Sunday, March 30, 2014

SFIFF57 2014 Anticipating the Line-Up

I've had the good fortune to attend every San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) since 1976 and the privilege of covering it as accredited press for eight years running. As has become a tradition here at film-415, on the eve of the festival's official press conference I've gathered together a rundown of what's already been announced for 2014's edition, followed by a wish list of 20 films I'm hoping to find in the line-up when it's unveiled Tuesday morning.

This year the festival made my job easy by issuing fewer-than-ever early announcements, especially regarding the recipients of its many awards and tributes. Still waiting TBA at this 11th hour are the Peter J. Owens Acting Award, the Maurice Kanbar Screenwriting Award, the Persistence of Vision Award, the Mel Novikoff Award, as well as the fest's Centerpiece Film and the question of who will deliver 2014's State of Cinema Address. All shall be revealed soon enough. Meanwhile, here's a glance at what we know thus far.

● The 57th SFIFF opens on Thursday, April 24 with a screening of The Two Faces of January, which marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove). The film premiered to positive reviews when it screened out of competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival, and the SFIFF Opening Night slot will be its North American premiere. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac, the movie is based on a Patricia Highsmith ("The Talented Mr. Ripley") novel and is set in a lushly photographed Greece and Turkey in the early '60s. Director Amini is scheduled to be in attendance. This year's opening night party will be at the SOMA nightclub Public Works.

● The festival closes on May 8 with another directorial debut, this one from actor Chris Messina (who I had to imdb because I obviously don't watch enough television.) His film is called Alex of Venice and it stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead (had to look her up as well) as an attorney whose life changes when her stay-at-home husband (Messina) decides to take a break from it all. Both Messina and Winstead are expected to attend the screening. Alex of Venice arrives in San Francisco very soon after its world premiere at Tribeca. SFIFF57's closing night party takes place at The Chapel club, in the heart of the Mission District.

● This year's Founder's Directing Award goes to none other than the fabulously eclectic and talented Richard Linklater, whose debut feature Slackers played the festival in 1991 and whose most recent film, Before Midnight, closed last year's fest with the director in attendance. Linklater's tribute takes place at the Castro Theatre on Friday, May 2, with an on-stage interview, career clips reel and a screening of his 18th and most recent feature, the wildly acclaimed Boyhood. This event is destined to be a huge highlight of SFIFF57 – I arranged to take the night off from work the minute I heard about it.

● One of the festival's most popular events is the annual pairing of a silent film with a newly composed score, performed live by a contemporary music artist. Four years after his campy (and somewhat divisive) accompaniment to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Magnetic Fields' front man Stephin Merritt returns to SFIFF with his take on Tod Browning's 1927 creepy circus crime thriller The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. (The film last played the Castro Theatre during the 2008 SF Silent Film Festival, with director Guy Maddin doing a live translation of its French inter-titles.) The second SFIFF57 live music event at the Castro will be Bay Area musician Thao Nguyen and her band, The Get Down Stay Down, performing alongside a diverse selection of short films that includes Chaplin's The Pawn Shop, animations by Harry Smith, vintage newsreels and some of Nguyen's own video work.

● Eleven films will compete for 2014's SFIFF New Directors Prize. I'm especially excited they've programmed Salvation Army, Abdellah Taïa's adaptation of his autobiographical novel about a gay Moroccan boy who later immigrates to Europe. It's a critically acclaimed film I wasn't expecting to see until June's Frameline LGBT festival. (For the record, there are a half dozen other undoubtedly Frameline-bound LGBT films I wouldn't mind seeing at SFIFF, like Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm and Guillaume Gallienne's multiple-César award-winning, Me, Myself and Mum.) The other New Directors Prize contender I'm hot to see is Benjamín Naishtat's History of Fear, a dystopian nightmare set in the Buenos Aires suburbs, which has drawn comparisons to the early works of Michael Haneke since its Berlin premiere. I've also heard terrific things about the Icelandic film, Of Horses and Men, and Mexico's The Amazing Catfish. Both the latter film, as well as Taïa's Salvation Army, boasts cinematography by  renowned DP Agnès Godard.

● Eight films are in the running for SFIFF57's Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition. The only one even remotely on my radar is Hubert Sauper's We Come as Friends, which examines the human cost of neo-colonialism in the newly formed nation of South Sudan. To this day, Sauper's 2004 Oscar®-nominated Darwin's Nightmare remains the most disturbing and dispiriting doc I've ever seen. Perhaps his latest will make me feel even worse.

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Below is a list of 20 films that would comprise my ultimate SFIFF57 dream festival. They've been culled from a larger list I maintain throughout the year, making notes of promising new works from festival reports I read. Last year only two of my 20 films made the line-up, but I still managed to have a sublime festival experience. How will I fare this year?

My SFIFF57 Wish List

Abuse of Weakness (France, dir. Catherine Breillat)
Self-described provocatrice Catherine Breillat takes the autobiographical route, as she directs Isabelle Huppert as a Catherine Breillat-like film director who suffers a stroke and is subsequently swindled by a young con man.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China, dir. Yi'nan Diao)
Winner of the top prize at February's Berlin Film Festival, it's probably too early to expect this stylized Chinese neo-noir to show up in these parts just yet. But I can still wish.

Club Sandwich (Mexico, dir. Fernando Eimbcke)
SFIFF screened this laid-back Mexican director's first two films, Duck Season (2004) and Lake Tahoe (2008) and will hopefully follow through with this droll comedy about a doting mother on vacation with her newly pubescent son.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her (USA, dir. Ned Benson)
These are actually two separate films that take on the dissolution of a relationship from opposing gender-centric P.O.V.s. James McAvoy is Him and Jessica Chastain is Her, with a supporting cast that includes Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt and Viola Davis.

Exhibition (UK, dir. Joanna Hogg)
Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, Archipelago) is an acclaimed new British director about whom plenty has been written, yet none of her films have been seen in the Bay Area. Not even, weirdly enough, at our annual Mostly British festival. Is this the year we'll be brought up to speed?

Hard to Be a God (Russia, dir. Aleksei Gherman)
Russian master Gherman died last year, but not before (almost) completing work on this 3-hour phantasmagoric, medieval mind-fuck only the third film he's made in 30 years. The other two, My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Khrustaliov, My Car! screened at previous SFIFF editions, giving me hope this highly anticipated extravaganza might be headed our way.

Jealousy (France, dir. Philippe Garrel)
Do we really need to see a third consecutive Philippe Garrel film about tormented relationships between artsy types starring Garrel's impossibly handsome son Louis? Not necessarily, but this one has earned the director his best reviews since 2005's Regular Lovers.

Manakamana (Nepal/USA, dir. Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez)
From the folks at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab (Sweetgrass, Leviathan) comes this heralded documentary consisting of only 12 shots, all long takes of passengers riding a cable car to a Nepalese mountaintop temple.

Miss Violence (Greece, dir. Alexandros Avranas)
It seems like forever, or at least a year or two, since we last witnessed an act of cinematic transgression from Greece. This one took the Best Director and Actor prizes at last year's Venice Film Festival.

Moebius (South Korea, dir. Kim Ki-duk)
Speaking of transgression, nobody pushes buttons harder than Kim and his latest film is said to take the cake. Variety's Leslie Felperin calls it "a gloriously off-the-charts study in perversity featuring castration, rape and incest" that fits "right inside the Korean king-of-wackitude's wheelhouse of outrageous cinema."

El Mudo (Peru, dir. Daniel Vega, Diego Vega)
The fraternal Peruvian writing/directing team of Daniel and Diego Vega follow-up 2010's sublime Octubre with another deadpan black comedy, this one winning a Best Actor nod at Locarno for lead Fernando Bacilio.

Night Moves (USA, dir. Kelly Reichardt) With a cast that includes Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard, this eco-terrorism thriller from Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff) will surely have a theatrical release later in the year, but the rave reviews from Venice and Toronto have me wanting to see it sooner rather than later.

Nobody's Daughter or Our Sunhi (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Prolific Korean master Hong released two new, well-received films in 2013, the first one at Berlin and then another at Locarno, where he won Best Director. Rather surprisingly, neither got programmed by Mill Valley or CAAMFest, leaving them available for possible SFIFF inclusion.

October November (Götz Spielmann)
German director Götz Spielmann follows up his 2008 masterpiece Revanche with this tale of two disparate sisters reuniting when their father takes ill. A curious omission from this year's Berlin & Beyond festival.

The Quispe Girls (Chile, dir. Sebastián Sepúlveda)
Three indigenous sisters in rural 1974 Chile face an end to their sheep-herding way of life thanks to the ominous encroachment of General Pinochet's rule. Starring the incomparable Catalina Saavedra (The Maid.)

Story of My Death (Spain, dir. Albert Serra)
The borderline experimental films of noted Catalonian director Serra have largely gone unseen in the Bay Area. His latest, an imagined meeting between Casanova and Dracula, is said to be his most accessible, winning the top prize at last year's Locarno Film Festival.

Stray Dogs (Taiwan, dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
Unlike his last feature, 2009's largely reviled Face, Tsai's latest won acclaim and a slew of awards on 2013's festival circuit, including Best Director and Actor at the Golden Horse Awards. The director's acteur fétiche, Lee Kang-sheng, stars as a father with two children struggling to survive on the streets of Taipei. A welcome consolation prize would be Journey to the West, a new Tsai film that recently premiered at Berlin.

Tarr Béla: I Used to be a Filmmaker (France, dir. Jean-Marc Lamoure)
An in-depth documentary look into the making of Hungarian maestro Bela Tarr's final masterpiece, 2011's The Turin Horse.

Tip Top (France, dir. Serge Bozon)
Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain star as detectives investigating a small town murder and police corruption in this perverse, screwball noir from actor/director Bozon. His last film, the WWI musical La France, screened at SFIFF in 2008.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Romania, dir. Corneliu Porumbiou)
Reviews were mixed for this latest formalist exercise from the director of 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective, but I'm dying to see it anyway. I'd also be quite happy to see The Second Game, his even newer film which just premiered at Berlin.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.


Michael E. said...

Nice, thank you.

Michael Guillen said...

Wow. You got 8 out of your 20!! Not bad this year.

Michael Hawley said...

I know. It's some kind of record!