All film festival programs struggle to strike a balance between crowd-pleasing fare and more challenging, less mainstream films. Often, festival films never open in regular theaters at all, but this year’s Haifa International Film Festival, which runs through October 22, features several films that will open throughout the country in the next few weeks.It’s unusual for a first-time director to make a brilliant, polished feature film, but John Michael McDonagh has done this with The Guard, which will open throughout Israel in a few weeks. The movie is a tour de force for distinguished actor Brendan Gleeson. He is probably best known for his role as “Mad-Eye” Moody in the Harry Potter films. He has outdone himself in The Guard as a misanthropic, troublemaking police officer in a remote Irish village who manages to antagonize his superiors and an African-American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) as he investigates a British-Irish drug-smuggling ring. He certainly deserves an Oscar nomination for his work in this film, which may not sound terribly promising from this summary but which is often extraordinarily – and delightfully – funny.The viewers’ delight in this relatively unheralded film was a sharp contrast to the yawns that greeted the much-hyped opening-night feature, The Ides of March, starring and directed by George Clooney. The film, which is billed as a black comedy-drama about US politics, features Clooney as a Democratic presidential hopeful and co-stars a bland Ryan Gosling as his soulless right-hand man. If it doesn’t shock you to learn that even the most idealistic politicians are often deeply flawed, you’ll want to skip this movie, which plays like a dumber, slower version of a typical West Wing episode. Ides will be opening here soon. The film The Debt by festival guest John Madden was more of a crowd-pleaser. This film is a remake of the 2007 Israeli movie of the same title. I was puzzled that anyone would want to remake that film, which was not a great success here, but Madden’s version of this tale of three Mossad agents in the 1960s who are sent to Berlin to kill a former Nazi is much more stylish and entertaining in its new incarnation. Helen Mirren is far more plausible than Gila Almagor was as a retired Mossad agent who hasn’t completely lost her touch.You may as well stock up now on hand sanitizer before you see Contagion, the closing-night attraction at the festival. The film, which was directed by Steven Soderbergh, is a return to the winning formula from his 2000 movie Traffic, in which he used different stories that sometimes intersected to illuminate the international drug trade. Here, a deadly flu-like virus spreads with chilling speed throughout the world. The bleak film focuses on one of the first victims of the plague, a working mother (Gwyneth Paltrow) from Minnesota, and her husband (Matt Damon); the head of the Center for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne); a CDC field worker (Kate Winslet); and others. But Contagion is almost unbearably bleak. Traffic plays like a Marx Brothers comedy next to this frightening tale of good intentions, impotence and mass graves.Eran Kolirin’s The Exchange, the long-awaited follow-up to Kolirin’s 2007 hit The Band’s Visit, was a disappointment. A far less accessible film than his first, it tells an odd story of a man who suddenly feels like a tourist in his own life. While it certainly has its admirers and is extremely accomplished, it is chilly and uninvolving.One bright moment at the festival was seeing a very gifted Israeli actress, Hani Furstenberg, make her international feature debut in Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet. Starring opposite Gael Garcia Bernal, she gives a riveting performance as a brash but vulnerable adventure tourist in Georgia. I hope to see this American-born actress, who made a splash in the Israeli features Campfire and Yossi & Jagger, in more films here or abroad.And for a change of pace, Jes Benstock’s The British Guide to Showing Off – which I hope will play at the cinematheques around the country in the coming months – is a witty look at an offbeat “beauty” contest, the Miss Alternative World Contest, a parody of regular pageants.