09/28/2012 01:35 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2012

The New York Film Festival Turns 50

I'll admit that there are more movies I want to see at this year's New York Film Festival than usual.

But then, it's the festival's 50th anniversary -- so a special lineup is not unexpected. This year's festival marks an ending and a beginning. And its lineup seems to cast both a backward and forward glance. Again, not unexpected.

This festival marks the departure of Richard Pena as the festival's director, after a quarter-century in that position. Pena's trademark has been expanding the world of cinema represented at NYFF, particularly when it came to films from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The festival, when it started in 1962, began as a showcase for international filmmakers whose work otherwise might not have been seen in the U.S. -- both European and American. Pena's focus on providing that same service to filmmakers from other continents has brought mixed results: a blend of the crowd-pleasing and the head-scratching, as the festival championed films that too often seemed more chaff than wheat, what I've referred to as oat bran cinema that's meant to be good for you.

Still, this year's festival shows a continuing dedication to movies that can be both crowd-pleasing and intellectually satisfying. That's certainly true of Ang Lee's Life of Pi, which had its first screening (for the press) this morning and which delivered on the promise of Yann Martel's novel.

Still to come (and still to receive press screenings) are the festival's centerpiece, David Chase's film debut, Not Fade Away, and its closing night, Robert Zemeckis' Flight. The rest of the festival features work by such indy- and foreign-film favorites as Noah Baumbach, Brian De Palma, Michael Haneke, Alan Berliner, Lee Daniels, Abbas Kiarostami and Olivier Assayas.

Old-line directors -- Alian Resnais, the late Raul Ruiz -- offer callbacks to an earlier generation of NYFF lineups. The inclusion of work by prickly or hard-to-plumb auteurs such as Haneke and Kiarostami is a reflection of the taste that has dominated the festival during Pena's tenure.

This commentary continues on my website.