THE TIMING is kind of perfect. The Portland International Film Festival (PIFF), now in its 37th year, comes to us in the depths of winter, when theatrical refuge makes sense, but we're stuck in the post-award eligibility doldrums of mostly crappy domestic releases. But the world is vast, and so is the festival, which spans the greater part of February and features films as diverse as their origins—from a program of Oregon-made shorts to documentaries and dramas from the West Bank, Poland, Manila, and beyond. It's a bit too much, actually, and unless you've cleared your schedule and are willing to take more than a few gambles, it helps to have guideposts when mapping an approach to PIFF. Which is where we come in.

As in recent years, PIFF has made a praiseworthy effort to bring in a more diverse audience (we like to think our years of griping that the programming was geared toward retirement-age viewers may have been an influence), including the edgier PIFF After Dark series and a smattering of animated films that will appeal to those of single-digit age (tolerance of subtitles is a quality that should be learned young). Granted, when you cast such a wide net, you can't help but come back with a few duds and a bit of "meh"—but we've blazed through a goodly number of press screenings and preview DVDs to unearth the gems you may never otherwise have the opportunity to see.

Speaking of which, opening night—historically reserved for one extra-special film—is something of a Sophie's choice for PIFF completists. Not one but two films are screening simultaneously on Thursday, February 6: Belle, which tackles the under-examined history of British slavery, screens at the Whitsell Auditorium, while Studio Ghibli legend Hayao Miyazaki's self-declared final film, The Wind Rises, screens at both Cinema 21 and OMSI's recently renovated Empirical Theater. Short of the ability to clone oneself, you can't see both, as neither are screening elsewhere in the festival, so... sorry, Belle. You lose this round.

As for the meat of the festival's offerings, there are noteworthy highlights within every genre. As for the dominant of these—drama, of course—Palestine's Omar (Sun Feb 9, Thurs Feb 13), about the political and personal struggles of a young freedom fighter, is an engrossing, frightening, and ultimately shocking snapshot of the damages wrought by Israeli occupation, and one of the most valuable films of the festival. Wajma (An Afghan Love Story) (Fri Feb 7, Sun Feb 16) is anything but a romance, grappling with the hideous state of women's rights in this conflict-laden part of the world. On the lighter side, Le Week-End (Fri Feb 7, Sun Feb 9) focuses on an intellectual couple nearing retirement, as they suffer whimsy, heartache, and hilarity on their anniversary weekend trip to Paris (it's an absolutely worthy inclusion, no matter its resemblance to those old complaints of ours).

Perhaps the festival's most devastating documentary, The Missing Picture (Fri Feb 7, Sat Feb 15), is the horrifying true story of director Rithy Panh's survival as a teenager under Pol Pot's notorious regime; the French animated film Ernest and Celestine (Fri Feb 7, Tues Feb 11) charmingly tackles social barriers through interspecies friendship; and we bet Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Mon Feb 10, Fri Feb 14) is the one that shakes out to be the most hilarious film of the whole shebang.

Perhaps PIFF's greatest gift is the opportunity to experience far-flung perspectives in ways that travel or reading the news simply can't afford. See the Mercury's Film Shorts for our weekly, ongoing reviews of selected titles, see for showtimes, and get out into the big bad wonderful world.