded, the festival really helped define the film canon. What's its mandate today?

The mandate has always been pretty simple. We look at all the films that come our way and make selections that everyone's happy with. In the '60s, every selection and every omission was freighted with a certain amount of significance. Now, you can say it's still the same, but it's a different landscape. You're choosing from a landscape of many, many more movies and many cultures that have opened up to film culture.

Why did you choose Captain Phillips for opening night?

It's a pretty masterfully made film. As brilliant as Tom Hanks is in it, he is sharing the screen with four incredible nonactors for the entire movie. It's really an ensemble piece rather than a one-man show. I'm dazzled by the sophistication of that movie.

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How about the two other gala choices, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Her?

Mitty is a very personal film for Ben Stiller, very lyrical and lovely, a real affirmation of pursuing your dreams and not letting yourself be swallowed up by the machinery of life -- and I mean that as a pun because his character works at Life magazine as it's downsizing and going digital. It's a pocket comic epic and a New York story, too. As for Her, Spike Jonze is a director who is always surprising. He's taken a premise [a guy falling in love with a computer's operating system] that's surprising enough. That he actually makes it viable comically is another surprise. And that he then makes it viable emotionally is astonishing.

Given those three choices, is it fair to say the festival has become more Hollywood-friendly?

I would put it the other way. I would say Hollywood has become more friendly to the festival. Bigger companies didn't used to want their films in the New York Film Festival because they didn't want them tainted with the festival brush. I don't think that's the case now. Cinema is a big tent that includes a lot of different people making different kinds of movies.