Miami in recent years has become a capital of the arts. There's Art Basel, which draws collectors from around the world. Miami Book Fair International attracts America's — and Latin America's — top writers. And Winter Music Conference brings the globe's best-known DJs.

But the Miami International Film Festival, which begins this week, has never quite gained the Olympian status of those events. Why? It's not that there are too many venues. MIFF has five, which seems like a lot, but well-respected Telluride includes six, two of which are pop-up theaters in high schools. Nor is there an overwhelming number of films. This year, the festival's 27th, 115 movies will be screened. That compares to 200-plus at Switzerland's Locarno fest.

The real problem might be rooted in changing visions. MIFF founder Nat Chediak — whose focus was on quality, not quantity, screening only a few dozen films — resigned in 2001, and he's been followed by a series of directors who have attempted to mold the festival into a launch pad for homegrown talent or, more recently, into an Ibero-American Sundance.

Now we have festival director Tiziana Finzi, who was hired in 2009. She's an insider from Italy with a reputation for discovering new talent. Her plan: to use her proven good taste and wide-reaching connections to make MIFF a world-respected festival of contemporary cinema. "I accepted this job as a challenge to bring my taste — cutting-edge, radical films — to this town, a beautiful place where people come for enjoyment, big parties, and holiday and not to see a Russian or Chinese movie."

Her choices can be eclectic. Included in this year's picks is Trash Humpers, the latest from Kids director Harmony Korine. In it, senior citizens, well, hump trash. Then there's City Island, a movie centering on a dysfunctional family and starring local boy and festival friend Andy Garcia. Perhaps the most unexpected film in the lineup is David Lynch's Eraserhead, the 1977 cult classic deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress. Old-school weirdness is apparently in this year.

In fact, the 2010 selections are some of the best ever. Two things stand out: the youth of the directors — many are younger than 35 — and the international quality — 45 countries are represented. Even in Miami, Spanish-speaking films do not overwhelm the international offerings. Among our favorites — reviewed in these pages — are a British story about soccer and friendship, an Iranian docudrama on censorship, and a Brazilian tale of terrorism. If that list seems too disparate, remember the words of Walt Whitman: "I am large, I contain multitudes."

What follows are some of the less ballyhooed and more interesting selections. Enjoy.

Trash Humpers: March 11 at 8 p.m. at Bill Cosford Cinema (University of Miami, Memorial Bldg., Coral Gables; 305-284-4861) and March 12 at 10 p.m. at Regal Cinemas South Beach (1120 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 305-674-6766). City Island: March 12 at 7 p.m. at the Gusman Center (174 E. Flagler St., Miami; 305-372-0925). Eraserhead: March 13 at 8 p.m. at Cosford.

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Looking for Eric

Eric (Steve Evets) was once a spry young man who met the love of his life at a swing dance competition. He's now a graying, slouching postman, slowly losing his mind and stuck caring for two teenage sons. He's so miserable that his fellow postmen stage a little self-help visualization session. It triggers Eric, a rabid Manchester United soccer fan, to begin hallucinating about Eric Cantona, a British superstar footballer who plays himself in this film. In an imaginary rendezvous with his hero, Eric regains his zest for life and pursues the woman he deserted. He also takes better care of himself and his two sons — who have become amateur gangsters; one son goes as far as pistol-whipping Eric in the head. But as he regains his confidence, he enlists the help of friends to sever his sons' gangster ties. The scene can be described only as a Guy Debord-situationist-style flash mob of a hundred mask-wearing, club-wielding Manchester United fans.

Looking for Eric is the creation of Ken Loach, one of the UK's most important directors, whose realist films have tackled unsexy subjects such as labor rights and homelessness. And while this work studies working-class Britain's gun-loving youth, it's an unexpected comedy in Loach's downbeat oeuvre. The camaraderie among "mates" is jovial, while Cantona is an unlikely life coach.

The film, which opens the festival, was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes and won a British Independent Film Award. In it, Loach is able to turn both the overdone British heist movie and soccer hooligan culture on their heads through a hilarious romp in which a regular guy survives hitting rock bottom and begins living again. Amanda McCorquodale March 5 at 7 p.m., Gusman Center

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Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats

In this rare Iranian entry to MIFF, Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi takes us through the underground music scene in Tehran, where all Western-style music is prohibited. Based on real people, places, and events, the film follows Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad of the indie band Take It Easy Hospital (yes, a real band) as the members attempt to leave home to play a concert in London. They're escorted by a smooth-talking linchpin of the black market, Nader (Hamed Behdad), who promises to find them passports, visas, and additional bandmates.

Ghobadi switches to fast-cut music video montages as they audition musicians. Each genre matches up with a different side of life in Tehran: When the heavy metal sounds, we see breakneck traffic. Blues rock depicts refugee children sleeping on the streets. Yet Tehran's indie rock scene looks a lot like ours. Take It Easy Hospital exchanges secret copies of British music magazine NME with other bands, the musicians wear CBGB T-shirts alongside women in burqas, and at one point, Askhan says his greatest wish is to go to Iceland to see the band Sigur Rós play.

The film, with its MTV-style music video montages and pop culture references, runs the risk of feeling like a lighthearted documentary. But in the final ten minutes, the tour through Iranian rock makes an abrupt and disturbing turn. The film, which won the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, was co-written by Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who was sentenced to eight years in jail in 2008 after the Iranian government deemed her a spy. Amanda McCorquodale March 8 at 9:30 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach; March 12 at 7:15 p.m., Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-642-1264

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Blood and Rain

A few hours after midnight, a man and a woman meet randomly on the cold, wet streets of Bogotá. He's Jorge (Quique Mendoza), a taxi driver whose brother was mysteriously murdered. She's Angela (Gloria Montoya), a sexy but emotionally damaged party girl with out-of-control coke and liquor habits. Gradually, as chance events and targeted violence bring the pair closer, a strange but undeniable attraction develops.

In his first feature, director Jorge Navas leads the characters (and viewers) on a slow, methodical descent into the Colombian underworld, from after-hours clubs and strip joints to killing fields. Blood and Rain depicts a dark sphere of existence, where chaos reigns, outbursts of brutal violence are common, deeply irrational behavior is the norm, and drugs are eaten to erase bad memories.

But it's not bleak. One of the reasons is the luridly bright nightscape photography of Juan Carlos Gil, who soaks the streets of Bogotá in saturated blacks and warm yellows that make abandoned lots and trash-filled alleys seem beautiful. Then there's the acting: Both Mendoza and Montoya deliver human performances that redeem profoundly fucked-up characters. And finally, consider Navas's clarity of vision. At only 36 years old, he's a mature filmmaker with enough perspective to tackle the inexplicable. S. Pajot March 7 at 7 p.m., Tower Theater; March 10 at 9:15 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach

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City Island

The Rizzos are an average family — two parents, two kids — who make their home on City Island, an old fishing town in the Bronx. The patriarch, Vince (Andy Garcia), is a New York State corrections officer with dreams of being an actor. His wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), is a beautiful but aging housewife and mother who laments the education she lost when she became pregnant with her daughter, Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido), now college age. And then there's Vinnie (Ezra Miller), a skinny 15-year-old master of the smart-ass remark.

The Rizzos live together, eat together, and bicker like hell about everything. Plus they're all intensely secretive. Each and every member of the family smokes cigarettes but lies about it. Vinnie hides his love of fat girls, otherwise known as BBWs, and his fantasies about feeding them massive quantities of food. His older sister, Vivian, doesn't spend her days studying as Mom and Dad assume; she strips for dollar bills at a low-rent nudie bar. Joyce, meanwhile, suspects her husband of cheating but won't confront him. And Vince takes acting classes while telling his wife he's out playing poker with the boys. That's not all, though. Vince is keeping something from his family. He calls it his secret of secrets.

City Island is not one of those no-laughs, black-to-the-bone family comedies like Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding. This movie actually plays toxic dysfunction for quick and easy giggles. When City Island works, it's thanks to the strong ensemble cast and writer/director Raymond De Felitta's nice, light touch. But Felitta, the 45-year-old, NYC-born filmmaker who also helmed 2005's The Thing About My Folks, glosses over some of the deep hurt that should be part of the story. And so, ultimately, City Island is a charming, if not entirely realistic, movie about a big, messed-up modern family. S. Pajot March 12 at 7 p.m., Gusman Center

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The Wind Journeys

This is the story of a man's road trip across northern Colombia to return an evil accordion to its master. That's all you really need to know, though you might like to be informed that the wife of the protagonist, Ignacio (Marciano Martínez), has just died, so he no longer wishes to play the instrument.

Along Ignacio's journey, we meet long-lost brothers, hoodlums, and former lovers who all remind him that he can never leave his instrument behind. There are also piquerías, basically the accordionist's version of a rap battle, in which Ignacio lays the squeeze box down on others. If the rhymed quatrains and solos don't send you over the edge smiling, there are also sorcerer/accordionists dueling it out against our exorcising hero for the love and adoration of the local townspeople.

And the weirdness doesn't stop there: Also present are drum circles bathed in the blood of lizards, where Ignacio's traveling partner, Fermin (Yull Núñez), is baptized as a musician. Then there are the machete duels on marshland walkways. But we digress.

There's no need to blather about the beauty of the cinematography, the wonderland of the Colombian countryside, or the striking whimsy of the Venice-like village bazaar. Nor will we dwell on how the narrative of a man, a young boy, a donkey, and an accordion seems to fit so nicely in a narrative about loss.

No, we'll just tell you The Wind Journeys (Los Viajes del Viento) has a stacked resumé: Best Film and Best Director at the Colombian Film Festival (2009) and Best Spanish Language Film at the Santa Barbara Film Festival (2010). If you go, wait for Ignacio's rendition of "Caballito," which is tragically moving and tragically unavailable on YouTube. Yes. Now, we can definitely stop now. Dave Landsberger March 7 at 9:30 p.m. and March 9 at 9 p.m., Tower Theater; March 14 at 4:15 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach

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Jean Charles

In 2005, terrorist bombings killed 52 people in London. The resulting paranoia and xenophobia is well described in Jean Charles, directed by Henrique Goldman. Based on the true story of a Brazilian electrician living in London who was mistaken for a Muslim terrorist, the film could have been a public lashing of the British government. Instead, it is a sentimental eulogizing of a hardworking immigrant — wonderfully played by Selton Mello — doing his best to improve the circumstances of his own life and those around him.

A Londoner for three years, Jean Charles helps his cousins immigrate to London. He does what he must to survive, orchestrating fake visas for friends and stealing an electrician's job from his boss. There's such pathos that these indiscretions are offset by Jean Charles's good-guy charm and optimism.

Then, one day after a muted explosion in the distance, the characters learn of the bombings, victims, and crescendoing mania to find the suspects. Goldman, who is Brazilian, skillfully draws a wide arc where the two narratives collide in a shocking scene on the London Underground.

As we discover Jean Charles's fate, his friend Alex, played by Luis Miranda in a performance that won a Jury Award from Brazil's Prêmio Contigo Cinema, delivers a tearful tirade through clenched teeth, conveying the outrage and grief of not only Brazil but also the whole world, after an innocent man is gunned down by a government blinded by fear.

This film is a must-see. Its only fault is heavy-handedness in relaying that Jean Charles loved London. At one point, he buys a kitschy snow globe of the British capital for his homesick cousin so she can always remember how beautiful the city is. Goldman seems to be shouting, "Would a terrorist do this?" Amanda McCorquodale March 7 at 7:15 p.m. and March 14 at 9:15 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach; March 12 at 9 p.m., Tower Theater

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25 Carat

Born into the itinerant life of a con artist, Kay (Aida Folch) is a sexy but street-tough young woman who has helped her father, Sebas (Manuel Morón), run scams since she learned to walk. For years, they've lived off small scores, skipping from one city to the next across Spain. But after 16 months in Barcelona, Kay and Sebas have begun to settle into a routine: She steals cars while he fences jewelry. It's almost normal.

Then, suddenly, Mexican gangsters return to collect an overdue debt. Sebas begins plotting a big job that involves a crew of crooked cops, a large bag of stolen jewels, an incriminating videotape, and a cable news network. Meanwhile, Kay gets caught stealing a BMW and escapes only with the help of Abel (Francesc Garrido), a fighter. Together, all three then chase the most monumental score of their lives.

Written and directed by first-time Spanish filmmaker Patxi Amézcua, this action thriller is more conventional than many of the other movies at this year's festival. In tone and style, 25 Carat draws from similar genre films such as Luc Besson's The Professional and Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run. However, Amézcua delivers his story with full knowledge of its sources, so it never seems derivative. Not to mention, 25 Carat is plotted so tightly, edited with such energy, and acted so deftly that it pays off in almost every way. It even has a happy ending. More or less. S. Pajot March 8 at 7 p.m. and March 14 at 4 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach, and March 13 at 7 p.m. Tower Theater

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The Thorn in the Heart

Michel Gondry must have been on to us. He knew we'd expect something as imaginative as his last film, The Science of Sleep, or his popular Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So in The Thorn in the Heart (L'Épine Dans le Coeur), he presents an evenhanded documentary about his aunt Suzette, a retired teacher in rural France thought to be avant-garde by her students and the life of the party by her family.

Well, almost. Gondry had intended to document Suzette's life as a teacher, but a more complicated relationship emerged — that between Suzette and her son, Gondry's cousin Jean-Yves. Juxtaposed between scenes in which Suzette is praised for her skill with schoolchildren are shots of a fragile Jean-Yves, a grown man still living under his mother's thumb and suffering nervous breakdowns after coming out as gay; his mother even hid his father's death for days. Suzette is blunt in her opinion of Jean-Yves, calling him weak and a thorn in her heart.

In one particularly uncomfortable scene, Suzette inadvertently traps Jean-Yves in the bathroom by setting up a drying rack next to the door. When he finds himself blocked, he cries a high-pitched "Mama!" Then both she and Gondry taunt him.

Gondry is known for his imaginative visual style, but The Thorn in My Heart is an exercise in restraint. Whereas his other work, which also includes trippy music videos, revels in subconscious play, this film proves that complicated undercurrents are also visible in the mundane. Amanda McCorquodale March 7 at 6:45 p.m. and March 9 at 5:45 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach

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Northless

American audiences have a strange habit of picking the flavor of the year in Mexican film. A few years ago, the trend seemed to be magical realism, but now the current has moved toward realistic depictions of immigrants attempting to cross the border.

It would be easy to dismiss Northless (Norteado) as just another film of this type. Not only is the bulk of the plot about this subject, but also it was released the same year as the highly touted and celebrated Sin Nombre. Yet while Cary Fukunaga's kinetic and wonderful film focused on the journey of Guatemalan immigrants riding atop freight trains through Mexico, Northless aims to give us a more realistic and Mexican depiction. It's filled with scenes of silence around dinner tables and the drudgery of daily work.

Andres (Harold Torres), a migrant from Oaxaca, fails to cross into the States after his coyote deserts him overnight near the California border. Marooned at the immigration office in Tijuana, he finds work with Ela (Alicia Laguna) and Cata (Sonia Couoh). Both find comfort in Andres and try to persuade him to stay in Mexico by taking him on dates and divulging their deepest secrets. He nevertheless attempts to cross several times, culminating in an extremely clever and seemingly absurd plot twist.

This is a movie of silences and wide-open spaces, shot beautifully by cinematographer Alejandro Cantú. It's neither exploitative, documentarian, nor magical — more James Joyce to Sin Nombre's T. S. Eliot. It eschews the fantastic and unrealistic in favor of the realistic and quotidian, right down to the portraits of George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger that beam judgment upon Andres each time he is apprehended by la migra. Dave Landsberger March 8 at 7:15 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach; March 14 at 9:30 p.m., Tower Theater

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La Yuma

On the surface, this debut feature by writer-director Florence Jaugey is about a girl boxer, Yuma (Alma Blanco), struggling to escape the barrios of Managua. She lives in a concrete-floor shack with her often-absent mother, unemployed pedophilic stepdad, teen junkie brother, and two younger siblings. She loves and protects the children but despises the adults. Meanwhile, outside her home, Yuma's street thug boyfriend, Culebra — whose name means "snake" — tries to control her, saying, "Women don't box." But Yuma is wild and tough. She continues training and soon starts an affair with Ernesto, a middle-class journalism student at Universidad Centroamericana.

This is the first full-length fiction film to emerge from Nicaragua in the past two decades. The problem, though, is that it doesn't dig deeply beneath the surface. Jaugey — a 50-year-old, French-born but Nicaragua-based filmmaker — can't decide which story she wants to tell. She fails to fully explore the loaded love triangle of Yuma, Culebra, and Ernesto (or perhaps more important, the triangle of Yuma, Culebra, and boxing). Most of the major characters never evolve beyond mere outlines. And although the film runs only 90 minutes, it becomes entangled in a mess of completely unnecessary subplots and side plots, involving locations such as the circus, a male strip club, and a clothing shop called Ropa USA.

There's a simpler, better movie in there somewhere, especially considering Blanco's exceptional lead performance. But, ultimately, Jaugey was unable to find it. S. Pajot March 7 at 4 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach; March 9 at 7 p.m., Tower Theater

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Hustling in Cuba

Chamaco is the only Cuban film showing at the Miami International Film Festival this year. Made for a few hundred dollars, it's part of a new wave of independent movies now produced on the island thanks to cheap digital technology. It's also the first to seriously tackle homosexuality and chauvinism since 1994's Oscar-nominated Strawberry and Chocolate. The movie revolves around a 22-year-old hustler, the chamaco (which translates roughly to kiddo) of the title, who accidentally kills a john in Havana's Central Park. Except the dead guy is actually the son of another trick and the brother of a lady whom the hustler is banging. Throw in some drag queens; a couple of closeted, macho cops; and you have a gay Crash. Juan Carlos Cremata, the 48-year-old director, is making his third appearance at the festival. His other work has won a boatload of awards; the 2003 MIFF entry Nada Mas is even archived at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

On a scratchy, signal-delayed phone call from his house in Havana, he talks about Cuba's DIY approach to filmmaking, ornery exiles in Miami, and what in hell a pinguero is.

New Times: You began recording the movie in April 2008. What was that like?

Juan Carlos Cremata: We shot it over ten nights, starting at midnight always, sometimes going until 5 or 6 in the morning. I moved the crew to locations in my mother's car. It was all improvised. We didn't have lights. We had one microphone for the actors. In scenes with more than one actor, we had to decide which character was more important. We had no more than ten people on the crew. My brother was helping me as producer. The art director is my cousin, and one of the musicians is also a cousin. When you don't have any money, you have to work with family.

How did you scrape the money together?

It's a pauper movie. I would buy beer on the cheap, resell it, and use the money for gas, drinks for the crew, and sometimes to pay a driver. I also made Chamaco back to back with El Premio Flaco, which was funded by the state. When I get their money, I normally use it to make two movies. Some would call that diversion of funds. I call it reorganization.

Is it becoming commonplace to make movies outside the Cuban movie industry?

Lately it has because technology has allowed it. A whole generation of young people can now pick up a digital camera to express themselves. We shot Chamaco digitally and did all the postproduction — a homemade color correction, a stereo mix — on Avid at my house. I also like working without money because I can do whatever I feel like.

Talk about the film's gay-related content.

Strawberry and Chocolate provided an opening to discuss a topic that used to be very taboo. There have been several gay documentaries since, but Chamaco is the first proudly gay movie made in Cuba. Los pingueros — which translates to gigolos but literally means big dicks — have always existed here, even before the '59 revolution. What's happened is that everything's become more open, and it's not specific to homosexuality.

What kind of reception do you expect in Miami for Chamaco?

My second-to-last movie [Viva Cuba] was for children, but every time I went abroad, I had to defend it before some of those stubborn Cuban émigrés. We laugh a lot at those protests. Burning CDs? It's ridiculous. Showing a film like this in Miami is an important, historical step, a step towards normalcy. Erik Maza March 9 at 8:30 p.m., Gusman Theater, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami; 305-372-0925

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