Filmfest DC has finally found its mojo. While in the past Washington’s international festival has been consistent only in its unevenness, Filmfest has turned a corner in its 23rd year, offering more than 80 films that, if our critics’ samplings are any indicator, boast more hits than misses. It’s a nice surprise.

Organizers highlight a handful of themes each year, and 2009’s strongest by far is New Japanese Cinema. We were able to view four of the six films under this umbrella, including the “understated, Chaplinesque” drama Megane and family-centered heartwarmer Witch of the West Is Dead. Opening the fest is Departures, a story about a young cellist that took 2008’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Not that they’re all winners: You may want to skip Kabei, a World War II-set tearjerker that our reviewer said is full of “tedious, predictable pathos” that will leave viewers “exhausted.”

Another successful subcategory is Views From the News; all four of the six films our critics reviewed got passing marks. Though I.O.U.S.A., an eye-opening documentary about our national debt, may sound familiar—it showed at last year’s Silverdocs and had a limited release—you likely never saw docs like Breaking News, Breaking Down, a look at the psychological torment experienced by journalists who cover traumatic events like 9/11 or Katrina, or The Least of These, about a Texas detention center that locks up children alongside their criminal parents.

Outside of the fest’s touted themes, many of the films reviewed feature stories about families. Bonecrusher is a heartbreaking documentary about a kid who wants to follow his father into the mining business despite Dad’s wish that his child stay away from the work that made him ill. Rain dramatizes the story of a teenage girl who’s sent to live in a slum with her crack-addicted mother. But not every offering is gloomy: It’s Not Me, I Swear! is like a French Rushmore, full of angsty teen humor and dysfunctional relationships. And Marcello, Marcello is an Italian-by-way-of-Switzerland romantic comedy about a lovelorn teenager who’s trying to win a girl’s heart—but must win over her father first. Of course, the odds of every film about family being a winner are about the same as finding an actual family without any issues. —Tricia Olszewski

Films show at the Avalon Theatre, 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW; Landmark’s E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW; the Embassy of Canada, 501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; the Embassy of France, 4101 Reservoir Rd. NW; Goethe-Institut Washington, 812 7th St. NW; Harman Center for the Arts, 610 F St. NW; and Regal Gallery Place, 707 7th St. NW. Unless otherwise noted, admission is $10. For more information call (202) 234-FILM or visit filmfestdc.org.

Our FilmFest roundup (note the starred critics’ picks):

FRIDAY, APRIL 17

Celia the Queen

Ciao Bella

Fermat’s Room

The Other Half of the Sky

A Pain in the Ass

Skin

SATURDAY, APRIL 18

Ashes of American Flags: Wilco Live

Breaking News, Breaking Down

Hassan and Morcos

It’s Not Me, I Swear!

Machan

Marcello, Marcello

Ramchand Pakistani

SUNDAY, APRIL 19

Empty Nest

Kinoautomat: One Man and His House

Megane

Seven Days

MONDAY, APRIL 20

Bonecrusher

Cruzando

The Least of These

Scratch

TUESDAY, APRIL 21

35 Shots of Rum

Café de los Maestros

Un-Natural State

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 22

Parque Via

Sparrow

The Witch of the West Is Dead

THURSDAY, APRIL 23

Dancers

The English Surgeon

Four Nights With Anna

Kabei

Villa Jasmin

FRIDAY, APRIL 24

Daytime Drinking

I.O.U.S.A.

Rain

Small Crime

SATURDAY, APRIL 25

Bedford: The Town They Left Behind

SUNDAY, APRIL 26

We Can Do That