Monday, April 14, 2014

SFIFF57 2014 Perusing the Line-Up – Elsewhere in Europe

The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF57) is set to begin in ten days and so far we've taken a glance at this year's awards and special presentations, as well as the impressive line-up of French selections. The festival will also present a generous number of European films from outside France and here are some thoughts on the ones which have grabbed my attention.

Four films from the UK and Ireland made my SFIFF57 must-see list. All have major U.S. distribution, so we'll see if I catch them at the fest or wait for their respective upcoming theatrical releases. (At this point, it appears none have directors or other talent accompanying them to the festival). Like many people, I'm especially dying to see The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom's sequel to 2010's The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as comically annoying versions of themselves out on the road. UK director Richard Ayoade follows up his acclaimed 2010 directorial debut Submarine with what appears to be another critical success, the Dostoevsky-based, dystopian doppelganger dramedy The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasilkowska (opening May 16 at the Landmark's Opera Plaza). Also returning with a lauded sophomore film is Irish director John Michael McDonagh, whose black comedy Calvary drew raves at Sundance and Berlin. This is his second collaboration with actor Brendan Gleeson (The Guard), here playing a village priest threatened with murder by an unseen confessor. Calvary is a last-minute addition not listed in the festival's printed program. Then in Lenny Abrahamson's absurdist indie-rock fable, Frank, Michael Fassbender's handsome face remains hidden through an entire movie, whilst he delivers lines from under a giant fiberglass head.

From the continent's Eastern extremes, SFIFF57 brings us a pair of Georgian films. In case you haven't heard, the former Soviet Socialist republic is the world's latest hotbed of emerging film talent. This "new" Georgian cinema movement is loosely thought to have begun
with Levan Koguashvili's 2010 neo-realist junkie saga, Street Days. While that film has yet to appear in the Bay Area, the director's follow-up film Blind Dates, has earned a slot in this year's SFIFF line-up, along with Zaza Urushadze's anti-war tale Tangerines. I understand the Pacific Film Archive will be doing a Georgian series later this year and hopefully Street Days and Nana Ekvtimishvili's In Bloom, a terrific Georgian film I recently saw at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, will be included. From Georgia's neighbor Turkey, SFIFF57 is bringing us Zeynep Dadak and Merve Kayan's rambunctious female coming-of-age tale The Blue Wave, which is competing for SFIFF57's New Directors Prize. It might be remembered that last year's prize went to a debut Turkish film, Belmin Söylemez' Present Tense. Lastly from The East, I'm very grateful the festival has programmed Romania's When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, another captivating-sounding exercise in cinematic formalism from Corneliu Porumboiu, director of 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective.

Rounding out the list of SFIFF57 European narrative features I'd like to catch are a trio from Scandinavia (albeit at its most loosely defined). Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best! is said
to be a return to the ebullience of his early films like Show Me Love and Together, following a string of four gravely dour projects that marked the Swedish director's output in the Aughts. His latest follows the ups and downs of an all-girl punk band in the 80's and is scheduled to open theatrically on June 6. While violent genre films from anywhere in the world are rarely my cup of grog, I've read enticing things about Alex van Warmerdam's Danish entry Borgman. The festival's capsule write-up suggests it's like Boudu Saved from Drowning as directed by David Lynch instead of Jean Renoir, and that's exactly how it comes across in the trailer. Along with François Ozon's Young & Beautiful, it's one of two SFIFF57 films that were in Cannes' main competition last year. Then in Benedikt Erlingsson's dryly humorous Of Horses and Men, a series of inventive vignettes explore relationships between man/beast and man/man in the Icelandic countryside. Friends who caught this 2014 Icelandic Oscar® submission at Palm Springs had only great things to say.

Four non-French European documentaries also make my SFIFF57 must-see list, starting with Joaquim Pinto's What Now? Remind Me, a 164-minute rumination on the director's year-long
co-habitation with toxic, mind-altering drugs used to combat his HIV and Hepatitis C. The film won FIPRESCI and Special Jury Prizes at last year's Locarno Film Festival. I missed seeing Lois Patiño's Coast of Death at Palm Springs and am therefore grateful to find it here. This narration-less portrait of Spain's rugged Galician coast employs a device whereby human figures are miniscule within long-shots of nature, but their individual voices are heard crystal clear on the film's soundtrack. One of my favorite films of last year's festival was P.O.V. award-winner Jem Cohen's Museum Hours, which was largely set inside Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. Johannes Holzhausen's The Great Museum takes an in-depth, Frederick Wiseman-like look at this revered institution's inner workings as it prepares for a 2013 renovation. And last but certainly not least, Mark Cousins follows up his staggeringly great 15-hour doc series The Story of Film with the self-explanatory A Story of Children and Film.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

SFIFF57 2014 Perusing the Line-Up – French Films

Now that we've gotten the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival's roster of special programs out of the way, it's time to get into the nitty-gritty of this year's promising, 103-feature film line-up. In the next few film-415 entries, I'll be regionally surveying the titles which have grabbed my interest. As always we'll be starting with France, because that's where most of the films I wish to see hail from.

In addition to being alphabetically first in the festival catalog, Catherine Breillat's Abuse of Weakness is the film I'm most jonesing to see at SFIFF57. In this essentially autobiographical work, Isabelle Huppert plays a movie director incapacitated by a stroke, who falls prey to a handsome conman (portrayed by French rapper Kool Shen). Breillat has a long history with the festival, and appeared here in person when The Last Mistress opened the fest in 2008. Since then, SFIFF has brought us the director's two fairytale adaptations, Bluebeard (2009) and The Sleeping Beauty (2011) and I'm pleased they've followed through with her latest. Isabelle Huppert shows up again in the SFIFF57 selection Tip Top. She and Sandrine Kiberlain star as detectives investigating police corruption and a small town murder. The film has been described as a perverse, screwball neo-noir and comes from writer/director Serge Bozon, whose odd WWI musical La France played the festival in 2008. Alas, the fest has chosen not to bring us Huppert's turn as a horny mother superior in 2013's The Nun.

If memory serves, it's been a while since a bona fide French movie star attended SFIFF – Ludivine Sagnier accompanying Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two in 2008, perhaps – so I'm excited at the prospect of actor Romain Duris being here for the April 26 showing of Chinese Puzzle, along with director Cédric Klapisch. Duris, for those who can't place the name, co-starred in last year's SFIFF audience award winner, 1950's speed-typing rom-com, Populaire. I first took note of him when the festival showed Tony Gatlif's Gadjo Dilo in 1998. His new film closes out a loose trilogy, all directed by Klapisch, that includes L'Auberge Espagnole (2002) and Russian Dolls (2005). While there's only one screening at the festival, Chinese Puzzle will open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 23. Another SFIFF57 French film scheduled to open soon locally (May 9 at Landmark's Opera Plaza) is François Ozon's Young & Beautiful, a matter-of-fact portrait of a teenage Parisienne's dabblings in prostitution, which screened in competition at Cannes last year.

SFIFF tends to pass on most films of LGBT interest – I've always assumed out of deference to the Frameline LGBT film fest which takes place each June. I was therefore surprised and not displeased to find at least seven such films in the 2014 line-up, four of them French or French co-productions. I'm most looking forward to Salvation Army, by first-time director Abdellah Taïa. Based on his autobiographical novel, it's the two-part story of a gay Moroccan teenager living with his family in Casablanca, whom we meet again 10 years later residing in Geneva. The film has received raves since its premiere at Venice last September and features cinematography by the incomparable Agnès Godard. Also on the LGBT tip is Robin Campillo's Eastern Boys, wherein a middle-aged Parisian gets more than he bargained for upon taking up with an Eastern European train station hustler. Campillo is best known for screenplays co-written with Laurent Cantet (Time Out, The Class) and Eastern Boys is the first film he's directed since 2004's zombie flick, Les revenants.

Actor Niels Arestrup is always recognizable for the older, macho types he's played in such films as The Beat My Heart Skipped and A Prophet. It should therefore be interesting to see him play a worn out, missing-persons detective who happens to be gay in Yossi Aviram's The Dune. The film co-stars Israeli heartthrob Lior Ashkenazi (Late Marriage, Walk on Water) as a long-estranged son and has been praised for its authentic depiction of an elderly gay couple. Finally, while I couldn't care less about haute couture and have shunned the entire glut of recent fashion designer documentaries, I'm intrigued by SFIFF57's bio-pic of Yves Saint Laurent. That's because Jalil Lespert, an actor I've always admired (Human Resources, the titular Le petit lieutenant), has for some reason chosen this as his third directorial feature. Lespert attended the festival in 2005 when he accompanied Robert Guédiguian's The Last Mitterrand to San Francisco. Yves Saint Laurent will also open at Landmark's Opera Plaza on July 4.

Two additional SFIFF57 French narrative features have caught my eye. If you've attended recent editions of the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now, you're familiar with the droopy-eyed, stringy-haired countenance of actor Vincent Macaigne. He starred in last year's FCN opening nighter 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, and the previous year's double-billed shorts A World Without Women and Stranded. Those shorts were directed by Guillaume Brac, whose new film Tonnerre finds Macaigne playing a rock star whose life gets complicated during a hometown visit. Then in Sophie Fillières' If You Don't, I Will, two of my favorite French stars, Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, pair up as an out-of-sorts couple (as they've done before in the films of Arnaud Desplechin). Amalric, it might be mentioned, is said to have an unforgettable cameo in the aforementioned The Dune.

One of the nicest surprises to be found in this year's line-up is the documentary Agnès Varda: From Here to There. In this 5-part French TV mini-series which originally aired in 2011, the 85-year-old "Godmother of the French New Wave" journeys around Europe doing what she does best, which is simply being Agnès Varda. Her itinerary includes conversations with directors Chris Marker, Alexander Sokurov, Carlos Reygadas and Manoel de Oliveira. The series can be enjoyed in one fell 225-minute swoop or spread across five short weekday matinees. Another French doc I'm looking forward to is Julie Bertuccelli's School of Babel, an intimate look at a Parisian "reception" class for immigrant students. Bertuccelli's last documentary to play the festival, 2007's The Whistling Blackbird, followed the production of veteran French-Georgian director Otar Iosseliani's Gardens in Autumn, and was considerably better than the film it observed in the making. Bertuccelli is also known for her narrative features Since Otar Left (2003) and The Tree (2010.)

Finally, as a 20th anniversary tribute, the festival will screen a 159-minute restored director's cut of Patrice Chéreau's Queen Margot, starring Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Virna Lisi and Vincent Perez. Steven Jenkins' florid description of the film in the catalog will jog your memory as to why it deserves to be revisited.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Monday, April 7, 2014

SFIFF57 2014 Perusing the Line-Up – Special Programs

The SF Film Society (SFFS) revealed the full line-up for the eagerly anticipated 57th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF57) at a Fairmount Hotel press conference last Tuesday. In addition to the previously announced opening and closing night films, Founders Directing Award and live music events, the following special programs were unveiled by Executive Director Noah Cowan and the Film Society's team of long-standing programmers:

● Writer and film historian David Thomson will receive SFIFF57's Mel Novikoff Award, which "acknowledges an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." The sure-to-be engaging Thomson will be interviewed by author Geoff Dyer, followed by a screening of Preston Sturges' 1941 screwball comedy, The Lady Eve, with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

● The festival's 2014 Kanbar Award for screenwriting will go to Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Rules of Engagement), in a program that will feature a screening of 2005's Syriana.

The Persistence of Vision Award, which "honors the achievement of a filmmaker whose main body of work is outside the realm of narrative feature filmmaking," has been awarded to British filmmaker (Young Soul Rebels) and installation artist Isaac Julien. The on-stage interview will be conducted by none other than writer/critic B. Ruby Rich. A showing of Julien's 2010 installation piece, Ten Thousand Waves starring Maggie Cheung, will follow their conversation.

● This year's Centerpiece Film is going to be Gia Coppola's teen drama Palo Alto, adapted from the short story collection written by James Franco (who also has a significant role in the film). Director Coppola, who happens to be Francis Ford's granddaughter, is expected to attend this Centerpiece presentation. (Palo Alto opens in theatres on May 16).

A Conversation with K.K. Barrett, featuring the renowned production designer of such films as Her, Where the Wild Things Are and Being John Malkovich, has been added to the festival's Live & Onstage sidebar.

● Amongst this year's Master Classes and Salons, I'm especially drawn to The $11 Billion Dollar Year, a panel discussion about the film industry's future with reporter/critic Anne Thompson, Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow, Telluride's Gary Meyer and SFFS's brand new Executive Director Noah Cowan.

● As of this writing, the Peter J. Owens Award for acting and the State of Cinema Address remain TBA.

● In a sign of the times, I believe it's worth noting that with the exception of Tod Browing's 1927 The Unknown, and a handful of shorts, all SFIFF presentations this year will be digital, including the restorations and revivals.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

SFIFF57 2014 Anticipating the Line-Up

I've had the good fortune to attend every San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) since 1976 and the privilege of covering it as accredited press for eight years running. As has become a tradition here at film-415, on the eve of the festival's official press conference I've gathered together a rundown of what's already been announced for 2014's edition, followed by a wish list of 20 films I'm hoping to find in the line-up when it's unveiled Tuesday morning.

This year the festival made my job easy by issuing fewer-than-ever early announcements, especially regarding the recipients of its many awards and tributes. Still waiting TBA at this 11th hour are the Peter J. Owens Acting Award, the Maurice Kanbar Screenwriting Award, the Persistence of Vision Award, the Mel Novikoff Award, as well as the fest's Centerpiece Film and the question of who will deliver 2014's State of Cinema Address. All shall be revealed soon enough. Meanwhile, here's a glance at what we know thus far.

● The 57th SFIFF opens on Thursday, April 24 with a screening of The Two Faces of January, which marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove). The film premiered to positive reviews when it screened out of competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival, and the SFIFF Opening Night slot will be its North American premiere. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac, the movie is based on a Patricia Highsmith ("The Talented Mr. Ripley") novel and is set in a lushly photographed Greece and Turkey in the early '60s. Director Amini is scheduled to be in attendance. This year's opening night party will be at the SOMA nightclub Public Works.

● The festival closes on May 8 with another directorial debut, this one from actor Chris Messina (who I had to imdb because I obviously don't watch enough television.) His film is called Alex of Venice and it stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead (had to look her up as well) as an attorney whose life changes when her stay-at-home husband (Messina) decides to take a break from it all. Both Messina and Winstead are expected to attend the screening. Alex of Venice arrives in San Francisco very soon after its world premiere at Tribeca. SFIFF57's closing night party takes place at The Chapel club, in the heart of the Mission District.

● This year's Founder's Directing Award goes to none other than the fabulously eclectic and talented Richard Linklater, whose debut feature Slackers played the festival in 1991 and whose most recent film, Before Midnight, closed last year's fest with the director in attendance. Linklater's tribute takes place at the Castro Theatre on Friday, May 2, with an on-stage interview, career clips reel and a screening of his 18th and most recent feature, the wildly acclaimed Boyhood. This event is destined to be a huge highlight of SFIFF57 – I arranged to take the night off from work the minute I heard about it.

● One of the festival's most popular events is the annual pairing of a silent film with a newly composed score, performed live by a contemporary music artist. Four years after his campy (and somewhat divisive) accompaniment to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Magnetic Fields' front man Stephin Merritt returns to SFIFF with his take on Tod Browning's 1927 creepy circus crime thriller The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. (The film last played the Castro Theatre during the 2008 SF Silent Film Festival, with director Guy Maddin doing a live translation of its French inter-titles.) The second SFIFF57 live music event at the Castro will be Bay Area musician Thao Nguyen and her band, The Get Down Stay Down, performing alongside a diverse selection of short films that includes Chaplin's The Pawn Shop, animations by Harry Smith, vintage newsreels and some of Nguyen's own video work.

● Eleven films will compete for 2014's SFIFF New Directors Prize. I'm especially excited they've programmed Salvation Army, Abdellah Taïa's adaptation of his autobiographical novel about a gay Moroccan boy who later immigrates to Europe. It's a critically acclaimed film I wasn't expecting to see until June's Frameline LGBT festival. (For the record, there are a half dozen other undoubtedly Frameline-bound LGBT films I wouldn't mind seeing at SFIFF, like Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm and Guillaume Gallienne's multiple-César award-winning, Me, Myself and Mum.) The other New Directors Prize contender I'm hot to see is Benjamín Naishtat's History of Fear, a dystopian nightmare set in the Buenos Aires suburbs, which has drawn comparisons to the early works of Michael Haneke since its Berlin premiere. I've also heard terrific things about the Icelandic film, Of Horses and Men, and Mexico's The Amazing Catfish. Both the latter film, as well as Taïa's Salvation Army, boasts cinematography by  renowned DP Agnès Godard.

● Eight films are in the running for SFIFF57's Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition. The only one even remotely on my radar is Hubert Sauper's We Come as Friends, which examines the human cost of neo-colonialism in the newly formed nation of South Sudan. To this day, Sauper's 2004 Oscar®-nominated Darwin's Nightmare remains the most disturbing and dispiriting doc I've ever seen. Perhaps his latest will make me feel even worse.

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Below is a list of 20 films that would comprise my ultimate SFIFF57 dream festival. They've been culled from a larger list I maintain throughout the year, making notes of promising new works from festival reports I read. Last year only two of my 20 films made the line-up, but I still managed to have a sublime festival experience. How will I fare this year?

My SFIFF57 Wish List

Abuse of Weakness (France, dir. Catherine Breillat)
Self-described provocatrice Catherine Breillat takes the autobiographical route, as she directs Isabelle Huppert as a Catherine Breillat-like film director who suffers a stroke and is subsequently swindled by a young con man.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China, dir. Yi'nan Diao)
Winner of the top prize at February's Berlin Film Festival, it's probably too early to expect this stylized Chinese neo-noir to show up in these parts just yet. But I can still wish.

Club Sandwich (Mexico, dir. Fernando Eimbcke)
SFIFF screened this laid-back Mexican director's first two films, Duck Season (2004) and Lake Tahoe (2008) and will hopefully follow through with this droll comedy about a doting mother on vacation with her newly pubescent son.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her (USA, dir. Ned Benson)
These are actually two separate films that take on the dissolution of a relationship from opposing gender-centric P.O.V.s. James McAvoy is Him and Jessica Chastain is Her, with a supporting cast that includes Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt and Viola Davis.

Exhibition (UK, dir. Joanna Hogg)
Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, Archipelago) is an acclaimed new British director about whom plenty has been written, yet none of her films have been seen in the Bay Area. Not even, weirdly enough, at our annual Mostly British festival. Is this the year we'll be brought up to speed?

Hard to Be a God (Russia, dir. Aleksei Gherman)
Russian master Gherman died last year, but not before (almost) completing work on this 3-hour phantasmagoric, medieval mind-fuck only the third film he's made in 30 years. The other two, My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Khrustaliov, My Car! screened at previous SFIFF editions, giving me hope this highly anticipated extravaganza might be headed our way.

Jealousy (France, dir. Philippe Garrel)
Do we really need to see a third consecutive Philippe Garrel film about tormented relationships between artsy types starring Garrel's impossibly handsome son Louis? Not necessarily, but this one has earned the director his best reviews since 2005's Regular Lovers.

Manakamana (Nepal/USA, dir. Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez)
From the folks at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab (Sweetgrass, Leviathan) comes this heralded documentary consisting of only 12 shots, all long takes of passengers riding a cable car to a Nepalese mountaintop temple.

Miss Violence (Greece, dir. Alexandros Avranas)
It seems like forever, or at least a year or two, since we last witnessed an act of cinematic transgression from Greece. This one took the Best Director and Actor prizes at last year's Venice Film Festival.

Moebius (South Korea, dir. Kim Ki-duk)
Speaking of transgression, nobody pushes buttons harder than Kim and his latest film is said to take the cake. Variety's Leslie Felperin calls it "a gloriously off-the-charts study in perversity featuring castration, rape and incest" that fits "right inside the Korean king-of-wackitude's wheelhouse of outrageous cinema."

El Mudo (Peru, dir. Daniel Vega, Diego Vega)
The fraternal Peruvian writing/directing team of Daniel and Diego Vega follow-up 2010's sublime Octubre with another deadpan black comedy, this one winning a Best Actor nod at Locarno for lead Fernando Bacilio.

Night Moves (USA, dir. Kelly Reichardt) With a cast that includes Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard, this eco-terrorism thriller from Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff) will surely have a theatrical release later in the year, but the rave reviews from Venice and Toronto have me wanting to see it sooner rather than later.

Nobody's Daughter or Our Sunhi (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Prolific Korean master Hong released two new, well-received films in 2013, the first one at Berlin and then another at Locarno, where he won Best Director. Rather surprisingly, neither got programmed by Mill Valley or CAAMFest, leaving them available for possible SFIFF inclusion.

October November (Götz Spielmann)
German director Götz Spielmann follows up his 2008 masterpiece Revanche with this tale of two disparate sisters reuniting when their father takes ill. A curious omission from this year's Berlin & Beyond festival.

The Quispe Girls (Chile, dir. Sebastián Sepúlveda)
Three indigenous sisters in rural 1974 Chile face an end to their sheep-herding way of life thanks to the ominous encroachment of General Pinochet's rule. Starring the incomparable Catalina Saavedra (The Maid.)

Story of My Death (Spain, dir. Albert Serra)
The borderline experimental films of noted Catalonian director Serra have largely gone unseen in the Bay Area. His latest, an imagined meeting between Casanova and Dracula, is said to be his most accessible, winning the top prize at last year's Locarno Film Festival.

Stray Dogs (Taiwan, dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
Unlike his last feature, 2009's largely reviled Face, Tsai's latest won acclaim and a slew of awards on 2013's festival circuit, including Best Director and Actor at the Golden Horse Awards. The director's acteur fétiche, Lee Kang-sheng, stars as a father with two children struggling to survive on the streets of Taipei. A welcome consolation prize would be Journey to the West, a new Tsai film that recently premiered at Berlin.

Tarr Béla: I Used to be a Filmmaker (France, dir. Jean-Marc Lamoure)
An in-depth documentary look into the making of Hungarian maestro Bela Tarr's final masterpiece, 2011's The Turin Horse.

Tip Top (France, dir. Serge Bozon)
Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain star as detectives investigating a small town murder and police corruption in this perverse, screwball noir from actor/director Bozon. His last film, the WWI musical La France, screened at SFIFF in 2008.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Romania, dir. Corneliu Porumbiou)
Reviews were mixed for this latest formalist exercise from the director of 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective, but I'm dying to see it anyway. I'd also be quite happy to see The Second Game, his even newer film which just premiered at Berlin.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

CAAMFest 2014

Review – Beautiful 2013

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival rebranded itself CAAMFest last year, thereby completing its transition from a festival which dependably exhibited the latest works of established Asian auteurs, into what is now a film-music-food festival dominated almost exclusively by emerging filmmakers. Anyone in the Bay Area who wants to see the newest films from Tsai Ming-liang (Stray Dogs), Kim Ki-duk (Moebius), Lav Diaz (Norte, the End of History) or Hong Sang-soo (Nobody's Daughter, Our Sunhi) in a public setting had better hope they've earned a slot at next month's 57th San Francisco International Film Festival (program TBA April 1.)

Oh well. Things change. And it's not like CAAMFest 2014, which runs from March 13 to 23, is bereft of familiar names. This year's festival features a 20th anniversary screening of Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman, as well as a three-film tribute to legendary Hong Kong producer Run Run Shaw, who passed away this year at age 107. For those who either missed it at last year's Mill Valley Film Festival or can't wait for its local theatrical release on April 4, there's also Rithy Panh's Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture from Cambodia. In this devastating, not-to-be-missed autobiographical essay film, Panh uses carved figurines, rudimentary dioramas, archival footage and voiceover narration to reconstruct memories of his 5-year enslavement by the Khmer Rouge.

Then there's Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Beautiful New Bay Area Project, one of four shorts that comprise Beautiful 2013, the most recent omnibus co-production between the Hong Kong International Film Festival and Youku, China's version of YouTube. My personal highlight of last year's CAAMFest was the Beautiful 2012 entry Walker. In this 27-minute minimalist masterpiece, director Tsai Ming-liang's perpetual muse, actor Lee Kang-sheng, posed as a monk walking at a snail's pace through a series of flawlessly composed Hong Kong cityscapes. (Tsai has since expanded that idea into a feature-length film called Journey to the West, which premiered at the recent Berlin Film Festival). This year's Beautiful marquee name is Kurosawa, whom this festival fabulously feted with an in-person retrospective and tribute back in 2009. The 29-minute Beautiful New Bay Area Project is set on the docks of Yokohama, where a young, unhinged urban developer becomes obsessed with a female dockworker. After his attentions are repeatedly spurned, he steals her nameplate from work, setting off a lengthy set-piece in which she kicks the ass of every security guard, executive and office worker who stands between her and her precious nameplate. It's not quite as thrilling as the swimming pool scene in Kurosawa's 2012 TV mini-series Penance – whereby a female kendo master battles a knife-wielding maniac around a pool of terrified schoolchildren – but it's still awfully fun. The ominous mise-en-scene, poetic camera set-ups, unsettlingly music and unexpected laughs are all pure Kurosawa Kiyoshi. Fans of his features (Cure, Bright Future, Tokyo Sonata) definitely won't want to miss seeing the Japanese master's latest short on the big screen.

As with most portmanteau collections, the other three shorts in Beautiful 2013 are a mixed bag. Every bit as good as the Kurosawa is the visually arresting 1 Dimension, directed by cinematographer Lü Yue (John Woo's Red Cliff, Zhang Yimou's To Live and Shanghai Triad). Employing silhouetted figures against a backdrop of Chinese scroll paintings, Lü stages the ancient tale of "Prince Piety from the Land of Toto," in which a young royal goes on a six-year journey to acquire the life lessons necessary to be a good king. That's preceded by the wryly dour A New Year, the Same Day by Taiwan's Wu Nien-jen, who's best known as a screenwriter (Hou Hsiao-hsien's A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster) and actor (star of Edward Yang's Yi Yi). On New Year's Day, a put-upon husband and father who describes himself as a "fat and exhausted slave," calls a family powwow and tries to elicit a bit of succor from his crabby wife and distracted teens. The best response comes from the daughter, who squeals with delight, "I posted on Facebook that my family is falling apart and I got 30 "likes!" Beautiful 2013's weakest entry is saved for last, the borderline insipid Indigo from Hong Kong director Mabel Cheung (An Autumn's Tale, The Soong Sisters), in which a nightclub dance instructor (a vibrant Elaine Jin) sends her resentful teenage daughter out to look for her mentally challenged little brother who's gone missing.

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Elsewhere in the CAAMFest 2014 line-up:

● In addition to Cambodia's The Missing Picture, the festival brings us two more films which were their respective country's Oscar® submission. Anthony Chen's directorial debut Ilo Ilo is set during a time of economic crisis and observes what happens when a joyless Singapore family brings a Filipina maid into their household. Ilo Ilo took the prize for Best Feature at last year's Golden Horse Awards (essentially the Academy Awards for Chinese language art/indie films), as well as Best Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress and Best New Director for Mr. Chen, who is scheduled to attend the CAAMFest screenings. The festival is also showing Yûya Ishii's The Great Passage, which was Japan's surprise Oscar® choice over Hirokazu Koreeda's vastly superior Like Father, Like Son. Over the course of 134 minutes, the film chronicles the laborious 15-year task of creating a "living" Japanese dictionary, and succeeds as often as not in making it interesting. The film stars Ryûhei Matsuda (the boy who drove the other samurai wild with desire in Nagisa Ôshima's final film, Taboo) as the painfully awkward linguistics nerd who shepherds the project, and the ubiquitous Jô Odagiri (the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Koreeda, Kim Ki-duk, Seijun Suzuki, Shinji Aoyama and others) as his more gregarious co-worker.

● I'm always interested to learn which films top the box office charts around the world. This year's CAAMFest boasts three which were the 2013 blockbusters in their country of origin. The only one I've previewed is Banjong Pisanthanakun's Pee Mak from Thailand, a well made, really stupid, but funny-enough lampoon of a classic Thai ghost story. I was glad to have seen a more serious version of the story at a previous edition of this festival – the film's title and year escape me – so I had a clue what was being spoofed. Be prepared to lose a few brain cells watching this one. South Korea's top performer of 2013 was the "high-octane thriller" Cold Eyes, which chronicles a police surveillance operation's efforts against a sophisticated robbery ring. The film is a remake of the 2007 Hong Kong hit, Eye in the Sky, and is one of CAAMFest 2014's two Centerpiece Presentations. It should be a blast to watch on the Castro Theatre's big screen, with co-director Jo Ui-seok scheduled to attend. CAAMFest 2014's Opening Night movie at the Castro will be Viet Nam's 2013 B.O. champ, Ham Tran's How to Fight in Six Inch Heels. Described loosely as a rom-com mash-up of The Devil Wears Prada and Mean Girls, the film stars Bay Area native Kathy Uyen.

● CAAMFest 2014's other Centerpiece Presentation at the Castro will be Grace Lee's documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, which celebrates the life and work of the 98-year-old Chinese-American political activist-writer-philosopher who was also an outspoken advocate for African Americans. Both director Grace Lee and subject Grace Lee Boggs will attend. Earlier in the day there'll be an In Conversation with Grace Lee at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. CAAMFest 2014 will also feature a revival screening of Lee's 2007 mockumentary American Zombie, which I originally reviewed for The Evening Class in my first year of blogging about this festival.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite Films of 2013

Last January I walked out of the Palm Springs International Film Festival screening of Rafaël Oullet's devastating familial drama Camion – an unknown entity I had chosen based on an affection for French-Canadian cinema and a Best Director prize at Karlovy Vary – assured that I had just watched what would become my favorite film of 2013. Over the next 12 months, the only work that came close to usurping the top spot was Alain Guiraudie's XXX-rated formalist thriller, Stranger by the Lake, which topped Cahiers du Cinema's 2013 list and barely registered elsewhere, a lapse I expect will be rectified once the good folks at Strand Releasing put it out in the U.S. next month.

I only saw 143 films in theatres this year – 41 of those being revival/repertory screenings – my smallest personal tally in almost two decades. Still, I managed to watch a helluva lot of excellent movies in 2013. Below is a list of my ten favorite narrative features, 28 honorable mentions and a dozen favorite documentary features.

Ten Favorite Narrative Features
Camion (Canada, dir. Rafaël Oullet)
Stranger by the Lake (France, dir. Alain Guiraudie)
Blue is the Warmest Color (France, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
Before Midnight (USA, dir. Richard Linklater)
Museum Hours (Austria/USA, dir. Jem Cohen)
Like Father, Like Son (Japan, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
Vic+Flo Saw a Bear (Canada, dir. Denis Côté)
Crystal Fairy (Chile, Sebastián Silva)
Spring Breakers (USA, dir. Harmony Korine)
The Strange Little Cat (Germany, dir. Ramon Zürcher)

Narrative Feature Honorable Mentions
American Hustle (USA, dir. David O. Russell)
Barbara (Germany, dir. Christian Petzold)
Berberian Sound System (UK, dir. Peter Strickland)
Blancanieves (Spain, dir. Pablo Berger)
Blue Jasmine (USA, dir. Woody Allen)
The Delay (Uruguay, dir. Rodrigo Plá)
Frances Ha (USA, dir. Noah Baumbach)
Fruitvale Station (USA, dir. Ryan Coogler)
Gorbaciof (Italy, dir. Stefano Incerti)
Gravity (USA, dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
The Great Beauty (Italy, dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
Hannah Arendt (Germany, dir. Margarethe von Trotta)
Her (USA, dir. Spike Jonze)
A Hijacking (Denmark, dir. Tobias Lindholm)
In the House (France, dir. François Ozon)
Key of Life (Japan, dir. Kenji Uchida)
Like Someone in Love (France/Japan, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
Mai Morire (Mexico, dir. Enrique Rivero)
Magic Magic (Chile/USA, dir. Sebastián Silva)
Mud (USA, dir. Jeff Nichols)
Our Children (Belgium, dir. Joachim Lafosse)
Paradise: Love (Austria, dir. Ulrich Seidl)
Pieta (South Korea, dir. Kim Ki-duk)
Pit Stop (USA, dir. Yen Tan)
The Place Beyond the Pines (USA, dir. Derek Cianfrance)
The Sightseers (UK, dir. Ben Wheatley)
Something in the Air (France, dir. Olivier Assayas)
Stoker (USA, dir. Park Chan-wook)

Dozen Favorite Documentary Features
The Act of Killing (Denmark/UK/Norway, dir Joshua Oppenheimer)
Belleville Baby (Sweden, dir. Maria Engberg)
Bettie Page Reveals All (USA, dir Marc Mori)
Drought (Mexico, dir Everardo Gonzalez)
I Am Divine (USA, dir. Jeffrey Schwartz)
Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp (USA, dir. Jorge Hinojosa)
Leviathan (France/UK/USA, dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel)
Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America (Argentina, dir. Rodrigo H. Vila)
Paul Bowles: The Cage Door is Always Open (Switzerland/Morocco, dir. Daniel Young)
The Search for Emat Bakia (Spain, dir. Oskar Alegria)
Stories We Tell (Canada, dir. Sarah Polley)
Twenty Feet from Stardom (USA, dir. Morgan Neville)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Anticipating French Cinema Now 2013

The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) brings us the sixth edition of its French Cinema Now (FCN) series, beginning this Thursday, November 7 at Landmark's Clay Theatre. While it's tough seeing 2013's event scaled back from seven days to four, the good news is that the quantity of films has remained the same (albeit with fewer screenings). Two things crossed my mind while perusing the program. The first was an absence of anything lightweight or overtly commercial on the roster. The second was an impressive dedication to a loose coterie of directors by the SFFS programming team, with eight of 10 FCN films this year coming from filmmakers whose works have been previously exhibited by the SF Film Society.

The SFFS alumni party gets going on opening night with Sébastien Betbeder's drôle and affecting 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, which is also the only FCN entry I've previewed in advance. Betbeder was the surprise FIPRESCI winner at this year's SF International Film Festival. His 67-minute, made-for-TV movie Nights with Théodore, set an enigmatic, paranormal-shaded romance almost entirely within Paris' Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Betbeder's follow-up retains the Paris setting, this time concerning itself with the ups and downs of two ex-art student bros in their early thirties. It's been labeled the first French mumblecore film, which is a stretch. While the film does feature floundering young adults and lengthy monologues, it's more stylized than its American counterpart, with an episodic structure, a lot of fourth wall-breaking and a diverse look obtained from shooting both 16mm and digital. Comic, bittersweet and smart, 2 Autumns should work perfectly as an opening night film.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters is just one of six FCN selections that had world premieres at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The FCN film I'm most anticipating is Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake, which competed in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. It was perhaps the best-reviewed film of the entire festival, leaving some critics wondering why it wasn't in the main competition. It ultimately won the sidebar's Best Director award as well as the fest's Queer Palm. Set entirely around a placid lake that doubles as a notorious cruising spot, the film has been described as a (very) sexually-explicit thriller that takes on the complexities of gay male desire. One much-discussed scene has had critics making comparisons to Hitchcock and Chabrol at their most unbearably suspenseful. A lot of fuss has also been made of the film's lush wide-screen photography and layered sound design. Unsurprisingly, the good folks at Strand Releasing have picked this up for U.S. distribution. Director Guiraudie is no stranger to FCN, having personally accompanied The King of Escape, his yarn about a gay, middle-aged tractor salesman on the lam with a teenage girl, to the Bay Area in 2009.

Also showing up in Cannes' Un Certain Regard was Claire Denis' Bastards, a downbeat and menacing familial tale of money, sex and power set in contemporary Paris. Although the film drew mixed reviews – critics complained about its obtuseness and confusingly fragmented narrative – it fared much better at the Toronto and New York film festivals. Critic Robert Koehler proclaimed it Denis' best film since L'intrus and Manola Dargis found Bastards "grimly beautiful and somewhat unhinged." (And then there's Ryan Lattanzio's ominous warning at Indiewire that after Bastards "you may never eat corn-on-the-cob again.") Once more Denis enlists the immense talents of cinematographer Agnès Godard (her first digital shoot for Denis) and musician Stuart Staples of the Tindersticks. The promising cast includes Denis regulars Grégoire Colin and Michel Subor, as well as Denis newbies Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni and Lola Créton. I wasn't crazy about Denis' last film, 2009's White Material, but these L'intrus comparisons have me hopeful that I'll be loving me some Bastards.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's autobiographical A Castle in Italy initially drew attention at Cannes because it was the only female-directed film in the main competition. Then came the almost unanimously horrible reviews, with The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw leading the pile-on ("smug, precious, carelessly constructed, emotionally negligible, tiresome, insufferably self-regarding and above all, fantastically annoying.") Tedeschi plays a retired actress with a ticking biological clock whose family is divided over whether to sell the titular family castle – in other words, she's got an acute case of RWPP (Rich White People Problems.) As in real life, her character has a younger actor boyfriend (played by her actual ex, actor Louis Garrel) and a brother who's dying of AIDS (Tedeschi's brother died of the disease in 2006 and is played here by Filippo Timi, the Italian actor best known for portraying Mussolini in Vincere). This is Tedeschi's third outing as director/writer/actress, and all three films were co-written by actress/director Noémie Lvovsky (who attended last year's FCN with the opening night film, Camille Rewinds). I remember enjoying Tedeschi's Actresses when it played the inaugural FCN in 2008, so I'm willing to take a chance on this – in no small part thanks to the presence of Euro-hunks Garrel and Timi. Omar Sharif of all people is said to have a movie-stealing cameo near the end.

Speaking of Euro-hunks, Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen plays the titular role in FCN's other film from Cannes 2013's main competition, Arnaud des Pallières' Michael Kohlhaas. Based on an 1811 novella that's a staple of German literature classes, the film features a French-speaking Mikkelsen as a 16th century horse merchant seeking justice after two prized steeds are seized and then abused by a ruthless nobleman. Reviews of both the film and Mikkelsen's performance were mixed, with the Hollywood Reporter's Jordan Mintzer opining, "Michael Kohlhaas provides a few quick thrills and some beautifully photographed landscapes, but never really convinces as an intellectual’s swords-and-horses period piece." The critics were unanimous in their praise of Jeanne Lapoire's cinematography (she also shot A Castle in Italy), as well as the film's exquisite period detail. Being mad-for-Mads means I wouldn't dream of missing this, especially when the Great Dane is joined by an impressive supporting cast that includes Amira Casar, Jacques Nolot, Bruno Ganz, Sergi López and Denis Lavant.

My favorite film at FCN 2010 was Katell Quillévéré's Love Like Poison, an impressive, Prix Jean Vigo-winning directorial debut about a young Bretagne teen grappling with issues of flesh vs. spirit. Three years later Quillévéré returns with Suzanne, which opened the Critics Week sidebar at this year's Cannes. The film encompasses 25 years in the life of its protagonist, a young woman who lives with her widowed father and sister, gets pregnant in high school and eventually takes up with a small-time gangster. Although reviews were generally favorable, many critics felt the huge time gaps in the narrative gave the film a choppy feel. Variety's Boyd van Hoeij likened Suzanne to an "extended trailer for an entire season of a French working-class daytime drama." Critics were unanimous, however, in their resounding praise for Sara Forestier in the title role. This is the acclaimed actress who burst on the scene in 2003, winning a Most Promising Actress César for her fiery performance in Abdellatif Kechiche's Games of Love and Chance (aka L'esquive), and then winning the Best Actress César in 2011 for Michel Leclerc's The Names of Love. Perhaps a third César is not out of the question.

Just as Quillévéré's first movie was my FCN favorite of 2010, so it was a year earlier with The Wolberg Family, the passionate and quirky 2009 debut of critic-turned-director Axelle Ropert. She's finally made a second film, Miss and the Doctors, which is about two pediatrician brothers both falling in love with a barmaid whose diabetic daughter is in their care. The brothers are played by director/actor Cédric Kahn (Red Lights) and Laurent Stocker, the latter a Comédie Françasie actor whose work I'm unfamiliar with. As with The Wolberg Family, Ropert's latest is also a Bozon family affair, with actor/director Serge Bozon (La France) once more taking on a supporting acting role and his sister Céline Bozon delivering the cinematography. Because Miss and the Doctors didn't have a festival rollout and only opened in French cinemas two months ago, there are very few reviews in English. An exception is Jordan Mintzer's favorable write-up in the Hollywood Reporter, where he calls the film a "bluesy swan song for brotherly love" and compares it to "the sort of earnestly made, cleverly scripted adult dramas of Truffaut's late period." The film's original French title (Tirez la langue, mademoiselle) translates as "Stick out your tongue, Miss," which sounds less lame than its English counterpart.

Yet another directorial second feature in the FCN 2013 line-up is Anna Novion's Rendezvous in Kiruna. Like the filmmaker's 2008 debut Grown Ups, it stars Novion's off-screen partner, renowned character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin (who's mostly known to me from the films of Robert Guédiguian). Here he plays a gruff French architect who must travel to Swedish Lapland to identify the body of a dead son he has never met, picking up a young hitchhiker on route. Rendezvous in Kiruna won the prize for Best Film at the 2012 Cairo International Film Festival, and in her review for the Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden appreciates how the movie escapes inherent road movie clichés and promises that "the story's quiet observations build into low-charge detonations that resonate for days afterward." The film's cinematographer, Pierre Novion, is expected to attend the FCN screening. Kiruna, by the way, is Sweden's northernmost city and the unofficial capital of Swedish Lapland.

The lone documentary in this year's FCN is House of Radio from Nicholas Philibert. It's the first film by the master French non-fiction filmmaker since Nénette, his fascinating 2010 study of a 40-year-old, zoo-imprisoned Parisian orangutan. This time Philibert takes on the massive entity that is Radio France, which is loosely the French version of NPR. The film is given an illusory 24-hours-in-the-life-of structure, although it was actually shot over the course of six months. Reviews for House of Radio have been generally positive – it premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival and had a brief NYC theatrical release back in September – with the main criticism being that unless you are already familiar with Radio France, the film is a bit daunting. There is no voiceover narration or on-screen information imparted, so unless you know what screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and author Umberto Eco look like, you won't realize they are among the radio's on-air interviewees until the end credits roll.

After Stranger by the Lake, the FCN film I'm most dying to see is Vic+Flo Saw a Bear from French-Canadian director Denis Côté. This is the first time a Quebecois film has been included in FCN's line-up and I hope it won't be the last. The SF Film Society did sponsor a Quebec Film Week back in 2008, but since then many important French-Canadian works have bypassed the Bay Area, including Côté's disturbing 2012 documentary about taxidermy and safari park animals, Bestiare (fortunately available for streaming on Netflix). Vic+Flo Saw a Bear tells the offbeat and ultimately harrowing story of a 61-year-old lesbian ex-con who retreats to the rural home of a paralyzed uncle, and is joined in short order by her former lover/ex-cellmate and her gay parole officer. The film premiered in Berlin, where it walked off with the prestigious Alfred Bauer Award, given each year to a film that "opens new perspectives on cinematic art." (Past recipients include Léos Carax, Tsai Ming-liang, Park Chan-wook, Fernando Eimbcke and last year's winner, Miguel Gomes' Tabu). Critics have been generous with praise, with Boyd van Hoeij calling it Côté's most accomplished work yet, and Screen Daily's Lee Marshall summing up the film's vibe thusly: "A rich, humane, surprising film, Vic + Flo Saw A Bear manages to mix the drollery of Wes Anderson, the genre swagger of Tarantino or the Coen Brothers and the opaque narrative of a Bruno Dumont in one intriguing package."

Cross published at The Evening Class.