Sunday, March 29, 2015

SFIFF58 2015 Anticipating the Line-up

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) is busy gearing up for its 58th edition, with the full line-up set to be announced at a March 31 press conference. Based on press releases emanating from the SF Film Society in recent weeks, I'd say things are already looking pretty sweet.

In addition to being the longest-running film festival in the Western Hemisphere, SFIFF is this Bay Area cinephile's favorite fortnight of the year. As has become a tradition here at film-415, on the eve of the SFIFF58 press conference we offer an overview of what's been announced thus far, some prognosticating over what else might be in store and finally, a list of 20 films we're most hoping to find on this year's roster.

 ● SFIFF58 gets going on April 23 at the Castro Theatre with Alex Gibney's Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which arrives fresh from its SXSW world premiere. The insanely prolific Gibney, whose recent warts n' all docs on James Brown and Scientology aren't even six months old, was inspired to make a film about Apple's co-founder after witnessing the mass public lamentation that followed Job's death. It's a portrait Variety's Justin Chang describes as "deeply unflattering" and "more than willing to speak ill of the dead." Other reviews have dubbed it a "tech-age Citizen Kane." Gibney will of course be in attendance, along with "additional special guests." Those guests will need to be extra special, however, to stem a post-screening exodus to MUNI's F-streetcar line – the most expedient way to reach SFIFF58's opening night party at Madame Tussaud's wax museum at Fisherman's Wharf. There I look forward to an evening of unbridled, faux-celebrity selfie-taking at one of the most fabulously inspired ideas for a party venue ever.

The fest closes 15 days later with a Castro screening of Michael Almereyda's Experimenter, described as a highly stylized biopic about a once controversial social psychologist. Peter Sarsgaard stars as Stanley Milgram, he of the infamous 1963 Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures, as well as later work that was central to formulating the Six Degrees of Separation theory. This will be Almereyda's fifth film to play SFIFF. The most memorable for me were his 1994 post-modern vampire flick Nadja and the NYC update of Hamlet with Ethan Hawke (the latter of which closed the festival in 2000). SFIFF58's Closing night special guests are still TBA and the party will be held at Mezzanine.

● This year's Centerpiece film is James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour, based on Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky's memoir of a days-long encounter with writer David Foster Wallace. Ponsoldt, whose last film was The Spectacular Now, will be on hand for the screening along with star Jason Segel. Full disclosure – I adore Mr. Segel and am beyond enthusiastic over this impending SFIFF appearance. (I mean, I even went to see a friggin' Muppets movie because this guy was in it.) Segel has received near-unanimous raves for his performance as the reticent, yet occasionally garrulous author Wallace, in this his first dramatic feature leading role. The film, which co-stars Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky and boasts a screenplay by playwright Donald Margulies, was also one of the best-reviewed movies at Sundance. This all happens on May 2 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

● SFIFF58 rolls up its sleeve for an injection of old-school Hollywood glamour when Richard Gere accepts the fest's Peter J. Owens Award for excellence in acting on April 26 at the Castro Theatre. The program will include a career-best clips reel, on-stage interview and a screening of Oren Moverman's Time Out of Mind, in which Gere plays a NYC homeless man. In his rave review for Variety, critic Justin Chang praises Gere's "beautifully judged performance, plain and true, and one for which he appears to have purged every trace of actorly vanity or self-consciousness." The film also features Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, Kyra Sedgwick and Ben Vereen in supporting roles. Fun fact – the last time a Richard Gere movie played SFIFF was in 1986, when Days of Heaven screened at a tribute for cinematographer Nestor Almendros.

● More than two decades after he first charmed SFIFF audiences with his 1994 debut feature Cronos, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro returns to claim the fest's Irving M. Levin Directing Award (f.k.a. the Founder's Directing Award and before that, the Akira Kurosawa Award) at the Castro Theatre on April 25. From his astonishing filmography the festival has chosen to screen 2001's Spanish Civil War chiller The Devil's Backbone, in a program that will also feature a clips reel, on-stage interview and a promised sneak peak at del Toro's future projects. May the choice of interviewer be as inspired as last year's pairing of Richard Linklater with Parker Posey.

● Nine films will compete for this year's New Directors Prize and as usual, it's an intriguing band of contenders. The Tribe boasts the highest profile, having screened in Cannes' Critics Week sidebar where it ultimately took home the Grand Prize. Directed by Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy, this tale of social Darwinism is set in a Ukrainian school for the deaf and told completely in unsubtitled sign language. I've also read excellent things about Laura Bispuri's Sworn Virgin, which recently premiered at Berlin. Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher stars here as an Albanian woman who has lived her life as a man and is now imagining other options. Remaining New Directors Prize hopefuls include filmmakers from Viet Nam, India, Ivory Coast, Chile, Albania, Afghanistan and France.

● SFIFF is big on documentaries. Nearly one-third of the line-up has been given over to non-fiction filmmaking in recent years, which isn't surprising given the Bay Area's stature as a doc-producing hotbed. Ten films will battle it out in 2015's Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition, with J.P. Sniadecki's The Iron Ministry at the top of my must-see list. This meditative look at China's railway system comes from the folks at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose revolutionary documentaries such as Manakamana, Leviathan and Sweetgrass have enriched previous SFIFF editions. I'm also excited about two films which won Sundance's Special Jury Prize and Grand Jury Prize. Respectively, Bill and Turner Ross' Western looks at two neighboring cities on opposite sides of the Rio Grande, while Crystal Moselle's bizarre-sounding The Wolfpack observes a family of six teenage shut-ins whose entire worldview is based on the DVDs they watch.

● Performance artist-author-movie director Miranda July returns to SFIFF with the west coast premiere of her performance piece New Society, on April 28 and 29 at the Brava Theater Center. Co-presented by SFMOMA, New Society is said to be heavy on audience participation, with some performances witnessing more audience members up on-stage than in their seats. The Boston Globe's Don Aucoin describes it as an "innovative theatrical experiment illustrating the myriad ways societies form, cohere, change, fracture, and maybe persevere over time." Ah, but does it have anything to do with film? Most everyone I know is either a MJ lover or hater. The former have seen to it that both SFIFF performances of New Society are already at RUSH.

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Each year I can't help but speculate on which films will fill out the remaining SFIFF line-up. Landmark Theatre's upcoming release list is a good place to start, except when it's not. This year only four flicks on the arthouse chain's calendar smell like potential SFIFF candidates: the narrative features Aloft (Claudia Lhosa) and Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello), as well as docs Ivy (Albert Maysles) and Dark Star: HR Gigers Welt (Belinda Sallin).

Last year the festival screened Philippine auteur Lav Diaz' sublime Norte, the End of History roughly two months before it reappeared at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This year Diaz' From What is Before won the top prize at Locarno and is scheduled for a June YBCA screening. Will SFIFF jump in and lay claim to another Diaz Bay Area premiere?

Every January I travel to the Palm Springs International Film Festival and see films that might appear at SFIFF. Among the prime PSIFF selections I caught this year, all of which I'd be pleased to revisit, are the aforementioned Saint Laurent, the French New Wave-inspired Mexican film Güeros, Belgian director Fabrice du Welz' creepy remake of The Honeymoon Killers (Alléluia), Mexican satirist Luis Estrada's scathing The Perfect Dictatorship, feminist seafaring drama Fidelio, Alice's Journey and Bruno Dumont's comic, made-for-TV police procedural Li'l Quinquin. And while the latter is currently available to stream at Fandor, it is very much worth watching on a big screen if one has that opportunity.

Past SFIFF wish lists were always culled from films that played the previous year's festival circuit, as well as those debuting in the early months of the current year. This year, however, the list is exclusively composed of remaining unseen titles from 2014. If asked to name five 2015 releases I'd most love to see at SFIFF58, I'd have to say Peter Greenaway's Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Pablo Larraín's The Club, Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room, Sebastian Silva's Nasty Baby and Jayro Bustamante's Ixcanul Volcano.

Finally, both The Tribe and The Iron Ministry appeared on my initial list and were replaced once they were announced as screening in competition. So in essence, two wishes were granted straight out of the gate.

My SFIFF58 Wish List

Alive (South Korea, dir Park Jung-bun)
Five years after he won the festival's New Directors Prize for The Journals of Musan, I'm hoping director-writer-actor Park returns with this follow-up, a grim three-hour formalist portrait of a struggling soybean paste factory worker.

Eden (France, dir. Mia Hansen-Love)
The SF Film Society has Bay Area-premiered all three of this director's works (All is Forgiven, Father of My Children, Goodbye First Love), so I wouldn't be surprised if they've also carved out a slot for this drama spread across two decades of France's electronic house music scene.

The Fool (Russia, dir. Yuri Bykov)
This was the second prominent Russian film of 2014 to deal with one man's fight against systemic political corruption (Oscar® nominee Leviathan being the other). Artem Bystrov won Locarno's Best Actor prize for his portrayal of a naïve plumber raising the red flag on an about-to-collapse apartment block.

Free Fall (Hungary, dir. György Pálfi)
The director's delightfully weird debut feature Hukkle played the festival in 2003, but his subsequent three films, including 2006's internationally popular Taxidermia, have gone Bay Area M.I.A.. Pálfi's new one took best director and jury prizes at Karlovy Vary, and follows the bizarre events witnessed by a woman who's jumped off her apartment building rooftop.

Goodnight Mommy(Austria, dirs. Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz)
Twin boys make life hell for their facially disfigured mother in this "fairy tale for Dogtooth enthusiasts," co-written and directed by Ulrich Seidl's wife (Veronika Franz, who also co-scripted several Seidl films including Import/Export and all three Paradise films).

Horse Money (Portugal, Pedro Costa)
Costa expands his acclaimed Fontainhas slum trilogy into a quartet, following its Cape Verdean protagonist Ventura into his new life. SFIFF brought us the first (Ossos) and third (Colossal Youth) Fontainhas installments and will hopefully follow through with Costa's latest, which earned him the Best Director prize at Locarno.

Hungry Hearts (Italy, dir. Saverio Costanzo)
This director won SFIFF's FIPRESCI prize in 2005 for the almost Oscar®-nominated Private. His first English language film centers upon a mother's postpartum psychosis and won awards for Best Actor (Adam Driver) and Best Actress (Alba Rohrwacher) at Venice.

In the Basement (Austria, dir. Ulrich Seidl)
Austria's "guru of the grotesque" returns to documentary filmmaking with this look at his fellow countrymen's penchant for domestic subterranean weirdness.

Jauja (Argentina, dir. Lisandro Alonso)
South America's most noted cinematic minimalist comes back with his first feature in six years, a trippy meta-Western set in a Patagonian outpost, featuring a lead performance by an actual movie star (Viggo Mortensen, who also produced and co-composed the score).

Journey to the West (Taiwan, dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
Tsai's beguiling 2012 short Walker, in which actor Lee Kang-sheng posed as a monk and s-l-o-w-l-y traversed a series of Hong Kong cityscapes, has been expanded into a Marseilles-set feature, and boasts an assist from actor Denis Lavant.

The Look of Silence (Denmark, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
SFIFF audiences were blown away two years ago by eventual Oscar®-nominee The Act of Killing, in which Indonesian paramilitary death squad leaders reenacted their crimes on film. Oppenheimer's equally acclaimed sequel follows one family as they confront those who murdered a beloved family member back in 1966.

Love & Mercy (USA, dir. Bill Pohlad)
What excites me most about this Brian Wilson biopic, starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger/older Beach Boy genius, is that it shares the same screenwriter as Todd Haynes' radically offbeat Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There.

Magical Girl (Spain, dir. Carlos Vermut)
This "calculated exercise in genre movie subversion" cleaned up at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival, taking home prizes for Best Film (the Golden Shell) and Best Director.

Maidan (Ukraine, dir. Sergei Loznitsa)
After garnering international acclaim for narrative features My Joy (SFIFF 2011) and In the Fog (SFIFF 2013), Loznitsa returns to his documentary roots with this strictly observational accounting of the 2013/2014 Ukrainian uprising.

Pasolini (France, dir. Abel Ferrara)
Not even the stinky reviews from the Venice Film Festival have dampened my desire to catch Ferrara's avant-garde imagining of director Pier Paolo Pasolini's (Willem Dafoe) last day on earth.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence (Sweden, dir. Roy Andersson)
Sweden's king of absurdist, fixed-camera tableaux came to Venice with his first film since 2006's You, the Living and went home with the fest's top prize, the Golden Lion.

The President (Georgia, dir. Moshen Makhmalbaf)
The Bay Area hasn't seen a new film from key Iranian New Wave director Makhmalbaf since 2001's Kandahar. His latest is a parable about the Arab Spring which won the top prize at last year's Chicago International Film Festival.

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (France, dir. Wiam Bedirxan, Ossama Mohammed)
This acclaimed "poetic lamentation" on the horrors of Syria's civil war combines amateur on-line footage – assembled and narrated by exiled Syrian auteur Mohammed – with that of a female, Kurdish activist schoolteacher reporting from the front lines in Homs.

Songs from the North (USA, dir. Yoo Soon-Mi)
Winner of the Best First Film prize at Locarno, this documentary is being touted as the film to see about North Korea.

Winter Sleep (Turkey, dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Nearly one year after it won the Palme d'or at Cannes, Bay Area movie lovers are still waiting to see this new work from one of the world's leading filmmakers. If there's one movie I can't imagine not being included in 2015's SFIFF line-up, Winter Sleep is it. 

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Favorite Films of 2014

Ten Favorite Narrative Features

Boyhood (USA dir. Richard Linklater)
I was tempted to plunk another film in the top spot just to stand out from the crowd, but this really was my fave flick of the year. I'm especially grateful to have seen the "festival cut" with Linklater's dream soundtrack, which included songs from Outkast, Daft Punk, Weezer and others that were sadly M.I.A. from the theatrical release. At that same Castro Theatre screening at this year's SF International Film Festival, I had the added pleasure of watching Linklater be interviewed on-stage by none other than Parker Posey, followed by a post-screening Q&A with the director and daughter/star Lorelei. Finally, I'm compelled to give a loud shout-out to Ethan Hawke, who's gotten zero Awards Season love for what I consider the best performance of his career.

Clouds of Sils Maria (France dir. Olivier Assayas)
After narrowly missing last year's Ten Favorites with his autobiographical Something in the Air, Assayas came through with my number two film of 2014, a funny, whip-smart, deliciously meta treatise on movie actresses starring Juliette Binoche and a staggeringly excellent Kristen Stewart. This All About Eve for the age in which we now live proved a stellar closer for the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now series.

Locke (UK dir. Steven Knight)
Tom Hardy delivers the performance of the year in this gripping portrayal of a construction manager juggling multiple crises via Bluetooth whilst barreling down a UK highway in the dead of night. The film also reps an astounding achievement for sophomore director Steven Knight, who kept things moving at a intense clip and created keen visual interest in the lone setting of a car's interior/exterior.

Eastern Boys (France dir. Robin Campillo)
A gay, middle-aged Parisian gets more than he bargained for after hooking up with a Ukrainian hustler in this stunning discovery from 2014's SFIFF, which in its third act transformed into the most intensely nerve-wracking thriller I'd seen in years. Until now, director Campillo has been best known for co-writing films with Laurent Cantet (The Class) and for his only previous feature as director, the revered 2004 zombie flick, They Came Back.

Moebius (South Korea dir. Kim Ki-duk)
In the first 10 minutes of this outlandish horror show from formalist shock-meister Kim, a woman retaliates against her philandering husband by cutting off their teenage son's penis and eating it. Then shit starts to get really weird. Did I mention there's absolutely no dialogue (but lots of grunting, screaming, moaning and groaning) or that the same actress plays the disparate roles of both wife and mistress? Moebius had a brief NYC theatrical release this summer, but no Bay Area programmer had the balls to touch it. Once again, all-too-frequently (and wrongly) maligned Netflix came to the rescue!

Club Sandwich (Mexcio dir. Fernando Eimbcke)
After a five year hiatus, my favorite Mexican director returned with yet another knowingly heartfelt and hilarious deadpan comedy, this one about a pubescent boy encountering first love while on holiday with his single mother at an off-season beach resort. It was an added thrill to have Sr. Eimbcke on hand at the film's SFIFF screenings.

Birdman (USA dir Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Bursting with bravura scriptwriting, direction, acting, music and camerawork, this was a film so entirely original and kinetic in its conception that it nearly defied description. And Dear God, I'll never take your name in vain again if you'll let Edward Norton beat out J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) for best supporting actor.

Force Majeure (Sweden dir. Ruben Östlund)
In this brilliant, bristling social satire from Sweden, a family man endures the shame brought on by an act of cowardice at an Alpine ski resort (the latter of which supplies this year's most intriguing mise en scene). I've seen six of the nine films shortlisted for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® and this is by far my favorite (sorry, Ida).

The Dance of Reality (Chile dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Latin America's 85-year-old silver screen surrealist emerged after nearly a quarter century's absence with this autobiographical opus magnum that nearly exploded with cinematic invention. Considered in tandem with the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, it represented a genuine embarrassment of riches.

Mommy (Canada dir. Xavier Dolan) 25-year-old gay French-Canadian wunderkind Dolan delivered a massive jolt to 2014's Cannes competition with this emotionally super-sized epic about a fiery single mom's love for her sociopathic teenage son. This is the young director's fifth film in as many years and the third to make my annual Top Ten.

* I missed several opportunities to see Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Two Days, One Night, and am fairly convinced it would have made this list had I seen it. (I'll finally catch the film next weekend at the Palm Springs International Film Festival). Also, for what it's worth, Bruce LaBruce's Gerontophilia and J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year came this close to Top Ten inclusion.

Narrative Feature Honorable Mentions 
(38 more films that helped make 2014 a damn fine year for movie-watching)

The Amazing Catfish (Mexico dir. Claudia Sainte-Luce)
The Auction (Canada dir. Sébastien Pilote)
Bethlehem (Israel dir. Yuval Adler)
Blue Ruin (USA dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
Calvary (Ireland dir. John Michael McDonagh)
Chef (USA dir. Jon Favreau)
Child's Pose (Romania dir. Calin Peter Netzer)
Chinese Puzzle (France dir. Cédric Klapisch)
The Dune (France dir. Yossi Aviram)
The Easy Way Out (France dir. Brice Cauvin)
An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (Bosnia/Herzegovina dir. Danis Tanovic)
Foxcatcher (USA dir. Bennett Miller)
Gerontophilia (Canada dir. Bruce LaBruce)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (USA dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)
God's Slave (Venezuela dir. Joel Novoa)
Gone Girl (USA dir. David Fincher)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA dir. Wes Anderson)
Happy Christmas (USA dir. Joe Swanberg)
Harmony Lessons (Kazakhstan, dir. Emir Baigazin)
Holiday (Ecuador dir. Diego Araujo)
In Bloom (Georgia dir. Nana Ekvtimishvili)
Jimmy P. (USA/France dir. Arnaud Desplechin)
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (USA dir. David Zellner)
Leviathan (Russia dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Lilting (UK dir. Hong Khaou)
Love at First Fight (France dir. Thomas Cailley)
A Most Violent Year (USA dir. J.C. Chandor)
A Most Wanted Man (UK dir. Anton Corbijn)
Mr. Turner (UK dir. Mike Leigh)
Norte, the End of History (Philippines dir. Lav Diaz)
Omar (Palestine dir. Hany Abu-Assad)
The Reconstruction (Argentina dir. Juan Taratuto)
Salvation Army (France/Morocco dir. Abdellah Taïa)
Stray Dogs (Taiwan dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
Venus in Fur (France dir. Roman Polanski)
Violette (France dir. Martin Provost)
The Way He Looks (Brazil dir. Daniel Ribeiro)
Zero Motivation (Israel dir. Talya Lavie)

Ten Favorite Documentary Features

What Now? Remind Me (Portugal, dir. Joaquim Pinto)
Jodorowsky's Dune (USA dir. Frank Pavich)
Citizenfour (USA dir. Laura Poitras)
The Dog (USA dir. Allison Berg, Frank Keraudren)
Finding Vivian Maier (USA dir. John Maloof, Charlie Siskel)
The Spirit of '45 (UK dir. Ken Loach)
Freedom Summer (USA dir. Stanley Nelson)
Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity (USA dir. Catherine Gund)
The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (USA dir. Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine)
No No: A Documentary (USA dir. Jeff Radice)

Documentary Feature Honorable Mentions

The Case Against 8 (USA dir. Ben Cotner, Ryan White)
Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank (USA dir. Sheila Canavan, Michael Chandler)
Last Days in Viet Nam (USA dir. Rory Kennedy)
Manakamana (USA/Nepal dir. Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia dir. Rithy Panh)
Natan (Ireland/UK/USA/France dir. Paul Duane, David Cairns)
The Salt of the Earth (France/Brazil dir. Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders)
School of Babel (France dir. Julie Bertuccelli)
The Square (Egypt/USA dir. Jehane Noujaim)
Violette Leduc: In Pursuit of Love (France dir. Esther Hoffenberg)

Special Citations

● American indies don't always have to suck: Joe Swanberg's Happy Christmas, Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin, Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child and David Zellner's Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

● Funniest line of dialogue: "I don't want to live in a world of dressed-up dogs!" from Jodorowsky's The Dance of Reality

2014's Sexiest Man Alive: Edward Snowden in Citizenfour

Cruel and unusual punishment: The final two static shots, lasting 14 and seven minutes respectively, in Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs

Excedrin headaches #297 and #410: the "roving right eye" segments of Godard's 3-D Goodbye to Language and the screeching teenage girls in Lucas Moodysson's We Are the Best!

Best villain: Mae Paner as Magda the heartless moneylender who gets hacked to death in Lav Diaz' Norte, the End of History

Best dance sequence: Lika Babluani's hypnotic wedding dance in Nana Ekvtimishvili's Georgian coming-of-ager In Bloom

Best insect torture devices: Emir Baigazin's Harmony Lessons

The most fun I had at the movies in 2014: the SFIFF screening of Chinese Puzzle with director Cédric Klapisch and sexy French superstar Romain Duris in person, presenting a hilarious film that was loads better than any three-quel had a right to be.

She's everywhere! She's everywhere!: Isabelle Huppert in Serge Bozon's Tip Top, Niels Arden Oplev's Dead Man Down, Catherine Breillat's Abuse of Weakness, Ned Benson's The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Marc Fitousi's Paris Follies

Laughed myself sick: the office chair airbag scene from Nicolas Stoller's Neighbors

Movie ending that made me pump my fist in the air and scream, "Fuck, yeah!": Hany Abu-Assad's Omar

Sexiest Soviet filmmaker turned actor: Vsevolod Pudovkin in the SF Silent Film Festival's revival of Lev Kuleshov's 1924 Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks

Best Revival: the SF Silent Film Festival's mind-blowing 4K digital restoration of Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Worst Revival: the shitty 4K digital restoration of Richard Lester's 1964 A Hard Day's Night

Most ludicrous depiction of my hometown of Trenton, NJ: Michel Gast's 1959 I Spit on Your Graves, shown as part of the Roxie's "The French Had a Name For It" film noir series

Best use of a pop music classic: David Bowie's "Space Oddity" in Fruit Chan's dystopian Hong Kong nightmare, The Midnight After

Best films by established French auteurs that popped up on Netflix without ever having been screened in the Bay Area: Bruno Dumont's Camille Claudel 1915 and Arnaud Desplechin's Jimmy P.

You had to see it to believe it: Ex-soccer star Eric Cantona crawling around a cage dressed only in bulging white briefs while getting whipped by a snarling, white fur-clad Béatrice Dalle in Yann Gonzalez' You and the Night

Hated it!: Damien Chazelle's Whiplash

Didn't really get it: Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

SFFS Fall Season 2014

The San Francisco Film Society's (SFFS) Fall Season has revamped itself into a trio of mini-festivals for 2014 and will hold court at San Francisco's 114-year-old Vogue Theatre over three consecutive November weekends. The three events – French Cinema Now (Nov. 6-9), Hong Kong Cinema (Nov. 14-16) and New Italian Cinema (Nov. 19-23) – feature a healthy mix 2014 festival breakouts, mainstream hits and artsy obscurities, along with a handful of revivals, documentaries and animated features. To boot, each harbors a movie competing in this year's Oscar® race for Best Foreign Language Film. Here's an overview of the titles I'm most looking forward to.


Four years ago, French Cinema Now (FCN) opened with an Isabelle Huppert flick directed by Marc Fitousi. The delightful Copacabana saw the French star in the unlikely role of a Brazil-obsessed ditz selling seaside timeshares. Now Fitousi and Huppert have reunited for Paris Follies, which opens FCN's seventh edition. Perhaps just as improbably, their new collaboration showcases the actress as a discontented cattle breeder's wife who sets off to have a Parisian affair, with hubby (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) in hot pursuit. The intriguing supporting cast includes Michael Nyqvist (Girl with the Dragon Tatoo), Marina Foïs (Four Lovers), Anaïs Demoustier (Living on Love Alone) and seductive Pio Marmaï (Nights with Théodore), and cinematography is by the peerless Agnès Godard. Paris Follies will be the only work in the 11-film line-up to receive two screenings, and director Fitousi is once again expected to be on hand.

The most preeminent FCN titles this year are Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Two Days, One Night and Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria. Both debuted in competition at Cannes to terrific reviews, although neither walked away with prizes. Both, coincidentally, had their Bay Area premieres at the Mill Valley Film Festival a few weeks back. Two Days, One Night stars Marion Cotillard as a factory worker who must convince co-workers to forego a bonus so she can keep her job. It's Belgium's submission for this year's Oscar® race, repping the fourth time the country has chosen to be represented by the Dardennes. Olivier Assayas' latest stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in what is generally described as a challenging, meta- homage to the art of film acting. Although both have major distribution through Sundance Selects, neither appears on any upcoming Bay Area release schedule I'm privy to. In other words, these FCN showings could be our last chance to catch these important films on a big screen. (Long gone are the days when a film by a major French director, starring Juliette Binoche, would necessarily command a local theatrical release or at least some festival play. Just ask Bruno Dumont, whose recent Binoche-starring Camille Claudel 1914 popped up on Netflix without ever having shown its face round these parts.)

Two additional FCN films were Cannes breakouts, albeit from the Director's Fortnight sidebar. The debut feature from director Thomas Cailley, Love at First Fight, accomplished the unprecedented feat of winning all of the sidebar's top prizes. This off-beat romantic comedy about the budding relationship between a laid-back young carpenter and a female military enthusiast stars Kévin Azaïs and Adèle Haenel. The latter appeared in last year's FCN entry Suzanne, as well as in Céline Sciamma's Water Lilies (SFIFF 2008). Speaking of Sciamma, her follow-up to the unforgettable Tomboy (which landed in my 2011 Top Ten), also made a big noise at Director's Fortnight. Girlhood has been acclaimed a non-judgmental character study of a black Parisian teen's search for identity. According to Variety's Peter Debruge, it "advances the French helmer's obsession with how society attempts for force teenage girls into familiar categories, when the individuals themselves don't conform so easily." Both Girlhood and Love at First Fight were picked up for U.S. distribution by the heroic folks at Strand Releasing.

FCN 2014 also boasts a pair of North American premieres. One of them, The Easy Way Out, is so "new" it doesn't open in France until next March and has only played festivals in the Normandy resort of Cabourg and the Indian Ocean island of Réunion. Director Bruce Cauvin adapts American writer Stephen McCauley's novel about three brothers who are "in different stages of falling in and out of love." One of the brothers is played by charismatic singer/songwriter/actor Benjamin Biolay (FCN's 2011 opening nighter Bachelor Days are Over), which is all the reason I need to check to this one out. The film also stars veterans Guy Marchand and Marie-Christine Barrault as the boys' parents, and director Cauvin is expected to be in town for the screening. Also having its North American premiere at FCN is Jean Denizot's The Good Life, which is based on the true story of a father who, following a custody battle, kidnapped his two sons and went on the lam. Denizot's film focuses on the romantic awakening of the younger son (Zacharie Chasseriaud, who made quite an impression in Bouli Lanners' The Giants).

Elsewhere on the FCN roster we find Love is the Perfect Crime, the latest from fraternal writer/directors Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu (best known for the 2005 Cannes competition title To Paint or Make Love). In this Alpine-set psychological thriller, Mathieu Amalric stars as a lothario college prof whose student girlfriend goes missing. The story is adapted from a novel by Philippe Djian (Jean-Jacques Beineix' Betty Blue and André Téchiné's Unforgivable) and the impressive supporting cast includes Karin Viard, Sara Forestier, Maïwen and Denis Podalydès. Then in One of a Kind, director François Dupeyron (Monsieur Ibrahim) adapts his own 2009 novel for the big screen. Grégory Gadebois (Angel and Tony, FCN 2011) earned a best actor César nomination for his performance here as Frédi, a depressed trailer park denizen who "inherits" mysterious healing powers from his recently deceased mother. Jean-Pierre Darroussin returns for a second FCN 2014 performance as Frédi's father. Sharing the Opening Night spotlight with Paris Follies will be Eric Barbier's The Last Diamond. Starring Yvan Attal and Bérénice Bejo (The Artist, The Past), this slick romantic heist thriller has already been tagged for a Hollywood remake. Rounding out the line-up will be a new restoration of Jacques Deray's Three Men to Kill, a 1980 action movie starring the iconic Alain Delon.


While it's regrettable that Taiwan Film Days has disappeared from the SFFS Fall Season after a five-year run, we still have this three-day, eight-film celebration of new works from Hong Kong. The film I'm dying to see here is Fruit Chan's apocalyptic farce The Midnight After, which premiered to terrific reviews at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Chan is known for his fabulously icky 2004 feature Dumplings, an edited version of which showed up in the Asian horror portmanteau Three…Extremes. Adapted from a viral internet novel, The Midnight After is the director's first Chinese language feature in 10 years and concerns itself with 16 minibus passengers who arrive in the New Territories suburb of Taipo, now strangely devoid of human life. In her rave review for Variety, Maggie Lee praises this "deliriously high-concept and gleefully low-budget horror comedy" for its "trenchant social satire" and "highly political message about the loss of morality and compassion." Other reviews point to how the film captures the current Hong Kong zeitgeist, especially the estrangement its residents feel towards their rapidly changing homeland. Given recent events, Chan's communiqué has no doubt acquired even greater import.

The most high-profile selection on the Hong Kong Cinema roster is The Golden Era, Ann Hui's three-hour biopic about groundbreaking female writer Xiao Hong. The film is HK's 2014 Oscar® submission and it's been nominated for five Golden Horse Awards (essentially the Oscars for Chinese language art films), in the categories of Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress and Actress (Wei Tang, Lust, Caution). Set during the tumultuous years leading up the to the 1949 founding of the People's Republic, The Golden Era is said to be Hui's most expansive/expensive film to date, representing a 180-degree turn from 2011's intimate and heartbreaking A Simple Life. Critics have praised its performances and lavish production design, while questioning the narrative device of having characters address the audience directly with their memories of writer Hong and her mentor, novelist Xiao Jun. The film had a NYC theatrical release in October, but the lack of any impending Bay Area release date may signify this lone Fall Season screening as our only opportunity to appreciate Hui's vision on a big screen.

Hong Kong Cinema opens with From Vegas to Macau, a big-budget action yarn starring Chow Yun-fat. Sharing the Opening Night spotlight will be a kung-fu epic about star-crossed lovers, The White Haired Witch of the Lunar Kingdom. Fans of Hong Kong genre films will no doubt also want to take in Overheard 3, a "stand-alone hardboiled, dizzying tale of loyalty and corruption." The line-up also includes a 20th anniversary screening of Wong Kar-wai's seminal arthouse hit Chunking Express, and Aberdeen, a familial dramedy from director Pang Ho-cheung (2010's genial, nicotine-scented rom-com Love in a Puff).


Now in its 18th year, 2014's New Italian Cinema (aka N.I.C.E. or New Italian Cinema Events) kicks off with an intriguing program titled An Evening with Edoardo Ponti. The son of legendary producer Carlo Ponti and actress Sophia Loren will be on hand to introduce two recent shorts he's directed, The Nightshift Belongs to the Stars (starring Julian Sands and Nastassja Kinski) and The Human Voice (starring mamma Sophia). Balancing out the evening will be the latest work from another Italian with famous parents. Misunderstood is Asia Argento's semi-autobiographical recounting of the sad/exhilarating, authoritarian-free childhood she endured at the hands of monstrously self-absorbed parents (in real life, horror director Dario Argento and actress/screenwriter Daria Nicolodi). Reviews from Cannes, where it competed in Un Certain Regard, as well as from the recent NY Film Fest, were all over the place. One thing seems certain – it won't be dull.

This year's N.I.C.E. closes, as it did in 2013, with the film Italy has chosen to complete in the Oscars®. It remains to be seen whether Paolo Virzi's Human Capital will ultimately win the award bestowed upon Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty. Virzi has a long history with N.I.C.E. He attended the fest in 2008, when Napoleon and Me screened on Opening Night, and was followed by a mini-retrospective of his debut film, Living it Up, and 1997's Hardboiled Egg (my personal Virzi fave). The uncharacteristically shrill The First Beautiful Thing closed the festival in 2010. Human Capital co-stars Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who won a Best Actress Prize at this year's Tribeca, and the film was nominated for a whopping 19 Donatello Awards (Italy's Oscar®), ultimately winning seven, including Best Film.

The only movie I caught at last year's N.I.C.E. was Stefano Incerti's Gorbaciof, starring the incomparable Toni Servillo. Incerti's follow-up, In the Snow, finds itself in this year's festival. Servillo returns as well in director Roberto Andò's Long Live Freedom, a political satire in which the actor plays twin brothers (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi co-stars). Elsewhere in the line-up we find an animated feature, The Art of Happiness (the first-ever animation to appear at N.I.C.E.), a documentary about a Florence drop-in center for society's marginalized (Per Ulisee) and a fun-sounding neo-giallo, House of Shadows (with the film's director, Rossella de Venuto expected to attend the screening). There's even an Italian film whose dialogue is completely in Arabic. Alessio Cremonini's Border is the story of two women attempting to flee war-torn Syria. Interestingly, Cremonini was a co-writer on Saverio Costanzo's Private, a 2004 Italian film in Arabic and Hebrew which was submitted, and then disqualified, as that year's Oscars® submission from Italy. Private went on to win the FIPRESCI prize at the 2005 San Francisco International Film Festival.

 Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

MVFF37 2014 – Perusing the Line-Up

The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) arrives early each autumn, giving Bay Area cinephiles their first look at acclaimed new films from Cannes, Locarno, Venice and Toronto. I undoubtedly smiled when I saw that my two most anticipated movies of 2014, Xavier Dolan's Mommy and Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu, had made the cut for MVFF's 37th edition. And now thanks to a rare confluence of good movie karma – both are screening at a venue accessible by public transportation, both screen on my days off, and both had press comps available – it's for certain I'll be boarding that Golden Gate Transit bus to San Rafael once again.

Mommy and Timbuktu each competed in the main competition at Cannes this May, with the former winning the festival's Prix du Jury for Xavier Dolan, its 25-year-old, gay French-Canadian director. The judges decided he should share the prize with 83-year-old Jean-Luc Godard (for his new 3-D movie, Adieu au langage), and together they represented the youngest and oldest filmmakers in competition. Dolan, for those just tuning in, took Cannes by storm in 2009 with his debut film, I Killed My Mother, and has followed through with four more impressive features. While some consider him a fraud, Dolan's eye-catching, emotionally oversized dramas consistently hit my sweet spot. Timbuktu, the other film I'll be trekking to see, is the latest exercise in humanism from Abderrahmane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness, Bamako), whom many consider Africa's greatest living filmmaker. His new film is based on events that occurred in 2012, when the titular Malian city of legend was overrun by jihadists hellbent on imposing sharia law. Timbuktu left Cannes with the festival's Ecumenical Jury Prize. Its lead actor, Ahmed Ibrahim, is expected to attend the film's MFVV screenings.

In addition to these two important works, MVFF37 has programmed five more selections from Cannes' 2014 main competition. The festival kicks off on opening night with Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman, which screened in competition nine years after Jones' last neo-Western, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, won him the festival's best actor prize. The Homesman co-stars Hilary Swank, who will participate in MVFF's opening night festivities. This year's best actor award went to the incomparable Timothy Spall, who portrays British Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner. If you miss the film at MVFF, it'll be back in the Bay Area starting on Xmas Day. Based on true events and set in the world of Olympic wrestling, Foxcatcher is Bennett Miller's follow-up to 2011's Moneyball. The film, which stars Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and a reportedly unrecognizable Steve Carell, garnered Bennett Cannes' 2014 best director prize. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Two Days, One Night features Marion Cotillard as a factory worker who must convince co-workers to forego bonuses so that she might keep her job. While the film is that rare Dardenne Bros. joint to leave Cannes empty handed, Cotillard is being talked up as a serious Best Actress Ocscar® contender. Rounding out MVFF37's impressive collection of Cannes competition titles is Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria, a reportedly challenging, meta-movie homage to the art of film acting, starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart.

From Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar, MVFF37 has scooped up two more prize-winners for its 2014 line-up. Sweden's satiric Force Majeure lampoons contemporary notions of masculinity and took home the sidebar's jury prize. It traces the repercussions faced by a husband and father after he initially abandons his family during a ski resort avalanche. Director Ruben Öslund's previous film was the excruciating (in a good way) bullying treatise Play, which I was lucky enough to catch at San Jose's Cinequest a few years back. The 2014 Un Certain Regard award for best actor went to Aboriginal icon David Gulpilil for his role as a man caught between two cultures in Rolf de Heer's Charlie's Country. Gulpilil is perhaps the world's most recognizable indigenous actor. Debuting at age 16 in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, he's carried on with a distinguished career in such Australian films as The Last Wave, Rabbit Proof Fence and de Heer's own The Tracker and Ten Canoes.

Cannes isn't the only festival from which MVFF has drawn prize-winners for its line-up. Haru Kuroki took home the best actress award at this year's Berlin Film Festival for her portrayal of a maid in an upper middle-class Tokyo home in Yôji Yamada's The Little House. Set in the years before and during WWII, it's Yamada's follow-up to Tokyo Family, his mostly unnecessary remake of Ozu's classic Tokyo Story, which played last year's fest. It's especially worth noting that The Little House will be the only movie at MVFF37 to be screened in 35mm. The winner of the coveted People's Choice Award at last month's Toronto Film Festival was The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as real-life WWII gay British code-breaker Alan Turing. The film is directed by Morten Tyldum, whose last effort was the memorable Norwegian genre thriller Headhunters. Also amongst the prize winners is Carlos Marques-Marcet's 10,000 Km. (aka Long Distance), a two-hander that explores the effects of technology on a long-distance relationship. 10,000 Km. won a SXSW special jury award and is one of nine features that make up ¡Viva el Cine!, a MVFF37 Focus on Spanish-language cinema.

October 1 was the official deadline for countries to submit their entries for the 87th Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film competition. As would be expected, a number of MVFF entries are amongst the submissions. In addition to the aforementioned Mommy, Timbuktu and Two Days, One Night (representing Canada, Mauritania and Belgium respectively), five additional potential Oscar® nominees get their Bay Area premiere at MVFF37. Spain has submitted David Trueba's Living is Easy with Eyes Closed, in which a Beatles-obsessed high school teacher (Javier Cámara) strives to meet up with John Lennon during the 1966 filming of Richard Lester's How I Won the War. Trueba is the younger brother of veteran Spanish director Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque, Calle 54). Dominik Graf's Beloved Sisters (no available link) is this year's entry from Germany, and focuses on a romantic triangle between 18th century poet Friedrich Schiller and two aristocratic sisters. Graf's last film to play the Bay Area was Beats Being Dead, the first chapter in the omnibus Dreileben trilogy. Ronit Elkabetz (Late Marriage, The Band's Visit) is my favorite Israeli actress and for the third time she stars in a film co-written and directed with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem premiered in Directors Fortnight at Cannes and details a woman's five-year ordeal trying to legally obtain a divorce in Israel. MVFF37 will also be screening the Oscar® submissions from Croatia (Cowboys) and Taiwan (Ice Poison).

MVFF is the Bay Area film festival where one is most likely to see movie stars and other notables walk the red carpet. In addition to Hilary Swank's appearance on opening night, this year's fest will play host to Laura Dern, Elle Fanning and newcomer Eddie Redmayne. Dern accompanies Wild, which co-stars Reese Witherspoon and is director Jean-Marc Vallée's follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club. Just as her sister Dakota did at last year's festival, Elle Fanning will be receiving a MVFF "Spotlight" treatment with a screening of her new film Low Down (opening in local cinemas on November 14). Also earning a MVFF37 "Spotlight" tribute is actor Eddie Redmayne, who's about to become a lot more famous with his starring role in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim). Redmayne is probably best known to American audiences for the 2011 fantasy My Week with Marilyn and a little film called Les Miserables.

The musicians of rock band Metallica are this year's MVFF Artists in Residence and each band member will be on hand to personally introduce a movie they've selected. For example, guitarist Kirk Hammett has chosen Dracula vs. Frankenstein and singer James Hetfield has picked the Sergio Leone masterpiece The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Also hailing from the rock music world will be Moon Unit Zappa, who'll appear at screenings of a new documentary about her father Frank, Summer '82: When Zappa Came to Italy. Finally, Bay Area foodies won't want to miss the Special Screening of Soul of a Banquet, which will feature an on-stage conversation between director Wayne Wang, visionary Chinese chef/restaurateur Cecilia Chang (the film's subject), and local food icon Alice Waters.

 While it would be impossible to touch upon the entire MVFF line-up – especially the enormous selection of worthy non-fiction films in its Valley of the Docs sidebar – here are four final entries I'm personally interested in. If you’re a fan of New Zealanders Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Eagle vs. Shark, Boy), you probably won't want to miss their co-directed vampire spoof, What We Do in the Shadows. Scandinavian genre films seem to be all the rage these days. In Hans Petter Moland's In Order of Disappearance, a Norwegian snow plow driver (Stellan Skarsgard) seeks bloody revenge against a Serbian drug kingpin (Bruno Ganz). A new film from Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum) is always most welcome. His latest Diplomacy recounts the true story of the Swedish consul (André Dussollier) who convinced a German general (Niels Arestrup) not to destroy Paris in the closing days of WWII. The film will also open at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas on October 24. Then there's Stéphane Lafleur's enigmatic-sounding, French-Canadian entry Tu dors, Nicole, which follows an aimless 22-year-old over the course of one summer. My interest is piqued based on Lafleur's Continental, a Film Without Guns, which played a San Francisco Film Society Quebec Film Week back in 2008. Lead actress Julianne Cote is expected to attend the screenings.