Some film festivals clutter their lineups with high-profile attention seekers. And though the annual San Francisco International Film Festival doesn't skimp when it comes to celebrity talent, this truly distinctive event embraces the idea of a global film community, highlighting numerous films that don't shout out major cineplex appeal.
With the festival kicking off Thursday with "The Two Faces of January," a thriller starring Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen, here are 10 intriguing films in the mix. Check the festival's website, www.sffs.org, for screening locations and complete schedule. "Eastern Boys": Director Robin Campillo's drama is compelling and rewarding, not only because it's well-acted and technically polished, but also due to its taking surprising turns in narrative and thematic direction. A businessman (Olivier Rabourdin) arranges to "hook up" with a young hustler and gets more than he bargained for. Campillo addresses complex, uncomfortable topics ranging from immigration to prostitution. One of the best films of the lot here.
Screening dates: 9:10 p.m. Wednesday, 6 p.m. May 2, 8:45 p.m. May 4. "Palo Alto:" Movies chronicling the so-called life of teens in suburbia are so prevalent they almost make for a their own genre. Gia Coppola's spot-on cinematic adaptation of James Franco's intertwined tales of angsty adolescence captures the unease and difficulty of these difficult years far better than most. Emma Roberts is sensational as an aware teen with a crush on her high school soccer coach (Franco) who has dubious motives.
Screenings: 7:30 p.m. May 3 (only rush tickets available), film opens May 16 in select Bay Area theaters. "Child of God": Speaking of the here-there-everywhere Franco, the versatile Palo Alto native directed and co-wrote this film, one of the most bleak and disturbing movies I've seen in a while. Based on a novel by the always-sunny (just joshing) Cormac McCarthy, this beautifully shot endurance test puts us into the ravaged and unkempt mind of a 1960s violent Tennessee misfit who holes up in a cabin and does things so perverse we don't even want to mention them here. Scott Haze uncanningly portrays the depraved central character Lester Ballad. Trust me, only those with the strongest of stomachs should buy a ticket.
Screenings: 9:30 p.m. Friday, 3:45 p.m. Monday. "Ping Pong Summer": Every film festival needs an irresistible feel-good spirit booster like this one. Set in 1985, "Ping Pong" is an unfussy and predictable summer vacation story featuring a nerdy teen Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte) who falls for a cute girl (Emmi Shockley), makes a new best friend (Myles Massey) and tangles with two bullies. Susan Sarandon steals the film as the Yoda of coastal pingpong.
Screenings: 6:30 p.m. May 4, 8:45 p.m. May 7. "Abuse of Weakness": Two of today's most daring female artists -- actress Isabelle Huppert ("The Piano Teacher") and filmmaker Catherine Breillat ("Romance") -- team up for this unsettling semi-autobiographical character study arising from Breillat getting swindled by a con man after having suffered a series of strokes. This fascinating drama doesn't let anyone off the hook, including its main character. It's lined with upsetting points about loneliness, recovery and overarching artistic appetites and attractions. Huppert is remarkable, while French rapper Kool Shen bristles with masculine sexual energy.
Screening: 9 p.m. May 1 "Coast of Death": Man's utter insignificance and the indelible thumbprint he leaves on Earth are the central themes in director Lois Patiño's hypnotic, nearly wordless documentary that captures the ebb and flow of daily life on Spain's Galician coast. The lack of a narrative punch and the camera's expansive overview that turns humans into antlike beings is off-putting initially, but once you get into the meditative rhythm of "Coast of Death," it mesmerizes.
Screenings: 7 p.m. May 2, 9:15 p.m. May 3, 6:30 p.m. May 5. "Last Weekend": Patricia Clarkson is the greatest asset in this satisfying drama about a Labor Day family get-together at Lake Tahoe. Novelist Tom Dolby and co-director Tom Williams show a writerly touch bringing to life this vivid brood and its community of tight-knit friends. But it is Clarkson who takes command of the picture, making her mother character far more complicated than is the norm in modern family dramas. What a treasure this actress is.
Screenings: 6:30 p.m. May 2, 1 p.m. May 5. "Salvation Army": There's much to admire about novelist and filmmaker Abdellah Taa's semi-autobiographical exploration of a gay boy's life in Morocco. Taa captures the tension and repressed sexuality that exists there. But when the story, which unspools languidly, shifts to another point in time, the narrative comes undone, and the ending winds up emotionally incomplete.
Screenings: 9 p.m. May 2, 8:30 p.m. May 4, 6:30 p.m. May 6. "Young & Beautiful": Francois Ozon stirs things up once more with this eyebrow raiser about emotionally removed Isabelle (Marine Vacth), a 17-year-old who isn't lacking for material possessions, yet secretly opts to prostitute herself. Since this is Ozon, "Young" turns into a well-told, well-made character study that provocatively raises more questions than it answers.
Screenings: 9:30 p.m. Monday, 3:45 p.m. May 1; opens May 9 in select Bay Area theaters. "Chinese Puzzle": Oh, how unabashedly French this peppy finale in the Cédric Klapisch trilogy is. This third film journeys to Manhattan, where our cutie-pie hero Xavier (Romain Duris) is A, playing a crucial role in a birth; B, getting "married" to avoid immigration officials; and C, meeting up with old lovers and friends, including the beguiling Martine (played by Audrey Tautou). This is a bubbly confection destined to tickle anyone who's grumpy into a good mood.
Screening: 6 p.m. Saturday. Opening May 23 in select Bay Area theaters.
San Francisco International
When: Thursday through May 8
Where: Numerous San Francisco sites, also Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Theater
Tickets: $10-$15; ticket packages also available; http://www.sffs.org