ANY OF THE FILMS in this year's Washington Jewish Film Festival, opening Thursday, could be the Next Big Thing. Witness last year's winner of the Audience Award, "Walk on Water" by director Eytan Fox, which went on to a 20-week run at local theaters. Which of this year's films might have legs, too?

"Both the opening and closing films have that potential," says festival director Joshua Ford, those films being "Live and Become," showing Thursday at 6:45, and "Fateless," showing Dec. 11 at 6:45, both at the D.C. Jewish Community Center's Goldman Theater.

"Live and Become," the inaugural offering of the 16th annual festival, is a French and Israeli film by Radu Mihaileanu. In it, a mother desperate to save her 7-year-old son from war- and famine-ravaged Ethiopia sends him to Israel with Falashas (Ethiopian Jews) in the U.S.-Israeli-backed "Operation Moses." Neither Jewish nor orphaned but cautioned to keep quiet about it, the boy is adopted by a French-Israeli family and discovers Judaism and Western values, all while shielding his secret.

"Because it is such an inspiring tale of an individual's miraculous life story, I knew that it's the kind of film that you can't help but feel good about when you see it," Ford says. He also hopes "Live and Become" will unite regular festivalgoers with Washington's large Ethiopian population: "Bringing a film with an Ethiopian theme to it . . . [is] a great opportunity to bring together two groups that usually don't get to interact."

The festival's closing-night film, "Fateless," is also about a young boy, this time a 14-year-old Hungarian who survives concentration camps and the harrowing effects of his experiences. It is directed by Lajos Koltai and based on a novel by Nobel prize-winning author Imre Kertesz, who wrote the screenplay. Calling it "incredibly eloquent and uniquely articulate," Ford adds that "the images are breathtaking without being macabre. It's such an exquisitely made film."

But that's just the beginning. With 37 films, the festival offers plenty to choose from. The festival is co-sponsored by the Embassy of Israel and the Washington Jewish Week newspaper.

Films are at five locations: Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW; Avalon Theatre, 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW; Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema, 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring; Mary Pickford Theater at the Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. SE. Opening and closing night tickets are $20; most others are $6 to $10 and can be bought at the Goldman Theater box office, by phone at 800-494-8497 or online at www.wjff.org; call 202-777-3248 for more information. (Library of Congress tickets are free, but reservations are required; call 202-707-5677.)

3-D Holidays

Just in time for the holidays, "Santa vs. the Snowman" and "The Polar Express" are showing on Imax screens, and they're both in 3-D. "Santa," by the creators of "Jimmy Neutron," is about a showdown between an army of snowmen and Santa and his elves. Who will control the gift-distribution operation? It's playing at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, at 601 Light St. Call 410-685-5225 for showtimes and tickets.

"The Polar Express," last year's hit movie adapted from the Chris Van Allsburg book, tells the story of a train to the North Pole and the magic of Christmas. It is at the Johnson Imax Theater in the National Museum of Natural History and shows most evenings at 5 and 7. The museum is at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; call 877-932-4629 for details.

Young Germans

The Goethe-Institut's film series "Young and German" features films about various individuals coping with the hopes and challenges of establishing identity in an increasingly globalized and complicated society. The first film, "We," about a group of childhood friends on the verge of a big change, screens Monday at 6:30. The other films are "Kroko," Dec. 5; "En Route," Dec. 12; "Am I Sexy?," Jan. 3; and "Karamuk," Jan. 9. The Goethe-Institut is at 812 Seventh St. NW. Tickets are $6.75, $4.75 students and seniors; for more information, call 202-289-1200.

-- Christina Talcott