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Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s martial arts drama The Assassin is one of the must-sees at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

When a young woman leaves a nightclub at 4 a.m. and encounters four underworld characters named Sonne, Boxer, Blinker and Fuss, you can bet there will be trouble – and she gets more than her share in the award-winning German film Victoria, one of this year's top Vancouver International Film Festival picks for director of programming Alan Franey.

But it's not just the tension and unexpected plot twists that make Victoria remarkable; it's the fact that the entire 138-minute film is one continuous shot.

"For anyone who appreciates what it takes to make a movie, it just gets better and better, and more astonishing as it goes along. It really had me by the throat," says Mr. Franey, who co-founded the festival three decades ago and was its director until 2013. "It's thrilling as an experience – both in the drama and the filmmaking. I don't know how they did it."

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This year's VIFF boasts 370 features, shorts, dramas, comedies and docs from 70 countries, among them world premieres as well as award winners from Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, SXSW and more.

Movie buffs can also take in entire series on subjects from humans' impact on the planet (Deep Time) to the making of comedy (On Comedy) to the rising tide of inequality (The Great Divide). In conjunction with Simon Fraser University's 50th anniversary, there's also Hidden Pasts, Digital Futures, a series that explores the past and future of filmmaking itself.

So what are some of Mr. Franey's other must-sees? High on the list is famed director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's latest, The Assassin, a martial arts drama that boasts many of the visual virtues of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He also recommends French director Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man, a moving drama about a man who loses his job amid the European economic crisis, as well as Michael Almereyda's Experimenter, which investigates Yale's infamous "social-obedience" experiments of the 1960s.

Among the documentaries, Mr. Franey says Germany's Original Copy perfectly captures the flavours and colours of Mumbai as it follows Bollywood cinema sign painters; Innocence of Memories investigates the fictional museum that Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk opened in Istanbul; and 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets delves deeply into racial tensions south of the border. High on Mr. Franey's list of Canadian films – and there are 92 on offer – is The Forbidden Room by Guy Maddin, one of his favourite filmmakers.

"It is so imaginative, so rich, so much fun. It's one of these films that you just let wash over you. You can't possibly attend to all its details because it's got so much coming at you," Mr. Franey says. "It's what we love about the movies and storytelling: to be surprised."

The Vancouver International Film Festival runs through Oct. 9 (viff.org).

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