Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Bay Area 2010 Fall Festivals – A Look Back
"My wife and I are now enjoying films at the Arab Film Festival. Then we will see films at the French and Italian film festivals and then finish off with a film at Berlin & Beyond. At the same time, there was the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Taiwan Film Festival. And I have probably missed a festival or two this fall season. Some of these film festivals overlap. Sometimes too much of a good thing can be too much for us poor movie buffs. I suggest that the various film festival directors have a summit and divide up the year so festivals don't overlap or get too crammed together. I suspect attendance would improve and we filmgoers won't get so overwhelmed. Just a thought."
Ralph E. Stone, San Francisco
The above letter appeared in the October 22 San Francisco Chronicle and enjoyed wide circulation among Bay Area cinephiles. It gave voice to our frustrated sense of being in-fest-ed, as Hell on Frisco Bay's Brian Darr would put it, by more movie choices than ever this autumn. Yes, Mr. Stone, you did miss "a festival or two," or even twenty. I was festival-ing nearly every weekend, yet here are some I missed: Iranian Film Festival, Irish Film Festival, Bicycle Film Festival, International Children's Film Festival, Taiwan Film Days, Cinema by the Bay, Chinese American Film Festival, United Nations Film Festival, American Indian Film Festival, Buddhist Film Festival and Tranny Fest. And for the first time this year, my participation in the Mill Valley Film Festival and SF DocFest was necessarily limited to watching DVD screeners.
Having too many choices beats having too few, but like Mr. Stone, I'm certain it would benefit both audiences and festivals alike if the wealth were spread around. While we're holding our breath waiting for that summit to happen, here's my first-day-of-winter report on the seven Bay Area fall film fests I was able to partake in.
SF Latino Film Festival (Sept. 16 – 26)
November 2009 witnessed a resurrection of the Latino Film Festival by the organization Cine + Mas. It was woefully under-attended, a result of being scheduled smack in the middle of a fest-saturated November. This year they shifted to September, making theirs the first major fall fest out of the gate. And a change of venue to the Mission District's Roxie Theater brought it all closer to their core audience. This seemed to do the trick. Opening night witnessed a large, enthusiastic crowd and I heard reports of healthy ticket sales for the rest of opening weekend, including a near sell-out for Mexico's multiple Ariel-nominated Heart of Time.
Opening Night's double bill was a winner. First up was La Yuma, Nicaragua's first feature film in 20 years and its submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar®. More crowd-pleaser than art film, it boasts a powerhouse debut by Alma Blanco as a woman determined to literally box her way out of a Managua slum. While the story is preposterously overloaded – the titular La Yuma has a gangleader boyfriend, a thieving brother, a sister who's being molested by her mother's boyfriend, a prickly romance with a middle-class university student, a tranny best friend and a boxing trainer who moonlights as a male stripper – it's all served up with vigor and humor. The Roxie audience howled each time Blanco let loose with an obscene tirade, making me regret my lack of fluency in Central American insults. Humor, albeit of a gentler nature, was also in evidence in the evening's co-feature. Leo's Room proved an intelligent, wry look at one Uruguayan university student's struggle with stasis and sexual identity.
Arab Film Festival (Oct. 14 – 24)
Although I wasn't planning on it, at the last minute I found myself available to attend AFF's opening night at the Castro Theater. After welcoming everyone to the 14th edition of the largest and oldest fest of its kind in North America, the evening's hosts got down to handing out the annual Noor Awards (noor being the Arabic word for light). Outstanding Feature Film went to Syria's Once Again, which surprised me in light of its spare, two-sentence description in the festival catalog. Feature Film Honorable Mention would go to Morocco's The Man Who Sold the World, with its fraternal directing duo, Imad and Swel Noury taking a bow from the audience. (Happily, they would remain in town for their film's screening eight days later). Outstanding Documentary was given to 12 Angry Lebanese. Following the awards, the crowd took delight in the Opening Night film Mascarades, a heartfelt social comedy set in a remote Algerian village. The film's engaging director and star, Lyès Salem, was on hand at the Castro. In the Q&A he revealed that this decidedly feminist film was a tribute to the women who held Algeria together during the 1990s civil war.
I would catch two additional AFF screenings, both of them marred by late start times and 35mm projection snafus. But at least I got to see them on film. Apparently, some film prints were held up in customs, which forced the festival to project watermarked DVD screeners. According to my spies, in at least one case the audience was never advised of the substitution. And as long as I'm complaining, I'll mention that the Arab Film Festival wins the prize for having the most audience members who text and email during movies. Alas, the films themselves were a worthy pair. While Yousry Nasrallah's feminist Egyptian melodrama Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story turned out to be a bit of a head-scratcher, it's a film I'd been dying to see and I'm grateful to the festival for programming it. I was more taken by the Noury brothers' The Man Who Sold the World, a Dostoevsky-based dystopian allegory that featured an intriguing sound design, glorious widescreen compositions and a lively post-Q&A.
Berlin & Beyond (Oct. 22 – 28)
The Bay Area's festival of German-language film went into its 15th edition with two strikes. First, there was resentment over the move from January into an October already overstuffed with festivals. More important was the acrimony people still felt over the Goethe-Institut's unceremonious ousting of B&B founder Ingrid Eggers. While there was some talk of a boycott, film festival sluts like myself found it impossible to forego certain must-see titles. At any rate, attendance was down compared to years past. Newly appointed Festival Director Sophoan Sorn, a Cambodian-born young man who founded the San Joaquin International Film Festival, proved himself a genial and effusively enthusiastic host. As for Eggers, she's expanding her new German Gems festival, which debuted last February as one-day event. It returns as a three-day mini-fest that'll happen in B&B's original January slot – at the Castro, of course. Competing German film festivals can now be added to that list of things "only in San Francisco."
I only caught three films at this new B&B, starting with Centerpiece Film When We Leave, directed by Feo Aladag. It's Germany's 2010 Oscar® submission and was met with rapturous applause as the credits rolled. It was also the only film from all of these autumn festivals I truly hated. What can I say? What I perceived as a cheesy melodrama in which a sympathetic protagonist does endlessly idiotic things in order to advance a filmmaker's agenda, others evidently perceived as a noble and tragic social issue drama – that issue being Muslim honor killings. Fortunately, my other two B&B choices were first rate. I knew I needed to see Benjamin Heisenberg's The Robber after it was chosen for the ultra-picky New York Film Festival. This hypnotic, observational narrative about one man's obsession with marathon running and bank robbing made good on the promise of Heisenberg's debut Sleeper, which screened at B&B in 2006. The film has been picked up for U.S. release and Michael Guillén conducted a revelatory interview with Heisenberg during the festival (as well as posting this concise overview of the B&B line-up). Equally terrific was Baran bo Odar's The Silence, a visually stunning, character-driven police procedural whose 9 p.m. mid-week screening was criminally under-attended. The 35mm print promised in the B&B catalog was replaced by digital and not announced as such.
French Cinema Now (Oct. 28 – Nov. 3)
One reason for the Bay Area's autumn festival congestion is the SF Film Society's ever-expanding "Fall Season," which consisted of six festivals and five special events this year. For the first time, I heard a bit of SFFS-aimed grousing from audience members and competing festival staff-members alike. All I know is that by the time French Cinema Now rolled around, I was ready to put myself in the hands of professionals who know how to properly run a cinema event. Their screenings begin exactly on time, in the format promised, are knowledgably introduced and preceded by an announcement to shut off cell phones and keep them off. (film-415 kudos to programmer Rod Armstrong for his vigilance in this regard.)
Since I saw nine of the 10 films on offer, there's only time here for some general thoughts. For starters, the Bay Area loves those iconic French actresses. Five FCN screenings were sellouts – two showings each of Isabelle Huppert's Copacabana and Juliette Binoche's Certified Copy, plus a screening of Catherine Deneuve's Hidden Diary. Marc Fitoussi's light-hearted dramedy Copacabana was an ideal fest opener, with Huppert as a middle-aged hippie chick selling vacation timeshares. I felt absolutely giddy watching her in a film where she wasn't poisoning her family or performing abortions or sniffing tissues picked off the floor of a porno video arcade. (After the screening, director Fitousi would have the pleasure of announcing the Giants' win in Game 2 of the World Series.) The malevolence missing from Huppert's role manifested itself in Deneuve's heartless, mean-mouthed mother of Hidden Diary. Her performance was delivered with a vituperative gusto that triggered waves of audience sniggering. Perhaps it's high time for Deneuve to follow Joan and Bette into the land of battleaxed bogeywomen? A remake of William Castle's Straight Jacket, peut-être? Have a look at the poster and tell me you can't picture Catherine wielding that hatchet.
My favorite FCN film turned out to be one that hadn't been on my radar. Katell Quillévéré's intimate Love Like Poison featured a memorable debut performance by Clara Augarde as a teen grappling with issues of flesh vs. spirit in small town Bretagne. The final, bittersweet film appearance of Guillaume Depardieu was a highlight of Sarah Leonor's distinguished A Real Life. Lucas Belvaux brought his taut, corporate kidnapping thriller Rapt to Opening Night, and the stimulating Q&A went well past midnight. I also enjoyed Two in the Wave, Emmanuel Laurent's documentary about François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard which will have a run at the Roxie Theater early next year. For a nice change of pace there was Bertrand Tavernier's 16th century historical romance, The Princess of Montpensier. I appreciated it mostly for the performances of three favorite French actors: Lambert Wilson, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet and Gaspard Ulliel. FCN closed with Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, a film I was closely in tune with until its mid-film, enigmatic conceit turned tiresome.
3rd i South Asian Film Festival (Nov. 3 – 7)
While I experienced most of this year's 3rd i via DVD screeners, I did come out for three programs. Occupying Saturday night's traditional "Bollywood at the Castro" slot was Punit Malhotra's I Hate Luv Storys, an affectionate satire of romantic Bollywood tropes that didn't inspire me to stay past the interval. Besides, I needed to be back at the Castro for Sunday morning's highly anticipated 35mm revival of Bimal Roy's 1958 classic, Madhumati. Apart from some scratches in the first reel, this otherwise flawless print looked exquisite on the huge Castro screen. There were some vexing technical difficulties projecting digital subtitles over the 35mm image, but it hardly mattered given Madhumati's easy-to-follow storyline. This was a rare treat, rendered more so by the amusing anecdotes recounted by Manoj Shailendra (the son of renowned Bollywood lyricist Shailendra), who was on hand to introduce the screening.
I returned later that evening for the closing night film, Dev Benegal's Road, Movie. This tale of a taciturn young man driving a mobile cinema across the Rajasthan desert was a bit clunky, but was redeemed by spectacular desert photography and a contemporary consciousness surrounding water issues. As always, 3rd i's closing party in the Castro mezzanine was a blast. It was there I learned something interesting about director "Q"s groundbreaking, XXX-rated Gandu. It seems that the version screened during the festival was a radical re-edit from the one I watched on screener – and by several accounts, something approaching a masterpiece. Hopefully, 3rd i will bring it back sometime next year (and screen it earlier than midnight).
San Francisco International Animation Festival (Nov. 11 – 14)
I wasn't expecting to see anything in this festival given the lack of a big-buzz feature like Waltz with Bashir or Fantastic Mr. Fox in the line-up. You see, I'm not much of an animation enthusiast, with Toy Story III being the only such film I saw in 2010. I'm also not particularly keen on shorts programs. But when I saw that a favorite Bay Area writer had co-curated a program of animated shorts, I snapped up a ticket. SF Bay Guardian Arts and Entertainment Editor Johnny Ray Huston – who unfortunately rarely writes about film these days – put together Channel Drift in cahoots with local video artist/animator Skye Thorstensen. Their fabulously eclectic selection ranged from recent Tostitos commercials to classic works like Suzan Pitt's awesomely trippy Asparagus. A personal favorite was Paul Vester's Abductees, which refashions the drawings and hypnotic regression tapes of alleged space alien abductees into something humorously affecting. In all, this was one of the best times I had at the movies this fall, and I thank the SF Film Society for inspiring me to experience something different.
New Italian Cinema (Nov. 14 – 21)
I was disappointed when I first looked at this year's N.I.C.E. line-up, as the two new Italian films I'd hoped for were M.I.A. (For the record, they're Michelangelo Frammartino's The Four Times, probably the most lauded Italian film on the 2010 fest circuit, and Pietro Marcello's The Mouth of the Wolf, a docu-fiction hybrid that won the Berlin Film Festival's Teddy Award for Best Documentary and was a curious omission from this year's Frameline.) Furthermore, a full third of the N.I.C.E. line-up was given over to the films of Ferzan Ozpetek, with the director in attendance. I'd always felt indifferent towards Ozpetek's work until I saw 2007's risible melodrama Saturn in Opposition, which put me off wanting to see his two latest films, A Perfect Day and Loose Cannons. (N.I.C.E. also presented retrospective screenings of Steam: The Turkish Bath and Facing Windows).
After a bit of research, I managed to find four films that sounded promising. If not for its absurd denouement, Alessandro Angelini's Raise Your Head might have been one of my Top Ten films of the year. Serge Castellitto gives a career-high performance as a working class shipbuilder who learns that the heart of his deceased son has been transplanted into the body of a Slovenian transsexual. Almost its equal was The Double Hour, the feature debut of fashion photographer and music video director Giuseppe Capotondi. This highly stylized combo of romance/thriller/caper film occasionally approached the brink of ludicrousness, but never quite crossed that line. While Ksenia Rappoport won the Venice Film Festival's Best Actress prize for her role as a double-crossing hotel maid, it was heartthrob Filippo Timi (Vincere's Mussolini) who commanded my attention as the brooding security guard she victimizes. Valerio Mieli's worthy, well-acted Ten Winters followed the rocky, thwarted romance of two Venetian students over the course of 10 years. Six or seven winters would have been plenty for me.
Finally, N.I.C.E. closed with The First Beautiful Thing, Italy's 2010 Oscar® submission and the latest from Paolo Virzi (whom N.I.C.E. feted in 2008). This nostalgic, flashback laden dramedy tells the story of a sad sack, substance-abusing professor who's dragged back into the life of his ebullient mother (Stefania Sandrelli), now dying of cancer. Shrill and broad, but not entirely unwatchable, it was hard to believe this came from the same director as such comparatively distinguished films as Ovosodo and Caterina in the Big City. On Closing Night, Edoardo Leo's 18 Years Later was given the audience-bestowed City of Florence Award for best film. I missed seeing it at N.I.C.E., but will have an opportunity at next month's Palm Springs International Film Festival, where it's just been announced as part of the 2011 line-up.