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Graham Leggat offers tips for movie lovers

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Take 200 films from 54 countries, divide that by 15 days and add an assortment of film-related festivities and what do you have?

A rather daunting film festival.

Today through May 10, the San Francisco International Film Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary with another round of diverse cinema from across the globe, but with 200 films — not to mention the slew of parties, panels and performances to choose from — where does a festival-goer even begin?

Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society (which presents the festival), supplies a few pointers.

First off, expect to put your thinking cap on. These films, after all, aren’t of the mall multiplex variety.

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“You have to do a little bit of thinking and that’s the pleasure of it, especially since that’s what’s taken away from you with mainstream releases where you know exactly what you’re going to get,” he says.

Of this year’s crop, Leggat’s top flicks not to miss are: “Brand Upon the Brain!,” writer-director Guy Maddin’s semiautobiographical film, which will be paired with a live narrator, 13-piece orchestra, foley artists and a castrato at a May 7 screening at the Castro Theatre.

He also likes “The Heavenly Kings,” the directorial debut from Bay Area native and Hong Kong film star Daniel Wu, which comments on the media and entertainment industry through the travels of a boy-band. It screens Friday at the Castro, and repeats Sunday and May 4 at the Kabuki.

Finally, there’s the rescreening of the Disney masterpiece “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” on May 5 at the Kabuki.

But the festival isn’t solely about sitting in a dark theater and suspending disbelief. It’s also about discussing the films with the directors, actors and fellow audience members.

“You can see a lot of international films on Netflix, but you sure as hell can’t have a passionate conversation via mail,” says Leggat, who tracks between 3,000 and 4,000 films a year. His search for next year’s selection of films literally begins the day after the festival closes with a trip to the Cannes Film Festival.

In addition to the 108 features and 92 short films, festival highlights also include: the annual State of Cinema Address delivered this year by visionary theater and opera director Peter Sellars on Sunday at the Kabuki; the screening of the classic silent film “The Phantom Carriage,” with live music composed by local rocker Jonathan Richman on Friday at the Castro; and the free-admission Golden Gate Awards Ceremony on May 9 at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater, where the international critics prize for best film is awarded.

“The range of experiences the festival offers is pretty remarkable and that’s what we think a festival should be,” Leggat says. “A festival should be more than any one person can imagine it to be.”

Call (925) 866-9559 or visit www.sfiff.org for a complete list of programs, show times and locations.

The festival — by the numbers

2,000,000: Total attendance since 1957

310,000 minutes/5,167 hours/215 days: Combined running time of all of the films in the festival

80,000: Festival attendance in 2006

5,700+: Number of films shown since 1957

200: Number of films in 2007

54: Countries represented in 2007

7: Number of times Francis Ford Coppola has attended the festival

2: Number of times Jack Nicholson has attended the festival

1 minute: Shortest film to be shown in 2007 (“Birchbeer”)

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