Friday, April 27, 2012

SFIFF55 2012 Festival Diary II

Saturday, April 21

It's a gorgeous spring day and San Francisco's Japantown, home to the SF International Film Festival's two main venues, is in full-on celebration mode for this year's Cherry Blossom Festival. Not that I'll be partaking in any of the fun. In one of those inevitable, overreaching film festival scheduling gaffes, I've booked myself for five back-to-back programs. I enter the Sundance Kabuki Cinema at 1:30 in the afternoon, knowing I won't exit again until Saturday has turned into Sunday.

My first film of the day is also my most highly anticipated of the fest, Yorgos Lanthimos' ALPS. I'm an enormous fan of his previous succèss de scandale, Dogtooth, which is surely the most transgressive film ever nominated for an Oscar®. The story here centers on a quartet of people who comfort grieving loved ones by posing as their recently deceased. Like the über-authoritarian household of Dogtooth, the ALPS organization (yes, named after the mountains) has its own set of bizarre rules and strictures. Despite a few perverse delights, this new film is only mildly amusing and outrageous by less than half – Dogtoothless if you will.

The next two movies are total winners. In The Giants, the latest from actor/director Bouli Lanners, two teenage brothers in rural Belgium are abandoned by their mother and then manipulated into giving up their familial home to a psychotic marijuana farmer. With a third abused teen in tow, this homeless trio hits the road, or rather the river, in a tale of survival reminiscent of The Night of the Hunter. They cross paths with a gallery of uniformly menacing adults, save for one kind woman who briefly takes them in (Swiss actress Marte Keller, perfect in Hunter's Lillian Gish role). Sweet, unpredictable, heartbreaking, hysterically funny and visually arresting, this is the film I suspect will turn out to be my favorite of the festival.

I want to linger in my thoughts following this wonderful movie, but I need to blast off for the next attraction, Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31. I'm surprised to learn it's being screened in the Sundance Kabuki's Houses 7 and 8, the venue's smallest theaters heretofore unused by the festival. (I later learn mid-sized Houses 5 and 6 are being retained by the Kabuki for showing non-festival, first-run features). But what 7 and 8 lack in screen size, they make up for in comfort, with cushier seats, wide armrests and end tables. I'm deeply moved by Trier's follow-up to his memorable debut Reprise. This is an affecting day-in-the-life tale of a 34-year-old recovering substance abuser, half-heartedly grasping for a reason to continue living. It features an unforgettable performance by Anders Danielsen Lie (co-star of Reprise), on whose face we see the weight of someone who's already convinced himself of the hopelessness of new beginnings. I'm also taken by how the city of Oslo is rendered as a character unto itself. 

Three down, two to go and it's back to the intimacy of House 8 for ex-Bay Area gadfly Caveh Zahedi's controversial new doc, The Sheik and I. When invited to make a restriction-less film for the Sharjah Bienniel (Sharjah being a sultan-ruled kingdom in the United Arab Emirates), Zahedi arrives only with only a vague idea of how he might stir shit up and then feigns incredulity when stonewalled by local censorship and bureaucracy. Among other things, they veto a chorus line of dancing burka-clad women and a subplot in which the Sultan of Sharjah is kidnapped by terrorists. As annoying as Zahedi can be, there's no denying he's a terrific storyteller and many of his points regarding art and censorship have merit, however belabored. Later in the festival I slip into a Q&A with Zahedi in which he's asked, "What makes a good film?" His reply is "Something edgy. Something complex. Something subversive. Something perhaps unethical."

(Photo by Tommy Lau)
With only minutes to spare I make a beeline to the Kabuki's largest theater, House 1, fearing I might be too late to secure a seat, any seat, for Peaches Christ's rock n' roll pre-show intro to Ken Russell's Tommy. I'm shocked to discover the downstairs at barely 20 percent capacity and wonder where Ms. Christ's legions of faithful fans could be. Many, I find out, are in the filled-to-capacity balcony, where booze is being served. Despite the small turnout, Peaches performs like she's in front of a sold-out Castro Theatre crowd, knocking out a rendition of The Who's "Pinball Wizard" backed by the amazing Citizen Midnight (a five-piece band comprised of ex-Bridge Theatre workers). I scream myself hoarse to compensate for the small crowd. Then legendary Bay Area faux queen Trixxie Carr rips into "Acid Queen" while Peaches dances and the screen erupts with a Ken Russell career clips reel. I'm pooped when it's all over and opt out of staying to watch Tommy. Miraculously, the 38 Geary MUNI bus whisks me home in 25 minutes flat and it's off to bed in anticipation of another busy day at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival

(Photo by Tommy Lau)

Monday, April 23, 2012

SFIFF55 2012 Festival Diary I


Thursday, April 19 

It's a breezy but balmy April evening – somewhat of a San Francisco rarity – as the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF55) kicks off its 55th edition at the Castro Theatre. The night is dedicated to the memory of Graham Leggat, beloved former Executive Director of the SF Film Society, and I'm guessing that David Bowie was his favorite recording artist given the non-stop mix that plays for the hour before showtime. An image of Leggat is projected on the Castro's enormous screen as Interim Exec Director Melanie Blum delivers opening remarks and Director of Programming Rachel Rosen introduces the film and its director.

SFFS Director of Programming Rachel Rosen and "Farewell, My Queen" director Benoit Jacquot (photo by Pamela Gentile)

It's hard to go wrong with French fare in San Francisco, so for the third time in five years that's what the fest has chosen for its opener. Benoît Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen proves to be a mostly fascinating modernist take on familiar historical events, if a bit overbaked in depicting the imagined Sapphic leanings of Marie Antoinette (played by a ravishing Diane Kruger). The Versailles locations and costumes look exquisite projected via real 35mm film and I mourn the fact that 2012 is the year digital will take over. (Roughly 25 percent of SFIFF55's selections will be shown in 35mm, which is actually quite high for a large festival these days.) Jacquot returns to the stage for a comically wry Q&A, then it's off to the Opening Night party at the Terra Gallery on Rincon Hill. At the bar I test drive a Zico BAM (fest sponsor Blue Angel vodka mixed with Zico coconut water) and proceed to eat more food than I should given the late hour. But who can resist mini pulled-pork sandwiches and white cake lollipops dipped in white chocolate. Not I. Following another Zico BAM and a bit of circulating I head home, which is fortunately only two blocks away.

Friday, April 20

After checking out the locations of this year's press office and festival lounge, I head over to the Sundance Kabuki Cinema for Mohammad Rasoulof's Goodbye, the first regular screening of SFIFF55. Already waiting in the passholder's line is a familiar string of friends and colleagues I've come to know during 37 years of attending the festival. As expected, Iranian director Rasoulof's film is very unlike the fanciful allegories of Iron Island and The White Meadows and reflects the tenuous political status of its director, helpfully explained by Rachel Rosen in her introduction. This claustrophobic and paranoiac tale of a pregnant lawyer's preparations to flee Iran is rendered in formalist strokes – most scenes occur in confined spaces, the camera moves but once in the entire film and our heroine's face is frequently obscured or out of frame altogether. Upon exiting the theater, I'm delighted to discover that the festival has finally adopted easy-to-use tear ballots for determining its audience awards.

Next, I decide to pass on seeing Frank Langella act with a robot (Robot and Frank) and head over to the press office's screening room to watch Tokyo Waka, an engaging meditation on the city's wary, but respectful relationship with its crow population. These birds are super smart, cracking nuts by intentionally placing them in the path of moving autos. They're menacing as well. Over 600 crow attacks occur each year and it's hilarious to see a group of school children entering a park wearing helmets. I'm also intrigued to learn that homeless people living in Tokyo parks can have their mail delivered there.

My evening's viewing starts off with a true feather in festival's cap, the world premiere of The Fourth Dimension. Upon entering the theater we're handed a "Creative Brief" of 53 "instructions" that the film's three directors were expected to follow in making their 30-minute films on the titular subject matter, such as "A stuffed animal needs to make an appearance" and "Someone must sing a song that is completely made up." Batting first is Harmony Korine's Lotus Community Workshop, which flip-flops between scenes of Val Kilmer as a madcap motivational speaker and Val Kilmer riding mini-bikes and playing video games with his girlfriend (played by Korine's wife Rachel). That's followed by Chronoeye, a tale of thwarted time travel from Russia's Alexey Fedorchenko, director of last year's enigmatic festival hit, Silent Souls. The third short is my favorite, Polish director Jan Kwiecinski's Fawns, in which a quartet of young rabble-rousers wreaks havoc in an eerily abandoned town. The final shot is sure to be one of the indelible images of this year's festival. All three directors are in attendance for the world premiere, as well as Val Kilmer and co-Executive Producer Eddy Moretti (who cooked up the idea for this project with Korine). The highlight of the chaotic Q&A comes when Fedorchenko's translator suddenly realizes that he's the director of Silent Souls, and she becomes visibly beside herself.

"The Fourth Dimension" team: L to R, Jan Kwiecinski, Eddy Moretti, Harmony Korine, Val Kilmer, Alexey Fedorchenko (photo by Tommy Lau)

SFIFF55 Day Two comes to a fun conclusion with Adam Leon's surprise SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner Gimme the Loot. I sit with festival friend Raquel Cummins, who schools me on a piece of California movie-going tradition with Flicks Candy. Since 1904, these bite-sized chocolate wafers that come in foil-wrapped cardboard tubes were ubiquitous in West Coast theaters, until production ceased in 1989. They've recently been revived and I consume the entire contents of one before the houselights go down. The film is equally sweet, abetted by a raucous energy befitting a film about two NYC graffiti artists scrambling to raise $500, which they'll use to bribe their way into an off-hours Shea Stadium. I'm intrigued by the musical score of vintage gospel tunes that works surprisingly well in a comedy festooned with F-Bombs. Then in one hilarious scene, I'm comforted to learn there's an actual word for a common problem shared by men who wear boxer shorts. In the director's Q&A, a modest and unassuming Leon revealed that his influences for this NYC love letter ranged from the Hope-Crosby road movies to Sidney Poitier's Uptown Saturday Night, and that the soundtrack was assembled from multiple trips to San Francisco's own Amoeba Records.

"Gimme the Loot" director Adam Leon flanked by producers Natalie Difford and Jamund Washington (photo by Tommy Lau)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

SFIFF55 2012 Capsule Reviews

Only a few days left until the longest running film festival in the Americas launches its much anticipated 55th edition. Benoît Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen starts it all off on Thursday, April 19 and over the next two weeks the San Francisco International Film Festival will present 174 films (105 of them features), as well as honor such cinema luminaries as (director) Kenneth Branagh, actress Judy Davis and documentarian Barbara Kopple. In my fest coverage thus far, I've spotlighted the special programs and awards that were announced early on, then offered up a two-part overview of the complete line-up (Europe and everywhere else in the world). Now here are 14 capsule reviews of selections I've had the chance to preview (all seen via DVD screener, with the exception of Where Do We Go Now?).

Guilty (France/Belgium, dir. Vincent Garenq)
Based upon "the greatest French legal scandal in living memory," this intensely harrowing film recounts the living nightmare of Alain Marécaux, a bailiff wrongly accused of pedophilia nearly a decade ago. After being dragged from his home in the middle of the night, he spent three years in prison awaiting trial, during which time his family and business were destroyed (there were also several suicide attempts and a hunger strike). TV director Garenq conveys this ordeal with unsparing, exacting detail, and is especially skillful at portraying Marécaux's acute sense of isolation. Enough can't be said for the riveting lead performance by Philippe Torreton, an actor with whom I was previously unfamiliar (he makes another SFIFF55 appearance in Rebellion). More than any other film I've previewed, this one has really stuck in my gut.

Golden Slumbers (Cambodia/France, dir. Davy Chou)
Between 1960 and 1975, Cambodia produced nearly 400 movies, in a Golden Era that ended with the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. All that survives today are a handful of clips, love songs from soundtracks, some memorabilia and the recollections those few who survived the genocide. That anyone could assemble such a haunting and lyrical tribute from such scant resources is a small miracle. Particularly enchanting are interviews in which people wistfully recall film plots, most of which seem to involve ghosts, genies and demons. One ardent fan reveals that while he's forgotten the faces of family members, he can effortlessly conjure up precise images of his favorite stars. We visit karaoke bars where the music of the era lives on, and a former 1,000-seat Phnom Penh cinema, which now shelters 116 households. Golden Slumbers begins with the camera traveling backwards along a dusty road at dusk, while voiceovers reminisce. It ends with a montage of the era's few surviving film fragments, tantalizingly withheld from our view until now and projected in a manner that's sheer poetry.

Neighboring Sounds (Brazil, dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)
An upscale residential street in Recife serves as a microcosm of Brazilian class relations in this extremely well-crafted narrative feature debut. In nearly every intricately conceived scene, well-to-do residents interact with maids, security guards and deliverymen with politesse, while the film's sound design hints at an underlying ominousness. When that moment of denouement finally arrives, it's almost beside the point given the richness of all that's rendered up to that point. Neighboring Sounds also features my favorite fictional character of the festival – a weed-smoking housewife who's obsessed with a neighbor's barking dog and has a special relationship with her household appliances. This should be a strong contender for SFIFF55's New Directors Award.

Smuggler's Songs (France, dir. Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche)
Louis Mandrin is popularly considered the Robin Hood of France, a mid-18th century brigand who foiled the king's tax collectors up until his martyrdom in 1755. Smuggler's Songs is a thoroughly engaging history lesson about the clandestine band of followers who built upon his legacy. It's a radical departure for director Ameur-Zaïmeche, whose first three features all dealt with contemporary French-Arab immigration issues. He injects his first period piece with a rascally charm, some fine period detail and a charismatic supporting cast (and he also stars as the group's ringleader, Bélissard). Actor/director Jacques Nolot (Before I Forget) is especially memorable as the Marquis who betrays his class and lends emphatic support to the cause of les Mandrins. A movie to inspire the 99 percent.

The Day He Arrives (South Korea dir. Hong Sang-soo)
In this, Hong's 12th musing on thorny male/female relations amongst his country's creative class, a lapsed film director visits Seoul for several days of bumming around with friends, colleagues and exes. Like last year's Hahaha, the tone is pleasingly less contentious than in previous Hong outings and his ubiquitous fracturing of the narrative, once revealed, raises a smile rather than a roll of the eyes. What's new this time around is crisp, B&W cinematography that's wholly suited to the film's wintry, urban backdrop. Droll, disarming and the perfect length at 78 minutes.

¡Vivan las Antípodas! (Germany/Netherlands/Argentina/Chile dir. Victor Kossakovsky)
Antipodes are any two diametrically opposed points of land on the earth's surface and are rarer than one might think, given that 70 percent of our planet is covered by water. This visually stunning documentary contemplates four pairs of these antipodes without ever really making a point beyond the obvious ones of contrast and juxtaposition. Director Kossakovsky's success at conveying a sense of people and place ranges from the negligible (a barely seen Miraflores, Spain, whose antipode is Castle Point, New Zealand) to the sublime (a remote homestead in Entre Rios, Argentina, where two middle-aged brothers live a solitary existence maintaining a small bridge – their antipode is Shanghai, China). The film shines brightest in its breathtakingly creative transitional sequences, which should register impressively on a big screen (the fest is scheduled to show this in 35mm).

The Exchange (Israel/Germany, dir. Eran Kolirin)
A young, married physics professor breaks his well established routine one day, setting off an existential crisis in which he becomes emotionally detached from the everyday. His newfound worldview manifests itself in ways ordinary (playing hooky from work and ignoring his wife's phone calls) and unordinary (exposing his genitals in his apartment building lobby and impulsively tossing a stapler out his open office window). This is a weird and oddly compelling little film that I can't pretend to have fully understood. It was certainly a bold way for director Kolirin to follow-up his 2007 arthouse charmer, The Band's Visit.

The Double Steps (Spain/Switzerland, dir. Isaki Lacuesta)
This fever dream of a movie was the surprise winner of the 2011 San Sebastian Film Festival's top prize and is constructed around three shifting, interrelated narratives: the works of contemporary artist Miquel Barceló, the legend of French writer/painter François Augiéras' hidden Saharan military bunker of painted frescoes, and the fantastical wanderings of a young African man who serves as some kind of Augiéras alter-ego. But phooey on all that. Best to just relax and take in the film's sensory pleasures – a funky desert dance party, the mud architecture of Mali's Dogon people, a nocturnal visit to an albino village, exotic animals and wandering bandits, all set to a Spaghetti Western-inspired score.

The Orator (New Zealand/Samoa, dir. Tusi Tamasese)
In a Samoan village, a dwarf with legitimate claims to chiefdom lives an unhappy life of ridicule with his wife, who was banished from her own village at a young age, and his pregnant step-daughter. When his wife dies, a conflict arises over the proper arrangements for her burial. It takes almost 90 patience-testing minutes for the film to reach this dramatic juncture, during which time we're unhurriedly exposed to the customs, rituals and pacing of Samoan village life (all lushly photographed). I confess that I struggled to stay awake. But the film utterly redeems itself in the profoundly moving final act, when our protagonist summons the courage to do the right thing. This is the first feature film ever made in the Samoan language, and it was New Zealand's recent submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar®.

It's the Earth Not the Moon (Portugal, dir. Gonçalo Tocha)
Corvo is a remote volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic with 450 inhabitants, one town and one road. In the opening moments of this epic documentary, the filmmakers vow to literally film everyone and everything on the island. We watch craftspeople at work, witness pig slaughters and baptisms, visit the island dump and hear bad karaoke at a strobe-lit café. The inhabitants all come off as genial – not an outsized personality amongst them – and there's some nice photography, particularly of moody seas and skies. It's a not uninteresting portrait of a uniquely isolated place with a long history, but nothing surprising or revelatory is ever arrived at. The charm of the ordinary almost seems to be the point, but at 183 minutes (the longest film of the festival), it's a journey not everyone will consider time well spent.

OK, Enough, Goodbye (Lebanon/United Arab Emirates, dir. Rania Attieh, Daniel Garcia)
In this slow-moving deadpan comedy of sorts, an elderly mother walks out on her peevish live-at-home son and forces him to get a life apart from insulting customers at his down-on-its-heels pastry shop. This entails engaging the services of a prostitute and a recalcitrant Ethiopian maid with whom he can't communicate. As is often the case with deadpan, your mileage may vary. Of greater interest are the intermittent injections of melancholic travelogue, which portray the film's locale, Lebanon's second largest city of Tripoli, as a place that has seen better days (much like the film's protagonist).

Unfair World (Greece/Germany, dir. Filippos Tsitos)
A hangdog-faced police interrogator sinks into a morale morass after committing murder in this dour tale of perceived injustice in our modern world. Director Tsitos, who won the director's prize at San Sebastian, is clearly emulating Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki with deliberate pacing, absurdist conceits and monotonal acting. There's even a rock and roll scene. But this is Kaurismäki with all the life and soul sucked out. Providing significant diversion to all this agonizing austerity are some truly inspirational widescreen compositions and choreographed camerawork.

Bitter Seeds (USA, dir. Micha X. Peled)
Doc director Peled (China Blue, Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town) completes his Globalization Trilogy with this sobering look at why a quarter-million Indian farmers have committed suicide in the past 15 years. The blame rests squarely on Monsanto Corporation and their genetically modified cotton seeds, which must be repurchased every year and incur multiple hidden costs. Farmers turn to bank loans or illegal moneylenders and are driven to suicide when a bad crop year results in confiscation of their land. The stakes are higher for families with daughters, whose marriages require huge dowry sums. Peled's film does a decent job of explaining these issues, albeit in a repetitive, simple-minded way. A self conscious and stagey narrative thread involving a village girl studying to be a journalist is as distracting as it is effective. Artless and uncinematic, this generic, issue-driven documentary is mostly of interest for the information imparted.

Where Do We Go Now? (France/Lebanon/Italy/Egypt, dir. Nadine Labaki)
Muslim and Christian village women unite to manipulate their menfolk away from religious violence in Nadine Labaki's follow-up to 2007's popular Lebanese rom-com Caramel. While this premise is indeed admirable, it's executed with the broadest possible strokes, even for a story which is clearly intended as fable-esque. The absurd lengths to which these women go – hiring a gaggle of Ukrainian prostitutes and getting the men zonked on hashish baked goods – is so far outside any conceivable reality it renders the director's message meaningless. Other problems include a tone that lurches from mawkish melodrama to chirpy musical comedy and a score which telegraphs every emotion. Don't even get me started on the Virgin Mary statue that cries tears of blood.

Cross published on The Evening Class.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

SFIFF55 2012 Line-Up Overview Part Two

In my initial post for the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF55), I gathered up early announcements of the festival's special awards and programs made before the official press conference. Then in my Line-Up Overview Part One I took a look at SFIFF55's offerings from Europe. Now in Part Two, we'll zero in on what the fest has in store from Asia/Pacific, Middle East/Africa, Latin America and the USA.

The SF International Asian American Film Festival has all but ceased programming new works by Asia's established auteurs. Fortunately, SFIFF has not. South Korea's Hong Sang-soo checks in with The Day He Arrives, the latest addition to his well-established, drunken-artists-behaving-badly oeuvre. The story sounds like typical Hong, with the added new spark of B&W cinematography and a wintry Seoul backdrop. Last year the fest screened Hahaha, the first Hong film I truly liked, so I'm hoping he and I are now on a roll. Hirokazu Kore-eda has had six prior films play in this festival and in I Wish, he returns to the world of children last explored in 2004's Nobody Knows. The revered Japanese director made personal appearances at SFIFF in 2009 and 2010, but isn't expected to attend this time out. Those with festival scheduling conflicts should know that The Day He Arrives opens for a one-week run at the SF Film Society Cinema on May 4 and I Wish is tentatively slotted for a local Landmark Theatre opening on May 18.

Not coming to a theater near you anytime soon is Johnnie To's
Life Without Principle. This is said to be a departure for the prolific Hong Kong action director and is set in the avaricious world of investment banking. I'm scheduled to see it the same day as the Dreileben Trilogy, so I hope my stamina holds up. The other Asian narrative feature I've prioritized is People Mountain, People Sea, a formalist, contemporary Chinese revenge tale that won its director, Cai Shangjun, a Venice Silver Lion. Also of possible interest: the world's first Samoan language film (The Orator), a movie from Tibet (Old Dog) and Peter Chan's martial arts blockbuster Wu Xia, starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Donnie Yen.

Three documentaries relating to the region have also caught my eye. Davy Chou's Golden Slumbers reminisces on the Golden Age of Cambodian cinema (1960 -1975), during which time over 400 local films were made. The Khmer Rouge destroyed nearly all of them, as well as the artists who
produced them. In his rave review for Variety, Richard Kuipers calls the film "inventively directed" and "pure poetry." Carrying the distinction of the longest-titled film in SFIFF55 is French artist/filmmaker Eric Beaudlaire's The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images. I recently became interested in Japan's 1970s radical terrorist organization, the Japanese Red Army, after watching Kôji Wakamatsu's brutally fascinating United Red Army, and am hoping for some illumination on the group's years of exile in Lebanon. Finally, there's Alison Klayman's Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which profiles the ubiquitous Chinese artist/dissident.

Latin America
The past year has been a bit of an off-time for Latin American cinema, with a number of established directors (Carlos Sorin, Arturo Ripstein, Karim Ainouz and others) releasing new works to modest reception. One film that's been an uncontested critical success, Pablo Giorgelli's Cannes Camera d'or-winning Las Acacias, is oddly missing from the SFIFF55 line-up. Of the half dozen features that did make the cut, I'm especially excited about two. Milagros Mumenthaler's Back to Stay is the story of three college-age sisters who return to the Buenos Aires home of their recently deceased grandmother. It won the top prize at last summer's Locarno Film Festival. Winning the FIPRESCI prize at Rotterdam this year was Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds, a mosaic of life on an upscale street in Recife, Brazil. Calling the film "a powerful, yet subtle X-ray of contempo Brazilian society" in his rave review for Variety, Jay Weissburg went on to praise Neighboring Sounds for being "superbly constructed, skillfully acted and beautifully lensed."

Another film being celebrated on the fest circuit is Cristián Jiménez' Bonsái, which is based on a seminal Chilean novella. I confess this time-bending "existential romance" had me nodding off to sleep when I watched it on DVD screener several months back. I plan to give it another chance. Also from Chile comes Alejandro
Fernández Almendras' By the Fire, which I missed at the Palm Springs festival and am happy to find here. The two remaining Latin American narrative features are Found Memories and A Secret World, from Brazil and Mexico respectively. While there are surprisingly no Latin American documentaries in this year's festival, one comes awfully close. Russian director Victor Kossakovsky's ¡Vivan las antipodas! lyrically muses upon four sets of antipodes, with the greatest amount of screen time being devoted to a remote homestead in Entre Rios, Argentina.

Middle East/Africa
My top anticipated pick from this region is easily Mohammad Rasoulof's Goodbye, as I loved his two previous films, Iron Island and The White Meadows (both seen at previous editions of SFIFF). Whereas those two films were fanciful allegories, I understand this new work is a despairingly realist account of a female lawyer struggling to leave Iran, which the director shot clandestinely while awaiting appeal of his own six-year prison sentence. I'm equally excited by two Israeli films that have generated acclaim on the festival circuit. Policeman promises an inspired and provocative take on Israeli machismo and The Law in These Parts, a documentary about the Israeli legal system governing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary in World Cinema at this year's Sundance.

Israeli director Eran Kolirin's The Exchange received mixed reviews when it premiered at Venice, but I'm giving it a shot based on my admiration for his 2007 crowd-pleasing The Band's Visit. Speaking of crowd-pleasing, Lebanon's Nadine Labaki follows up her
popular 2007 film Caramel with Where Do We Go Now?, which won the Toronto Film Festival audience award and was Lebanon's most recent Oscar® submission. This yarn about village women diffusing religious violence opens at a local Landmark Theatre on May 18. Also from Lebanon comes OK, Enough, Goodbye, a deadpan comedy about a schlubby shopkeeper who's abandoned by his put-upon mother. Rounding out selections from the region are Iraqi orphanage doc In My Mother's Arms, and the chick flicky-sounding A Cube of Sugar from Iran.

SFIFF's African programming has been a decided weak spot in recent years. This year's line-up contains no films from North Africa – surprising in light of recent events – and the festival's three films set in sub-Saharan Africa
are all by non-African filmmakers. That said, I'm really looking forward to Isaki Lacuesta's The Double Steps, a fantastical-looking fever dream that appears of be about, among other things, a search for hidden frescoes in the Malian desert. The film took the top prize at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival. I'm also likely to have a look at Ulrich Köhler's Sleeping Sickness, a meditation on post-colonial relations which won a Silver Bear for Best Director at 2011's Berlin Film Festival.

Domestic films are generally not where I focus my attention at this festival, but there are some enticing entries this year. Eclipsing them
all is Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt, which seven months after its Toronto world premiere still doesn't appear to have U.S. distribution. This darkly comic mystery about a small town serial killer stars Val Kilmer and Bruce Dern, and will be screened twice – in 3-D at the Castro (!!!) and 2-D at the Kabuki. Another one I won't be missing is The Fourth Dimension, a trio of short films for which the directors – Harmony Korine (Mister Lonely), Alexsei Fedorchenko (last year's Silent Souls) and Jan Kwiecinski – were given a set of Dogma-like strictures to adhere to. This could be disastrously pretentious or friggin' fabulous. Either way, it's a world premiere and all three directors are expected to attend. Val Kilmer fans take note: he's the star of Korine's segment.

If SFIFF55 is in need of a poster boy, director/actor Mark Duplass is the one to recruit, as he appears in both Lawrence "The Big Chill" Kasdan's Darling Companion and Lynn "Humpday" Shelton's Your Sister's Sister (the latter being SFIFF55's Centerpiece Film). Although I'll probably give those movies a pass, I am dying to see Mark and Jay Duplass' The Do-Deca Pentathlon, a hilarious-sounding comedy the brothers shot in between Baghead and Cyrus, which recently premiered to acclaim at SXSW. The Grand Jury Prize winner at that festival was Adam Leon's Gimme the Loot, in which two NYC graffiti artists scramble to set up their biggest "bombing" to date. At the SFIFF55 press conference, it was stressed that Gimme the Loot had been programmed into the fest long before its significant SXSW win. Two other U.S. narrative features I'm aiming to see are Compliance by Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound), reportedly the most divisive film at Sundance 2012, and Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet. Gael Garcia Bernal stars here as one half of a couple whose relationship is thrown of course during a backpacking trek through the Caucasus Mountains. Loktev's 2006 breakthrough film Day Night, Day Night, never screened in the Bay Area, so it was especially nice to find The Loneliest Planet in the SFIFF55 line-up.

My enthusiasm for this year's U.S. narrative features carries over to the fest's documentary selections as well, with some of America's best known non-fiction filmmakers represented. The name Alex Gibney (Enron, Taxi to the Dark Side, Magic Trip) is almost enough to make me want to watch ice hockey doc The Last Gladiators. Last Call at the Oasis is Jessica Yu's (In the Realms of the Unreal, Protagonist) take on the global water crisis. Kirby Dick (Sick, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Outrage) is no stranger to controversy and takes on the subject of rape in the U.S. military with his latest, The Invisible War. Then ex-Bay Area gadfly Caveh Zahedi (I Am a Sex Addict), stirs up plenty of debate in The Sheik and I, in which he goads his way through a commissioned film project in the United Arab Emirates.

Elsewhere on the domestic doc front, I'm debating whether to subject myself to The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield's portrait of a repellent family of American one-percenters getting their comeuppance. A queenly portrait of another sort is Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, granddaughter-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland's film about the greatest fashion
maven of all time. I saw this at Palm Springs and it's enormous fun, especially when viewed with an audience that's almost all well-to-do ladies of a certain age. Another documentary about a famous woman directed by a relative is Ethel, by Ethel and Robert Kennedy's youngest daughter, Rory. For more hard-hitting subject matter, I'm hoping to check out Peter Nicks' The Waiting Room, which surveys a day in the life of Oakland's Highland Hospital, and David France's history of AIDS activism, How to Survive a Plague.

SFIFF55 2012 Line-Up Overview Part One

The Bay Area's press corps gathered at the Fairmont Hotel's breathtaking Crown Room last week for the unveiling of the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF55)'s full line-up. SF Film Society (SFFS) Board President Pat McBain, himself pinch-hitting for acting Executive Director Melanie Blum, spoke about the "unbelievably sad and challenging past year" and revealed plans to honor former Executive Directors Graham Leggat and Bingham Ray during the festival. Opening Night on April 19 will be dedicated to Leggat, "who led us with his passion and leadership and vision for 5 1/2 years." Bingham Ray, who succeeded Leggat for a brief two months, will be honored at the Castro Theatre on April 28 with a screening of Carol Reed's The Third Man, his all-time favorite film. Prior to turning the press conference over to Director of Programming Rachel Rosen and her team, McBain stressed that the search for a new Executive Director was well under way and would go "full throttle" once this year's festival wrapped.

Before diving into the nitty gritty of this year's line-up, Rosen prefaced that "our best revenge against what life has handed us this year is to put on the best, most celebratory festival that we could in honor of Graham and Bingham and to all of you who support us." Indeed, it appears they've done just that. In a previous post I gathered up all the early announcements of SFIFF55's special awards and programs, to which we can now add the following: The festival will close on May 3 with Ramona Diaz' documentary Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey, the story of a Journey cover band singer from the Philippines who became a member of the actual group. The Kanbar Award for screenwriting will go to David Webb Peoples, who penned such films as Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys and Unforgiven (the latter of which will be shown at the awards presentation). And while the Peter J. Owens Award for acting wasn't ready to be announced at the press conference, it has just been revealed that Australian actress Judy Davis will be the recipient, a choice certainly as inspired as last year's selection of Terence Stamp. Following an on-stage interview and clips reel, the festival will show Fred Schepisi's new film The Eye of the Storm, in which Davis stars with Geoffrey Rush and Charlotte Rampling.

I've attended SFIFF every year since 1976 and this will be my sixth year writing about it as accredited press. As has become tradition, I kick off my coverage with a broad overview of the line-up, which contains over 100 narrative and documentary features. I'll touch upon the ones I'm dying to see as well as those that have piqued my interest, all loosely organized under geographic headings.

French language films are always my top priority, so that's where we'll begin. While it was disappointing not to find the new films of such SFIFF alumni as Bruno Dumont, Christophe Honoré, André Téchiné, Chantal Akerman, Philippe Garrel and Lucas Belvaux in SFIFF55, I'm more than pleased by the selections on hand. First, a big thumbs up for Robert Guédiguian's The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which sees the prolific director return to the working class milieu of Marseilles that marked his 1997 breakthrough hit, Marius and Jeanette. Guédiguian is one of my favorite filmmakers and I've always been grateful that this festival has consistently supported his work. I caught this one at Palm Springs and am likely to see it again.

Also high on my must-see list are three films by directors best known for their acting careers. In Bouli Lanners' The Giants, three teenage boys are left to fend for themselves in rural Belgium. The festival mini-guide incorrectly lists this as Lanners' feature directorial debut (his last film Eldorado played the SFFS Kabuki screen in 2009). The Giants won several awards in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar at Cannes last year. Mathieu Kassovitz is probably best known in this country for playing Amélie Poulain's object of desire. He both directs and stars in Rebellion, based on a bloody 1988 insurgency in the French Pacific island territory of New Caledonia. Mono-monikered actress Maïwenn won Cannes' Jury Prize for her third feature directorial effort, Polisse. This drama about a Parisian Child Protective Custody unit was perhaps the most divisive film in competition at Cannes last year. While some critics found it brilliant, others dismissed it as a shallow TV cop show on steroids.

Nearly all of this year's French language selections were already on my radar – the two which were not sound like potential winners. Vincent Garenq's Guilty is the true story of a husband and wife wrongly imprisoned for pedophilia. In his favorable review for Variety, Boyd Van Hoeij says this "stomach-churning
thriller-drama hybrid…dissects one of Gaul's most famous miscarriages of justice with chilling precision." Van Hoeij was somewhat less enthusiastic about Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's 18th century historical drama, Smuggler's Songs. This represents a new direction for the director, whose other three films explored issues surrounding contemporary French-Arab immigration (SFFS screened Adhen at 2009's French Cinema Now, and Wesh Wesh and Bled Number One played our 2006 Arab Film Festival). Smuggler's Songs co-stars (along with Ameur-Zaïmeche) the always interesting actor/director Jacques Nolot (Before I Forget).

Amongst the remaining French films, I'm sure everyone is looking forward to Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's follow-up to the wildly successful Persepolis. Again working from one of her graphic novels, this is the story of Satrapi's Iranian musician great-uncle, who's played by Mathieu Amalric. Two French selections are competing for SFIFF55's New Directors Prize. Delphine and Muriel Coulin's 17 Girls concerns the circumstances surrounding a port town's massive outbreak of teen pregnancy and John Shenk's Last Winter explores the struggles of a young farmer. The latter stars Vincent Rottiers, who made such a strong impression in last year's I'm Glad My Mother is Alive. Anyone desiring a look at populist French cinema won't want to miss The Intouchables, which is now France's second most popular film of all time in terms of domestic admissions (the first being Welcome to the Sticks, which played French Cinema Now in 2008). At this year's Cesar Awards, Intouchables co-star Omar Sy bested The Artist's Jean Dujardin for meilleur acteur. For a taste of French horror from the festival's The Late Show sidebar, there's Last Screening, a shocker about a psychopathic cinema projectionist. Finally, whether you love him or hate him, there's no denying that SF Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle is a passionate and knowledgeable advocate of French cinema. That's why I plan to sit in on his master class, Mick LaSalle: The Beauty of the Real, based on his new book about contemporary French actresses.

At the festival press conference, SFFS programmer Rod Armstrong revealed that he had long suggested Ken Russell for the Founder's Directing Award, an idea Graham Leggat nixed as "crazy." Alas, Russell passed away in November and the festival now honors him posthumously, in raucous Peaches Christ-style, with a Late Show screening of 1975's Tommy. Equally exciting, SFIFF55 will present the other filmic adaptation of a rock opera by The Who, Franc Roddam's 1979 Quadrophenia, in a rare 35mm print at the Castro. A pair of contemporary UK films programmed in the festival finds two acclaimed British directors reimagining works of classic 19th century literature. Ultra-versatile Michael Winterbottom transports Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the d'Ubervilles" to modern day India in Trishna, which stars Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto. Then in Andrea Arnold's follow-up to Fish Tank, the character of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is recast as a former Afro-Caribbean slave. Both films were well received at their respective Toronto and Venice premieres. The fest will also be screening Tanya Wexler's Hysteria, a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator (opening May 25 at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema).

Shifting back to (non-French speaking) continental Europe, I spy five films I'm especially hot to see. When local festivals Berlin & Beyond and German Gems both passed on screening the Dreileben Trilogy following its 2011 Berlin Film Festival premiere, I feared it had forever passed us by. Characteristically, SFIFF55 has now stepped up to the plate. Dreileben (meaning "three lives") consists of three loosely interlocking films about the manhunt for an escaped murderer. Each is told from a different point of view, in radically different filmmaking styles, by three of Germany's most important contemporary directors: Christian Petzold (Beats Being Dead), Dominik Graf (Don't Follow Me Around) and Christoph Hochhäusler (One Minute of Darkness). Petzold is certainly the most renowned of the three (Yella, Jerichow) and Hochhäusler's unsettling The City Below was in last year's festival. SFIFF55 presents three opportunities to view the trilogy; twice as an all-day marathon and once spread over three consecutive days. My two remaining compulsory European films are Norway's Oslo, August 31, Joachim Trier's follow-up to his astonishing 2006 debut, Reprise, and what is possibly my most anticipated film of the entire festival, Yorgos Lanthimos' ALPS. It's been two years since Greece's Dogtooth became the most transgressive film ever nominated for an Oscar® and I'm ready to be shocked silly all over again.

Finally, here are a few remaining European films of potential interest. There's a second Greek film in the fest, Filippos Tsitos' Unfair World, which took prizes for best director and actor at San Sebastian last year. The trailer for Morten Tyldum's Norwegian genre thriller Headhunters looks like a real kick in the head. It screens in the festival's The Late Show sidebar and will open theatrically at a Landmark Theatre on May 4. Russia is represented at SFIFF55 with two films, Alexander Zeldovich's futuristic epic Target, and Michale Boganim's post-Chernobyl drama Land of Oblivion (which is technically from the Ukraine). Italian director Emanuele Crialese's Golden Door opened the festival in 2007 and I caught his latest, Terraferma at Palm Springs. What's important to know is that the film's ubiquitous poster/still of young hotties diving off the sides of a fishing boat has virtually nothing to do with the movie itself. Another Italy-set film, Rolando Colla's Summer Games, was Switzerland's 2011 Oscar® submission. Those disappointed that the festival didn't program Tabu, Miguel Gomes' follow-up to Our Beloved Month of August (the big discovery of SFIFF52), might console themselves with Gonçalo Tocha's three-hour plus Portuguese doc, It's the Earth Not the Moon, about the remote Azores island of Corvo. Lastly, and for me personally, leastly, those who can't get enough of farm animal documentaries should find pleasure in Winter Nomads and Women with Cows.

Click here for Part Two, where I discuss SFIFF55's line-up of films from Asia/Pacific, Middle East/Africa, Latin America and the USA.