Artist Larry Rivers, creator of the first New York Film Festival poster, painting a billboard to promote the inagural NYFF.

At the heart of the New York Film Festival—as I understand it—is a singular notion. That is the belief that movies are an art form. The NYFF considers and celebrates cinema as art. Such a notion isn't radical today even though it draws an imaginary line and places movies on one side or the other. In fact, where that line is actually drawn drives a lively, ongoing debate about movies. It is a discussion that fuels today's film culture. Fifty years ago, however, such a proposition was rather novel. Movies were praised as art oversees or at MoMA in Midtown and at Cinema 16 screenings downtown, but a film festival to celebrate the art of film was a bold idea in 1960s New York.

“Cinema as an international art,” proclaimed Time Magazine in a September 1963 edition pegged to the opening of the first New York Film Festival. On the cover, it featured a film still from Roman Polanski's Knife In The Water. His first feature screened at that inagural New York Film Festival, as did new films by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi (The Sea) and Alex Segal (All the Way Home).

The first NYFF opened with the provocative second feature by Luis Buñuel in the fall of '63 with a screening and after party at Philharmonic Hall (now known as Avery Fisher Hall). In Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel a room full of well-heeled couples enjoy a glittering dinner party inside a fancy mansion only to find themselves unable to leave. While they're physically free to go at any time they can't seem to muster the psychological will to walk out the door.

“It wasn't the sort of place people usually see a movie in,” noted Time Magazine in the cover story the week after the first NYFF sprouted in the unlikeliest of locations, inside a new concert hall. The 60s saw the creation of this country's first performing arts center of its kind and American composer William Schuman became the first president of Lincoln Center. Against formidable resistance he advocated that film should be considered alongside the performing arts.

“The pioneers have broken through,” Time Magazine proclaimed, highlighting the work of François Truffaut and Alain Resnais in France, Federico Fellino and Michelangelo Antonioni in Italy, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden, Satyajit Ray in India, Akira Kurosawa in Japan, Buñuel in Mexico and Andrzej Wadja and Polanski in Poland. “The world is on its way to a great cinema culture.”

While Cannes, Venice, Rotterdam, London and Berlin had been celebrating cinema and its auteurs at festivals for years, there were few such events in this country. The birth of the New York Film Festival in 1963 came from a rather short-lived marriage. Amos Vogel, whose Cinema 16 film society was screening arty movies to increasing numbers in New York, joined forces with Richard Roud, head of the London Film Festival. The New York Film Festival was an immediate hit but faced financial problems early on that nearly cut it short after just a few editions. Roud become the first program director when Lincoln Center president Shuman and friend Martin Segal created the Film Society of Lincoln Center in the 60s to save NYFF and preserve its presence alongside the other art forms that were being showcased at NYC's still young arts center on the Upper West Side.

The formula for the New York Film Festival was pretty simple. Twenty some feature films comprise a main slate, padded with other selections to round out the annual program. The same template remains today as the fest opens its 50th edition even though the festival now offers more sidebars to fill out the Film Society's additional screens on 65th St.

That Time Magazine article from 1963 celebrated what it called the leaders of an international cinema movement that was reaching an increasingly wider following in the United States, offering audiences an alternative to the mainstream movies coming from the Hollywood studio system.

“It is the whole of art in one art,” Time underscored, adding, “The movies have suddenly and powerfully emerged as a new and brilliant international art, indeed as perhaps the central and characteristic art of the age.”

Citing the sold out screenings at the first New York Film Festival and the quality of the films shown that first year, Time imagined that the festival, “May well mark for Americans a redefinition of what movies are and and who it is that sees them.”

The burden of the New York Film Festival, and later of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, was to prove Time Magazine right. Beginning in his 30s, when he arrived at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in the late 1980s, Richard Peña has now served as artistic director of NYFF for 25 years, picking up the mantle from Richard Roud just as plans for the Film Society's Walter Reade Theater were coming to fruition.

“Film, at its best, can be as profound, as moving, as resonant as the finest in opera, ballet, music or all other artistic media,” Richard Peña explains in notes on the festival published in a special edition of Playbill being distributed at this year's New York Film Festival. Writing with Film Society executive director Rose Kuo, he adds, “This belief was very much behind the effort to bring film to Lincoln Center soon after its founding. The idea of a major arts center including film or other audiovisual media among its offerings may seem de rigeur today, but it certainly wasn’t back in the early 60s.”

Welcoming festival attendees to opening night, Peña draws a direct link between NYFF's black and white opening night film back in 1963 and the 3D spectacle that will open the festival tonight, calling Ang Lee's Life of Pi and Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, “Challenging philosophical fables about the ability to take control of one’s own destiny.”

Yesterday, in the lobby of Alice Tully Hall, Richard Peña warmly welcomed Ang Lee as the filmmaker arrived unnoticed at Lincoln Center to supervise a tech screening of his second film to open the New York Film Festival. Lee's The Ice Storm kicked off the festival in 1997.

A vivid 3D spectacle, the film based on an acclaimed novel is screening in front of an audience for the first time this morning at a press and industry screening ahead of tonight's NYFF Opening Night. Only The New York Times' A.O. Scott got a sneak peek at the anticipated studio production prior to today's screenings.

“The opening night selection, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, is a lavish reminder that film nowadays is sometimes not film at all, but rather a rapidly evolving digital art form,” Scott wrote in today's Times, praising the film for its, “Crowd-pleasing sincerity and for its sheer visual grandeur.”

You won't find much nostalgia for the NYFF's early days at this year's festival. The selection committee—Richard Péna, who will leave his post as FSLC program director later this year, associate program director Scott Foundas, along with film critics Melissa Anderson, Todd McCarthy and Amy Taubin—have instead curated a program that celebrates the wide range of cinema today.

Despite programming a few classics and restored films, this year's festival seems to be more about looking at the present and future of movies than reminiscing about the past. That said, in a rare moment of reflection, current and past members  of the selection committee will participate in a free panel discussion tomorrow night (Saturday, September 29). Moderated by screenwriter and Focus Features' chief James Schamus, the session is titled, “50 Years of Film Culture: The NYFF Selection Committee.”

A.O. Scott summed it up well in his opening day dispatch, “If you want news about where film is now and intimations of where it might be going—evidence that it is very much alive—you can glean a lot of wonderfully contradictory information from the 30 features in the main slate.”

The 50th New York Film Festival starts today and continues through Sunday, October 14th. Tomorrow's “50 Years of Film Culture” conversation is free and open to the public on a space available basis. It will also be streamed live on YouTube.

Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (@filmlinc) and a founder of indieWIRE. Follow him on Twitter at @eug.