The SFFILM Festival, better known until just recently as the San Francisco International, celebrates its 62nd edition next week. What's different about this fest is that for the first time since 1976, I won't be in attendance due to a recent relocation out of state. That minor detail, however, won't stop me from talking about what excites me in this year's line-up, nor from sharing brief commentary on a handful of films I was able to preview.
The 2019 festival takes off on Wednesday, April 10 with the world premiere of Netflix's Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, featuring on-stage appearances by beloved series' star Laura Linney and writer/creator Maupin. Closing out the fest on April 21 will be Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley as UK whistleblower Katherine Gun. Expected guests for the evening include the film's Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood (2005's Tsotsi) as well as Ms. Gun, the movie's subject. Rounding out 2019's trio of Big Nights will be the Centerpiece Film presentation of Sundance hit The Farewell, featuring Crazy Rich Asians breakout star Awkwafina.
Other acting tributes include Laura Dern on April 14, accompanied by her latest, Trial By Fire, as well as esteemed child actor and longtime festival supporter Claude Jarman, Jr. on April 20. The now 88-year-old Jarman will receive the fest's George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, followed by a showing of Clarence Brown's 1949 adaptation of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust… in 35mm! Celluloid lovers also won't want to miss the Mel Novikoff Award presentation to BBC series Arena, wherein James Marsh's mesmerizing experimental docu-drama Wisconsin Death Trip from 1999 will also be projected in 35mm. Rounding out the awards roster is pioneering African American documentarian Madeline Anderson. She'll receive the festival's 2019 Persistence of Vision Award, accompanied by two of her early doc shorts.
Amongst this year's Live & Onstage presentations, I'd give top priority to hearing Boots Riley deliver the State of Cinema Address. The lefty rapper and musician recently took indie film by storm with his directorial debut Sorry to Bother You, which scored the Centerpiece slot at last year's festival. Other L&O offerings include all-women L.A. band Warpaint's live accompaniment to works by iconic experimental filmmaker Maya Deren (including 1944's seminal Meshes of the Afternoon) and a screening of Andrew Slater's new documentary Echo in the Canyon, about the early years (1965-67) of the Laurel Canyon music scene. Musician Jakob Dylan, who conducts the doc's on-screen interviews, will perform selections from the era live at the Castro Theatre following the screening. Fest-goers can also spend An Evening with Kahlil Joseph, who's perhaps best known for co-directing Beyoncé's Lemonade project.
Over the past decade, documentaries have come to occupy an increasingly larger slice of this festival's pie, with non-fiction works now comprising 47 percent of its total feature film count. That's a daunting number, but I'll try and touch on a representative sampling. The fest's Masters section is a good place to start, with new works by two acknowledged geniuses of the art form. Werner Herzog's Meeting Gorbachev will play the fest prior to its opening at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema on May 10. I had the chance to preview Stanley Nelson's magnificent Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which fits comfortably within a distinguished filmography that includes The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. As a Francophile I was especially intrigued with the section covering Davis' time in Paris – a searing romance with chanteuse Juliette Greco (interviewed on-screen) followed by the creation of his improvisatory score for Louis Malle's 1958 film Elevator to the Gallows. That collaborative project launched a whole new direction in Davis' music. Outside the Masters sidebar there are even more biographical documentaries, most with self-explanatory titles: Ask Dr. Ruth (opening at the Opera Plaza May 3), Halston, RAISE HELL: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, Tony Morrison: The Pieces I Am and Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (the latter a portrait of San Francisco's notorious rock music photographer).
This year's festival is the first to take place in the era of legal recreational cannabis, and SFFILM is not letting 4/20/19 pass unnoticed. First there's the previously mentioned 60's rock-doc Echo in the Canyon at the Castro – a venue where until the mid-80s patrons could smoke weed in the right-hand section unfettered. This festival's real 4/20 pot party, however, is likely to go down at Oakland's Grand Lake, where musician, filmmaker and former Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy will be on hand to present his new doc about the history of reefer in America, Grass is Greener. A third stoner doc option that Sunday is Hail Satan?, director Penny Lane's comic look at The Satanic Temple.
A total of 13 prizes were awarded to documentaries at this year's Sundance Film Festival and amazingly, SFFILM has programmed films representing ten of them. Topping the list with three prizes is Honeyland, a female Macedonian "bee whisperer" portrait which won a World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, a Special Jury Award for Impact for Change, and a Special Jury Award for Cinematography. The U.S. Grand Jury Prize was given to One Child Nation, which analyzes the consequences of China's infamous 35-year social experiment. The doc receiving the most publicity at Sundance was Knock Down the House, which won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. Rachel Lears' film, which pops up on Netflix May 1, follows four female 2018 political candidates – most famously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – as they strive to topple entrenched incumbents. I'm very intrigued by Special Jury Award for Cinematography winner Midnight Family, which trails a family who run a frantic private ambulance service in Mexico City. At the SFFILM opening press conference it was revealed that travel visas for the Ochoa family to attend the festival were (of course) blocked by the assholes who decide such matters. The remaining Sundance prizewinners one can see are Always in Season (Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency), Jawline (Special Jury Award: Emerging Filmmaker), Midnight Traveler (Special Jury Award for No Borders) and American Factory (Directing Award: U.S. Documentary). The latter film curiously landed in SFFILM's Masters section, of all places. I'm not at all familiar with its co-directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichart, and an imdb search also yielded nothing from them I recognized.
Amidst the surfeit of documentaries I've yet to mention, here are several of personal interest. Based on Victor Kossakovsky's ¡Vivan las Antipodas! (SFFILM Festival 2012), I'd definitely check out his latest work Aquarela, which sounds like an incredible sensory experience. Echoing that film's aquatic theme is Walking on Water, a reportage on environmental artist Christo's latest project The Floating Piers. Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei is expected to attend the festival for screenings of Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, a closer look at the prisoner letter-writing campaign that was part of his Alcatraz exhibition. The international refugee crisis is the subject of two more SFFILM docs. Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America concerns LGBTQ refugees, and Central Airport THF takes a poetic look at Berlin's defunct Tempelhof Airport, which became a refugee camp in 2015. The latter is directed by renowned Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz (Madame Satã), whose last narrative feature Futuro Beach was co-set in Brazil and Germany. Central Airport THF garnered rave reviews when it premiered at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, and was recently available to watch on Euro streaming platform MUBI. Speaking of Brazil, the fragile political situation in Aïnouz' homeland is the subject of Petra Costa's The Edge of Democracy. Finally, Kabul, City in the Wind and What We Left Unfinished uncover aspects of life in Afghanistan, with the second examining the country's film history via a trove of long-hidden works.
Moving on to the festival's narrative features, we'll begin with a look at the slim roster of French language films. I can easily recommend the two I previewed. Nathan Ambrosioni's Paper Flags features another unforgettable performance by Guillaume Gouix, here playing a short-fused, newly released convict out to establish a normal life with the help of his wary younger sister. Gouix first came to my attention in the sublime French zombie TV series, The Returned, and more recently in distinguished supporting parts in Gaspard at the Wedding and Lucas Belvaux's This is Our Land. Hopefully, Paper Flags generates more lead roles for him in the future. I also quite enjoyed Olivier Masset-Depasse's Mothers' Instinct, a moody 1950's Belgian thriller with strong overtones of Hitchcock and Sirk. Addressing themes of jealousy and guilt through a female-centric lens, the film stars Veerie Baetens who many will remember from 2012's The Broken Circle Breakdown. For those who salivate over such things, Mother's Instinct also features to-die-for period art direction and costume design. As a Louis Garrel obsessive, it kills me to miss A Faithful Man, the impossibly handsome and charismatic actor's second feature as director. In a plot that sounds redolent of works by his father, Philippe Garrel, Louis plays a guy caught between the romantic attentions of two women, one older and one younger. Garrel co-wrote the film with legendary script maestro Jean-Claude Carrière, for which they won the screenwriting prize at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival. The fourth French language movie at SFFILM 2019 is David Oelhoffen's Close Enemies, which I'd recommend sight unseen for no other reason than it stars Matthias Schoenaerts.
There's a strong line-up of Latin American narrative features this year, including new works from three SFFILM alumni. Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj (A Useful Life, The Apostate) returns with Belmonte, an enigmatic character study of a still-handsome, middle-aged painter of garish male nudes. Javi Belmonte's peevishly sad-sack demeanor is of no help when dealing with personal crises. These include, but are not limited to, a pregnant ex-wife, an elderly father who may be going gay, and bored rich housewives who buy his paintings just to fuck him. This discomfiting sketch of an artist stuck in limbo is the perfect length at 75 minutes, and its sumptuous color palette has remained lodged in my memory. I was also taken with Benjamín Naishtat's Rojo, admiring it even more than his 2014 breakthrough debut History of Fear. In this deeply unsettling, formalist allegory set in the pre-days of Argentina's 1976 military coup, a small-town lawyer (screen-commanding Darío Grandinetti) gets involved in a real estate scam at the same time he's being pursued by a relentless police inspector (the great Alfredo Castro) over his involvement in a suicide/disappearance. The third filmmaker returning to the fest this year is Argentine director Ana Katz (Musical Chairs, A Stray Girlfriend) with her new film, Florianópolis Dream.
Two other Latin American features with strong critical buzz were unfortunately not available for preview. Lila Avilés' The Chambermaid won the Morelia Film Festival's top prize, as well as kudos from far-flung fests like Marrakech, Minsk and Palm Springs. Avilés debut feature is situated entirely within a Mexico City luxury hotel, wherein the titular maid imagines the lives of hotel guests based on their possessions and odd requests. Alejandro Landes' Monos won a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award following its Sundance world premiere and is currently being featured in NYC's prestigious New Directors/New Films series. Set in the mountainous jungles of northern Colombia, the film has intriguingly been touted as a combo of Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now. It also boasts a music score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie). A Colombian film I did have the opportunity to preview is Lapü, from the festival's Vanguard section. This entrancing docu-fiction hybrid languidly depicts the Wayuü indigenous tribal custom of digging up and then reburying the dead. Lapü should be of special interest to admirers of Ciro Guerra's recent film, Birds of Passage, which enacts the same Wayuü ritual.
The most notable Asian narrative feature at SFFILM Fest is undoubtedly Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Asako I & II. The Japanese director took the festival world by storm a few years back with Happy Hour, a 317-minute paean to adult female friendship. That film's fervid reception resulted in a 2018 Cannes competition slot for his latest. Clocking in at a tidy two-hours, Asako relates one young woman's years-long obsession with two identical-looking men; a shy teen outcast who becomes a top fashion model, and a down-to-earth sake company marketing manager. Despite skillful direction, engaging script and fine performances, I found it much less profound than Happy Hour, and truth be told, a bit tedious in the final stretch. I was far more impressed with Qiu Sheng's Suburban Birds, a fascinating New Directors entry from China which alternates between two metaphysically linked narrative tracks. In the first, a team of structural engineers investigates why some buildings in the city of Wenjing are starting to tilt. The other lovingly conveys the quotidian (mis)adventures of a small group of pre-teen classmates. How these two threads relate (or not?!) should inspire spirited Q&As with director Qiu Sheng, who is expected to attend the festival. Bonus points are given for the film's use of Sonic Youth's "Little Trouble Girl" in a key scene.
Other Asian options at the festival include two films imminently scheduled to arrive in Bay Area cinemas. Singaporean director Eric Khoo's Ramen Shop hits the Opera Plaza on April 26. More often than not I find Khoo's films queasily sentimental and will probably give this one a pass. Opening at the Embarcadero Center Cinema on May 17 is Ritesh Batra's Photograph, which reunites the Indian director of 2013's wildly popular The Lunchbox with that film's star, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Rounding out the fest's Asian selections are First Night Nerves, the latest from Hong Kong arthouse master Stanley Kwan (Rouge, Lan Yu), and Dark Wave sidebar entry Project Gutenberg. The latter is a Chinese action thriller with a superstar cast (Aaron Kwok, Chow Yun Fat) helmed by the writer of 2002's Internal Affairs (Felix Chong). It should prove extremely fun to watch on the Castro Theatre's enormous screen.
From elsewhere in the line-up I previewed two more worthwhile entries, both of which premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. In My Room is German director Ulrich Köhler's first film since his woozily mysterious, African-set Sleeping Sickness, which SFFILM screened in 2012. Following a half-hour set-up whereby we're introduced to Armin, a borderline schlubby TV news cameraman, we see him awaken to an existential apocalypse in which people have disappeared but everything else in the world is basically unchanged. The film remains extremely compelling as he begins life anew on an abandoned farmstead. Interest wanes, however, when the arrival of a female co-survivor slowly transforms the narrative into a more traditional relationship drama. In The Harvesters, Etienne Kallos' absorbing study of strained masculinity in a religious Afrikaner farm community, a teenage boy's world shifts dramatically when his family adopts a troubled urban teen whose past includes gay street hustling. I was wowed by the film's widescreen photography of stark South African landscapes, as well as by the empathetic performances of its two adolescent lead actors.
Out of the remaining bounty of narrative features, I'll close with three I'd be damn certain not to miss were I able to attend the festival in person. Loro promises another fevered, collaborative take on Italian politics from director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, The Great Beauty) and actor Toni Servillo. Their target this go-round is villainous, vainglorious media tycoon and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Originally shown in Italy as two separate, two-hour movies, this 150-minute "international" version has its detractors. Given the talent involved, however, it remains a personal must-see. I'm certain The Nightingale will also be a must-see for anyone who had the shit scared out of them watching 2014's The Babadook. Jennifer Kent's follow-up film is a female revenge opus set in 19th Tasmania. Lastly, I wouldn't dream of missing the festival's 50th anniversary, 4K restoration screening of John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, featuring an appearance by photographer Michael Childers, the director's life partner and assistant on this ground-breaking, Best Picture Oscar winner. Anyone who attended the Castro Theatre's weekend-long Schlesinger tribute in 2006, or has heard him talk on last year's Criterion Collection release of the film, knows that Childers has some wild tales to tell.