09/29/2012 06:18 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2012

At the 50th New York Film Festival You Root for the Fish!

For its 50th edition, the NYFF has pulled out all the stops with an array of films that highlight the enormous range and versatility of cinema. Culled from what fest organizers deem the year's crème de la crème, the lineup stretches from the artistry of Amour by Michael Haneke, arguably the greatest living filmmaker, to the enchantments of The Life of Pi by Ang Lee, to the pulpy provocations of The Paperboy by Lee Daniels. With two additional screens at the new Elinor Bunin Munroe theater, plus sidebars on past masterworks, as well as the legendary Paris cinema of the '50s, the fest, more than ever, marks a stellar event in the cultural life of the city and beyond.

And expect, of course, an array of boundary-pushing arthouse fare. For example, Memories Look at Me from China's Ji Yi Wang Zhe Wo, a baggy family visit that diehard cinephiles and fans of Yasujiro Ozu will find rewarding, while others will balk at watching the heroine pick wax out of her father's ears in real time, if they haven't stumbled for the exit long before.

There's an unvoiced sentiment at the NYFF that because each film has been anointed and sanctioned, you're a doofus if you don't get it. In fact, in past seasons the fest has been accused of privileging grim miserabilist art films that shut out commoners. This year though -- and increasingly in the recent past -- the slots of Opening Night, Centerpiece, and Closing Night are claimed by world premieres of prestige studio films (such as this year's closer Flight by Robert Zemeckis with Denzel Washington). For its 50th (Program Director Richard Pena's parting shot) the fest has struck a remarkable balance between art, commerce, and work with a foot in each that's likely to please more of the people more of the time.

Here's a list of must-sees from among films I've viewed so far:

The Life of Pi by Ang Lee has attracted so much praise that you likely already know it's the tale of an adolescent Indian boy who, as sole survivor of a shipwreck, finds himself sharing a small craft somewhere over the Mariana Trench with a Bengal tiger. Based on the novel by Yann Martel, the film is awash in a type of pan spirituality -- "the whole of life becomes an act of letting go "blah blah" -- purveyed by middle schools to distract their wards from drugs and sex.

But once Pi sheds its clunky framing device of a story about a story -- almost a pornographic tease -- the 3-D film unfurls a cabinet of wonders that pushes the envelop far beyond the cheesiness of Avatar. Among the many scenes of jaw-dropping beauty: a ghost whale arcs across the night sea; the still, golden dawn after a storm and shipwreck that bests Titanic. You don't have to buy into the religioso stuff to thrill at Ang Lee's visual glories. From the press conference, I got the sense that the famously versatile director was above all excited about exploring the esthetic possibilities of 3D and using it "as a language of its own."

Night Across the Street by Raoul Ruiz. The final work from the Chilean, Paris-based filmmaker unfurls in the porous border between life and death. If there's a discernible subject to this film, it concerns a bookish, philosophically inclined office worker contemplating his retirement and -- in the form of a gun-toting assassin -- the specter of encroaching death.

Ruiz is not for those requiring a clear cut narrative. Drawing heavily on surrealist dream states you'd find in Andre Breton, he navigates the viewer through reflections on time as a string of marbles (with no marble the same size); silver seascapes of haunting ambiguity; interiors marked by doors that suggest black-bordered photos of the departed; encounters with the hero's childhood idols Long John Silver and Beethoven, which includes the composer's hilarious pratfall on a soccer field. Playful and surprising throughout, the film is a poignant capstone to a signal oeuvre.

Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. You ain't never seen a documentary like this. Dispensing with voiceover, musical score, or explicit argument, the filmmakers spirit us along on a commercial fishing boat expedition in the dark and gleaming damp of pre-dawn. It's documentary as unmediated immersion in a world we mostly take for granted in our fish-eating culture, which appears to be depleting the ocean. After viewing this vision of the life aquatic, though, you may not want to rush out to Citarella.

What's on display here is nothing short of wholesale slaughter as giant nets haul in their Babel of struggling creatures, lending new resonance to the phrase "take the bait." Such is the strategy of the filmmakers you're down on the slimy, bloody decks with the fish regarding the world through their POV. At one point the camera holds on a fish's lopped off head, apparently somewhat alive, as it lolls about in the gore. Hell, you root for the fish.

Though rough-going, these scenes are interspliced with images of jewel-like beauty rivaling abstract paintings splattered across the night's black canvas. In an indelible scene, underwater cameras follow gulls dive-bombing the sea. At one point the camera holds interminably on a slack-jawed, glaucous-eyed fisherman relaxing below decks. I lost patience with this time-out in real time. Yet after, the image haunted me as a brilliant reflection of how the slaughter that's all in a day's work blurs the lines between the human predators and their victims. As if the living sea exacts its revenge.