The 5 Biggest Stories at the 49th New York Film Festival

The 49th edition of the New York Film Festival kicks off tonight with a gala screening of the Oscar hopeful Carnage, directed by Roman Polanski and starring a powerhouse cast that includes three Academy Award winners (Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz) and one nominee and respected character actor (John C. Reilly). Although it comes at the tail end of the festival season, following the higher-profile Toronto and Venice media circuses, the NYFF has its fair share of big premieres and A-list attendees jostling for awards attention. Here are the five biggest stories to keep an eye on during this year's festival, which runs from September 30 to October 6.

1. Will Carnage Cause Some Havoc?
After receiving a decidedly muted reception at the Venice film festival in early September, Polanski's latest feature is headlining New York's festival, hoping to score some of the same hosannas that the city's critics lavished on his previous film, The Ghost Writer, last year. Carnage certainly has the right pedigree: in addition to that amazing cast, the film is based on the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, which scored big at the 2009 Tony Awards. A batch of rave reviews from the notoriously hard-to-please New York press corps could revive some of the awards buzz that dimmed to a murmur following Venice.

2. George Clooney Can't Stop
The last time the Cloon-ster had two films in awards contention was 2005, when he travelled the country pimping for his second directorial effort Good Night and Good Luck and his supporting turn in the thriller Syriana. The effort paid off: he received Best Director and Best Picture nominations for the former and eventually won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the latter. Six years later, he's back in the same enviable position; while his fourth film as a director, The Ides of March, isn't playing at the NYFF (it opens in theaters next Friday), he is starring in the festival's closing night presentation The Descendants, from Alexander Payne. Clooney plays a middle-aged husband and father that struggles to reconnect with his grown children while his wife lies in the hospital in a coma. The film -- and Clooney's performance in particular -- received strong notices at Toronto (whereas the buzz on Ides is a little weak) so an equally strong showing in New York would likely him a lock for a Best Actor nod.

3. Michelle Williams Has That Three-Nomination Itch
While both the NYFF's opening and closing night films have premiered at other festivals, the same isn't true for its centerpiece attraction, My Week with Marilyn, which presents a week in the life of screen legend Marilyn Monroe during the filming of 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl, in which she was directed by and starred opposite Laurence Olivier. This will be the launching pad for the film, as well as the inevitable Oscar campaigns for Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh, who star as Monroe and Olivier respectively. Though both actors have been nominated before -- Williams was in contention just last year for Blue Valentine -- neither of them has taken home a statue. Playing a famous dead celebrity is one sure-fire way to win over voters; just ask Jamie Foxx or Marion Cotillard. So when and if Williams and/or Branagh final wins an Oscar next year, credit the NYFF with the early assist.

4. Straight Outta Purgatory
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's latest documentary about the West Memphis Three, received an unexpected new happy ending in August when Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin were freed from prison due to a complicated plea deal. Their release came through just as the filmmakers were preparing to premiere Purgatory in Toronto. The version that will play in New York (followed by an HBO airing in November) will have an all-new ending that touches on the circumstances surrounding their release. It's hard to ask for a better finale to a decades-long case and film series.

5. Travel the World Without Leaving New York
The NYFF programming team always does a stellar job bringing the cream of the crop of international cinema to New York audiences. This year's offerings include the latest from celebrated Spanish director Pedro Almodovar (The Skin I Live In), a much buzzed-about Mexican thriller (Miss Bala), the newest tear-jerker from the Belgian Dardenne brothers (The Kid With a Bike) and the French-made homage to the silent Hollywood classics of yesteryear (The Artist). All of these movies will likely crop up on many critics' best-of-the-year list come December, so here's a prime opportunity for you to be ahead of the curve.

For more information on the New York Film Festival's line-up of screenings and special programs, visit the festival's official website.

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