Thursday, June 25, 2009
Norwegian Black Metal, Graphic Sexual Horror and a Headless Woman. Jeez, is it Halloween already? No, it's just this summer's insouciant film/video line-up at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. But before we dig into what curator Joel Shepard has in store through September, here's exciting news for YBCA filmgoers. Starting July 6, ticket holders will be allowed FREE admittance into YBCA's exhibition galleries, whose days and hours of operation have been adjusted to align with evening film and video screenings.
First up on YBCA's movie roster is Gary Hustwit's Objectified, a new documentary about the taken-for-granted world of industrial design – from toothbrushes to MP3 players to potato peelers. If anyone can render this subject fascinating, it's Hustwit, whose 2007 film Helvetica turned obsession with a typeface into a cult hit. YBCA must be expecting a hit of its own with this doc – there are 23 screenings scheduled between June 24 to 28. Take a break from Frameline and head on over for one of them.
Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell's Until the Light Takes Us (July 9 & 11) shines a torch on the stygian world of Norwegian Black Metal, a musical subgenre that grabbed headlines for inspiring a wave of murder, suicide and over 50 church burnings in the early '90s. The filmmakers were reluctantly introduced to the music by an insistent employee at San Francisco's Aquarius Records, which subsequently inspired them to spend two years in Norway gathering materials for this film. Moving from extreme music to extreme sexuality, the following weekend at YBCA brings us Anna Lorentzon and Barbara Bell's Graphic Sexual Horror (July 16 & 17). This documentary tells the story of Insex, a now-defunct BDSM website featuring exclusively female submissives that was also an early pioneer of internet video streaming and live feeds.
"Where is The Headless Woman?" That was the big question on the lips of Bay Area cinephiles when the latest from Argentine director Lucrecia Martel failed to make the line-up of this year's SF International Film Festival. We'd been lusting to see this film since its world premiere at Cannes last year. My anticipation became further heightened when it got ranked #1 on Film Comment's list of 20 Best Unreleased Films of 2008. Well, leave it to YBCA to bring us not only the film, but the director as well, in a program titled Holy Girls and Headless Women: The Films of Lucrecia Martel. The ground-breaking director will appear at a screening of her 2001 debut feature La Ciénaga on July 14, followed by The Headless Woman on the following evening. Her second and middle feature, 2004's The Holy Girl will be shown on July 23 without the director in attendance (Martel accompanied the film to the SF International Film Festival in 2005). (Update 6/30: The screening of The Headless Woman will be followed by a discussion between Martel and film writer/cultural critic B. Ruby Rich).
Anyone who missed Chantal Akerman's revolutionary Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles when it screened at SF MOMA earlier this year, will get another chance on August 1 and 2. There may even be some repeat viewers – the SFMOMA screenings were marred by a missing second reel – replaced by a DVD at the first screening and 16mm at the second. This hypnotic, long (201-minute) 1975 film is considered one of the most important works in the history of cinema by many, and stars Delphine Seyrig as a middle-class widow and mother whose orderly universe s-l-o-w-l-y cracks apart.
Few things interest me less than sports, but I'm intrigued by several programs in Beyond ESPN: An Offbeat Look at the Sports Film. This month-long series, co-curated by Shepard and SF Bay Guardian Arts and Entertainment Editor Johnny Ray Huston, spans the full artsy-to-trashy gamut. Kicking off the series on August 6 is Rare Films from the Baseball Hall of Fame, followed by Jorgen Leth's A Sunday in Hell on August 9. Said to be the best film ever made about professional bicycle racing, Leth documented the grueling 1976 Paris-Roubaix race across northern France using 20 cameras and a helicopter. Contemporary audiences might know Leth best as the director assigned a series of wily filmmaking challenges by Lars Von Trier in 2003's The Five Obstructions.
Of all the films in the sports series, perhaps the one of most interest to cinephiles will be Claire Denis' 2005 never-seen-in-SF Towards Mathilde (August 13). Made in between L'intrus and 35 Shots of Rum, the film documents modern dance choreographer Mathilde Monnier as she creates a new work. The release of Criteron's William Klein boxed-set last year generated renewed interest in the work of this American born and educated director who spent most of his career in France. He's represented in this series by The French (August 16), a documentary about the 1982 French Open tennis tournament in which Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe were participants (the film is not part of the Criterion set and is not available on DVD). Then on August 20 YBCA will screen Veronica Chen's visually striking Agua, an Argentine film set in the world of open water marathon swimming (specifically the 57-km Santa Fe-Cordoba river race.) The film appeared at the 2007 SF International Film Festival, and my review for The Evening Class can be found here.
Midnites for Maniacs – and its ebullient host Jesse Hawthorne Ficks – bring their swell act to YBCA on August 23, with Winning Isn't Everything: A Tribute to 1970s Sports Film. This triple-bill marathon includes 1978 Robbie Benson-starring ice skating tear-jerker Ice Castles, Michael Ritchie's 1976 classic The Bad News Bears with Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neal, and last but not least, The Cheerleaders, a 1973 exploitation film that threatens to reveal "everything you ever wanted to know about cheerleaders but were afraid to ask."
The final weekend of YBCA's sports series brings us two more classic, rarely seen documentaries. Visions of Eight (August 28) is an omnibus film centering on the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, with segments directed by Milos Forman, Kon Ichikawa, Claude Lelouch, Arthur Penn, John Schlesinger and others. Not too long ago, YBCA had a bona fide hit on its hands with numerous sold-out showings of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, which followed French soccer star Zinedine Zidane through one complete match. The film which did this first, however, was Hellmuth Costard's 1971 Football as Never Before (August 30). Using eight cameras, soccer legend George Best is trailed though a 1970 Manchester United First Division game. Interestingly, Spike Lee employs the same method in an upcoming documentary on Kobe Bryant.
Although not officially listed on YBCA's website yet, there are two important films I'm anticipating beyond the current calendar. On September 10, 12 and 13, YBCA revives Nicholas Ray's 1956 Bigger Than Life, in which James Mason is transformed from mild-mannered schoolteacher to deluded megalomaniac – courtesy of the modern miracle drug cortisone. Then on September 17, 19 and 20 we get to see another critically acclaimed Latin American film from 2008, Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool. This latest work from the Argentine minimalist director placed 10th on the aforementioned Film Comment list of Top 20 unreleased films, and was another surprise omission from this year's SFIFF. Hopefully YBCA will continue to focus on Latin American cinema, given the fact that we no longer have a Latino Film Festival here in the Bay Area. At the top of my wish list you'll find Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero (#9 on the Film Comment list) and Rodrigo Plá's Desert Within (winner of eight 2008 Mexican Ariel awards).
Stairway to Heaven (a woman ascends the steps leading to the YBCA screening room, photo by Dallas Hyatt).
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
The 33rd edition of Frameline, L.K.A. (lesser-known-as) the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, is set for take off this Thursday. There are 80 feature-length films in this year's line-up, and I've spent the past few weeks pleasurably plowing my way through 17 of them. Overall, they're a solid and satisfying bunch. Only three films had me regretting the hours I spent in their company. And two others – a phantasmagoric documentary about AIDS activism and a tale of overdue love transforming a middle-aged Basque farmer – are perhaps my two favorite films of this year. Let's begin this preview with them.
I'm not an especially ardent fan of opera, or the provocative films of Canadian director John Greyson, which made it all the more surprising when I flipped over Fig Trees. In terms of mad ambition, fierce intelligence and artistic audaciousness, nothing I've seen in recent months, perhaps years, comes close. On its most pragmatic level, Fig Trees is a documentary about two globally disparate AIDS activists with intersecting missions. Canadian Tim McCaskell founded AIDS Action Now! and has smuggled prescription HIV drugs across international borders. Zachie Achmat is a South African activist who went on a HIV treatment strike to protest the inaccessibility of lifesaving drugs to those who can't afford them.
While some of Fig Trees consists of straight-on interviews with these courageous men, most of their story is told via a hallucinatory video opera written by Greyson and composer David Wall – which is itself a reflective homage to Four Saints in Three Acts, the surrealist Virgil Thompson/Gertrude Stein opera which premiered on Broadway in 1934 with stage sets made of cellophane and an African-American cast. McCaskell and Achmat are represented by actors/singers, as are Thompson, Stein and a gallery of Catholic saints. St. Martin, who narrates the proceedings in four different manifestations of albino squirrel-dom, is seen at one point whacking a piñata filled with meds. There's an aria completely sung in palindromes ("Zeus was defied, saw Suez," "A nut for a jar of tuna"), and another in which 26 gay classical composers, each representing a different letter of the alphabet, compete for the rights to Achmat's life story. From time to time, the opera is interrupted by a hilarious VH1-ish countdown of the top 100 AIDS songs of all time. Greyson lobs bombs at pharmaceutical companies, Bono's RED campaign and the South African Minister of Health who preached that AIDS could be cured with beet root, garlic and lemon. And as often as not, the screen is split in two, with words, words and more words – sometimes the opera libretto and sometimes not – scrolling and crawling across your field of vision. It sounds like a mess, I know, but it really does all come together in miraculous ways, with the tragedy of AIDS being equated with the tragedy found in many operas.
Fig Trees screens only once during the festival – on Monday, June 27 at 7 pm at the Castro. When it ends, you'll need to run like hell to the Victoria Theater seven blocks away, where the other film I loved, Roberto Castón's Ander begins at 9:30. Seeing Ander after Fig Trees will be like two hours in the chill-out room after a fevered night on the dance floor. It's set in the lush hills of Spanish Basque country and moves at its own slow, purposeful pace. Ander is a single, middle-aged farmer/factory worker who lives with his cantankerous mother and a younger sister who's about to be married. It's a solitary, repetitive existence, peppered by drunken trysts with Reme, a prostitute and single mother, whom he often visits in the company of his neighbor and only friend, Pelo. When Ander fractures a leg, he hires a young Peruvian named Jose to help out on the farm. This sets into motion a series of dramatically credible events that lead to a life of new possibilities for Ander, Jose and Reme. It's a thrill to watch an adult drama with such fully-formed characters, and one that completely lacks dramatic missteps. Astoundingly, this is Castón's first feature film, for which he won the C.I.C.A.E. (the association of European arthouse theaters) award at this year's Berlin Film Festival. It's worth mentioning that Ander is also one of the few Frameline films being screened in 35mm.
In addition to Fig Trees, I've previewed six other documentaries – the most anxiously anticipated (by me at least) being Little Joe, Nicole Haeusser's bio-doc on Warhol superstar turned international sex icon Joe Dallesandro. Much like James Toback's recent film on Mike Tyson, this is 100% Joe talking about Joe, and it's curious to find the man who said so little on screen orating a blue streak about his life and career. I got the feeling he was being less than forthright on certain subjects, however, and some outside perspective would have been welcome. Dallesandro says such a film can be made after he's dead, so meanwhile we'll make do with this. In addition to Joe's frequently insightful ruminations, the film contains dozens of film clips and over 300 still photos, enough to satisfy both longtime Joe-worshippers and the newly curious. A hold-review restriction on the film prevents me from elaborating more. For those planning to see this at Frameline, it's been confirmed that Dallesandro will definitely be attending the Saturday, June 20 screening at the Castro Theater.
Two of my favorite docs in this year's fest are portraits of legendary "gender illusionists," for lack of a better collective term. At age 74, Vicky Marlane is "America's oldest living professional transgender performer," and boy does she have a wild tale to tell in Michelle Lawler's Forever's Gonna Start Tonight. Born on a Minnesota farm in 1934, Marlane was a traveling carnival hoochie-coochie dancer/freakshow attraction, a prostitute and prison escapee in Tampa, and a strip-tease artist in Detroit – all before arriving in 1970 San Francisco to become the toast of its thriving nightclub drag scene. (Director Lawler does a masterful job of recreating Marlane's early misadventures with music and generic stock footage.) In the ensuing years she survived a sex change, AIDS, meth addiction and a lover's suicide, ultimately emerging as the Queen Mother of Aunt Charlie's Lounge in San Francico's Tenderloin, where she still performs on weekends. The film ends with an incendiary lip-synch performance of "Total Eclipse of the Heart." If you want to see Forever's Gonna Start Tonight at Frameline, you'll need to wait in a rush line. Vicky Marlane's legions of fans have rendered this the festival's first sell-out (apart from opening and closing nights).
I equally taken by Dacio Pinheiro's My Buddy Claudia, which is about celebrated Brazilian transvestite Claudia Wonder. Born Marco Antonio Abrão, Wonder appeared in a series of soft-core films and girlie mags in the early '80s (penis and all), before hitting her stride as the queen of São Paulo's underground punk music scene. Archival footage of her "Vomit of the Myth" shows, in which she splashes naked in a bathtub full of blood (actually red currant juice) is a thing of, um, wonder. Later she would take on the theater world, performing in a series of avant-garde plays that were banned during the years of military dictatorship. More recently, Wonder reinvented herself as an electro-clash recording artist. My Buddy Claudia is the kind of off-beat, never-to-be-seen-elsewhere film that makes Frameline so essential.
Transwoman Kimberly Reed is both the "star" and director of this year's compelling Centerpiece documentary Prodigal Sons. A former high school football co-captain and star quarterback, Reed journeys back to Helena, MT for her 20-year class reunion. She easily reconnects with former classmates, but not so easily with her resentful, brain-damaged adopted brother Marc, who's dangerously volatile when off his many medications. Over a period of several years, Reed's camera is there to record a series of increasingly strained family get-togethers, including a trip to Croatia to visit a woman who was Orson Welles' lover for 25 years. That's because – in the film's biggest kicker – it's revealed that Marc is the only grandson of Welles and Rita Hayworth. Again, truth proves stranger than fiction. This is a fascinating, heartbreaking story, but one that ultimately left me to wonder – would certain events, particularly Marc's on-camera meltdowns, have played out differently if Reed's camera hadn't been there to record them?
Pride Month is once again upon us. And despite recent setbacks like Prop 8, it's worth remembering certain things. Like the fact that unlike LGBT folks in Jerusalem and Moscow, we can march without getting stabbed by an ultra-orthodox psycho, and demonstrate without being bloodied by government-sanctioned nationalist goons. Two worthwhile documentaries in this year's festival, City of Borders and East/West – Sex & Politics are a sobering look at life in these two so-called civilized cities. Yun Suh's City of Borders begins with a group of young gay Palestinians sneaking though a hole in Israel's separation barrier/apartheid wall. They're headed for an evening at Shushan, Jerusalem's only gay bar and the film's main framing device. Among the doc's many well-chosen participants are a Palestinian/Israeli lesbian couple who bravely admit that political issues have colored their sex life, and a handsome gay activist who sees no hypocrisy in building himself a house in the Occupied Territories. A good chunk of the film concerns efforts to stage a World Pride event in Jerusalem, and anyone who saw Jerusalem is Proud to Present at last year's SF Jewish Film Festival will see a lot of overlap between the two films.
East/West's German director Jochem Hick might be a familiar name to longtime Frameline attendees. His films Via Appia (about Rio hustlers) and Sex/Life in L.A. (about L.A. gay porn stars) screened in 1991 and 1999. This time he turns his attention to Moscow LGBT life in general (with portraits of a cross section of queer Muscovites), and one event in particular (a behind-the-scenes look at the attempted staging of a Pride event that got gay German parliament member Volker Beck beaten up and thrown in jail). Moscow has a thriving, clandestine gay scene of clubs and saunas, but no public face whatsoever. Many of those profiled in Hick's film would just as soon have it stay that way. But as a recent series of pogroms outside gay clubs proves, invisibility will ultimately get you nowhere.
Moving on to Frameline's World Cinema section, there are three films apart from Ander I found well worth checking out. Fabiomassimo Lozzi's Anotherworld consists of 43 confessional vignettes representing the broad spectrum of contemporary Italian homosexuality. The film's monologues are based on actual interviews, each performed by a different actor within in a uniquely creative context. They've been sequenced in an evolving arc – the film begins with extreme self-loathing closet cases and gradually transitions to self-accepting modern queers (with stops along the way for hustlers, chat-room addicts and Madonna wanna-be's). Although not uniformly engaging, it's a worthy concept ambitiously executed. Maria Beatty's Bandaged is a campy, gothic, medical potboiler in which a beautiful young woman punishes Daddy by scarring her own face with acid. Fortunately for her, Dad's a scientist experimenting with reconstructed skin, and he's hired a lusty nurse-with-a-past to assist. If you're turned on by sexily photographed medical instruments and quiver at the amplified sound of a starched nurse's uniform being zipped up, not to mention a bit of girl-girl/nurse-patient softcore, then this is the film for you. The protagonist in Simon Pearce's Shank is a cocky young Brit drug dealer named Cal who hangs with a gang of miscreants into fag-bashing and grave-desecrating. He has a massive crush on the gang's leader, and he likes to hook-up with older men on-line and film himself being topped. Clearly there's a conflict here, which comes to a life-threatening head when he rescues an effeminate French fashionista student from a bashing by his buds. Cal hides out from his vengeance-seeking gang while sorting out his feelings for Frenchy, up until the film's monumentally melodramatic climax. In spite of some glaring clichés of the "would you rub tanning lotion on my back" variety, Shank (which means 'cock' in Brit slang) has an undeniable youthful urgency to it – and indeed, the director is all of 21. And for what it's worth, the sex scenes in Shank are steeped in erotic intensity. For gay men at least, this may be the hottest film in the festival.
Now we get down to some of the stuff I wasn't so crazy about. Ella Lemhagan's Patrik, Age 1.5 has been charming festival audiences around the world, but its contrived charms were mostly lost on me. In an idyllic suburban neighborhood that's probably a Swedish version of Edward Scissorhands' bedroom hamlet, a seemingly perfect gay couple yearn to adopt a baby. When a homophobic 15-year-old juvie arrives in place of the expected 1.5 year-old baby, chaos prevails and life lessons are learned. The corker is a happily-ever-after ending as phony and un-ironic as they come. A saving grace is that one half of the couple turns out to be a cigarette-smoking, staggering drunk with a roving eye. Fortunately, Kit Hung's Soundless Wind Chime is not as preciously new-agey as its title would suggest. But it is earnestly mopey – a strained tale of love lost and regained between a Hong Kong delivery boy and his Swiss juggler boyfriend. Fans of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang might appreciate the nod to Yang Kuei-mei's lip-synched version of Grace Chang's "Atchoo Cha Cha" from his 1998 film The Hole.
While I admire French cinema more than any other in the world, I had to force myself to watch Give Me Your Hand and Born in '68 in their entirety. The former is a vapid, overheated road movie about hunky identical twins aimlessly making their way to Mom's funeral in Spain. Some may find the pair's brooding good looks – along with sporadic scenes of skinny-dipping, sex and fraternal mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – worth enduring a lot of pretentious hooey for. If you enjoyed the festival's last treatise on gorgeous, disaffected Euro-youth, Frameline31's One to Another, you should probably buy your ticket for this now. On the plus side, Give Me Your Hand features some extraordinary cinematography and will be screened in 35mm. Born in '68, the latest from Frameline vets Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, is a 173-minute lumbering behemoth that attempts to encapsulate 40 years of French social history – from the student riots of '68 to communal life in the '70s to the AIDS crisis of the '80s to the advent of cell phones and internet. We follow an evolving group of friends, lovers and offspring as they lurch through the decades, the years clumsily demarcated by pop songs and newscasts. I've been a big fan of Ducastel and Martineau's previous work, but I think they bit off too much with this large-scale canvas. In all fairness, the original French TV version was a half-hour longer, but I doubt there's anything extra minutes could do to improve this uniformly uninspired and unoriginal vision.
This year's opening night film is Richard Laxton's An Englishman in New York, which provides a fast breezy spin through the highlights of Quentin Crisp's years as a Manhattan celebrity turned gadfly. John Hurt admirably reprises the role he first played in 1975's The Naked Civil Servant, but his performance is the only thing here of subtlety or depth. I enjoyed this well enough, and I'm sure it will work as a satisfying opening night crowd pleaser. But its script, direction and most of the performances are, as Variety might say, "strictly tubesville." And network tubesville at that. Last and least is a film I won't mention by name because frankly, I couldn't bring myself to finish watching it. It's one of those inevitable Frameline clunky coming-out movies by a first-time director, with half-naked boys (shower scene in the first 5 minutes!), a broken heart, fag bashing, a seemingly straight object of desire, and parents/friends who just don't understand. I suckered myself into seeing this one because of a certain much loved, quasi-cult-film actress in the supporting cast. It wasn't worth it.
So as not to end on a negative note, I'll just mention that there are many hopefully-great films I've yet to see – ones I'm waiting to savor during the festival itself. These include The Country Teacher, Maggots and Men, It Came From Kuchar, Ghosted, Making the Boys, The Fish Child, Thundercrack!, Fruit Fly, Lion's Den, Boy, Greek Pete and Shakespeare & Victor Hugo's Intimacies. Check out my Frameline33 Line-Up post for more details.
Monday, June 8, 2009
After a too-long, 12-week hiatus, the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas finally comes back into play this week. The nine films in the current series – each slated for a one-week run – represent the Screen's most inspired line-up since its launch exactly one year ago. While only three of them are Bay Area premieres, they're three movies I'm really dying to see. As for the other six – half represent the best Latin American cinema to play recent festivals here, two are European films I missed the first time around (and I'm grateful for the second chance), and one's an Oscar-nominated clunker that played the Mill Valley fest last autumn. Here's a list of titles and dates:
Fados (June 5 to 11)
Munyurangabo (June 12 to 18)
Katyn (June 19 to 25)
Three Monkeys (June 26 to July 2)
Eldorado (July 3 to 9)
Julia (July 10 to 16)
The Window (July 17 to 23)
Lake Tahoe (July 24 to 30)
Lion's Den (July 31 to August 6)
For his 41st film, veteran Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura conjures another cinematic excursion into Iberian musical heritage, a passion that has consumed at least half his output since 1981's Blood Wedding. His subject this time out is the longing mournfulness of Portuguese fado music. I passed on seeing this at the 2008 SF International because fado's not my thing and truth be told, I'm a bigger fan of Saura's non-musical films. But I don't plan to miss it this time. The film features performances from several musical artists I respect (Chico Buarque, Lila Downs, Cesária Évora, Caetano Veloso) and judging from the trailer, also appears to be a valentine to my second favorite city in Europe. (Update 6/8/09 Fados is a hit and will be held over for at least one more week).
Premiering to rapturous reviews at Cannes 2007, this little film with an unpronounceable name became a must-see film on the festival circuit. Exactly why it's taken so long to reach the Bay Area – despite its innate appeal for our International, Asian-American and African film festivals – is something I'd love to know. Anyway, it's here at long last. This first paragraph from Robert Kohler's Variety review gives you the gist of its greatness: "Like a bolt out of the blue, Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung achieves an astonishing and thoroughly masterful debut with Munyurangabo which is – by several light years – the finest and truest film yet on the moral and emotional repercussions of the 15-year-old genocide that wracked Rwanda. Pic's supremely confident, simple storytelling and relaxed, slightly impressionist visual style follow a conflict that emerges between two friends as one makes a long-delayed homecoming. This is, flat-out, the discovery of this year's Un Certain Regard." Further reading: Michael Guillen's 2007 Toronto interview with Lee Isaac Chung and scriptwriter Samuel Anderson for The Evening Class.
One of the five nominees for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (losing out to Takita Yôjirô's Departures), Katyn screened at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival. Although I was unmoved, the film obviously has its defenders. Here's my Mill Valley capsule write-up for The Evening Class: "It's a tragedy that 82-year-old Polish maestro Andrzej Wajda most likely ends his illustrious career with this disjointed, turgid and unremarkable film. Katyn is where the Soviet military massacred as many as 22,000 Polish army officers in the spring of 1940. The film begins assuredly enough, following one family through the events leading up to the tragedy. In the film's huge, muddled mid-section, however (which details the mistreatment of Poles through the remainder of the war and the post-war Soviet cover-up of the Katyn slaughter), things run aground. The story lurches from one event to the next, and significant characters seem to randomly drop from the sky. It's only in the film's final 20 minutes – a sobering flashback to the Katyn massacre itself – that we finally encounter some of the stunning imagery for which Wajda is famous. This is one for auteur completists and WWII buffs only."
This is the film I'm most looking forward to. Despite a mixed critical reaction, director Nuri Bilge Ceylan won a 2008 Best Director prize at Cannes for this moody slice of Turkish noir (and was subsequently invited to return this year as a jury member). In contemporary Istanbul, a man agrees to take the blame for his boss' involvement in a hit and run accident. He receives a short stint in prison and a tidy sum of money, which result in some unpleasant and unexpected repercussions for him and his family. Ceylan works once again with DP Gökhan Tiryaki, the man who also shot the director's 2006 Climates (perhaps the world's most gorgeous-looking digitally-made film to date).
Along with Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero, this second feature from Belgian actor/writer/director Bouli Lanners was the surprise hit of Cannes 2008's Directors Fortnight (with Variety's Leslie Felperin calling it "damn near perfect.") The film was also Belgium's Oscar submission, and I missed seeing it at the Rafael Film Center's "For Your Consideration" series back in January. In this absurdist, melancholic road movie, Lanners himself plays an importer of vintage American autos who one day finds a junkie robbing his home. He befriends the man, and the two take off in the titular vehicle for the junkie's hometown. They have some strange encounters en route, including one with a collector of cars that have crashed in fatal accidents (played by the baddest boogeyman of French language cinema, Philippe Nahon (I Stand Alone, Calvaire, High Tension).
In 1998, French director Erick Zonca set the film world on fire with his acclaimed The Dreamlife of Angels, and followed that up a year later with the featurette, The Little Thief. Who would have thought a decade might pass before he'd be heard from again? Or even more so, that his return would star Tilda Swinton as a drunken L.A. floozy who kidnaps a boy in order to extort money from a Mexican industrialist? Certainly not I. Julia premiered at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival and mostly took a trouncing from critics. They all agreed, however, that Swinton's haywire performance is the very definition of fearlessness.
Perhaps my biggest regret at this year's SF International Film Festival was having to miss Carlos Sorin, who was in town to promoting this gem of a film. I caught it on DVD screener and this was my 75-word capsule hold-review for the festival: "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."
Fernando Eimbcke's second feature recently won Ariels (Mexico's Oscar equivalent) for Best Film and Best Director, adding to a long list of accolades bestowed since its 2008 Berlin premiere. Following the film's SFIFF screenings, there was debate over its relative merits compared to Eimbcke's 2004 debut, Duck Season. Some (myself included), admired Lake Tahoe, but felt it lacked much of the energy and inventiveness of the earlier film. Others felt the exact opposite, and insisted on the latter film's deeper emotional resonance. And no one could agree about those long, between-scene blackouts. Clearly, it's a film I need to see again. What everyone did agree upon was the magnificence of Alexis Zabe's wide-screen, sun-washed color cinematography. (Zabe also shot the B&W Duck Season, plus Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light.) The plot, such as it is: In an extended series of deadpan vignettes, a young man who has just lost his father, and even more recently crashed the family car, interacts with the strange denizens of his small coastal Yucatan town while searching for a new distributor harness.
Perhaps the only women's prison movie to ever compete for a Palme d'Or, this new work from respected New Argentine Cinema director Pablo Trapero (Crane World, Rolling Family, Born and Bred) gets a single screening at Frameline this month, before returning to the SFFS screen in August. Protagonist Julia wakes up one morning to find her boyfriend dead and his male lover wounded. Despite being pregnant and unable to remember how it all happened, she's convicted and confined to a special prison ward where incarcerated women raise their kids until age 4. While receiving generally positive reviews for its humanist look at the issue of prison child-rearing (with unanimous raves for lead actress Martina Gusman, who is also Trapero's wife), the film has been criticized for wallowing in such genre tropes as horny lesbians and vicious catfighting (which I doubt will hinder my enjoyment of Lion's Den one bit).