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Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Joseph Mazzello are shown in a scene from The Social Network, which opens the New York Film Festival. ((Merrick Morton/Columbia Pictures/Associated Press))

Richard Pena, the program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, has moderated countless Q&As following films in the 23 years he's spent overseeing the annual New York Film Festival.

"Jean-Luc Godard once said, 'The cinema is what takes place between a screen and an audience,"' Pena says. "When I'm up there doing these Q&As, I maybe become that embodiment."

At the New York Film Festival, which begins its 48th annual edition Friday, those post-screening discussions between filmmaker and audience can sometimes feel like a battle line.

New York audiences, proud of their knowledge of cinema, are typically opinionated. The showcased films, too, often have much to say. 

As ever, that's true at this year's festival, which begins with the premiere of The Social Network on Friday at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. The film, directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, is one of the most anticipated of the year.

It's also a big get for the New York Film Festival, which is renowned for its tastefully curated selection of films — 28 this year — but often loses out to the Cannes and Toronto film festivals in glitzy premieres.

"It's a wonderful fit for both of us," says Pena, who also chairs the festival's selection committee.

'It's almost as if filmmakers are looking at the world and saying, "We love to record it, we love to reflect on it — we can't always explain it."' — Richard Pena, N.Y. Film Festival program director

"Hopefully, it points out what we think is the real cultural and cinematic significance of this film by having it as the opening act of the festival. And at the same time, they've done wonders for us by showing that, look, the festival's as open to great Hollywood films as we are to anywhere else in the world."

Acclaimed international films are always well attended at the festival, and 2010's offerings are no different. They include: Olivier Assayas's five-hour Carlos, a biopic of the 1970s terrorist Carlos the Jackal; Aurora, by the Romanian director Cristi Puiu, of the acclaimed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; and Film Socialisme, the latest from the 80-year-old Godard.

Serving as the festival centrepiece is The Tempest, a rendition of the Shakespeare play by Julie Taymor (who directed the 2007 love story Across the Universe). Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, starring Matt Damon, will close the festival. 

"One thing that really strikes me this year is how a number of filmmakers are employing approaches we might think of as anti-psychological," says Pena.

Pointing to the complex portrayal of the young Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and that of a real-life marathon runner who holds up banks in the Austrian film The Robber, Pena sees a number of movies that avoid easy interpretations of characters and allow for contradictions.

"It's almost as if filmmakers are looking at the world and saying, 'We love to record it, we love to reflect on it — we can't always explain it,"' says Pena. "Reality is awfully messy; there aren't easy answers."

They are also films sure to spark vibrant conversations among audiences.