Monday, April 18, 2011

SFIFF54 2011 DVD Screener Previews

The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) gets underway this Thursday, April 21and runs until May 5. Since the Opening Press Conference three weeks ago, the fest has announced that Oliver Stone will receive the 2011 Founder's Directing Award, in a program that'll include an onstage interview, clips reel and screening of 1986's Salvador starring James Woods. It has also been revealed that actors Zoe Saldana (Avatar's Na'vi princess) and Clifton Collins Jr. (Perry Smith in Capote) will accept this year's Midnight Awards, in a late-night talk show styled ceremony hosted by Beth Lisick at the W Hotel. Still waiting to be announced is the recipient of SFIFF54's Peter J. Owens Acting Award. Since posting my two-part overview of the full line-up, I've previewed 10 films on DVD screener. Here are some impressions.

The SFIFF54 Latin American selections were mostly a field of unknowns (at least to me), so priority #1 was checking out some of those. I had little interest in Tatiana Huezo's The Tiniest Place, until I read Robert Koehler's rave in an indieWire report from the recent Guadalajara Film Festival. Indeed, the film is a revelation. It's one of those documentaries that does more than cogently impart information and exists as a work of art. This is the story of Ciquera, an El Salvador mountain village that was bombed into non-existence during the country's civil war. The director starts us off in the present day, rendering a tranquil, thriving hamlet and the quotidian goings-on of its inhabitants. Just as you become impatient and start wondering if the film is merely an innocuous ode to rurality, the villagers begin to speak – both on camera and in voiceover – of their experiences during the civil war years (1980 – 1992). Captivating storytellers all, their tales escalate in horror as the film progresses, until it becomes nearly unbearable. No archival footage is used, just some faded photographs and the villagers' words disconcertingly contrasted against the idyll of contemporary Ciquera. Miraculously, Huezo manages to end her film in a place of hope. Huezo, whom Koehler called "one of the bright new talents of Latin American cinema," will be at the festival to present her film. The Tiniest Place is beautifully shot and will be screened in 35mm, a rarity for festival documentaries these days. Don't miss it.

I was also impressed by Ulysses, Oscar Godoy's fictive portrait of a Peruvian immigrant establishing a new life in Santiago, Chile. Before the opening credits, we see Julio wake up on a busy sidewalk with his head resting in a pool of blood. How this came about is never really explained, and it's the first of several nice touches of ambiguity in Godoy's screenplay. Ulysses is more than another grim case study of a downtrodden immigrant, although there are certainly elements of that. Julio's story is more complex – a former history professor whose reasons for immigrating seem born more of escape from personal tragedy than fiscal necessity. We observe as he battles loneliness, first with prostitutes and then in a promising relationship with a music store clerk, and watch as he gradually improves his economic lot. The result is a quietly heartbreaking, but ultimately optimistic film that achieves its full power cumulatively. Two other Latin American films are recommended as well. Alejandro Chomski's Asleep in the Sun plays like a sumptuously art-directed Twilight Zone episode involving dogs, trepanation and the migration of "diseased" souls. Then in Carlos César Arbeláez' straightforward but affecting The Colors of the Mountain, a Colombian boy's new soccer ball gets booted into a minefield, an apt metaphor for a place where adults navigate the treacherous choice between allegiance to guerrillas and government soldiers. Young actor Hernán Mauricio Ocampo is unforgettable in the lead role.

Every year the SFIFF line-up includes a few movies – about the movies – and Mila Turajlic's Cinema Komunisto is "the story of a country that no longer exists, except in the movies." In 1948, Marshal Tito's slightly more benevolent brand of Yugoslav communism caused a rift with the USSR. The Soviets stopped the flow of Russian films to the renegade republic, and of course, Hollywood happily filled the void. Soon Yugoslavia developed its own successful homegrown industry of WWII "partisan" films, which helped kickstart an era of international co-productions. Starting with Jack Cardiff's The Long Ships in 1962, these epics brought in western currency and jet-setting movie stars. Tito himself was a movie buff, handpicking Richard Burton to star in The Battle of Sutjeska, a hagiographic biopic about Tito's WWII exploits. Providing a nifty frame of reference in Cinema Komunisto is Levic Konstantinovic, Tito's personal projectionist for 32 years who asserts that he screened 8,801 films for the leader between 1949 and 1980. His personal recollections, combined with choice movie clips and archival materials, make this a breezy examination of one nation's brief cinematic legacy.

If you've seen the films of Wong Kar-wai, Hirokazu Koreeda, Tran Anh Hung, Jian Wen and especially Hou Hsiou-hsien, you've no doubt exalted in the visual aesthetics of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin. In Kwan Pun-leung and Chang Hsiu-chiung's documentary Let the Wind Carry Me, they seek insight into the Taiwanese DP's
artistry, which Lee himself ascribes to a balance between "visual poetry and realism." All the aforementioned directors go on camera to discuss Lee's artistry and work methods, praising his use of natural and household light, and his adaptability to fickle weather conditions. Actors Shu Qi and Romain Duris speak of his ability to accommodate his camera to their movements, which Mark claims is unintentional and unconscious. For me, it was a pleasure to finally see the man who's given me so many moments of cinematic ecstasy, like for starters, the opening scene of Hou's Millennium Mambo with Shu Qi's trance-inducing strut along a neon-lit urban skywalk. Lee, it turns out, is a long-haired, bearded man with a rugged frame and deep voice who speaks about how pottery taught him color and how his chosen profession is a lonely one (he has an American wife and young son who live in L.A.) Unfortunately for a film about someone as visionary as Lee, this documentary is somewhat perfunctory and artless, filled with static talking heads, awkward edits, ill-fitting music cues and moments of superfluousness. Also, many of the clips are of poor quality, at least on the DVD screener I watched (but verified by Russell Edwards in his Variety review from the Tokyo Film Festival).

Of the 10 films I previewed, the biggest surprise was Hong Sang-soo's Hahaha. I am not a fan of this Korean director's work. For me, they have an exasperating sameness – full of immature, narcissistic, sexist, alcoholic intellectuals and their codependent female counterparts, all rampaging through fractured narrative structures. Hahaha has all of that, but it's been dialed way down. There's almost – dare I say – a sweetness to it, making this is the first Hong film I've enjoyed without reservations. Here's the set-up. Two friends, an unemployed wannabe film director who's about to emigrate to Canada, and a depressed, married film critic meet for drinks to reminisce about their summer holidays in the port city of Tongyeong. This reunion is only heard in voiceover, and only seen via B&W snapshots. The bulk of the film consists of their separate tales being dramatized on-screen. It's a bit confounding how the two narrative strands connect until Hong slips in a revelatory a-ha moment and then runs with it for the film's duration. If you've never seen a Hong Sang-soo film, this would make as good an entry point as any.

I previewed two more documentaries and one narrative feature. From French actor/director Romain Goupil comes Hands Up, a timely tale of 5th graders plotting to prevent the capture and deportation of a Chechen classmate. It's like a classic caper film as conceived by the minds of stealthy children, with coded text messages and ring tones only kids can hear. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is wonderful as always, playing the cool Mom who's in on it. Also from France is the documentary Detroit Wild City, an outsider's portrait of a city that's lost 25 percent of its population in the last decade and where nature is reclaiming its stake. Director/cinematographer Florent Tillon has a tremendous skill for photographing the city's once-majestic buildings now in ruin, as well as an eye for the absurd (a bus whose sign alternately flashes "Have a nice day" and "Not in service.") The film's profiles of Detroit's remaining denizens, however, vary greatly in interest and relevance – a major exception being a poetic young urban explorer whose observations and laments perfectly compliment Tillon's visuals.

And finally there's The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, Marie Losier's oddly touching documentary about industrial music pioneer Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV). While the film begins with a nifty overview of his music career, the greater part is given to P-Orridge's all-consuming relationship with Lady Jaye, a nurse/dominatrix almost half his age who died in 2007. "You know how it is. You fall in love madly with someone and there’s this moment when you just want consume each other and not be individuals anymore. We wanted to pursue that. Not just talk about it, but live it." And "living it" involved extensive plastic surgery, matching breast implants and beauty mark tattoos, not to mention identical hairdos and wardrobes. Losier effectively uses a mix of home movies, interviews and concert footage to recount this strange tale in a completely non-judgmental way.

Cross published on The Evening Class and Twitch.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

SFIFF54 2011 The Line-Up (Part 2)

My previous film-415 coverage of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) includes an overview of films and special events announced prior to the Opening Press Conference, a special report on that press conference, and a look at the European films in this year's line-up. Now here's a gander at what the programmers are bringing us from the rest of the world.

Last month's SF International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) offered little in the way of new works from prominent Asian auteurs. I'd hoped the SFIFF would pick up the slack and to a degree they have. I'm most excited about prolific cult director Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins. Critics found this samurai epic surprisingly well-crafted, yet still over-the-top in Miike's inimitable way – making it his most satisfying film since 1999's Audition. In this wacky world of contemporary film distribution, 13 Assassins has actually been available for some time via Comcast's On-Demand and Amazon's Instant Video. It's also scheduled for a local theatrical release on May 20. But since SFIFF is showing it on the Castro Theater's enormous screen, you'd be crazy to see it any other way. Relatedly in the festival's The Late Show sidebar is Outrage, Takeshi Kitano's return to the neo-yakuza gang-warfare genre he pioneered. This screened in Cannes' main competition to mostly yawning reviews, so never having been a big Kitano fan to begin with, I'll give it a pass. Outrage 2 is already in production.

Another Asian auteur overlooked at this year's SFIAAFF was Hong Sang-soo, who released two new films in 2010. The festival has chosen to bring us Hahaha, which won the top prize in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. Hong's films all take place within a very insular world of sexist, alcoholic intellectuals (frequently a film director or screenwriter), and they usually involve a journey and have a bifurcated structure. They also annoy me to no end. Yet I'm strangely compelled to watch each new film, just to see how he's reworked his thing (or not). Hahaha will have the added advantage of starring the amazing Korean actress Moon So-ri (Oasis, The Good Lawyer's Wife).

Three other Asian films will get high priority from me. Park Jung-bum's The Journals of Musan shared the top prize at this year's Rotterdam Film Festival. This is Park's directorial debut, in which he also plays the main character, a North Korean refugee struggling to adjust to life in capitalist Seoul. One of the most talked about films at last month's New Directors/New Films series in NYC was Koji Fukada's Hospitalité, a dark comedy that plays on Japanese xenophobia and issues of globalization. The SFIFF54 documentary I'm most anticipating is Kwan Pun-leung and Chiang Hsiu-chiung's Let the Wind Carry Me, a portrait of renowned cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin. Directors Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiou-hsien, Hirokazu Kore-eda and others line up to sing Lee's praises and discuss his work methods. I noticed that one of the doc's co-directors had a film in the 2009 SFIFF, the remarkable Taiwanese family drama, Artemisia.

At the 2008 SFIFF I was all nerves watching Hong Kong director Dante Lam's intense
The Beast Stalker, and his latest action melodrama The Stool Pigeon has a spot in this year's fest. Also of interest from Hong Kong is Love in a Puff, which is – of all things these days – a romantic comedy about smokers. Both have garnered very positive reviews. India is represented by four films, including a fifth SFIFF appearance by documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto. Her past films have examined everything from Iranian divorce courts to Japanese female wrestlers. Her new work Pink Saris, profiles an activist for India's untouchable women. I'm also reading good things about the doc Marathon Boy, an inspirational portrait of a prodigy marathon runner that transitions into something more complex and disturbing. Indian narrative features are represented by Kashmir-set Autumn, about which I've not heard positive reports, and Nainsukh, a meditation on an 18th century miniaturist painter that's part of the festival's Spotlight, Painting with Light. Other Asian countries represented at SFIFF54 include Kyrgyzstan (The Light Thief), Malaysia (Year Without a Summer), China (The High Life) and Indonesia (Position Among the Stars, the third chapter in Dutch documentarian Leonard Retel Helmrich's ongoing look at one Jakarta family).

Latin America
I was probably more disappointed in the selection of films from this region than anywhere else. On the plus side, SFIFF54 has programmed the much-lauded Nostalgia for the Light from Chilean Patricio Guzmán, arguably Latin America's greatest documentary filmmaker. The director, who is currently being feted with a Pacific Film Archive retrospective, is scheduled to attend the fest. Nostalgia also opens in local theaters on May 13. I'm also quite stoked to see Federico Veiroj's A Useful Life. The protagonist of this B&W, melancholic love letter to cinephilia, programs an Uruguayan cinematheque that's on the verge of closing its doors.

Unfortunately, many of the past year's high profile Latin American films are absent from SFIFF54. At the top of the missing list I'd place Pablo Larraín's
Post Mortem, the Chilean director's follow-up to Tony Manero that premiered to great acclaim at Venice. Then there's the Mexican film Leap Year, which won the Camera d'or for best first feature at Cannes. From that same festival, there was Daniel and Diego Vidal's wonderfully deadpan Peruvian comedy October, which took home the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard. Fortunately, I was able to see it at Palm Springs and it's a hoot. For good measure I'll add Old Cats (the new film by Sebastián Silva, director of The Maid), Brothers and Sisters (from top Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman) and Guest (José Luis Guerín's documentary about the year he spent travelling the Latin American film festival circuit with In the City of Sylvia).

Of the festival's remaining Latin American films – all of which were news to me – two are singled out for praise in Robert Koehler's recent indieWire dispatch from the Guadalajara Film Festival. Calling The Tiniest Place the most remarkable film he saw at the fest, this documentary profiles an El Salvador village that's returning to life years after being decimated by civil war. He cheered its director, Tatiana Huezo, as "one of the bright new talents of Latin American cinema, exhibiting a mastery of every aspect of filmmaking…programmers were beside themselves with enthusiasm." Sounds like it's not to be missed. Koehler also liked Jean Gentil, whose co-directors Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, helmed the 2008 SFIFF entry Cochochi. Carlos César Arbeláez' The Colors of the mountain is set in a Colombian village torn between guerillas and government soldiers, its story told through the eyes of a young boy. The film won the New Directors Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival and has earned warm reviews from Variety and elsewhere. For a thorough critical overview of all eight SFIFF Latin American films, check out Michael Guillén's SFIFF54 LATINBEAT entry at The Evening Class.

Africa/Middle East
My unequivocal recommendation is this section is Oliver Schmitz' Life, Above All, a skillfully directed and tremendously moving South African AIDS drama that I saw in Palm Springs. Schmitz first came to my attention with 1988's Soweto gangster drama Mapantsula, and Life, Above All marks his return to Africa after years directing for German TV. While the film is scheduled to open in cinemas later this year, I've received notice that Schmitz and the film's 15-year-old lead actress, Khomotso Manyaka, will be traveling to the fest. There are three additional films from and/or about sub-Saharan Africa. Kinyarwanda, a tale of genocide and reconciliation from Rwanda, won the Audience Award for World Cinema at Sundance this year. Documentary The Redemption of General Butt Naked examines one man's dubious transition from bloodthirsty Liberian warlord to Pentecostal preacher. French/Burkina Faso co-production The Place in Between follows two parallel stories of global displacement – one of them focused on a young Frenchwoman of mixed race who travels back to Africa in search of her birth mother.

The search for an unknown parent in a foreign land is also a theme found in Denis Villeneuve's Incendies. Lubna Azabal (Paradise Now) stars as an Arab-Canadian who learns that her father is still alive and that she has a brother she never knew existed. Accompanied by her reluctant Canadian twin, she sets off on a familial search in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Buoyed by incredible reviews and an Oscar® nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Incendies is set to open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 6. Another Middle Eastern-set film made by a North American director is Maryam Keshavarz' Circumstance, a drama about two young Iranian lesbians. While the film won the Sundance Narrative Audience Award, critics have not been as kind, labeling the film clunky and heavy-handed. There's also an Iranian documentary in the festival, Ali Samadi Ahadi's The Green Wave, which recounts that country's unsuccessful 2009 anti-government revolt. Finally, I'm really looking forward to Microphone, which promises an energetic take on various cultural youth movements happening in Alexandria, Egypt. Director Ahmad Abdalla's impressive first film Heliopolis, screened at our 2010 Arab Film Festival.

In researching the U.S. and Canadian line-up, I was surprised to discover that the majority are directed or co-directed by women. The most high-profile amongst the narrative features is surely
Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, which stars Michelle Williams (who worked with the director previously in Wendy and Lucy) as a pioneer woman forced to assert herself on the Oregon Trail. The film opens May 6 at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema. Also highly anticipated is Miranda July's The Future, her long-awaited follow-up to 2005's Me and You and Everyone We Know. While I'm part of a tiny minority who found much of that film unbearably infantile, I'm still curious about The Future. It's confirmed that July will attend the festival, along with husband Mike Mills who directed this year's opening night film, Beginners. Alison Bagnall's The Dish & the Spoon is about an unhinged, cheated-upon wife who teams up with a British teenage boy. It stars one of my favorite American actresses (Greta Gerwig), in one of my favorite movie settings (a beach resort in the off-season.) Women seldom get to direct horror films, but Emily Lou makes her directorial debut with The Selling, a comedy about the difficulties of unloading a haunted house in a down real estate market. This is a world premiere and a local production to boot. Finally, in Larysa Kondracki's Canadian/German co-production The Whistleblower, Rachel Weisz is a Nebraska cop who discovers that U.N. workers are complicit in Bosnian sex slave trade.

Women are all over the North American documentary line-up as well and I'm aiming to catch three of them. I'm a long-time fan of the Bay Area's Lynn Hershman Leeson (Teknolust), and her !Women Art Revolution surveys 40 years of radicalized art made by women. Marie Losier's The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye tells the curious story of industrial rock musician Genesis P. Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV), and the extreme steps he took to merge into one "pandrogyne" being with his beloved Lady Jaye. Then in the critically acclaimed Foreign Parts, Véréna Paravel and co-director J.P. Sniadecki provide an elegiac tour of a neighborhood in demise, the Willets Points area of Queens (setting for Ramin Bahrani's 2007 film Chop Shop). Other women-directed SFIFF54 documentary features include American Teacher, Better This World, Hot Coffee, The Last Buffalo Hunt, Miss Representation and Something Ventured.

Guys also have a hand in the USA/Canadian line-up, but not a big one. Errol Morris' new doc Tabloid is said to be extremely fun, revisiting a 1976 scandal in which a former Miss Wyoming abducted a Mormon missionary and made him her sex slave. Another high profile documentary is Andrew Rossi's self-explanatory Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, which arrives in Bay Area theaters July 1. Director Christopher Munch (The Hour and the Times) has had an interesting, but all too infrequent career (five movies in 20 years). His new film Letters from the Big Man tells the earnest, unironic story of a young woman who develops a metaphysical relationship with a Sasquatch. Apart from the aforementioned Incendies, SFIFF54's lone Canadian narrative feature is Sébastien Pilote's The Salesman, an affecting study of a 67-year-old auto dealer at the end of a successful career.

SFIFF54 2011 The Line-Up (Part 1)

It's with a mixture of optimism and anxiety that I first eyeball the line-up of our beloved San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) each year. As one who obsessively follows the major international fests – making notes along the way about prize-winners, critics' raves and new films by favorite directors and actors – I always have a clear idea about what I want to find on the SFIFF roster. This year is pretty typical. The festival programmed six of the 20 films on my wishlist and a bunch more that were bubbling just beneath it. Combine those with some intriguing titles that were previously unknown to me, and I've got enough to fill every non-working, non-sleeping hour between April 21 and May 5. I've already written about the films and special events that were announced prior to the festival's press conference, as well as a report on that press conference. Now here's my round-the-world, two-part look at what else has got me going.

We'll start off in France with films by three returning SFIFF veterans. Provocatrice Catherine Breillat follows up 2009's Bluebeard with yet another revisionist fairytale, The Sleeping Beauty. This will be Breillat's fifth film to play the The International – the third since opening the fest in 2008 with The Last Mistress. Chantrapas is 77-year-old French/Georgian director Otar Iosseliani's 11th film to screen in the festival, which must be some sort of record. I've loved several of his works (especially Farewell, Home Sweet Home), but groaned all the way through 2007's geezer-fest Gardens in Autumn. I hear good things about his latest, however, and Iosseliani is expected to attend. SFIFF reaches back to the 2009 Venice Film Festival for Claude Miller's (co-directing with son Nathan) I'm Glad That My Mother is Alive, the story of an adopted young man who re-establishes a relationship with his birth mother. In spite of good reviews and Miller having a 2008 U.S. arthouse hit (The Secret), this film fell off the radar. I'm sure looking forward to it.

Three other French narrative features are unknown entities: Children of the Princess of Clèves, Living on Love Alone and Hands Up. Based on terrific reviews I've read, I'll put my money on actor/director Romain Goupil's
Hands Up, in which a group of 5th graders plot to save a Chechen classmate from deportation. The film features performances by the always welcome Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Hippolyte Giradot. There are also two French documentaries on hand, three if you want to include Werner Herzog's 3-D Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which explores 30,000-year-old cave paintings in southern France (the film will have a local theatrical release this spring). The doc I definitely plan to catch is Florent Tillon's Detroit Wild City, a lyrical, outsider's look at an American city in decline. For those who need to see yet another documentary about a gay, European fashion designer, there's Yves Saint Laurent L'amour Fou (it opens in theaters May 27).

It won't come as a surprise that the four longest films in SFIFF54 hail from Europe. Leading the pack at 272 minutes (including intermission) is Raúl Ruiz' delightfully confounding Mysteries of Lisbon, reportedly his final film. I've enjoyed Ruiz' films in the past, most recently
Time Regained at the SFIFF in 1999. This one holds special promise because it was the #1 favorite 2010 film of Michael Guillén of The Evening Class. It only screens once, on Saturday afternoon, April 23. That same evening, the masochist in me had originally planned to catch the restored revival of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's ultra-rare, 214-minute, 1973 made-for-TV cyberpunk epic, World on a Wire. Upon learning that the lone San Francisco screening would be digital (you'll find details about that here), I changed course and will see it a week later at the Pacific Film Archive in 35mm. Last year saw a second coming of the Romanian New Wave and that's where our other two Euro butt-busters come from. Andrei Ujica's The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (187 minutes) was one of last year's most acclaimed documentaries, exploring the ex-dictator's cult of personality via clips from his official record. Clocking in at a comparatively brisk 181 minutes is Cristi Puiu's Aurora, which is the director's follow-up to 2005's groundbreaking The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The film is said to be a slow, difficult sit-thru, with Puiu making his acting debut and appearing in every frame. I know I'm game.

Several other Eastern European films are personal must-sees. Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy is said to be a brutal, allegorical road movie about life in rural Russia. It shocked audiences at Cannes, where it was the only film in the main competition by a first-time feature director. Also from Russia is Aleksei Fedorchenko's Silent Souls, which I saw at this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival and recommend. This is also a road movie, albeit one steeped in the funerary rituals of Russia's Merjan ethnic minority. Polish director Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross was perhaps the most lauded film to come out of this year's Sundance Film Festival. It brings to life Pieter Brueghel's 16th century painting, "The Road to Calvary," and stars Charlotte Rampling, Rutger Hauer and Michael York. A good film to double-bill with The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu might be Mila Turajlic's Cinema Komunisto, a documentary that examines Yugoslavia's movie industry under Marshal Tito. Lastly, Radim Spacek's Walking Too Fast is about a creepy member of Czechoslovakia's secret police bucking the system in the 1980s.

Sweden has three films in the line-up. The one I've already seen (again, at Palm Springs) is Sound of Noise, a clever yarn about musical terrorists that could be the most fun you'll have at SFIFF54. I'm especially looking forward to Lisa Aschan's She Monkeys, an edgy coming-of-age tale. In her rave review for Variety, Alyssa Simon calls it "one of the most intense and complex feature debuts to come from Sweden since Lucas Moodysson's Show Me Love." The American Black Power movement as seen from a Swedish perspective is the subject of Göran Hugo Olsson's The Black Power Mixtape (1967-1975), which has gathered accolades from Sundance, Berlin and most recently, NYC's New Directors/New Films. It will open in local theaters this summer. Other films of interest from Scandinavia include Eva Mulvad's The Good Life, a documentary about a formerly wealthy Danish mother and daughter now living on the skids in Lisbon. It's been favorably compared to the Maysles Brothers' Grey Gardens. Then there's Norwegian director André Ovredal's The Troll Hunter, a Blair Witch-like mockumentary that wouldn't normally be my thing, but it looks rather fun and has gathered excellent reviews. It also opens in Bay Area theaters on June 17.

Apart from the Fassbinder revival, SFIFF54 has two other German films I'd like to check out. Pia Marais' At Ellen's Age stars Jeanne Balibar (
The Duchess of Langeais) as a woman in spiritual turmoil who transitions from flight attendant to animal rights activist. From 2010's Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes we have Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below, an intense drama about an illicit affair set in Frankfurt's banking world.

Should you need a break from reading subtitles, there are three films from the UK to consider. Actually, the working class accents of Clio Barnard's revolutionary documentary The Arbor are so thick, you'll wish there were subtitles. I caught this portrait about the miserable life of playwright Andrea Dunbar at Palm Springs, where the struggle to understand actor's lip-synching to interviews, as well as reenactments from her plays, sent me to slumberland. Still, I know this is an important film – it was #5 on Sight & Sound's 2010 Top Ten list – and I hope to catch up with it again (preferably on a DVD with captions for the hearing impaired.) I expect fewer problems with Michael Winterbottom's The Trip, a comedic road movie with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (the same team that delivered 2005's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), and Richard Ayoade's Welsh coming-of-age comedy, Submarine. Both are scheduled for theatrical release this summer.

There are two final European films I'm dying to see, one of them for the second time. I viewed Michelangelo Frammartino's transfixing and nearly wordless cycle-of-life fable Le Quattro Volte at Palm Springs, and can't wait for a revisit. It contains one of the most astounding, continuous long-shot, long-takes in film history and even won a special Palme Dog at Cannes for Vuk, the goatherd's pooch (not a joke). If you miss is at the festival, Le Quattro Volte will open locally on June 10. The other film is Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg, which comes hot on the heels of the notorious Dogtooth as the latest exercise in transgressive Greek cinema. In fact, Dogtooth director Giorgos Lanthimos has a major acting role in Attenberg, and the film took home a Best Actress prize for Ariane Labed at last year's Venice Film Festival.

SFIFF54 The Line-Up (Part 2)

Monday, April 4, 2011

SFIFF54 2011 Opening Press Conference

This year's San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54) will be my 35th since arriving in the Bay Area in the mid-1970s, as well as my fifth year as accredited press. I look forward to the Opening Press Conference each year because for starters, it involves a vertigo-inducing thrill ride to the top of the St. Francis Hotel via exterior elevator. As I zoomed up to the 32nd floor last Tuesday, I was contemplating what a friend and fellow blogger had just told me. For five days, SF Film Society (SFFS) members had been privy to the entirety of this year's line-up, save for which director and actors would be receiving the festival's special awards. My friend had just told me who was to receive the Founders Directing Award and I could hardly wait to blab the fabulous news to a select few at the reception. Alas, humble pie was not among the breakfast buffet options.

The press conference began exactly on time, as all SFFS events happily do. An invigorated Executive Director Graham Leggat welcomed the crowd, then proceeded to justifiably boast about the expansion of SFFS' programming activities since 2005. "We now provide dynamic, daily year-round programming in the core areas of education, exhibition and filmmaker services. And in so doing we've created an organization unparalleled in scope and vision, by any in the country except those in the much larger markets of New York and Los Angeles." Calling the Bay Area a "great region of film culture and cinematic activity," Leggat placed the SFFS squarely alongside such organizations as the Tribeca Film Institute, Sundance Institute, American Film Institute (AFI) and the Film Society of Lincoln Center (for whom Leggat was Director of Communications before coming to San Francisco).

Then came the announcement that the recipient of this year's Founder's Directing Award was in fact, still a TBA. "Wrangling talent, I can tell you, is the single most important part of my job – getting people to appear at the festival, on time and under budget. The process was compounded this year by a couple of late cancellations and detailed negotiations, all of which I will not go into. The Peter J. Owens Award for acting, the Founder's Directing Award and the Midnight Awards involve players to be named later." Leggat revealed that one potential awardee dropped out after learning that San Francisco was not located in Los Angeles! Should Leggat write his autobiography, I pray he'll reveal who this dum-dum was. I'm pretty darn certain it wasn't the director I'd been misled into anticipating, whom I later learned had indeed signed on, but then cancelled. Hopefully, she will make an appearance at a future festival.

Before turning the press conference over to the programming team, Leggat thanked numerous sponsors and made mention of three noteworthy milestones associated with this year's SFIFF. "This year marks the 45th year of involvement by George Gund, the festival's chairman of the board. In 1967, he walked into Claude Jarman's office and plunked a check for $1,000 down on the table – unsolicited, unbidden, with no strings attached. That sort of enlightened patronage has marked George's association with the SFFS and the International for 45 years. This year we'll hold a special tribute to him at the Film Society's Awards Night, and we've marked a screening by one of his favorite directors, Otar Iosseliani, as a special tribute to George. I think you'll whole-heartedly agree with me he's a saint, and the Film Society would not be here today if not for his unstinting support over these last five decades." The other two milestones noted by Leggat were the 20th anniversary of Schools at the Festival, and the fifth anniversary of, the Film Society's daily on-line magazine. "It's the only independent, regional film magazine in the country. Funded solely by the Film Society, but categorically not a house organ, SF360 surveys the length and breadth of a vibrant SF/Bay Area filmmaking scene. We would like to think it gives identity, character and strength to that scene, as much as it draws from it."

"There are 189 films in this year's festival from more than 40 countries, with plenty of highlights to mention. In the next hour we'll run through many of them – being comprehensive but not exhausting, enlightening but not highhanded, humorous but not frivolous, informational but not dry, modest but not sanctimonious, and impressive but not boastful." And with that intro, Leggat brought to the stage Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, programmers Sean Uyehara and Rod Armstrong, and Golden Gate Awards Manager Audrey Chang. I won't relay much of what they said, because I'll be posting my own overview of the SFIFF54 line-up in just a few days. (You can find my write-up of the awards, special events and competition films announced prior to the press conference, here.) Rosen did start off by clarifying the absence of a Cinema by the Bay section in the festival. "We decided this year that the local productions, much as we love them, should take place alongside their international compatriots. So local films made by San Francisco filmmakers can now be found in the New Directors section, the documentary section and the Late Show section." Rosen also provided insight into this year's special spotlight on world cinema, which benefits from an annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences grant:

"This year our spotlight is called "Painting with Light." We found that there were three very unusual films about "flat art" and it's representation through film. What's interesting is the different ways they bring this flat art into full dimensionality, and also the way they enliven the history of the time in which the art was created. The centerpiece of "Painting with Light" is Werner Herzog's new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a wonderful 3-D exploration of French caves that have 30,000-year-old drawings. Mr. Herzog has been entrusted with showing these drawings to the world, and of course he does it in his inimitable way. Also in the spotlight is the Polish film The Mill and the Cross, which brings to life Brueghel's 16th century painting, "The Way to Calvary," and also a wonderful new Indian film called Nainsukh, which is about an 18th century Indian miniaturist."

Before the Q&A portion of the press conference got underway, Rosen presaged and addressed the inevitable question about trends in this year's line-up. (Last year's trend, if you remember, was individual films directed by three or more people). "We don't set out an agenda in order to find a theme or make a point. We're really just looking for the individual films that we love, and try to put them together in a group for San Francisco audiences. But I would say the trend this year is "films that find their own length" – or the "correct length" for their stories. So we have five films in the festival that are 75 minutes or shorter, and then we have seven films that are 130 minutes of longer. They run the gamut from A Cat in Paris at a lean 65 minutes to Raoul Ruiz' Mysteries of Lisbon at 257 minutes if you don't include the intermission." Other possible trends noted by Rosen include more films than usual from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and a number of films set in a vague near future, which "create an off-kilter feeling, or a sense of dis-ease – not with special effects, but with the wonder of good filmmaking craft and storytelling."

When it came time for the Q&A, I was the first called upon with a question about the decision to show Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1973 World on a Wire digitally in San Francisco and in 35mm at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive. Rachel Rosen responded:

"Part of it is circumstance. It was a digital restoration of a film that was shot on film, for television. So already we're already in an area where – in terms of what to show – it's not clear. But it really was a practical decision in that the restored film print has to be shown reel-to-reel, making our options for theaters in San Francisco either too large for the future distributor, or too small for what we thought the audience would want. Having the opportunity to show digital, we chose to go with a slightly larger theater and the PFA has reel-to-reel, so they decided to show it on film."

Here's how I'm guessing that translates. Most archival restorations must be shown using a reel-to-reel projection system, which the Sundance Kabuki is not equipped for. The Castro Theater can handle it, but the 1400 seating capacity is too large for a distributor hoping to eventually release the film theatrically. (I've been told the Roxie Theater plans/hopes for a one-week run this summer). On the other hand, the VIZ Cinema at New People (which the fest is using as a first-time venue this year) has reel-to-reel capability, but is too small for the size audience anticipated by the festival. Hence, SF fest-goers get digital at the Kabuki. For me the choice is clear. Fassbinder shot World on a Wire in 35mm and this restoration was supervised by the film's original cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus. See you at the Pacific Film Archive on Saturday, April 30.

Speaking of New People, Hell on Frisco Bay's Brian Darr asked a question about the festival's discontinued use of Landmark's Clay Theater and this year's deployment of New People in Japantown. Personally, I'm thrilled by the switchover. New People is closer to the Kabuki (the festival's main venue), it has stadium seating (no tall people blocking the subtitles) and top notch projection (digital projection could be extremely dicey at the Clay). Plus, it's subterranean and has space-age toilets. Here's Graham Leggat's response:

"As you may know, the Film Society has been very interested in running or purchasing the Clay Theater. Those negotiations are currently in a holding pattern. Outside of the Letterman (Digital Arts Center), the Lucas (Skywalker Ranch?) and the Dolby Theater, New People is the best equipped theater in town. We thought that we would go there, in part because the size fits us better. We've only been in the Clay for the last three years, and last year the turnout was not quite what we wanted it to be. So the New People with its smaller house size enables us to save us thousands and thousands of dollars. We hope that you will come to the screenings there. We've got it for two weeks, whereas we only had the Clay for one week last year. New People is a wonderful theater. It's part of a four-story, mini-department store complex devoted to Japanese popular culture. And it's a block away from the Kabuki so it really centralizes our operations."

I asked another question regarding which directors had confirmed their attendance at the festival. Given the long list of expected guests, Rosen understandably directed my query to the appropriate press release. She did confirm that all but one of the 11 filmmakers competing for the New Directors Prize would be here (The Place in Between director Sarah Bouyain has a good excuse – she's getting married). Later scanning the Guests Expected to Attend list, I came across these "names" that should be recognizable to any diehard festival-goer: Mathew Barney, Patricio Guzmán, Miranda July, Otar Iosseliani, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Mike Mills and Christopher Munch.

Someone else asked the programming team about this year's seven shorts programs. I rarely see shorts at film festivals, but my ears did perk up at the mention of several familiar names. Rocker Lou Reed has a short (Red Shirley, in which he interviews a 100-year-old cousin), as does noted documentarian Ondi Timoner (Library of Dust). Both are part of Cupid with Fangs, a program which also includes the winner of this year's Oscar® for Best Animated Short Film (Luke Matheny's God of Love). In the "experimentally-minded" program Mind the Gap, you'll find one from Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette, which stars Chloë Sevigny (All Flowers in Time), as well as the latest from Bay Area filmmaker (and Program Director of the SF Jewish Film Fest) Jay Rosenblatt (The D Train). Emily Hubley's Hail appears in the Get with the Program program of animated shorts.

Other Bay Area journalists asked about the number of films by Black directors and how many films had LGBT content (very few, in both instances). Another inquired about an SFIFF54 iPhone app. There isn't one, but the fest does have a very nifty mobile website at, so be sure and aim your smartphone browser there. Graham Leggat posed a question to actress/New Burlesque artiste Suzanne "Kitten on the Keys" Ramsey, who stood up and set off a mad flurry of camera clicking. Ramsey appears in the festival's closing night film, Mathieu Amalric's On Tour, and she attempted to define New Burlesque for the San Francisco press corps. What I took away is that many of its key players call the Bay Area home, including one Roky Roulette who is the world's only pogo-stick striptease artist. I can hardly wait to see what sort of on-stage antics go down at the Castro Theater on Thursday, May 5.

Finally, Leggat was asked if he had a favorite film in festival. "That's a good question. I mean most people hedge when they're asked that, but I don't have a problem. The one that I thought was pretty nifty was The Mill and the Cross. Also, if you liked Tristram Shandy:A Cock and Bull Story by Michael Winterbottom, you will very much like the sketch comedy The Trip, with Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan. They are hilarious together."

Programmer Sean Uyehara also willingly chimed in with his choice. "Well, not my favorite film, because you can't have one of those. But-my-favorite-film-is Letters from the Big Man, just because it's so completely confounding. It's about a woman who develops a metaphysical communication with a Sasquatch – and it's completely earnest. You can actually learn quite a bit about yourself while you're watching it – like – why are you resisting this movie?"

Cross published on The Evening Class and Twitch.