Tuesday, April 21, 2009

SFIFF52 Preview Capsules

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) is set to start on Thursday and I'm all amped-up for two weeks of movies, movies, movies. (Coincidentally, that's the same day the line-up for this year's Cannes Film Festival will be announced – the cycle begins anew). I've bought tickets for 23 films, and will probably see several more depending on the vagaries of press ticket availability. Plus, for the first time in 33 years of coming to this festival, I'm actually attending opening night.

What follows are 10 capsule write-ups of films I've been able to preview in the past few weeks, listed in order of most favorite to least. Those with "HR" designations are "Hold Review" titles – films with U.S. distribution for which I'm restricted to 75 words. Following that are some random comments on six other films I've seen. All were seen on screener DVDs, with the exception of (Untitled), Tyson and Adoration, for which I attended press screenings.

Oblivion (Netherlands, dir. Heddy Honigmann, HR)
A Lima bartender likens recent Peruvian elections to a choice between Hepatitis B and AIDS, while spinning a hypnotic allegory comparing the country's history to a badly mixed Pisco Sour. He's one of many charismatic raconteurs in this eloquent documentary about the resiliency of Peruvians – shopkeepers, waitresses, traffic-light acrobats, frog juice vendors – and their sad legacy of electing leaders unworthy of them. Direct but not didactic, heart wrenching but not hopeless, this humanist portrait is perhaps the best film yet from Peruvian-born Dutch filmmaker Honigmann.

Wild Field (Russia, dir. Mikhail Kalatozishvili)
In the middle of an isolated steppe somewhere in Kazakhstan, a young doctor single-handedly administers a dilapidated field hospital. Lacking proper instruments and medicine, he's relies upon crude ingenuity. A comatose drunk gets a hot branding iron to the stomach. A cow that swallowed a tablecloth is given 100 doses of laxative meant for humans. A woman with a bullet wound to the stomach is laid out on a slab of rock, the slug pulled out by the doctor's bare hand. Between these sporadic emergencies are scenes of solitary downtime – washing clothes, reading, sending Morse code messages and occasionally riding his motorcycle to a mailbox in the middle of nowhere. There are occasional visitors, such as the flirtatious daughter of a local bigwig. And in one of several light metaphysical touches, someone (or some-thing) is observing him from a nearby mountaintop. All of this adds up to a film experience that's alternately gripping and meditative, strange and powerful. The barren landscapes of the Kazakh steppes are stunningly photographed, making me truly regret having to miss seeing this on a big screen during the festival.

The Window (Argentina/Spain, dir. Carlos Sorin, HR)
My favorite Argentine director returns to SFIFF with this lovely tale of an old man's earthly farewell. At a remote Patagonian hacienda, bedridden Don Antonio dictates the preparations for a visit by his estranged son, a famous European pianist. Amidst the hubbub, he eludes his vigilant housekeepers and slips out for a fateful final stroll in the fields, reconnecting with life's pleasures (like pissing in the breeze). Elegant, nuanced, leisurely, melancholy, reflective, humorous and masterful.

Our Beloved Month of August (Portugal/France dir. Miguel Gomes)
45-minutes into this 2 1/2 hour film, I was longingly eyeing the DVD eject button. Thus far, I had only seen a messy, scattershot collage of rural Portugal – scenes of disparate odd characters, religious processions, boar hunting and quoits playing, outdoor music festival clips, some pretty scenery – and most tellingly, on-screen arguments between the filmmaker and his producer. At the one-hour mark, a narrative finally emerged in the form of a troubled romance between two young musicians/cousins. And by the end, I found myself completely seduced by this marvelously complex film and its vivid portrait of a specific place in our world. It generously rewards the patient viewer; all that miscellany in the first hour comes into play later. It's a film I'd eagerly see again if given the opportunity. One caveat…it helps to have an appreciation, if not a tolerance, for earnestly sung, slightly cheesy MOR/Lite-Rock ballads.

(Untitled) (USA, dir. Jonathan Parker, HR)
The world of contemporary art – its artists, gallery owners and collectors – gets mercilessly lampooned in this shrewd and hilarious satire. Adam Goldberg stars as a modernist composer who steals his brother's girlfriend, a gallery owner fond of noisy clothing. Her star artist (Vinnie Jones) makes installation pieces featuring taxidermy and household appliances, and her biggest customer is a dot-com zillionaire who views collecting art as "intervening in cultural history." Chock full of fabulously quotable lines you'll be struggling to remember as you exit the theater.

The Other One (France, dir. Pierre Trividic, Patrick Mario Bernard)
Anne-Marie is a capable, 47-year-old social worker who casually decides to let go of her younger, African-immigrant lover. When he takes up with another older woman, however, she becomes progressively unhinged by jealously, paranoia and self-loathing. You'd swear the part was written for Isabelle Huppert, but Dominique Blanc gives a vulnerable, riveting performance for which she won the Best Actress prize at last year's Venice Film Festival. It's a role not lacking in histrionics, but Blanc and the filmmakers mostly sidestep a descent into cheap melodrama. The film itself is highly stylized and engaging to watch – with its constricted urban setting, jagged narrative structure and unsettling music score.

Kimjongilia (USA/South Korea/France, dir. N.C. Heiken)
I'm not sure why (perhaps because of the photo in the festival catalog), but I was expecting this film to be a fun romp through the excesses of North Korean mindset. You know… the campy propaganda films, bizarre military parades and cast-of-thousands stadium spectaculars fetishising the cult of Kim(s) Il-sung and Jong-il. Although those things are interspersed throughout, what we mostly have here are harrowing personal tales recounted by North Korean escapees. We hear firsthand about life in the most isolated country in the world; the mass starvation and the labor camps. If someone is arrested, three generations of their family get "purged." We hear escape stories – from a man who was inspired by a smuggled copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, to a woman who was sold into years of sex slavery after escaping to China. The documentary makes good use of limited archival materials to trace the history of North Korea, from Kim Il-sung's birth in 1912 to the present. Several modern dance sequences visually complement the words of the interviewees. This film should be of interest to all Californians, as we get closer to the possibility of being within striking distance of North Korean long-range nuclear missiles.

Mid-August Lunch (Italy, dir. Gianni di Gregorio, HR)
Representing a 180º reversal in subject matter, the screenwriter of Gomorrah makes his feature directing debut with this story of a put-upon, middle-aged Roman bachelor (played by the director) forced to take care of four old ladies during the Feast of the Assumption holiday. Even people allergic to movies about cute n' cranky old people should find this surprisingly agreeable, at least until the groan-worthy end credits sequence. Slight, but satisfying – and at 74 minutes not a second too short.

Tyson (USA, dir. James Toback, HR)
I have zero interest in sports and am appalled by the very notion of boxing. That said, I found this self-reflective portrait of notorious ex-heavyweight champ and pop culture miscreant Mike Tyson a very compelling watch. This is 100% Tyson on Tyson – surveying his warts-and-all life and career in on-screen interviews and voiceover. He's extraordinarily forthright and self-aware in discussing his childhood and rise to fame, at times choking back tears. When it comes to the later headline-grabbing stuff, however… not so much.

Modern Life (France, dir. Raymond Depardon)
This is the third look at the changing face of agrarian France from the country's leading documentary filmmaker. I didn't see the first two films, which is perhaps one reason I found this less than captivating. Depardon revisits many of the same farmers he profiled in L'approche and Daily Life, and they're a reticent bunch, often giving one-word answers or staring silently into the camera. The most interesting narrative thread belongs to the Privat brothers, octogenarian dairy farmers who handed responsibility over to a nephew and are deeply resentful of his non-farmer wife. Most memorably, Depardon transitions each interview with a traveling shot of the rural road connecting one farm to next. Filmed in different seasons and at varying times of day, they give the viewer an extraordinary feel for landscapes of rural France. Personally, I hope the next Depardon film I see is return look at France's criminal justice system à la Caught in the Act, Faits Divers and 10th District Court.

In Pierre Scholler's methodical Versailles, Guillaume Depardieu gives a credible performance as an urban forest-dwelling vagrant reluctantly made caretaker and surrogate father to a homeless boy. As a Francophile, I mostly found myself drawn to the film's take on the French social services system. Sometime last year, I watched a screener of Norwegian director Pierre Scholler's redemption tale Troubled Water, and was very impressed with the disorienting, but brilliant narrative P.O.V. shift made halfway through. This compelling film is about a young church organist who committed a horrible crime in his youth. I've never been a huge fan of Canadian director Atom Egoyan's perversely arch style (the exception being 1993's Calendar), and his latest film Adoration is no exception. He takes on an overloaded mishmash of contemporary issues and ideas – terrorism, religion, identity, memory, communication in the internet age – all of which set my eyeballs a-rollin' with each new ludicrous plot twist and character revelation. In Celia Murga's purposefully inert A Week Alone, a group of rich Argentine kids kill time while their folks are away. The arrival of a lower class youth (the teenage brother of the housemaid caring for the kids) adds some sorely needed drama, but even that's kept low-key. I really wanted to love Zift, Javor Gadev's wildly ambitious Bulgarian black comedy about the deep shit a man gets into upon release from prison. Copulating praying mantises, a diamond hidden in the penis of an African fertility statue and even a parody of Rita Hayworth's big number from Gilda are just a few of the deranged ideas contained in the film. Unfortunately, their execution comes off labored, and there's an over-reliance on first-person narrative voiceover. Despite these shortcomings, however, the film is very much worth having a look at. Proving that the craze for docu-fiction hybrids has gone world-wide, we have Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Dahis Antipuesto's Confessional, in which a filmmaker documenting an out-of-town Filipino religious festival inadvertently becomes confessor to a corrupt, murderous ex-mayor of Mindinao.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Looking Ahead

With the 52nd SF International Film Festival looming large in the weeks ahead, it's seems almost gluttonous to be peering past May 7. But several Bay Area venues and festivals have announced upcoming film programs which merit an immediate look-see.

Just when you thought Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) film/video curator Joel Shepard couldn't possibly top the giddy diversity of his recent programming, he marshals a line-up like this one. I zeroed right in on two important films I'd hoped to find in the SFIFF, but didn't – Hong Sang-soo's Night and Day and Philippe Garrel's Frontier of Dawn. Like Asian directors Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiou-hsien before him, Korean director Hong has sent his characters on a sojourn to Paris. Night and Day's protagonist is said to be typically Hong-ian; a cluelessly boorish 45-year-old married artist who flees a messy drug scandal in Seoul, only to entangle himself with several younger female Korean ex-pats in the City of Lights. (May 21, 22 and 24)

Following through on last year's double bill of Philippe Garrel rarities I Don't Hear the Guitar Anymore and The Virgin's Bed, YBCA now brings us the director's 2008 Cannes competition entry Frontier of Dawn. As with 2005's Regular Lovers, Garrel is working once more in B&W and with his impossibly handsome son, Louis. Garrel fils stars as a photographer hired to shoot an unhinged actress with whom he falls in love. She ends up in the nuthouse and commits suicide, and a year later her ghost impedes on his relationship with a new woman. The film has gotten very mixed reactions as it's traveled the fest circuit, so I'm grateful to YBCA for giving me the chance to see for myself. (And perhaps if we're lucky, YBCA will get around to bringing us Louis Garrel's second outing with director Christophe Honoré, 2008's La belle personne.) (May 14 and 17)

In the documentary The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry, directors Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough profile one of contemporary music's undisputed geniuses. Perry was instrumental in transforming Jamaican ska into the music we know as reggae, as well as being sole creator of the stripped-down, reverb-heavy sound known as dub. He produced many of the greats, from Bob Marley to The Clash, as well as his own legacy of solo sonic experimentations (earning him the nickname "The Salvador Dali of Reggae.") Unfortunately, it's a musical success story that devolves all too familiarly into a tale of drug abuse and madness. (April 24 and 25)

YBCA has become renowned for its multifarious rep programming, and there are some real lulus this time out – all presented in 35mm prints. First up this Saturday, April 18 is Cinemapolalypse, a double-feature one-night tour stop by the folks at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. They'll be screening 1976's Jack Palance-starring Italian gangster flick Mister Scarface, as well as the Citizen Kane of women's prison movies, 1983's Chained Heat. (The following night, the Alamo Drafthouse moves over to the Castro Theater for a quadruple feature, co-presented by Midnites for Maniacs. Titled Fighting Back…in the 80's, the program consists of Vigilante, Raw Force, Escape from New York and Lady Terminator.)

Francine Parker's F.T.A. (a.k.a. Free the Army or Fuck the Army) documents Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland's tour of Pacific Rim army bases during the height of the Vietnam War. Accompanied by other actors and musicians like Peter Boyle, Steve Jaffe and Holly Near, their satiric sketch comedy/musical revue aimed at getting soldiers to speak out against the war. Interestingly, the film opened in U.S. theaters the same week Fonda made her infamous trip to Hanoi. It was "mysteriously" yanked from cinemas after a seven-day run and made to disappear – until now. F.T.A. screens on May 7 as part of a program called Coming Apart: Two Views of 1972; that other view being Wes Craven's original Last House on the Left (May 9).

Arguably the most anticipated film at this year's Cannes Film Festival (and to the best of my knowledge, the only thing that's been definitely announced so far) is Quentin Tarantino's remake of the cult WWII action adventure flick The Inglorious Bastards with Brad Pitt. Days after either winning or not winning the Palme d'or, YBCA audiences will have a rare opportunity to see the 1978 original starring Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson. This first version is about a gang of condemned army criminals who get a shot at redemption – by volunteering for a commando suicide mission behind enemy lines. (May 29 and 31). Finally (and totally unrelated) on May 30 YBCA presents a program of classic Laurel and Hardy shorts, including Men O'War, Their First Mistake and Busy Bodies.

Over the past year the SF Museum of Modern Art has become an increasingly important venue for Bay Area repertory programming, featuring both themed series (May '68, Dystopia) and comprehensive tributes (Derek Jarman, Chantal Akerman). Up next is a two-month retrospective of maverick photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank, arguably best known for his 1972 Rolling Stones tour documentary Cocksucker Blues. SFMOMA's tribute to Frank includes 18 of the 21 films listed in his imdb profile – but alas, Cocksucker isn't one of them. The film last screened here at the 1998 SFIFF with Frank in person, a stipulation that was part of the director's original court settlement with the Stones over copyright ownership. The film series appears in conjunction with a SFMOMA exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Americans, Frank's seminal work of American photography. The exhibit will feature all 83 photographs from the book (out of the 28,000 he took while traveling across the U.S. from 1955 to 1957), exhibited in the order in which they appeared therein. The film retrospective runs from May 2 to June 27, and the exhibit Looking In: Robert Frank's "The Americans" can be seen from May 16 to August 23. In other exciting museum film news, the Nagisa Oshima retrospective that's been touring North America for the past year is finally coming to the Berkeley Art Museum's Pacific Film Archive Archive in May/June.

The Frameline festival and SF Jewish Film Festival have recently revealed tidbits of what we might expect from their annual events in June and July respectively. Getting my attention big-time was the announcement that Little Joe, the Joe Dallesandro documentary which had its world premiere at Berlin, will get a Frameline screening with Joe himself in attendance. Also expected are new films from inveterate Frameline favorites John Greyson, Monika Treut, and duo Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau. Some personal anticipated highlights of the SFJFF are Empty Nest, the latest from Argentine director Daniel Burman (Family Law, Lost Embrace), and Defamation, another controversial work from Israeli documentarian Yoav Shamir (Checkpoint, Flipping Out). The festival's Freedom of Expression Award will go to Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) and there'll be a tribute to the Ma'aleh Jerusalem film school.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

SFIFF52 The Line-Up Part 3 (Everywhere Else)

In Part One of my look at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF52) line-up, I ran through most of this year's awards, tributes, special events and those films which were announced prior to the official press conference. Part Two gave an overview of the films from Latin America and Europe. Now, in Part Three, I'll look at what's on offer from Everywhere Else – meaning the USA/Canada, Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Arguably the American film with the biggest pre-festival profile this year is James Toback's Tyson, a documentary portrait of controversial heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Toback will be in town to accept the Kanbar Award for Screenwriting, and the screening will follow an on-stage interview by film writer/historian David Thomson. The director is an interesting choice for this award, considering that with the exception of Karel Reisz' The Gambler (1974) and Barry Levinson's Bugsy (1991), all of Toback's screenplays have been for films he himself has directed. This is the first Toback film to play the SFIFF since The Big Bang was one of four Opening Night films in 1990. Tyson is scheduled to open in Bay Area theaters sometime in May.

I'm usually so caught up in seeing foreign films at the SFIFF, I rarely even consider the selection of U.S. indies. This year, however, there are two that sound irresistible. (untitled) is a satire of the contemporary art world, and stars one of my favorite American actors, Adam Goldberg, as an avant-garde composer who falls for his brother's girlfriend, a fashionable art gallery dealer. The film is by Jonathan Parker, who directed the remarkable 2001 adaptation of Herman Melville's Bartleby with Crispin Glover. The other film is Everything Strange and New, the narrative feature debut by Bay Area-based cinematographer/filmmaker Frazer Bradshaw. Shot in Oakland, the film is a semi-experimental narrative about a disillusioned carpenter with a house, a wife and two kids. In his rave review in Variety, Peter Debruge writes that the film is "a first glimpse of what post-recession independent cinema could look like, offering a revisionist, glass-half-empty take on the American dream…that provides as close to a time-capsule record of this moment in time as a film can provide today."

American documentaries are also usually well off my SFIFF radar, but this year there are five I hope to make time for. Assembled from the outtakes of When We Were Kings (the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary about the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle"), Soul Power documents the three-day music festival in Kinshasa, Zaire which preceded the prizefight. Featured performers include James Brown, The Spinners, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers, Hugh Masekela and B.B. King. Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte was an editor on the original film, and Soul Power marks his directorial debut. (The film is scheduled to open in Bay Area theaters 7/17). The other four docs are Gerald Peary's self-explanatory For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider's Speaking in Tongues (about foreign language immersion schools for young children), N.C. Heiken's Kimjongilia (a savage take on life in North Korea) and Lee Anne Schmitt's California Company Town (about ghost towns created by corporate abandonment). Many of the remaining non-fiction films in the fest are end-of-the-world docs, a genre from which I'm currently on holiday. And as an ardent non-believer attending a secular film festival, you're unlikely to find me at New Muslim Cool, or its related forum, Truth, Youth and the New Muslim Cool.

Apart from the French-language It's Not Me, I Swear!, there's only one other Canadian feature in the festival. But it's a significant one – the latest from Canada's most internationally recognized director, Atom Egoyan. Adoration is about a teen who writes a story imagining his dead parents as terrorists, and what happens when that fantasy takes on a viral life of its own. As with most of Egoyan's films, this one stars the director's wife – the always engaging Arsinée Khanjian as the boy's teacher. Adoration is the first Egoyan film to play the SFIFF since 1993's Calendar, and is scheduled to open in Bay Area theaters on 5/15.

Middle East
Perhaps as a sign that the SF Arab Film Festival and SF Jewish Film Festival are doing a formidable job of bringing the region's best films to the Bay Area, there is only one Middle Eastern narrative feature in SFIFF52. Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi's wry social satire Laila's Birthday follows a former judge turned taxi-driver as he navigates his way around a "typical" day in contemporary Ramallah. The film stars Mohammed Bakri, whom SFIFF audiences may remember from The Olive Harvest and Private. I'm also hoping to catch a screening of Yun Suh's U.S. documentary City of Borders, which is a look at the only gay bar in Jerusalem.

Other than the Moroccan-set, French co-production French Girl, there are sadly no African narrative features to be found in this year's fest. There are, however, several documentaries which are either partially or completely African in setting or subject matter (such as the previously mentioned Soul Power). The one of interest to me is Cameroon director Jean-Marie Téno's Sacred Places, a portrait of a movie theater and its proprietor in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. This is Téno's fourth film to be screened at SFIFF, and it will be preceded by an earlier short of his from 1987, Homage.

2008 was a relatively low-key year for Asian films (a note to the Geography Police – I'll using that designation in its broadest possible sense) on the international festival circuit, and most of the notable ones screened at last month's SF International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF). Therefore there were only four films I'd hoped to find in the SFIFF line-up, and the festival has programmed two. Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking was the undisputed hit of last year's Toronto Film Festival, where it had its international premiere. Based on the director's own novel, the film is a lyrical examination of generational conflict in which an extended, dysfunctional family gathers to commemorate the loss of a beloved son/sibling 15 years earlier.

Praised for its gentle humor and gorgeous cinematography, Sergey Dvortsevoy's Tulpan tells the story of a young man recently discharged from the Russian navy who returns to his home in rural Kazakhstan. Intent on living the shepherd's life, tradition dictates that he can't take possession of a herd until he marries (and the only eligible bachelorette has rejected him because of his big ears). Tulpan won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section of last year's Cannes Film Festival, and is scheduled to open in Bay Area theaters on 5/8. For what it's worth, the two Asian films which didn't make the line-up are Hong Sang-soo's set-in-Paris Night and Day, and Kôji Wakamatsu's uncompromising, 190-minute study of Japanese student radicals of the 1960s, United Red Army. Both were critically acclaimed and oddly passed over by the SFIFF and the SFIAAFF in both 2008 and 2009.

I drew a complete blank when I first looked at the rest of the Asian line-up, but two South Korean films have emerged as personal must-sees. Yim Phil-Sung's wild, contemporary re-imagining of Hansel and Gretel (being shown in the fest's The Late Show section) sounds like a blast. Then in Choi Ho's Go Go 70s, political repression of youth culture is blended with the story of a real-life 1970s Korean Rock n' Soul revue band, The Devils. (An image from the film graces the cover of this year's festival catalog). I'll probably also want to have a look at Hong Kong action film The Beast Stalker, especially after reading this ringing endorsement from Variety's Derek Elley: "Stygian crimer Beast Stalker grips like a vise, and is unquestionably the finest Asian action-psychodrama since South Korea's The Chaser last year…a major return to form by genre helmer Dante Lam."

Several other Asian films have received excellent reviews. Acclaimed Hong Kong screenwriter Ivy Ho makes her directorial debut with Claustrophobia, a story of romance and sexual politics in the workplace. The fate of an infant abandoned in the back seat of a taxi cab grounds Barmak Akram's neo-realist fable from Afghanistan, Kabuli Kid. First-time Australian director Benjamin Gilmour disguised himself as a local and shot guerilla-style in northern Pakistan for Son of a Lion. The film is about a young boy whose education is thwarted by his father's insistence that he learn the family trade of firearms manufacturing. In Özcan Alper's Autumn – the first narrative feature ever filmed in the Hemsin language of northeastern Turkey – a young recently-released political prisoner returns home and comes to terms with a world he no longer recognizes. At the festival's press conference, programmers had high praise for another feature set in Kazakhstan, Russian director Mikhail Kalatozishvili' Wild Field.

Admirers of Ying Liang's 2006 SKYY prize-winning Taking Father Home and its follow-up, 2007's The Other Half, will surely want to see Good Cats, the director's latest exegesis on the negative effects of capitalism in modern China. The festival's other narrative feature from the mainland is He Jianjun's River People, a docu-fiction hybrid about an extended family of fishermen in Shanxi province. The lone entry from the Philippines in this year's festival is Confessional, Ruel Dahis Antipuesto and Jerrold Tarog's mockumentary about small-town corruption. And finally, there are two Indian features in SFIFF52, Mazhar Kamran's Mohandas and Suman Mukhopadhyay's Chaturanga (Four Chapters).

Monday, April 6, 2009

SFIFF52 The Line-Up Part 2 (Latin America and Europe)

When I finally got a look at the complete line-up for the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF52), I'll admit I was more disappointed than thrilled. Out of 25 films on my festival wishlist, only seven had made the cut. I did notice a number of films with familiar titles and/or directors and was certainly delighted at their inclusion. But ultimately, it felt like way too many of the big international festival hits of 2008 were M.I.A., and in their rightful place stood a bunch of unknown entities. There also seemed to be more than the usual number of films that will soon open in Bay Area cinemas. I have little interest in seeing these at our festival, unless the director will be in attendance (and to the festival's credit, it appears that many of them will be.)

In the end, one can either waste time mourning the festival one wished for, or get busy scoping out the festival one is being handed. So with that in mind I spent an afternoon reading Variety reviews of all those unfamiliar titles. From my research I've concluded that far from being full of non-starters, this year's SFIFF offers a beguiling spread from which it will indeed be difficult to choose. What follows is my very subjective tour of the line-up.

Latin America
Most of the grumbling I've heard about SFIFF52 concerns the Latin American selection. Last year the festival screened very few films from the region – the programmers rightfully claiming that, with the exception of Mexico, it had been an off year. In 2008, however, virtually every important director released a new film. Last autumn's pitiable SF Latino Film Festival (an organization which is now kaput, if rumors I hear are correct) didn't screen any of them, and it was hoped that the SFIFF would pick up the slack.

And to an extent they have. Lake Tahoe, Fernando Eimbcke's follow-up to 2004's hilariously deadpan Duck Season, is perhaps the film I'm most anticipating in this year's festival. (It just won the Ariel – Mexico's Oscar – for Best Film and Best Director). Argentine auteur Carlos Sorin returns to SF for a fourth time with his latest, The Window. Rudo y Cursi reunites the two male stars of Y tu mama también and is directed by that film's co-writer Carlos Cuaron (Rudo y Cursi opens in the Bay Area on 5/15). Dutch director Heddy Honigmann, winner of the festival's Persistence of Vision Award in 2007, returns with Oblivion, a second documentary filmed in her native Lima, Peru (the first being 1994's Metal For Melancholy). And speaking of the Persistence of Vision Award, this year's recipient is none other than Bay Area filmmaker Lourdes Portillo (The Devil Never Sleeps, The Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo, Señorita extraviada), a director "whose three-decade focus on Latino experience on both sides of the Latin American-U.S. border has taken myriad forms through a keen, interdependent harnessing of imagination, self-reflection and narrative excavation, always with a profound commitment to the justice and dignity owed her subjects." I couldn't have said it better myself, so I didn't. Portillo will be interviewed by film critic John Anderson, followed by a screening of her latest work, Al Más Alla.

All of this is well and good, but where I ask, is Lucrecia Martel's
The Headless Woman, which ranked #1 on Film Comment's 20 Best Unreleased Films of 2008? Or Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero and Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool, which ranked #9 and #10 respectively on that same list. The festival has screened three previous Pablo Trapero films, so why not last year's Cannes competition entry, Lion's Den. Or Walter Salles' Linha de Passe, with its Cannes Best Actress Prize for Sandra Corveloni. From Mexico we're missing Rodrigo Plá's Desert Within (winner of a whopping eight Ariels) and Gerardo Naranjo's I'm Going to Explode, among others. Icing on the cake would have been three significant films from this year's Berlin Film Festival – Claudia Llosa's Golden Bear winner The Milk of Sorrow, Adrián Biniez' Silver Bear winner Gigante, and Lucia Puenzo's follow-up to XXY, The Fish Child. In their place, the festival has programmed Argentine director Celina Murga's A Week Alone (her film Ana and the Others played the festival in 2003), Gabriel Medina's The Paranoids (also from Argentina), Andrés Wood's The Good Life (from the director of the 2004 Chilean arthouse hit Machuca) and Gasoline, the debut film from Guatemalan writer/director Julio Hernandez Cordon. These films will need to be awfully good to make us forget those we're missing out on.

There are 11 French language features in SFIFF52, nine of which I'd been fervently hoping to find in this year's line-up. Perched at the top are new films from two of France's most important directors, Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat. Denis' 35 Shots of Rum is a lighthearted family drama which garnered the director's best reviews since 1999's Beau Travail. Breillat, whose The Last Mistress opened last year's SFIFF, returns with a provocative take on the Bluebeard legend. Vincent Cassel just won a Best Actor Cesar Award for his lead performance in Mesrine: A Film in Two Parts. This four-hour biopic of celebrated French career criminal Jacques Mesrine co-stars some of the biggest names in French cinema, including Mathieu Amalric, Ludvine Sagnier, Olivier Gourmet, Cécile de France and Gérard Depardieu. The latter's son, Guillaume Depardieu, sadly passed away last year and the festival is screening Versailles, one of his final performances. He portrays a vagrant whose life is turned around when a homeless woman leaves her young son in his care.

Dominique Blanc plays a middle-aged woman possessed by jealousy, paranoia and self-loathing in The Other One, a performance for which she won the Best Actress prize at last year's Venice Film Festival. It sounds like a role custom-made for Isabelle Huppert, who will be represented in this year's festival by Home, a first narrative feature from director Ursula Meier. Director Olivier Assayas has received the best reviews of his career for Summer Hours, in which three geographically estranged siblings (played by Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jérémie Renier) must dispose of their dead mother's culturally requisite estate. (The film opens in Bay Area theaters on 5/22). Modern Life will be the ninth film by revered social documentarian Raymond Depardon to appear in the SFIFF. His latest examines the plight of French farmers and the disappearing face of rural France. From French-speaking Canada comes Philippe Falardeau's It's Not Me, I Swear! , a film set in 1968 whose main character is a "10-year-old hellion with a cause." I was a big fan of Falardeau's Congorama, which screened at SFIFF two years ago, and am excited about seeing his latest work.

The two French films which were previously unknown to me are French Girl and Khamsa. The former is the directorial debut of Souad El-Bouhati and tells the story of an 18-year girl living in Morocco who longs to repatriate to the France of her childhood. The girl is played by Hafsia Herzi, and anyone who saw her stunning performance in last year's The Secret of the Grain surely won't want to miss this. Khamsa follows the struggles of a 13-year-old boy living in a Roma community on the outskirts of Marseilles. The director is Karim Dridi, whose memorable film Bye Bye played the festival in 1996.

As excited as I was by all of these French films in the fest, there were many more whose absence leaves me a bit mystified. Consider the following a partial wishlist for the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now series this autumn: Philippe Garrel's Frontier of Dawn, Christophe Honoré's La Belle Personne, Rithy Panh's The Sea Wall, Claude Chabrol's Bellamy, André Téchiné's The Girl on the Train, Benoît Jacquot's Villa Amalia, Costa-Gavras' Eden is West, Joachim Lafosse's Private Lessons, François Ozon's Ricky, Martin Provost's Séraphine, Erick Zonca's Julia and Jan Kounen's 99 Francs.

Elsewhere in Europe
There are at least a dozen other European countries represented in this year's festival, and the film I'm most excited about is Spanish director Jaime Rosales' Bullet in the Head. Rosales directed last year's Solitary Fragments, which screened at SFIFF51 and emerged my favorite film of the year. His latest is supposed to be a slow, seemingly mundane anti-narrative that eventually explodes with an act of violence perpetrated by Basque terrorists. The film has received its share of scathing reviews, so I was very pleasantly surprised to find it programmed here. There are several other films which have been saddled with the "difficult" tag. Kornél Mundruczó's minimalist Cannes competition entry Delta, I've been told is a gorgeously shot tale of brother/sister incest set on the Romanian Danube River delta. Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August is an improvised 147-minute documentary/fiction hybrid filmed amidst Portugal's rural summer music festivals. A highly inventive, darkly-comic B&W noir set during Bulgaria's communist era is the stuff of Javor Gardev's Zift, one of four films in this year's The Late Show series. Winner of the Grand Prix in Cannes' Critics Week competition, Aida Begic's Snow is set in a remote Bosnian village populated exclusively with war widows and children.

There are also a number of evident crowd-pleasers in the festival's European mix. Screenwriter Gianni di Gregorio (Gomorrah) makes his directorial debut with Mid-August Lunch, in which a middle-aged Roman man finds himself caring for four elderly women during the Feast of the Assumption. Christos Georgiou's Small Crime is a combination police procedural and romantic comedy set on a beautiful Greek isle. The one film in the festival I've already seen is Erik Poppe's Troubled Water, a compelling Norwegian redemption tale with a clever narrative twist. Children-in-peril films are usually popular with festival audiences and this year's SFIFF has several, including Lance Daly's Dublin-set Kisses, described as a cross between Huckleberry Finn and The Night of the Hunter. And although they hardly sound like crowd pleasers per se, there are three other films from The Continent I hope to see should time permit: Esther Rots' Can Go Through Skin (Netherlands), Simon Staho's Heaven's Heart (Sweden) and Adrian Sitaru's Hooked (Romania).

From Great Britain there are three films that have caught my attention. To the best of my knowledge there hasn't been a Peter Greenaway film screened in the Bay Area since 1999's
8 1/2 Women, so I'm very happy we're being given the chance to see his latest, Rembrandt's J'accuse. The film is a cine-essay on a hypothesis explored in his brilliant 2007 narrative feature Nightwatching – that is, a belief that a murder mystery is contained within Rembrandt's painting "The Night Watch." One of the most critically acclaimed films from this year's Sundance Film Festival was Armando Iannucci's In the Loop. This scathing satire on the trans-Atlantic Bush/Blair build-up to the Iraq War stars James Gandolfini and Steve Coogan, and is scheduled to open in Bay Area theaters in July. Finally, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert director Stephan Elliott directs his first film in ten years, Easy Virtue. This Noel Coward adaptation stars Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth, and will be in Bay Area theaters on 5/29.

My overview of the SFIFF52 continues in Part Three, where I have a look at the films from the USA/Canada, Middle East, Africa and Asia.