The 23rd New York Film Festival kicks off tonight with "Ran," Akira Kurosawa's 160-minute epic based on Shakespeare's "King Lear," followed by a black-tie reception at the Tavern on the Green.

It is thought by many to be the last film for the 75-year-old director, who electrified the film world with "Yojimbo," "Seven Samurai" and "Throne of Blood."

The selection is particularly appropriate for a festival that, unlike last year's (which introduced such new American talents as Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers), is dominated by established foreign directors.

Besides "Ran," the 27 films (from 11 countries) include "Hail Mary," a contemporary Christ story by old New Waver Jean-Luc Godard that created a scandal (all the way to the pope) when it premiered in France; Jacques Rivette's "Renoir, the Boss" (Springsteen, eat your heart out); Alain Tanner's "No Man's Land"; and Joseph Losey's "Steaming" (the late British director's last film), starring Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles. The festival will close with "Chaos," by the Taviani brothers ("Night of the Shooting Stars.")

Perhaps because of the shortage of new blood, anticipation runs somewhat lower than usual this year.

Among the films eagerly awaited are two documentaries: Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter"), who 21 years ago made a film about 7-year-olds called "7 Up," catches up with his old subjects in "28 Up"; and prize-winning American documentarian Ken Burns ("Brooklyn Bridge") makes his festival debut with "Huey Long," a feature-length film detailing the flamboyant career and violent demise of the erstwhile Louisiana politico. ("Huey Long" was honored in Washington last week in the Smithsonian's Frank Nelson Doubleday Lectures series.)

The lone American entry among narrative films is "Chain Letters," which many hope will be the crossover film for longtime New York avant-gardist Mark Rappaport.

The choice of which films will be included in the festival is assigned to a committee of critics that this year included Time's Richard Corliss, Vogue's Molly Haskell, the Chicago Reader's Dave Kehr, film historian David Thomson, and longtime festival director Richard Roud.

Informally, the New York Film Festival is part of a round of events, including the opening of the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera, that inaugurates the city's cultural season. The festival becomes the organizing occasion for a round of parties (Kurosawa was honored with a dinner at the Japan Society last night), and also performs an important function for distributors making decisions on which films to release nationwide in the coming year.

The highlights of the press screenings, which began earlier this week, have been the newly restored color prints of Michael Powell's daring and lustrous "Black Narcissus" and William Wellman's 1937 screwball comedy, "Nothing Sacred" (with a script by the incomparable Ben Hecht), as well as a delightful Yugoslavian comedy, Emir Kusturica's "When Father Was Away on Business," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes earlier this year.

The festival will run through Oct. 13 at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall.