Monday, March 13, 2017

SFIFF60 2017 Anticipating the Line-Up

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) celebrates its 60th edition next month, marking an impressive milestone for the oldest continuously-operating film festival in the Western Hemisphere. This year’s event arrives and departs two weeks earlier than usual – from April 5 to 19 – and finds itself centered in the city’s Mission District for a second year running. SFMOMA’s newly renovated Phyllis Wattis Theater, where the SF Film Society has already co-presented two impressive Modern Cinema series, will happily serve as an additional venue for SFIFF60.

I began blogging about SFIFF on its 50th anniversary in 2006. A decade-plus later it has become a tradition that on the eve of the festival’s opening press conference, I offer a recap of what’s been announced thus far, along with a wish list of 20 films I hope to find in the line-up.

⚫ In addition to taking place a fortnight earlier than usual, this year's festival begins and ends on a Wednesday rather than a Thursday. Another change finds 2017’s Closing Night festivities occurring 72 hours before the festival’s official end date. On Sunday, April 16 at the Castro Theatre, SFIFF60 therefore "concludes" with The Green Fog – A San Francisco Fantasia with Kronos Quartet. For this special collaborative event, Kronos will perform a Jacob Garchik score to a re-imagining of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as constructed by iconoclast Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin and his The Forbidden Room co-directors Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson. Without using a single frame of Hitchcock's original, Maddin's "parallel-universe version" will employ "Bay Area-based footage from a variety of sources – studio classics, '50s noir, documentary, experimental films, and '70s prime-time TV." With a live Foley element added to the mix, this promises to be a major highlight of SFIFF60 and as well as one of the festival's most inspired finales of all time.

⚫ SFIFF60 will honor actor-writer-filmmaker Ethan Hawke with a special tribute on Saturday, April 8 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Following an on-stage conversation, there will be a screening of Aisling Walsh's Maudie, which co-stars Sally Hawkins as renowned Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. It's unclear at this point whether this tribute supplements or supplants the festival's annual Peter J. Owens Award for Acting, which was presented last year to Ellen Burstyn. For those unable to attend this event, Maudie is scheduled to open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on June 23.

⚫ SFIFF is usually the Bay Area's first chance to catch the big hits from Sundance. This year's Centerpiece event spotlights Patti Cake$, Geremy Jasper's ultra-rave-reviewed debut feature which shockingly failed to win a single Sundance prize. The film revolves around a plus-sized, white lower middle class, aspiring teen rapper from New Jersey who enlists the help of her South Asian best friend and an African American lone-rocker musician to achieve her dreams. Think Welcome to the Dollhouse meets Precious meets 8-Mile? Variety critic Peter Debruge called Patti Cake$ "the kind of movie where the energy builds to such levels that a packed-house audience can hardly resist bursting into applause." To that end, SFIFF60 wisely places 2017's Centerpiece film at the enormous Castro Theatre on Wednesday, April 12.

⚫ As has been the case for several years now, the festival pre-announced the films competing for the Golden Gate Awards' New Directors Prize and Documentary Feature Prize. Among the 10 narrative feature contenders, there are three I'm particularly excited about. In Ralitza Petrova's Godless, a morphine-addicted Bulgarian nurse steals senior citizens' ID cards and sells them on the black market. According to Variety's Jay Weissberg, the film "goes to great lengths to rub the viewer's face in the joylessness of life in a post-Communist world." Sounds like a "festival" flick if there ever was one! The jury at last summer's Locarno Film Festival saw fit to award Godless its top prize (the Golden Leopard) as well as its Best Actress accolade to lead player Irena Ivanova. Another film laying claim to a pair of Locarno prizes was Eduardo Williams' The Human Surge. Shot in Buenos Aires, Mozambique and the Philippines, this "adventurously formalist" debut loosely concerns three young men and their relationship to technology. The film had a NYC theatrical release just last week and I'm grateful the festival will be bringing it our way.

The third New Director's Prize nominee I'm anticipating is Francis Lee's God's Own Country, which won Sundance's Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Set amidst the Yorkshire moors, this romance between a hard-drinking young sheep farmer and an itinerant Romanian migrant worker has drawn comparisons to Brokeback Mountain. The remaining competition entries hail from Iran (Duet), Mexico (Everything Else), Lebanon (Heaven Sent), USA (The House of Tomorrow), China (Life After Life), Greece (Park) and Niger (The Wedding Ring).

Over in the GGA documentary feature competition, only one film has surfaced on my radar and that's Peter Nicks' The Force. Nicks previous work was The Waiting Room, a beautifully empathetic portrait of Oakland's Highland Hospital which the fest screened to great acclaim in 2012. The Force marks the second part of a trilogy on the relationship between public institutions and the communities they serve, with this new film setting its gaze upon Oakland's police department. For his work on The Force, Nicks won the Best Director prize in the U.S. Documentary competition at Sundance. Other SFIFF60 films competing for the GGA Doc Award span a range of interests from Mexico's National Pyrotechnic Festival (Brimstone & Glory) to falconry in Qatar (The Challenge) to India's movie caravans (The Cinema Travellers).

⚫ Four ambitious programs have thus far been announced as part of the festival's Live & Onstage sidebar. For starters, the UK band Asian Dub Foundation will perform a Live Score of George Lucas' THX:1138 at the Castro Theatre on April 11. Then two nights later on April 13, the Denver-based music/vocal ensemble DeVotchKa will accompany Dziga Vertov's 1929 silent masterpiece The Man With a Movie Camera at the Castro. DeVotchKa is possibly best known for their film score to Little Miss Sunshine, and it'll be interesting to see how their Movie Camera score compares to that of the Alloy Orchestra, which was performed most recently at the 2010 SF Silent Film Festival.

Two additional Live & Onstage presentations have connections to Marin's Headlands Center for the Arts, whose current Director of Programs, Sean Uyehara, served as SFIFF's chief Live & Onstage programmer for a number of years. On April 10 at the Castro, Parallel Spaces: Will Oldham and Jerome Hiler will find actor/musician (and 2008 Headlands Artist in Residence) Will Oldham performing alongside three works by Bay Area experimental filmmaker Jerome Hiler. Headlands' 2014 Artist in Residence, artist and filmmaker Terence Nance, will present the interactive live program 18 Black Girls Aged 1 - 18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines at the Victoria Theatre on April 16, with a separate program focused on 18 Black Boys taking place the following evening.

Predictions and Wish List
Each year I enjoy ruminating on which films might make the cut for SFIFF inclusion, and follow that up with a 20-film festival wish list. Landmark Theatres' upcoming release calendar has been my most dependable crystal ball in years past, as the festival traditionally features many of the arthouse chain's spring and summer offerings. In their weekly mailing to press, however, Landmark no longer lists movies arriving more than several weeks out. That said, there are three films scheduled to open Friday, April 21 that I do consider strong SFIFF possibilities: the animated satire My Entire High School is Falling into the Sea, the Anne Hathaway monster movie Colossal (from Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo) and Cristian Mungiu's Graduation, the Romanian director's follow-up to Beyond the Hills which won the Best Director prize at Cannes last year. Three feature documentaries on Landmark's horizon could also find themselves in the SFIFF60 line-up: Finding Oscar, Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia, and Citizen Jane: Battle Cry for the City.

As for this year's wish list, I could have easily filled all 20 slots with French language films, due in part to the void created by the discontinuation of the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now mini-fest. The movies I've chosen below all debuted on the 2016 festival circuit but have yet to make a Bay Area appearance – in other words, it's getting to be now-or-never time.

By the Time It Gets Dark (Thailand dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong)
The Death of Louis XIV (Portugal/Spain/France dir. Albert Serra)
Endless Poetry (Chile dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Heal the Living (France dir. Katell Quillévéré)
Hedi (Tunisia dir. Mohamed Ben Attia)
It's Only the End of the World (Canada/France dir. Xavier Dolan)
A Journey Through French Cinema (France dir. Bertrand Tavernier)
Ma' Rosa (Philippines, dir. Brilliante Mendoza)
Mister Universo (Austria/Italy dir. Tizza Cova, Rainer Frimmel)
Moka (France/Switzerland dir. Frédéric Mermoud)
Nocturama (France dir. Bertrand Bonello)
The Ornithologist (Portugal dir. João Pedro Rodrigues)
Rat Film (USA dir. Theo Anthony)
Safari (Austria, dir. Ulrich Seidl)
Scarred Hearts (Romania dir. Radu Jude)
Sieranevada (Romania dir. Cristi Puiu)
Slack Bay (France dir. Bruno Dumont)
Souvenir (Belgium dir. Bavo Defume)
The Untamed (Mexico dir. Emat Escalante)
Yourself and Yours (South Korea dir. Hong Sang-soo)

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