Wednesday, May 11, 2016

SFIFF59 2016 Wrap-Up Report Part 1

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) concluded its 59th edition last Thursday following 15 satisfying days of movies and special events. While I have some reservations about the festival's move from Japantown/Fillmore to the Mission district, the transition itself seems to have gone extremely well considering its ambitious scope. I also have to say that House One at Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre, with its enormous screen and Sony SRX-R515D dual 4K projection system, is now my favorite place to see new movies in the Bay Area – especially while consuming one of Alamo's signature Brussels sprout salads with apple slices, toasted hazelnuts and pecorino cheese.

I had the pleasure of participating in 28 programs at SFIFF59. Here's a look at the special events and documentary features I attended. 

Special Events
The highlight of my festival was getting to see and hear Ellen Burstyn in conversation with SF Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan on SFIFF59's first Saturday afternoon. The energetic 83-year-old Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner was in town to accept the fest's Peter J. Owens Acting Award. I was shocked that fewer than a hundred people showed up, which was possibly attributable to the event being announced just five days prior. The audience on hand, however, was wildly enthusiastic and the Victoria Theatre's intimacy rendered the encounter all the more special. Following a clips reel of career highlights, Cowan conducted a revelatory and frequently hilarious chat with Burstyn that touched on everything from how she came to hire Martin Scorsese for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore to her new-found fame with House of Cards to her feelings about being robbed of a second Academy Award by Julia Roberts. Fortunately Michael Guillén at The Evening Class was also there and has transcribed the talk for all to enjoy.

Ellen Burstyn and SF Film Society Exec Director Noah Cowan share a mirthful moment on stage at the Victoria Theatre. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Exactly one week later, the promise of seeing both Coen Brothers in person packed the 1400-seat Castro Theatre to capacity. The occasion was the festival's presentation of its annual Mel Novikoff Award to Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. After an on-stage interview with Variety critic Scott Foundas, Joel and Ethan Coen joined the conversation and introduced a screening of Criterion's most recent restoration, the brothers' 1984 debut, Blood Simple. Bay Area exhibitor Novikoff was an early advocate of the Coen's neo-noir, and they returned the honor by naming an Inside Llewyn Davis character after him. The siblings spent a good half-hour reminiscing about Blood Simple's production. Amongst the rollicking revelations was that Frances McDormand, in her first screen role, was never permitted to see the film's storyboards because the artist compulsively drew her character in the nude.

Filmmakers Joel (far left) and Ethan (far right) Coen flank Mel Novikoff Award Winners Jonathan Turell and Peter Becker of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection in the Castro Theatre mezzanine. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Earlier that same morning I was first in line to participate in the festival's VR Day. As a virtual reality newbie I found the technology cruder than I'd imagined, but was nonetheless impressed by two of the VR experiences I had in my allotted one-hour timeslot. Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart offered stunning 360-degree surface vistas of various terrains on the ex-planet, all based on data recently collected by NASA. The mind-blower of VR Day was Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael's Nomad: Sea Gypsies, which begins by plopping you in the middle of a Borneo lagoon inhabited by Sama-Bajau tribespeople. By turning in your swivel chair you get a full 360-degree survey of the lagoon, complete with thatched huts on stilts and people paddling you by in canoes. After a brief fade to black, you find yourself sitting on the porch of one of those very huts, watching as a family prepares food. Turning around reveals their drying laundry flapping in the wind just inches from your head. Another fade to black lands you in a canoe being propelled across the lagoon by tribesmen standing both in front of and behind you. By looking down at the canoe bottom, you see the still-living fish they've just caught. The possibilities for this technology are obviously staggering.

From my VR experience I was off to hear NY Times Critic-at-Large Wesley Morris deliver this year's State of Cinema Address. The former SF Chronicle and Examiner film critic's topic was "The Radicalization of Sidney Poitier and how it parallels the current climate of race in the movies." Morris began by riffing on various contemporary race-related topics, such as the upcoming appearance of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. ("Do you really want to be caught stuffing Tubmans into a stripper's g-string or paying your weed dealer with Tubmans?") Morris ultimately made his way through Poitier's filmography, making extended stops for Lilies of the Field ("In 1964, America was finally ready to see him left alone with white women, even if they were nuns who barely spoke English") and his career "pinnacle" In the Heat of the Night, whose infamous slapping scene Morris analyzed extensively. He barely got started on the actor's post-1967 work – "when the studio system collapsed and Poitier starting working exclusively with black people" – before time ran out and he had to bring the talk to an abrupt conclusion.

NY Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris backstage at the Victoria Theatre waiting to deliver this year's State of Cinema Address. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

My final SFIFF59 special event was the festival's annual pairing of a silent film with contemporary live music. This year's combo, the first not to be concocted by former SF Film Society programmer Sean Uyehara, was Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 Dracula flick Vampyr accompanied by alt-rock band Mercury Rev and the Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde. The musicians took to the stage wearing black capes and proceeded to unleash an ungodly sound cavalcade that worked fittingly with the dreamlike imagery on screen. The score ranged from quiet noodling to ear-piercing feedback, with Raymonde particularly fun to watch as he played the electric saw and emitted nonsensical castrato-like vocals. The last 15 minutes was an extended crescendo of propulsive, heart-pounding percussion reminiscent of the Alloy Orchestra. As for Vampyr itself, I was especially struck by the lithe, somnambulant lead performance by actor Julian West, who in real life was a gay Russian-Jewish aristocrat and bon vivant named Baron Nicholas de Gunzberg. The baron financed Vampyr on the condition he play the lead and later in life became an editor at Town & Country, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines.

The Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde and members of Mercury Rev strike a pose in the Castro Theatre's side alley prior to performing a live score to Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 Vampyr. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Compared to similar festivals, SFIFF has been doc-heavy for some years now. For 2016 the section expanded even further, with a whopping 40 percent of the feature film roster being dedicated to non-fiction works. Unless the director is someone like Werner Herzog, Sergei Loznitsa, Patricio Guzmán or others who strive to make their films cinematic, I'm of a mind that most documentaries suffer little when watched privately on a small screen. That of course changes when you have the director and other special guests at a screening, which is nearly always the case at SFIFF. This year I caught five docs at the festival and all but one had talent available for post-screening Q&As.

The aforementioned missing filmmaker was Werner Herzog, whose Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World played to a large, receptive and overtly techie crowd at the Castro Theatre. Divided into ten chapters, Herzog's latest delves into a multitude of tech-related issues both awe-inspiring and fearsome. Topics include hacking, tech addiction, cyber terrorism, illnesses related to radioactive signals, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and a score of others. I was fascinated by the section on robots. Will they be able to fall in love? Will a robotic soccer team be able to beat FIFA's world champions by 2050? It was also a hoot to learn that when the first internet message was sent in 1969 from UCLA to Stanford, comprised only of the word "login," the system crashed immediately after transmission of the letter "o." With Herzog's trademark detached bemusement, Lo and Behold comprehensively looks at how far we've come since then and where we might be heading, but in a manner that was still perhaps a bit too wonky for this low-tech senior.

My favorite of the docs I caught was Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's Weiner, a shockingly intimate, fly-on-the-wall look at Anthony Weiner's NYC mayoral run two years after a sexting scandal forced his resignation from Congress. The directors commenced filming the day he declared his candidacy and we tag along every step of the way, from chauffeured-car strategy meetings to wince-inducing confrontations in the home he shares with long-suffering wife, Hillary Clinton's ex-Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin. We're also present when, just as it appears New Yorkers have forgiven Weiner and his campaign is catching fire, new sexting allegations result in his ultimately earning only 4.9 percent of the vote. The film's high point, if you will, is a thrillingly furtive chase through a MacDonald's back exit as Weiner attempts to reach his campaign HQ on election night and avoid an on-camera confrontation with one of his accusers, publicity whore par excellence, Ms. Sydney Leathers. Weiner opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on May 27.

Depressing and enraging issue-oriented docs are a festival staple and this year I saw two, Johan Grimonprez' Shadow World and Sonia Kennebeck's National Bird. The first is based on Andrew Feinstein's book of the same name and it goes into sickening detail about the massive corporate bribery and government corruption commonplace in international arms dealing. From Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal to Donald Rumsfeld's Iraqi chemical weapons sale to Tony Blair's cover-up of BAE's £1 billion Saudi prince payoff to Obama's Terror Tuesday meetings, it's all laid out and contrasted with a cheesy muzak soundtrack emphasizing how innocuous this horror has become in our world. It was particularly dispiriting to learn how corruption over armaments deals has essentially destroyed South Africa's democracy, a subject close to Feinstein's heart as an ex-S.A. parliament member. Perhaps the most powerful scene is an interview with Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, as he describes the unspeakable tortures perpetrated upon him. Director Grimonprez and Feinstein engaged in a spirited post-screening Q&A, and I was especially gratified when Feinstein, completely unprompted, reminded the audience that as wonderful as it would be to have a female president, Hillary Clinton has received more money from the military-industrial complex than any other candidate of either party.

The subject of Kennebeck's equally effective National Bird is U.S. drone warfare, with a special focus on the psychological trauma done to U.S. soldiers who kill civilians halfway across the globe from the (dis)comfort of control booths. The film spotlights three whistleblowers, all of whom fear prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act for things they might say while being treated by therapists for PTSD. We accompany Bay Area whistleblower "Lisa" (who was present at the Q&A along with National Bird's director and producer) as she travels on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan in an effort to make amends for her transgressions. There, in the film's most affecting sequence, surviving members of a 2010 drone strike that killed 23 civilians collectively speak about the atrocities experienced that day. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

SFIFF59 2016 More Awards & Special Events

After weeks of anticipation, the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF59) is finally set to kick off Thursday night. Bay Area cinephiles are going to be crazy-busy for the next 15 days. Thus far I've surveyed the programs that were announced prior to the festival's March 29 press conference, as well as taken in-depth looks at the extensive line-up of French and Asian cinema on offer. This final piece of pre-fest coverage spotlights some of the remaining awards programs and special events that will no doubt help make this festival one for the books.

State of Cinema Address
I couldn't be more pleased with the festival's choice of Wesley Morris for this year's SOC Address. The current NY Times critic-at-large has been one of my favorite film writers since his days at the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. His early-aughts departure from the Bay Area launched a productive decade at The Boston Globe, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2012. One of my most cherished Morris reviews is his hilarious 2009 Cannes write-up of Lars von Trier's Antichrist, titled "Charlotte, don't." Here's a sampling: "I don't think I breathed for the last half. My seatmate and I took turns grabbing each other – out of shock, out of stress, out of disbelief. At some point, I found myself reaching around the edges of my chair. I was looking for a seatbelt." Morris will deliver the State of Cinema address at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, April 30 and is expected to speak on "the radicalization of Sidney Poitier and how it parallels the current climate of race in the movies."

Peter J. Owens Award
The festival held off until three days before SFIFF59's start date before announcing the recipient of its annual acting award – talk about good things coming to those who wait! None other than Ellen Burstyn will receive this year's Peter J. Owens Award at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, April 23. At An Afternoon with Ellen Burstyn, the star of stage, screen and TV will discuss her career before introducing a screening of Darren Aronofsky's 2000 shock masterpiece Requiem for a Dream, for which Burstyn was robbed of a second Oscar® by Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. The 83-year-old actress can currently be seen in the fifth season of Netflix' hit series House of Cards. She also has a co-starring role in Todd Solondz' new film Wiener-Dog, which plays SFIFF59 as well.

Contemporary Color
For one night the festival expands from the hip Mission District to the even hipper Hayes Valley neighborhood for a free outdoor screening of Contemporary Color. This new documentary from Turner Ross and Bill Ross IV documents the mega-spectacular event spearheaded by David Byrne in which championship color guard teams performed elaborate routines to music performed live by Nelly Furtado, St. Vincent, Money Mark + Ad-Rock, Tune-Yards and others. Reservations are recommended for this free screening that takes place on Friday, April 29 at Proxy, "a temporary two-block project that mobilizes a flexible environment of food, art, culture, and retail within renovated shipping containers." The exact address is 432 Octavia Street. To get an idea of what this film's about, check out David Byrne's mission statement on the Contemporary Color website, or the plethora of amateur YouTube videos shot at the actual Contemporary Colors events last summer (such as this amazing one from Tune-Yards). The filmmaking Ross Brothers, who won the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature at last year's festival for Western, are expected to attend this very special screening.

Kanbar Award
Ellen Burstyn won't be the only Oscar® winner on hand at this year's festival. SFIFF59's Kanbar Storytelling Award will go to Tom McCarthy, the actor-writer-director who took home filmdom's biggest honor for Spotlight's Best Original Screenplay (a film he also happened to direct). An Evening with Tom McCarthy takes place at Berkeley's fabulous new Pacific Film Archive on Tuesday, April 26 and will feature an on-stage conversation conducted by SF Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan. There will also be a screening of McCarthy's 2003 screenwriting and directorial debut The Station Agent, which won Sundance's Audience Award and introduced much of the world to the talents Bobby Cannavale, Patricia Clarkson and especially, Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage. According to the Film on Film Foundation's Bay Area calendar, The Station Agent will be one of two SFIFF59 screenings in 35mm.

VR Day
The only thing I know about VR is that it stands for Virtual Reality. That's something I hope to change on Saturday, April 30 when SFIFF59 presents VR Day, "a pilot program designed to showcase emergent storytellers in virtual reality filmmaking." In order to participate, you buy a ticket for a time slot between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. which entitles the bearer to a 60-minute session using Samsung Gear. That same ticket also allows one to attend several VR artist panels and experience Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, Nokia and other Samsung VR tools on a walk-in basis. Featured VR films and stories will include Special Delivery from Aardman Animations co-founder Peter Lord and Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart, which "creates a stereoscopic virtual reality experience that will bring viewers to Pluto." All of this takes place at Gray Area, a non-profit "supporting art and technology for social good" located in the former Grand Theatre on Mission Street, just down the block from Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre.

Revival Screenings
In addition to classic films being screened in connection with awards programs like Requiem for a Dream, Blood Simple, The Station Agent and Monsoon Wedding, SFIFF59 will host three additional repertory/revival events. In honor of LV-426, the exomoon that harbored the dastardly Xenomorph eggs in the Alien movie franchise, the festival in conjunction with Alamo Drafthouse will host a 30th anniversary showing of James Cameron's Aliens on 4-26-16. Both the Castro Theatre and PFA will host screenings of the classic 1955 UK noir thriller Cast a Dark Shadow, in a brand new digital 2K restoration. The film stars Dirk Bogarde as a sociopathic homme fatale looking to bump off his second wife and is directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would make a star of Michael Caine in Alfie as well as direct three James Bond flicks. Finally on May 1 at the Castro Theatre, there'll be a 20th anniversary presentation of Cheryl Dunye's New Queer Cinema breakthrough, The Watermelon Woman, which is recognized as the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian. Following the screening, Dunye will take part in an on-stage conversation with SF State Assistant Professor of Sexuality Studies, Darius Bost. 

Cross-published at The Evening Class.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

SFIFF59 2016 Focus: Asian Cinema

Perhaps it's a just matter of perception, but it appears there might be fewer Asian films at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Admittedly, not many movies from the continent generated festival buzz in 2015 and several of those that did, such as Hou Hsiou-hsien's The Assassin, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendor and Jia Zheng-ke's Mountains May Depart have already played the Bay Area. The biggest surprise is that there isn't a single film representing Southeast Asia. Fortunately, there's still plenty to look forward to from the region, including the film that topped my wish list for SFIFF59 inclusion. Here's a country by country overview. 

South Korea
Of all the films in the festival I'm most excited about Hong Sang-soo's Right Now, Wrong Then. It's the director's 17th feature in a 20-year career, which probably makes him Asia's most prolific (non-genre) arthouse filmmaker. His works never receive a Bay Area theatrical release, so I'm incredibly grateful to SFIFF for screening his movies year after year. I confess that I haven't always been a fan. The protagonists in his early efforts were so obnoxiously pathetic as to render the experience of watching them insufferable. That began to change somewhere around 2009's Like You Know It All and I've been on the Hong love train since. The 65-minute bonbon Hill of Freedom was the funniest movie I saw at last year's festival.

Some critics accuse Hong of making the same movie over and over again. From what I've read, it sure doesn’t sound like Right Now, Wrong Then will change any minds. All the familiar Hong tropes appear firmly in place – an artistic-type male protagonist travels out of town and attempts to hook up with an enigmatic female, accompanied by lots of booze consumption and Hong invariably messing with the story's narrative's structure. More specifically in this new movie, a film director comes to Seoul for a festival and meets an attractive artist while sightseeing, followed by an alcohol-fueled incident that turns things sour. At the film's mid-point the clock gets reset, with the title changing to Right Then, Wrong Now. The entire story gets replayed with slight variances, affording the hero a shot at redemption. The jury at last year's Locarno Film Festival gave the film its top prize, the Golden Leopard, as well as the best actor award to leading man, Jeong Jae-yeong.

While RNWT might be the lone South Korean entry in SFIFF59, it's also worth mentioning Vitaly Mansky's Russian documentary Under the Sun, which adds to the recent groundswell of non-fiction films reporting on life inside North Korea. Under the Sun is one of 11 films competing in the Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition.

There are three Japanese selections at the festival and I've had an opportunity to preview two. I especially recommend Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Journey to the Shore, which is the director's latest metaphysical exploration and his best film since 2008's Tokyo Sonata. In the pre-opening credits sequence, a piano teacher comes home to find that her husband, played by Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano, has returned home after dying at sea three years previous. He invites her on a journey to experience the villages where he "lived" during his absence, working as a newspaper assistant at one location and a cook/astrophysicist teacher at another. Journey to the Shore is filled with melancholy longing and regret, as well as a goofy kind of sweetness. This being Kurosawa, one keeps waiting for the appearance of some malevolent entity that never (quite) shows up. Stylistic flourishes include the dimming and brightening of interior settings for emotional effect, and an archaically sweeping music score that lies somewhere between Max Steiner and Arvo Pärt. Journey to the Shore premiered at Cannes and received mixed reviews, with some critics calling it an "overlong afterlife story" that's "undecided if it belongs in the arthouse or on afternoon TV." Un Certain Regard jury members rightfully thumbed their nose at these naysayers, awarding Kurosawa the sidebar's Best Director prize.

I've also taken a look at Ryûsake Hamaguchi's Happy Hour, which has the distinction of being SFIFF59's longest movie at 317 minutes. Is it worth the huge time investment? My answer is a qualified yes. Happy Hour centers on the lives of four 30-something women in Kobe who are best friends. When one of them announces her impending divorce, plus the fact that she's having an extra-marital affair, it destabilizes the group and causes the others to question their own relationships with men. Hamaguchi's film is rich with character detail and features several extended set pieces that invite comparisons to Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. I was particularly struck by how the director places his actors within the frame, achieving meaning via their relationship to the camera and each other. Unfortunately Happy Hour wears out its welcome in the plot-heavy final hour, which also includes the least engaging of the aforementioned set pieces. The performances by the quartet of first-time, non-professional actresses are effective, if occasionally awkward. Collectively they won the Best Actress prize at Locarno. The script, which was developed through a series of workshops, also won that festival's Best Screenplay prize. The third Japanese SFIFF59 selection is Eiichirô Hasumi's Assassination Classroom, which screens in the festival's Dark Wave sidebar.

China/Hong Kong
There are zero narrative features from China in the festival, which is quite a contrast to last year's powerful and artistically accomplished triple punch of Black Coal Thin Ice, Red Amnesia and Dearest. The closest we come this year is Paths of the Soul, a highly acclaimed docudrama from narrative filmmaker Zhang Yang (Shower, Getting Home). The director's latest recreates a grueling 1,200 mile pilgrimage to Lhasa during which a group of 11 Tibetan Buddhist devotees stop every few yards to prostate themselves. Along the way they endure extreme temperatures, flooded roads and a mini-avalanche. Stops are made en route, once for a participant to give birth, and again for the group to perform manual labor in order to earn travel expense money. In his rave review for Variety, Richard Kuipers calls Paths of the Soul "a stirring study in faith and spirituality that will inspire many viewers to think about big and small questions of life." The other mainland Chinese documentary at SFIFF59 is A Young Patriot. The film traces the disillusioned transition of a die-hard young Maoist as he's forced to confront the realities of his country's rush to cutthroat capitalism. The film's director, Du Haibin, is expected to attend the festival.

The SF Film Society presides over a separate Hong Kong Cinema festival each autumn. That, combined with the fact that Hong Kong (and mainland Chinese) films now receive year-round Bay Area theatrical exhibition could explain why there are only two HK flicks at SFIFF59. The one I'm looking forward to is the U.S. premiere of Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous, the third directorial effort from ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle (known for his work with Gus Van Sant, Zhang Yimou, Pen-ek Ratanaruang and most memorably, Wong Kar-wai). Each section of this docudrama triptych spotlights a different generation, with "actors" playing slightly modified versions of themselves. The first is set amongst a group of elementary schoolchildren, the second focuses on young people involved in the 2014 "Umbrella Revolution" and the third spends time with a group of "speed dating" seniors. According to reviews, the middle segment is by far the most compelling. Also representing Hong Kong at SFIFF59 is Trivisa, a high-octane crime thriller set during HK's 1997 handover to China, which screens in the festival's Dark Wave sidebar.

The big news here is that Mira Nair will be given the festival's Irving M. Levin Directing Award, making her the first woman to receive the honor since its inception in 1986 (when it was initially called the Akira Kurosawa Award and later, the Founders Directing Award). The India-born, New York-based filmmaker will be on hand for an An Afternoon with Mira Nair at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, April 24. The program will include an on-stage conversation, clips reel and a revival screening of the fabulous 2001 Oscar® nominated Monsoon Wedding (in 35mm!). We're also promised a preview of Queen of Katwe, Nair's upcoming biopic of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi starring Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo. Be sure to check out Michael Fox' excellent SF Film Society Blog essay on Nair's career, Mira Nair: Between Two Worlds.

The only new Indian film showing at the festival is Raam Reddy's Thithi, was has gotten plenty of attention since winning the New Directors Prize at Locarno. It screened at last month's New Directors New Films series in New York (along with nine other films playing SFIFF59) and will compete for our festival's New Directors Prize as well. In this folk comedy-of-errors set in a South Indian village, three generations of sons react in very different, but all too human ways to the death of the family's 101-year-old patriarch. At issue is what's to be done with the old man's estate, as the family prepares for the thithi, or final funeral celebration taking place 11 days after death.

The festival has done a fine job programming new Turkish cinema in recent years and I'm thrilled they've secured Emin Alper's Frenzy for SFIFF59 inclusion. The director's second feature won the Special Jury Prize at last year's Venice Film Festival. Set in an Istanbul shantytown amidst a quasi-apocalyptic, near-future dystopia, Frenzy's protagonist has just been released from prison after 20 years. He's assigned the job of combing through people's garbage in search of terrorism clues and lives with his brother whose occupation is shooting stray dogs. Reviews describe Frenzy with adjectives like "tense," "brooding" and "paranoid," making special mention of its dark visual palette and nerve-jarring sound design of explosions, alarm bells, rattling trucks and clanging metal doors. "A parable about a society brought to heel by its fear of terrorism" is how Jay Weissberg sums up Frenzy in his review for Variety, a description that certainly has applications extending beyond Turkey given our planet's current socio-political zeitgeist.

While there aren't any Iranian films per se at SFIFF59, there are three very promising-sounding features which are Iranian in terms of either setting or co-production. Radio Dreams is the latest from director Babak Jalali, whose Frontier Blues won the festival's FIPRESCI prize in 2010. Set during a single day at a San Francisco Farsi-language radio station, this bittersweet deadpan comedy stars Moshen Namjoo, a.k.a. the Bob Dylan of Iran, as a station manager awaiting the arrival of Metallica. The Bay Area metal band has promised to come jam in-studio with visiting Afghani rock group Kabul Dreams. Jalali's film, which won the prestigious Tiger Award at January's Rotterdam Film Festival, has been praised for how it gently touches on issues of immigration, national identity and assimilation. A large coterie of the film's talent, including the director, producers and cast members are expected to attend the festival, with Kabul Dreams performing a concert after the April 28 showing at the Victoria Theatre.

Although I'm not a particular fan of genre films, I have no intention of missing debut filmmaker Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow, which has garnered terrific write-ups as it's traveled the 2016 U.S. festival circuit. The story takes place in a Tehran apartment building near the end of the Iran/Iraq war where Shideh, a resentful, aspiring female doctor lives with her young daughter. When a missile crashes through the roof of the top floor unit, it unleashes an evil force that takes special interest in the girl. In his favorable review for Variety, Justin Chang asks us to imagine Under the Shadow as "an Asghar Farhadi remake of The Babadook," with "feminist anger blazing at its core." He also praises lead actress Narges Rashidi, who "plays Shideh like an instrument slowly going out of tune, modulating skillfully between maternal tetchiness and scream-queen abandon." The film unsurprisingly screens under the festival's Dark Wave banner.

Finally in the documentary Sonita, an 18-year-old undocumented Afghani refugee lives in a Tehran homeless shelter, all the while aspiring to become a rapper. Tensions come to a head when her mother tries to return her to Afghanistan, where she'll be sold for $9,000 so her brother can afford his own bride. In the World Cinema Documentary section at Sundance, Sonita won the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award. Director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, who ends up stepping outside her role as objective filmmaker in order to assist Sonita, is expected to appear at the SFIFF59 screenings.

Cross-published at The Evening Class.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

SFIFF59 2016 Focus: French Cinema

Franco-cinephiles in the Bay Area look upon the San Francisco Film Society, with its international film festival and French Cinema Now series, as their principal source for important and interesting new works emanating from France. The eight eclectic features chosen for SFIFF59 include one animated movie, two feature directing debuts, three new works from mid-career auteurs and the latest from an octogenarian I'm guessing to be the oldest filmmaker in the entire festival. Here are some thoughts about what's on offer from April 21 to May 5.

A name that links three SFIFF59 French selections is Thomas Bidegain, the screenwriter best known for deconstructing genre-movie masculinity in his work with director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone and last year's Cannes Palmes d'Or winner Dheepan.) Bidegain finally makes his directorial debut with Cowboys, a contemporary drama that's been thematically linked to John Ford's 1956 western The Searchers. Here the protagonist is a French aficionado of American cowboy culture whose daughter converts to Islam in 1995 and then disappears. He sets off to find her, and following the events of 9/11 he's joined by his son in a years-long search that touches down in Syria and Afghanistan. The film received very positive reviews when it premiered in Cannes' Director's Fortnight sidebar last year, but reactions from Toronto and the NY Film Fest were less kind. One reviewer went so far as to sum up Cowboys as "meatheaded pulp." Regardless, it remains a must-see for this SFIFF59 attendee.

Bidegain also lends a screenwriting assist to Clément Cogitore's Neither Heaven Nor Earth, which is competing for the festival's New Directors Prize. The film premiered in Cannes' Critics Week sidebar and has toured the festival circuit thus far as The Wakhan Front. Fortunately it's been renamed with a literal translation of the French title, Ni le ciel ni la terre. Jérémie Renier stars as a French army captain serving in Afghanistan. After several men under his command disappear, followed in short order by a handful of nearby villagers, a suspicion of paranormal or perhaps even theological causation comes into play. Reviews have been favorable, with some quibbling over the effectiveness of the film's denouement – or its lack thereof. Renier is one of my favorite French actors and it's hard to believe 20 years have passed since his teenage debut in the Dardenne brothers' breakout film, La Promesse. It's worth noting Renier played another Afghan War vet in last year's The Great Man, which screened at French Cinema Now, and he appeared at last year's fest in Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent biopic, whose script also bore a Thomas Bidegain imprint.

The third SFIFF59 selection with script collaboration by Bidegain is Joachim Lafosse's The White Knights. Belgian director Lafosse is known for a trio of effectively transgressive domestic dramas – Private Lessons (2006), Private Property (2008) and Our Children (2012) – none of which, to the best of my knowledge, have ever screened in the Bay Area. Lafosse broadens his scope with the ironically titled The White Knights, based on the true story of earnest NGO workers employing dubious means to smuggle orphans out of Africa for eventual adoption in France. The film stars Vincent Lindon, who took home the best actor prize at last year's Cannes for The Measure of a Man (French Cinema Now 2015), as well as actor/director Valérie Donzelli as a reporter embedded with the NGO. Lafosse, whose "gift for sustained emotional tension and moral ambiguity" was praised in Justin Chang's positive review for Variety, won the Best Director prize at last year's San Sebastián Film Festival for The White Knights.

I've had the pleasure of previewing two of SFIFF59's French selections, but their "hold review" status restricts to me to brief remarks. First off, I flat-out adored Michel Gondry's Microbe and Gasoline, which is his best film since 2006's The Science of Sleep (and I say this without having seen the poorly reviewed The Green Hornet or Mood Indigo). In this wondrous road movie about two teenage outsiders, Gondry tones down his predilection for frenzied whimsy and aims for something more low-key and heartfelt. Microbe is a budding artist nicknamed for his small size and resultant low self esteem, while his unlikely pal Gasoline exudes self confidence and possesses a talent for things mechanical. After cobbling together a petrol-powered cottage on wheels complete with geranium boxes, they hit the summertime byways of rural France in an effort to escape worrisome problems at home. Gondry's endearing script thumbs its nose at our high tech world – an iPhone literally gets pooped on – and low-fi surprises await our heroes, and us, with each passing kilometer. I'll be surprised if I see a funnier movie this year.

When it comes to animation, I sheepishly admit I'm not much of an enthusiast. When I noticed that Phantom Boy hailed from the same creators as the extraordinary A Cat in Paris, however, I couldn't resist having a look. Jean-Loup and Alain Gagnol's latest is set in an alternate NYC where everyone speaks French and a Dick Tracy-like villain threatens to unleash a cataclysmic computer virus. A wheelchair-bound cop and a plucky journalist (voiced by Audrey Tautou), with assistance from a terminally ill boy who's discovered a way to float outside his body, all work in tandem to put an end to his treachery. While I wasn't as impressed by Phantom Boy as compared to Cat (which the festival screened five years ago), I was still taken by its vibrant rendering of the Big Apple and the genuinely moving plight of its juvenile protagonist. Both elements should be greatly enhanced via a big screen experience, and co-director Gagnol is expected to attend the festival screenings. Animation fans might also want to check out additional titles being screened in SFIFF59's World Cinema Spotlight: Animating the Image. For those who miss them at the festival, Microbe and Gasoline will open in Bay Area Landmark Theatres on July 15, followed by Phantom Boy on July 29 (although the latter could possibly show up in a dubbed version).

I've considered Anne Fontaine a fairly middling director for some time now. Her recent efforts have included Coco Before Chanel (vastly inferior to Jan Kounen's Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky released the same year), My Worst Nightmare (Isabelle Huppert embarrassing herself as a rich-bitch buffoon) and Adore (Naomi Watts and Robin Wright having sex with each others' sons). The thought of her making a movie about pregnant nuns is enough to induce major eye-rolling. That movie, however, which premiered at Sundance as Agnus Dei and is now titled The Innocents, has gotten rave reviews and is now one of my most anticipated films of SFIFF59. Set in 1945 Poland, it stars Lou de Laâge, a relatively unknown actress outside of France, as a French Red Cross doctor on a mission to assist concentration camp survivors. Her efforts become diverted upon discovering a convent of pregnant nuns who were raped by Russian soldiers, many of them consumed by shame and now perhaps questioning their faith in God. In his review for Variety, Justin Chang calls The Innocents Fontaine's "finest film in years," admiring how it "manages to respect faith even though it refuses to partake in it." He also singles out two performances for special praise. Agata Kulesza, who was memorable as the hard-edged aunt in Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, plays the convent's strict Reverend Mother, and Vincent Macaigne, an actor heretofore known exclusively for his schlubby slacker roles, appears as a more experienced doctor brought in to assist with childbirths.

The octogenarian referred to earlier is 82-year-old French-Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, who's a long-time SFIFF favorite. His latest is titled Winter Song and it's the filmmaker's 12th movie to play the festival in 30 years. For me, Iosseliani reached a career high with 1999's masterful Farewell, Home Sweet Home. Since then his style of stringing together sight gag-filled absurdist vignettes has become overly precious, reaching an insufferable nadir with 2006's Gardens in Autumn. Iosseliani actually flew to San Francisco five years ago to screen his semi-autobiographical Chantrapas. While I didn't care much for the film, I was delighted by his spirited Q&A that continued long past midnight. Winter Song premiered in competition at last year's Locarno Film Festival and can seemingly be summed up in three words – geezer buddy comedy. The film has its champions, particularly Eric Kohn at Indiewire. If I decide to catch Winter Song, it'll be due to a featured performance by legendary French comic actor/director Pierre Étaix, as well as an extended cameo by Mathieu Amalric. The latter made his screen acting debut at age 19 in Iosseliani's Favourites of the Moon.

The only SFIFF59 French selection not previously on my radar is Pascale Breton's Suite Armoricaine, which premiered at Locarno and brought home the festival's FIPRESCI prize. Illumination, Breton's previous (and only other) feature screened at the fest 10 years ago, but it seems I missed it. Her latest centers around an art history professor who becomes destabilized after leaving a 15-year relationship in Paris. She comes to teach at her alma mater in the Brittany capital of Rennes, where her past and present become tangled in heady and dreamlike ways. There's no one in the cast I've heard of, but the reviews are stellar and the trailer is captivating. SFFS programmer Rod Armstrong makes a reference to director Arnaud Despechin in the festival capsule, which pretty much seals the deal right there. Pascale Breton is also expected to attend the film's SFIFF59 screenings.

Finally, I'll make mention of Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie, which is of course in French and is the only Belgian film in the festival that's not merely a co-production. I previewed No Home Movie via Fandor and will be necessarily brief due to its "hold review" status. As many people know, iconic experimental-feminist filmmaker Akerman committed suicide two months after the film's premiere at Locarno. It's essentially an ode to her concentration camp survivor mother and speaks to the idea that "there's no more distance in the world." We observe Akerman and her mother interacting within the confines of a Brussels apartment, as well as via Skype during the director's time abroad. As her mother's condition deteriorates, the camera pulls back and records her from increased distances. No Home Movie requires a patience not every moviegoer possesses. Lengthy static shots – of a treetop whipping in the wind, an empty room devoid of people, a tracking shot of barren, scrub-covered hills filmed from a moving car – achieve profundity from the mundane for those willing to dig deep. If you miss No Home Movie at the festival, it will screen again at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from May 19 to 22, along with I Don't Belong Anywhere, Marianne Lambert's new career-spanning documentary on Akerman.

Cross-published at The Evening Class.

Monday, March 28, 2016

SFIFF59 2016 Early Announcements

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) heads crosstown to the Mission District for its 59th edition, thereby concluding nearly three decades of being headquartered at Japantown's Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. Robert Redford's independent movie chain was sold last autumn to Carmike Cinemas, who in turn sold it to AMC Theatres last month. All of this fortuitously coincided with the December opening of Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre following a two-year, $10 million restoration and retrofit. The gloriously reborn Mission Street movie palace will serve as the ornate nexus of SFIFF59, running from April 21 to May 5.

A movie theatre of some sort or other has existed since 1911 in the spot where Alamo Drafthouse Cinema stands today. Additional SFIFF59 venues, all relatively nearby and also hailing from the early 20th century include the Roxie Theater (1909), Victoria Theatre (1907) and of course the Castro Theatre (1922). The former Grand Theatre (1940) just down the block from New Mission is now a non-profit called Gray Area ("Supporting Art & Technology for Social Good") and will be utilized for select non-screening events. Festival-goers also have the option of taking in the spanking new Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. All venues but the Castro are located within two blocks of a BART subway station.

Last month I cocooned in the New Mission for 12 continuous hours, watching five back-to-back programs at the SF Jewish Film Festival's Winterfest event. It's truly astounding how they've transformed this former dilapidated futon store, which is what the building became once movies stopped being shown in 1993. It will be interesting to see how festival audiences respond to Alamo Drafthouse's modus operandi of selling seat-side food and cocktails. My own reaction was mixed. Yes, it was occasionally distracting having servers slip in and out making deliveries in the auditorium. On the other hand, I loved being able to suck down a Singapore Sling and nosh on a lamb meatball pizza without having to get off my butt and go get them.

I've faithfully attended SFIFF every year since 1976 and this will be my 10th year covering it as accredited press. Last year's edition was majorly epic – six of my Top Ten Films of 2015 had their Bay Area premieres at the festival. This year is looking pretty impressive as well. Here's an overview of what's been announced thus far, followed by a wish list of 15 films I'm hoping will be part of the full line-up when its announced at tomorrow morning's press conference.

Opening Night
The festival opens on Thursday, April 21 with Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship. The perpetually preppie director's Damsels in Distress is probably my favorite comedy of the past 10 years and I'm thrilled he's expected to attend the Castro Theatre screening along with star Kate Beckinsale. The film is based on Jane Austen's posthumously published early novel "Lady Susan" and reunites Beckinsale with Chloë Sevigny, her co-star in Stillman's 1998 The Last Days of Disco. Critics at Sundance declared Austen and Stillman's sensibilities a perfect match, while heaping special praise upon Beckinsale's performance as ruthless, social-climbing Lady Susan. After the program, SFIFF59's opening night party takes place at Mission District event space Public Works, located a not-too-strenuous stroll from the Castro.


Closing Night
In keeping with a tradition of closing the fest with something offbeat, SFIFF59 concludes at the Castro 15 days later with The Bandit. Fresh off its SXSW world premiere, the latest from Bay Area documentarian Jesse Moss celebrates the close friendship between actor Burt Reynolds and his Smokey and the Bandit director, legendary Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham. Smokey, for those too young to remember, was the second highest grossing film of 1977 after Star Wars. If director Moss' name sounds familiar, it's because he won the festival's Best Documentary award two years ago with The Overnighters, a controversial portrait of a North Dakota fracking boomtown. The closing night party will be at the Mezzanine in downtown San Francisco.

Centerpiece Film
The movie chosen for this year's Centerpiece slot is Indignation, based on Phillip Roth's 2008 semi-autobiographical novel about a Jewish student from NJ attending college in 1951 Ohio. It reps the directorial debut of James Schamus, the writer/producer and Focus Features CEO perhaps best known for penning the majority of Ang Lee's films. Schamus last attended SFIFF in 2010, when he was presented with the Kanbar Award for Screenwriting. Indignation stars Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and garnered stellar reviews at both Sundance and Berlin. Roth himself has called it the most truthful adaptation of his work to date. The Centerpiece presentation will take place at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, April 30.

Vampyr with Mercury Rev
The festival brings back its annual pairing of silent cinema with contemporary music when alt-rock iconoclasts Mercury Rev world-premiere their new score for Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 horror classic, Vampyr. To be honest, I haven't thought about Mercury Rev since their 1991 debut album "Yerself is Steam," but research shows me they've had a long career, winning NME's Best Album of 1998 and releasing a new album just last year. Joining current Rev members Jonathan Donahue and Sean Mackowiak will be Simon Raymonde, the ethereal-sounding multi-instrumentalist who comprised one-third of classic-era Cocteau Twins, as well as Jesse Chandler of Midlake and Michael Jerome Moore from Better Than Ezra. Vampyr was Dreyer's follow-up to his venerated The Passion of Joan of Arc and while not technically a silent film, its story is largely told through visuals and intertitles. This special performance takes place at the Castro Theatre on Monday, May 2.

Mel Novikoff Award
Who could possibly be more deserving than Janus Films and Criterion Collection to receive this award, given to an "individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." At a Castro Theatre presentation on Saturday, April 30, current Janus/Criterion partners Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell will be on hand for an on-stage conversation, followed by a screening of their most recent restoration, Joel and Ethan Coen's 1984 breakout, Blood Simple. The Coens themselves are expected to attend the program and participate in the on-stage discussion with Variety critic Scott Foundas. Bay Area exhibitor Novikoff was an avid champion of the brothers' debut film. They honored him nearly 30 years later by naming an Inside Llewyn Davis supporting character "Mel Novikoff."

Persistence of Vision Award
Since its inception in 1997, the festival's Persistence of Vision Award has honored the "achievement of a filmmaker or institution whose main body of work is outside the realm of narrative feature filmmaking." This year's honoree is none other than four-time Oscar® winner Aardman Animations, the beloved British studio responsible for Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep and Peter Gabriel's groundbreaking "Sledgehammer" music video. To help celebrate Aardman's 40th anniversary at a Castro Theatre program on Sunday, May 1, co-founder and creative director Peter Lord will participate in an on-stage discussion and preside over a screening of Aardman shorts.

Golden Gate Awards New Directors Prize
Nine narrative features will compete for this year's New Directors Prize. I saw both Yaelle Kayam's Mountain and Lorenzo Vigas' From Afar at the Palm Springs International Film Festival back in January. Both are compelling enough to warrant second viewings and both feature provocative endings that could render them the most talked about films at SFFF59. Mountain is the story of a Jewish Orthodox housewife in Jerusalem whose life changes when she discovers the nearby cemetery doubles as a nocturnal hangout for prostitutes and drug addicts. From Afar won the top prize (Golden Lion) at last year's Venice Film Festival and stars esteemed Chilean actor Alfredo Castro (Tony Manero, The Club) as a closeted gay man who enters into a volatile relationship with a young street tough.

Amongst the remaining seven entries, I'm most excited about Clément Cogitore's Neither Heaven Nor Earth, which premiered in Cannes' Critics Week sidebar and has thus far screened at festivals under the title The Wakhan Front. In this elevated genre piece, French star Jérémie Renier plays an Afghanistan army captain whose men are disappearing under possibly supernatural circumstances. I've also heard terrific things about Leyla Bouzid's As I Open My Eyes, which places the struggles of a free-spirited young woman within the context of Tunisia's 2010 Arab Spring revolution. Remaining New Directors Prize contenders include films from Canada (The Demons), Bulgaria (Thirst), India (Thithi), Lebanon (Very Big Shot) and Czech Republic (Home Care, which was also that country's 2015 Oscar® summission).

Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition
Of the 11 films competing for SFIFF59's top doc prize, the only one to previously cross my radar is Kirsten Johnson's autobiographical Cameraperson, which collected rave reviews at festivals like Sundance, True/False, New Directors New Films and SXSW. Johnson is a celebrated non-fiction cinematographer best known for her collaborations with directors Laura Poitras (Citizen Four, The Oath) and Kirby Dick (The Invisible War, This Film is Not Yet Rated).

Elsewhere in the competition I have high hopes for Moby Longinotto's The Joneses. The director is the son of 2015 Persistence of Vision Award winner Kim Longinotto and he got his start as assistance editor on mum's 1998 documentary Divorce Iranian Style. The Joneses won the SF Film Society's 2014 Documentary Film Fund Grant and concerns a family of Mississippi trailer park denizens and their 73-year-old transgender matriarch. Another doc I don't want to miss is Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega's The Return. The directors won this competition in 2011 with their powerful film Better This World and their latest shadows the fate of several inmates following the loosening of California's Three Strikes law. Other challengers for the doc prize include looks at a remote Bolivian salt flat (Salero), life in North Korea (Under the Sun) and a portrait of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, an early 20th century radio mogul, politician and champion of goat testicle impotence cures (NUTS!, directed by Our Nixon's Penny Lane).

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Every year I can't help but ruminate on which films might get chosen for festival inclusion. Some distinct possibilities can be found on Landmark Theatres upcoming release calendar, such as Aleksandr Sokurov's Francofonia (April 29), Ben Wheatley's High Rise (May 13), Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan (May 27) and Athina Rachel Tsangari's Chevalier (June 10). Amongst the movies I caught at Palm Springs this year, I'd say Alex van Warmerdam's Schneider vs. Bax, Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull (opening at the Roxie on May 6), Santiago Mitre's Paulina and Jerzy Skolimowski's 11 Minutes would all be worthy selections. And while many high profile titles from Sundance and Berlin don't show up in the Bay Area until later, you won't hear me complain if we're fortunate enough to see Mia Hansen Løve's Things to Come, André Téchiné's Being 17, Kelly Reichhardt's Certain Women, Ira Sach's Little Men, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Creepy, Danis Tanovic's Death in Sarajevo or Todd Solondz' Weiner-Dog.

The following are 15 titles I'm fervently hoping to find on the SFIFF59 roster. All played the festival circuit in 2015 and all but one have yet to screen in the Bay Area.

The Academy of Muses (Spain, dir. José Luis Guerín)
The director of the 2008's enchanting and enigmatic In the City of Sylvia returns with a second singularly-styled narrative feature, this one centered around a libidinous professor and his female students.

Afternoon (Taiwan, dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
In this experimental documentary, the world's foremost maestro of slow-cinema converses with Lee Kang-sheng, the gay director's straight acteur fétiche, muse, housemate and star of his eleven feature films.

The Apostate (Spain, dir. Fernando Veiroj)
Uruguayan filmmaker Veiroj, whose melancholy B&W ode to a soon-to-be unemployed Montevideo cinematheque manager (A Useful Life) played SFIFF five years ago, follows up with this existential satire about a Spanish man attempting to leave Catholicism.

Arabian Nights, Volumes 1, 2, & 3 (Portugal, dir. Miguel Gomes)
With last year's passing of Manoel de Oliveira at age 108, the mantle of being Portugal's most important living filmmaker passes onto Gomes (Tabu, Our Beloved Month of August). These three interrelated films adapt the traditional structure of "Arabian Nights" in order to ponder the misbegotten backwash of Portuguese economic austerity. Although readily available on multiple VOD platforms, my fingers are crossed for a big screen experience.

Cosmos (France, dir. Andrzej Zulawski)
One of the world's great transgressive filmmakers, probably best known for his 1981 Isabelle Adjani-starring shocker Possession, won Locarno's Best Director prize for what has turned out to be his swan song (Zulawski passed away on February 17).

Evolution (France, dir. Lucile Hadzihalilovic)
This long-awaited follow-up to Innocence, the unsettling 2004 debut from Gaspar Noé's wife and sometime collaborator, was supposed to open locally on May 27. That's been cancelled due to the collapse of distributor Alchemy Films (see The Lobster below). It was snapped up by IFC Midnight for eventual VOD release, but I want to see it now.

Fatima (France, dir. Philippe Faucon)
The latest from SFIFF alum Faucon (Samia, The Betrayal, Two Ladies) was the surprise winner at this year's César Awards, taking home prizes for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Promising Actress. The 78-minute dramedy concerns a Moroccan-born mother raising two teen daughters in Lyon.

Helmut Berger, Actor (Austria, dir. Andreas Horvath)
This documentary about the iconic European actor was ranked #1 on John Waters' Artforum Best of 2015 list, with a disclaimer from Waters qualifying it as the worst film of 2015 as well. Call me intrigued.

Land and Shade (Colombia, dir. César Acevedo)
The Camera d'Or prize for best first feature film at Cannes went to this austere, atmospheric portrait of a struggling sugarcane farming family.

The Lobster (Ireland/UK/Greece, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Due to troubles with U.S. distributor Alchemy Films, this Cannes Jury Prize winner from Greek dystopian misanthrope Lanthimos (Dogtooth) has had its Bay Area theatrical release delayed numerous times. Can we please just see it already? I'm hoping exposure at a small North Bay festival last year won't disqualify it for SFIFF inclusion.

Men & Chicken (Denmark, dir. Anders Thomas Jensen)
Denmark's best known screenwriter (In a Better World, After the Wedding) finally follows up his brilliant 2005 satire Adam's Apples with this black comedy about two outcast brothers. It's being released in the U.S. by none other than Drafthouse Films, the film distribution arm of SFIFF59's principal venue, Alamo Drafthouse.

Right Now, Wrong Then (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Hong is arguably Asia's most prolific arthouse filmmaker and SFIFF has done its best to keep up with his massive output, screening a Hong joint in four of the past five years. His latest won the top prize (Golden Leopard) at last year's Locarno Film Festival.

Standing Tall (France, dir. Emmanuelle Bercot)
Bercot's slice of social realist cinema concerns a delinquent navigating France's juvenile justice system and was considered an unlikely opener for Cannes. The intriguing cast includes Catherine Deneuve, Sara Forestier and César supporting actor winner Benoît Magimel.

The Story of Judas (France, dir. Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche)
This Algerian-born actor/director follows up Smuggler's Songs, which played the fest four years ago, with a new work that reimagines Judas Iscariot (played by the director) as the most dedicated of Jesus' disciples.

Two Friends (France, dir. Louis Garrel)
France's most impossibly handsome young actor follows in the footsteps of his director father with this debut feature about a ménage à trois among unlikely friends. Garrel stars, with Vincent Macaigne and Iranian superstar Golshifteh Farahani completing the triangle.

Cross-published at The Evening Class.