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Don’t be intimidated by the prestige and grandeur of the Vancouver International Film Festival. Whether you’re a seasoned vet or a first-timer, these tips will make it easy to experience some of the best films in the world right here at home

Each year, the Vancouver International Film Festival brings hundreds of movies to town. Many have already won awards at other film festivals, while others are being screened for the first time anywhere. Some of the entries will go on to become major critical and commercial hits, while others – even in a post-Netflix world – will disappear without a trace.

This year, the 33rd annual edition of the festival (Sept. 25 to Oct. 10) will feature more than 20 films from both the Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals as well as many others that have been shown at film fests like Sundance, South by Southwest and Tribeca.

“Really, what we’re talking about here are the very best films made in many, many parts of the world,” says VIFF director of programming Alan Franey.

Those who fear they’ll end up sitting through a three-hour drama about grain harvesting needn’t worry too much. The movies shown at the film festival aren’t always that far off from the kind of thing that plays at the local Cineplex year-round.

“A film that we’ll show that’s from Turkey or Japan is not necessarily a hard-core art film,” says Franey. “It might have been the most successful film in the commercial marketplace in that part of the world, and it might have a lot of the same sort of virtues people associate with blockbusters. There are some that are more artsy and maybe more slow-moving than people are used to, but I think the average adult can appreciate the virtues of most of the films in the festival.”

VIFF movie theatre crowd

What Should You Watch at VIFF

The challenge, even for seasoned cinephiles, is deciding on what to see. For most people, the first step is picking up the festival guide. It provides synopses of the films and information about the genre, filmmakers and the cast. Here are our 13 must-see VIFF 2014 picks.

A great place to start is with the festival’s opening and closing films. Often, these have already won awards or gathered acclaim elsewhere, and are guaranteed to be among the most buzzworthy picks of the fest. (They might also be high-profile films having their world premiere.)

Savvy film-fest-goers will often Google the other titles they’re interested in in search of reviews, since many of the movies will have collected at least a few notices based on other, earlier screenings. These veteran festival attendees know that some films might have been selected not because they are successful overall, but because they have one or two redeeming qualities – an exceptional performance or stunning cinematography, for example.

The guide and schedule also provide screening information, of course, and usually there are multiple screenings of each film. One way to enjoy the film festival is to make it work for you, rather than stressing about seeing one particular film at a certain time. Usually you can see at least some of what you want to see, when you want to see it.

Also, it’s a good idea to check out at least one film in each of the areas in which VIFF excels. The festival is known for its expansive selections of documentary/essay-style films as well as East Asian and Canadian cinema.

“Some years we’ve had the largest collection of Canadian films in the world,” says Franey. “We do have some Hollywood films here, but we see ourselves as kind of the complementary aspect to what’s on screen throughout the year.”

Watch Films, Make Friends

But perhaps the best way to enjoy VIFF is to talk to other filmgoers. A film festival is as much a social occasion as it is a cultural one. Everyone wants to talk about the movies they’ve seen or are going to see, and most folks – whether standing in line to get into a movie or seated next to you in the theatre – are more than happy to share their tips.

And who knows? Someone’s recommendation about that three-hour grain-harvesting drama could be, to paraphrase a 1942 Academy Award winner, the start of a beautiful friendship.