Friday, May 28, 2010

SFIFF53 2010 Wrap Up – The Films

It's been three weeks since the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) ended, and partly because of a distraction named Cannes, it's taken me this long to assemble a parting overview. I've already written about the films I saw before the festival and a few that were associated with this year's special events. Now here are star ratings and some brief commentary for the other 30 films I (mostly) had the pleasure of watching from April 22 to May 6, 2010. For no particular good reason, they're listed in the order I saw them.

Nymph **** (Thailand dir. Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
My festival got off to a fine start with this metaphysical fable about the primal force of human sexual desire. It begins with a stupefying tracking shot that rushes through and above the jungle, and its unnervingly eerie, musique-concrète sound design was the most memorable I'd hear during the fest. A main character's speech in the final reel, however, brings things back to earth and slightly diminishes the overall effect.

My Dog Tulip *** (USA dir. Paul and Sandra Fierlinger)
I'm not so much into animation, but SFIFF programmer Sean Uyehara recommended this for people who don't like dogs and that would be me. I was entertained by this acerbic man-dog love story by gay British writer J.R. Ackerley, who once wrote "Unable to love each other, the English naturally turn to dogs." The film is made of an amazing 800,000 single cell drawings in different animation styles, and producer Norman Twain was on hand to talk about getting his friends Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini to do the voices.

Around a Small Mountain ** (France/Italy dir. Jacques Rivette)
I hated the opening scene in which Sergio Castellitto silently repairs Jane Birkin's broken down car (later I'd learn that particular scene was everyone else's favorite). I struggled to remain conscious for at least another 10 minutes after that, before succumbing to temptation and conking out. It wasn't the first Rivette film to put me to sleep, but at age 82 – Rivette's age, not mine – it might be the last. At least now I was rested and invigorated for my two evening films, both of which I'd been highly anticipating.

Between Two Worlds *** (Sri Lanka dir. Kumukthi Jayasundara)
I flipped when I learned the festival had programmed this, as I loved
The Forsaken Land, the director's Cannes Camera d'or-winning first feature. His new film is another poetic string of disturbing imagery, much of it colored by his country's lengthy civil war. Oddly, though, it seemed less mature and cohesive than his debut. The director was on hand, reluctantly revealing that the titular two worlds represent city vs. forest, imagined world vs. reality.

The White Meadows **** (Iran dir. Mohammad Rasoulof)
From the director of 2005's acclaimed
Iron Island comes this fanciful political allegory that's every bit as original and arresting as its predecessor. Trading that film's abandoned Persian Gulf oil tanker for the blinding, chalk white islands of Iran's Lake Urmia, we travel with a boatman who collects the tears of the lake's inhabitants. Rasoulof's societal critiques, a mix of obtuse and obvious (at least to western viewers), were enough to land him a stint in the same prison as filmmaker Jafar Panahi.

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky **** (France dir. Jan Kounen)
This was a fairly standard biopic depicting the years during which Coco and Igor's lives converged, with enough stylistic flourishes to make it interesting. The film's beginning, in which we get to relive the riotous 1913 Parisian premiere of "The Rite of Spring," was perhaps the most thrilling 20 minutes of entire festival. The art direction and costume design are to die for, as is Mads Mikkelsen's butt and Anna Mouglalis' no-nonsense portrayal of Coco (the actress would turn up later as chanteuse Juliette Gréco in Gainsbourg (Je t'aime, moi non plus).

Domain **** (France dir. Patric Chiha)
Personal fave Béatrice Dalle shreds the screen as a rapidly descending alcoholic mathematician in a film written specifically for her by first-time director Chiha. We witness her decline through the eyes of a gay teenage nephew who makes a compelling and controversial moral choice in the final reel. Unfortunately, the screening was nearly ruined by a festival VIP and two gal pals who jabbered at each other and at the screen itself, while frequently checking their phones for what I'm sure were very important messages. Grrrrrrrrr.

Cold Weather **** (USA dir. Aaron Katz)
Experience has made me leery of most American independent films, but this fresh, character-driven piece about sister-brother amateur sleuths in Portland had many charms. Those included clever dialogue, an interesting percussive score, gorgeous Red One videography and nifty performances – particularly by NYC stage actor/playwright Raúl Castillo as the siblings' partner in crime-solving. The image quality was above average for digital projection, but still flawed, i.e. slow camera pans had a stuttering quality. Katz' 2006
Dance Party, USA just got booted to the top of my Netflix queue.

Everyone Else **** (Germany dir. Maren Ade)
This has got be the all-time Date Movie From Hell. A lot of people hated it, but I think they confused hatred of the characters for hatred of the film itself. For two hours we watch in prickly detail as the relationship between a painfully flawed young couple comes apart during a Sardinian holiday. Ade's screenplay is flat-out brilliant, as are the two lead performances.

Way of Nature *** (Sweden dir. Nina Hedenius)
I wasn't hepped-up about seeing this narration-and-dialogue-free documentary about one year in the life of a remote Swedish farm, which is perhaps why I unconsciously got the start time wrong and arrived 30 minutes late. Then I napped through much of what remained. I liked what little I saw, but Green Acres ain't the place for me.

14-18: The Noise and the Fury **** (France/Belgium dir. Jean-François Delassus)
This scathing examination of the wholesale human slaughter that was WWI was one of two great French documentaries I'd see during the fest. Some objected to the colorization, lip-synched dialogue and addition of ambient sound to the archival footage, but I thought it gave those materials greater immediacy. I'm more sympathetic to complaints about the English language voiceover – the film is narrated by a fictitious French soldier – but I got used to it quickly. What didn't quite work for me was the insertion of clips from more current narrative features about that war.

Soul Kitchen ** (Germany dir. Fatih Akin)
I really wanted to love this restaurant comedy which stars my two favorite German actors and is directed by my favorite German filmmaker. It had a manic energy and you could tell everyone involved had a blast making it, but man was this thing ever broad and predictable. I hope director Akin got it out of his system and will return to making complex dramas like
Head-On and The Edge of Heaven. For what it's worth, many I know got the biggest kick out of this one.

Frontier Blues ** (Iran/England/Italy dir. Babak Jalali)
Apart from showing me slices of life in a faraway place – in this case the mundane goings-on of an Iran-Turkmenistan border town – I was diverted but untaken by this series of revolving deadpan vignettes. The festival's FIPRESCI jury disagreed and gave the film its award. Phantoms of 1960s French pop music popped up throughout the festival, here in the form of Françoise Hardy's "Tous les garçons and les filles" being repeatedly played on one character's cassette player.

Colony * (USA/Ireland dir. Ross McDonnell, Carter Gunn)
I urgently wanted to see a documentary about the scary phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), but instead saw this film about the trials and tribulations of a bible-thumping family of Mennonite beekeepers. Perhaps at this point, too little is known about CCD to fill a feature-length doc? This film does have some good info, but to my surprise, not a word about the existence of CCD outside the USA.

Linha de Passe **** (Brazil dir. Walter Salles)
Why did this gritty and humane film about a São Paolo maid and her four sons take two full years to reach the Bay Area, especially in light of having a well known director and a best actress prize from the 2008 Cannes Film Festival? I would have asked Salles myself, but he didn't return for a post-screening Q&A. At any rate, well worth the long wait.

Wild Grass *** (France/Italy dir. Alain Resnais)
For a good half hour I thought this might end up being my favorite film of the festival, or who knows, perhaps of the year. I had a grin on my face brought on by enigmatic characters, a who-knows-where-this-might- go storyline, candy-colored cinematography, swooping crane shots, a jazzy Mark Snow (
The X-Files) score and other delights. By the final reel, however, its increasingly cock-eyed antics caused my admiration to flag.

White Material ** (France dir. Claire Denis)
This was the first time I couldn't engage myself with a Claire Denis film on any level, except perhaps, in its sheer absurdity. A friend called it "unfelt." I'm willing to concede that I just didn't get it. It was a hoot watching Isabelle Huppert drive a tractor and I certainly dug the Nicolas Duvauxchelle nude scene. In a festival first, at least for me, the person intro-ing the film got hooted off the stage by an audience anxious to get on with it.

Vengeance *** (Hong Kong/China dir. Johnnie To)
Despite some amusing set pieces and a stoic, stony performance from 1960's French rock n' roll idol Johnny Hallyday, this was pretty ludicrous and did little to reignite my waning interest in Asian genre films.

Gainsbourg (Je t'aime…moi non plus) ***** (France dir. Joann Sfar)
By far my favorite film in the festival, this was the thrilling E-ticket ride for which I wanted to jump back in line and go again and again. In his filmmaking debut, graphic novelist Sfar takes key moments from Serge Gainsbourg's life and turns them into richly-conceived mythical fantasias, aided in no small part by an astounding lead performance by Eric Elmosino. My obsession for the man's music no doubt colored my appreciation. Unfortunately, at the beginning and end of each reel change in the Kabuki Theater's House 5, the sound would completely cut out for several excruciatingly long seconds. I wanted to scream.

Susa *** (Georgia dir. Rusudan Pirveli)
The spirit of neo-realism was evident in two fest films I caught, one being this grim, affecting look at a youngster forced to work as delivery boy for a bootleg vodka distillery. It reminded me a good deal of the Dardenne Brothers'
Rosetta, but without that film's ultimate suggestion of hope.

Ordinary People *** (Serbia/France/Switzerland dir. Vladimir Perisic)
I appreciated this film because it portrayed Balkans-style ethnic cleansing in a way I hadn't previously conceived of – slow, systematic and banal. Unfortunately, the lead actor was unable to bring any interest to the long close-ups of his character lost in thought. Mercifully short at 80 minutes.

La Pivellina **** (Italy/Austria dir. Tizza Covi, Rainer Frimmel)
An extended family of benevolent small-time circus performers (think spinning plates and trained goats) take in an adorable, abandoned two-year-old girl in the festival's other nod to neo-realism. The naturalistic performances by the non-pro cast were almost shocking in their unselfconsciousness. A real gem.

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno **** (France dir. Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea)
I was so exhausted from being out until 3 a.m. – thank you Peaches Christ – that I feared I might not be able to stay awake through this. Not even close. This tantalizing and expertly assembled doc examines what happens when a brilliant director gives himself freedom to run amok and brilliantly fails. I'd happily watch it again just for Clouzot's downright freaky camera experiments, Romy Schneider's wardrobe tests and mustachioed Jean-Claude Bercq in a swimsuit.

Lourdes *** (France/Austria/Germany dir. Jessica Hausner)
While I was intrigued by the issues of faith raised in this tale – an essentially non-believing, wheelchair-bound young woman goes to Lourdes for a miracle and gets one – what really grabbed me was its detailed portrait of Lourdes itself as tourist destination/miracle factory.

Alamar **** (Mexico dir. Pedro González-Rubio)
This wasn't my favorite of the dozen films in competition for the festival's New Director's Prize, but it's a choice I'm happy with. What I liked most was the refreshing lack of any drama or conflict whatsoever. It's just a gorgeously filmed, tender narrative about a young boy spending one final summer on the Yucatan coast with his fishermen father and grandfather.

Lebanon *** (Israel dir. Samuel Maoz)
Winner of the top prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, this intense anti-war film is set completely inside a crippled Israeli tank stuck in enemy territory during the 1982 Lebanese War. Director Maoz based the film on his own experiences in the war known as Israel's Vietnam, and in introducing the film told us which character represented himself. It's a powerful work, if a bit heavy-handed and manipulative when it doesn't need to be.

Woman on Fire Looks for Water *** (Malaysia/South Korea dir. Woo Ming-jin)
This was a perfectly fine, laconic and bittersweet tale of folks who make a living from river wildlife harvesting. I'd never seen a live frog get its head cut off with scissors before and will be quite happy if I never do again. The washed-out digital projection at the Clay Theater made me wish I'd watched it on DVD screener.

Last Train Home **** (China/Canada dir. Lixin Fan)
I was expecting a documentary about the world's largest human migration, an annual phenomenon in which 130 million Chinese workers return home for New Year. What I saw instead was a moving film about the dark side of China's economic miracle, specifically, what happens when parents work for many years in factories thousands of miles away from their children. Few images in the festival were as disturbing as this one's father/daughter Springer-esque slugfest. Or as harrowing as the family's five-day wait in an insanely mobbed Guangzhou train station. Director Lixin Fan was on hand to give a revelatory Q&A.

Winter's Bone *** (USA dir. Debra Granik)
While the film takes place in the US, its setting amongst the rural poor of the Ozark Mountains is as exotic as any Iranian salt lake or Thai jungle. It's a place where kids get lessons in skinning and frying up squirrels. And where weather-beaten women throw a mean punch and your Uncle Teardrop is never without his baggie full of blow. In this absorbing, Sundance Jury Prize-winning film, a 17-year-old girl has one week to track down her meth-cooking father or lose the house she shares with her out-of-it Mom and two siblings. I liked everything, but was uneasy about Jennifer Lawrence's lead performance which too often rendered her character snotty and petulant, as opposed to the gutsy and determined I think she was aiming for.

Hadejwich ** (France dir. Bruno Dumont)
I hoped this might be the film to bring me back into the Dumont fold, after the disappointments of
Twentynine Palms and Flanders. Alas, this alternately bland and overheated story of religious nuts of different feathers flocking together didn't do it.

The Little White Cloud That Cried! *** (Germany dir. Guy Maddin)
This is a short Maddin created for a Jack Smith tribute in Germany last year. I couldn't see it as part of the festival's Pirate Utopias shorts program, so I watched it in the press screening room (essentially four computer viewing stations set up in the Kabuki's house 8). Once the XXX-rated tranny porn kicked in, I made sure to keep my hands where everyone could see them.


Maya said...

It's about time you got this done! Now hurry up and write your preview piece for Frameline. Your friend, the taskmaster.

Maya said...

Have you got your frameline piece done yet? Chop chop.

Maya said...

I'm waiting.... (tap tap tap)

Michael Hawley said...

I'm dancing as fast as I can, dammit!

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Excellent capsules...amazing that we both attended the same festival with scant overlap between our screening selections. One note: if we saw the same showing of WHITE MATERIAL, the introducer was also hooted off for spoiling a crucial scene -- a disappointing faux pas that ended with hilarious ridicule.

And btw, a very astutely conservative look at ALAMAR, which I still find over-praised. I wrote a handful of longer capsules for the House Next Door.

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Jon, and especially for providing the link to your own capsule write-ups. We have a few more films in common. I saw CAIRO TIME (my least favorite film in the fest) and FATHER OF MY CHILREN at press screenings and wrote them up elsewhere prior to the festival.

Regarding the WHITE MATERIAL intro, I believe what happened was she was about to spoil a scene, but was stopped by audience members still outraged over her divulging the shocking event that occurs midway through THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN during her intro for that film the previous day.