Tuesday, April 20, 2010

SFIFF53 2010 Preview

After weeks of anticipation, the 53rd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) is finally set to launch this Thursday, April 22. I'm looking to catch 30 or so films during the next two weeks and hope to file a wrap-up report when it's all over and done with. Meanwhile, here's a fistful of capsule write-ups of films I've had the chance to preview on DVD screener (except where noted). These 14 films represent only a fraction of what's on offer, so pick up a festival mini-guide, browse the entire roster of films on the festival's website, or check out my overviews of the line-up here, here and here. Also, if you're interested in knowing which films are screening in 35mm and which ones will be digitally projected, be sure to have a look at the Film on Film Foundation's indispensable Bay Area Film Calendar.

Air Doll (Japan dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
A blow-up sex doll comes to life and discovers that having a heart is heartbreaking in this perhaps destined-to-disappoint follow-up to 2008's masterful Still Walking. Kore-eda laboriously overworks his premise here to deliver a gnarly parable about loneliness. Still, the film looks great and is a choice vehicle for Korean actress Bae Doo-na (Linda Linda Linda, The Host), whose gifts for pathos and physical comedy are put to sublime use in the title role. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival)

A Brand New Life (South Korea/France dir. Ounie Lecomte)
Based on the director's own childhood spent in a South Korean Catholic orphanage, this powerful and affecting film is a testament to the adaptability of youth. In 1975, nine-year-old Jin-hee (adorably resolute Kim Sae-ron) is brought to an orphanage by a father who can no longer care for her. Over the course of the film, we witness her disbelief and anger painfully transform into resignation, and finally acceptance. Realizing her father will never return, Jin-hee intuits that her best bet is to play the system and present herself in a way that will facilitate a foreign adoption. Remarkably unmanipulative considering its subject matter and engaging throughout, the film should be a strong contender for the festival's New Directors prize. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival)

Cairo Time (Canada dir. Ruba Nadda)
The talents of Patricia Clarkson aren't nearly enough to save this hokey tale of a Western woman's reawakening amidst an exotic culture. Magazine editor Juliette gets waylaid in Cairo while waiting to be joined by her U.N. relief worker husband, meanwhile vaguely falling for the handsome Egyptian assigned to watch over her. Clunky dialogue, an overwrought score, and lack of chemistry are among its chief problems. The only winner is Cairo itself, which is beautifully photographed. (Seen at a festival press screening)

Father of My Children (France/Germany dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
A beloved art-film producer commits suicide after becoming financially overextended, leaving family and business associates to deal with his legacy in this splendid Special Jury Prize winner from Cannes (Un Certain Regard). The film kicks off with a bravura
sequence detailing a day in the life of producer Grégoire Canvel, as he chain smokes, juggles multiple cell phones, irons out production snafus, evades creditors and smoothes the ruffled feathers of temperamental actors and directors. He has a loving, if exasperating relationship with his wife and three daughters, which renders the suicide at the film's exact mid-point all the more tragic. The second half almost seems like an anti-climax in comparison, as Canvel's wife tries to salvage the production company and a family secret is discovered by his eldest daughter. The film was inspired by the life and death of Hubert Balsan, whose list of productions includes films by Claire Denis, Youssef Chahine and Lars von Trier. I found it a big step up from Hansen-Løve's debut film All is Forgiven, which certainly had its ardent admirers. Father of My Children will be of special appeal to those interested in the economics of contemporary art film production. (Seen at a festival press screening)

The Invention of Dr. NakaMats (Denmark dir. Kaspar Astrup Schröder)
Yoshiro Nakamatsu holds the world's record for patents – 3,357 and counting – as compared to Edison's paltry 1,093. This snappy and entertaining bio-doc follows Nakamatsu in the months leading up to his 80th birthday and the debut of his latest invention, the B-Bust Bra for small breast enhancement. Brilliant and eccentric, the good doctor also comes off a sardonic self-promoter and pompous ham. He's best known for inventing the floppy disk, an idea that came to him, like many others, while swimming underwater (he takes notes on his waterproof notepad, which of course, he invented). Among his other creations are spray-on aphrodisiac Love Jet and a vehicle that runs on water. A dapper dresser who does all this "out of love" for humanity, the doctor gets by on four hours sleep and one meal per day (he won a Nobel Prize in nutrition after photographing and analyzing every single meal he ate for 34 years). "I think that nothing is impossible" is his credo and this film will convince you he sincerely believes it. With a fun music score by Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo, Pee-wee's Playhouse).

Marwencol (USA dir. Jeff Malmberg)
In 2000, Mark Hogencamp was viciously attacked outside a Kingston, NY bar and consequently spent nine days in a coma. His face had to be rebuilt and all his motor skills had to be relearned. Hogencamp's mental recovery from this trauma has been precipitated by Marwencol, a miniature, doll-populated WWII-era Belgian village he's built outside his trailer home. Marwencol and its inhabitants are the subject of a captivating and poignant film that recently won the jury prize for best documentary at SXSW. Hogencamp works through emotional issues by staging and photographing elaborate dramas with dolls, many of whom represent people he knows in 'real' life. One day there might be staged catfights at "The Ruined Stocking" bar, and the next day might find Hogencamp's avatar doll being stripped and tortured by sadistic SS officers. Eventually the Art World comes calling – Hogencamp's photos are compiled into a nifty volume and a NYC gallery stages a one-man show. It's then we learn of a 'twist' in his story; one that explains a lot about Marwencol and the 'reason' for the 1993 attack. Director Malmberg lays all this out in a compelling way, using judicious stop-motion animation and period music to bring Hogencamp's extraordinary creation to life.

My Queen Karo (Belgium dir. Dorothée Berghe)
The ups and downs of communal living are explored in this bittersweet, autobiographical flashback to 1974. 10-year-old Karo and her Belgian parents help establish a squatters artist commune in an abandoned Amsterdam building. Trouble invades paradise when Karo's father invites another woman to move in and share his bed, sending Karo's less liberated mother into an emotional tailspin. Ideological differences involving money start to strain the couple's relationship as well. A confused and conflicted Karo, who observes the adults having sex in the commune's un-partitioned living space, does her childlike best to navigate a way through it all, with metaphorical swimming lessons providing some needed structure and discipline.

Northless (Mexico/Spain dir. Rigoberto Perezcano)
After being abandoned in the desert by his
coyote, Oaxacan Andrés is captured by U.S. immigration authorities and sent back to Tijuana. He falls into work doing odd jobs at a bodega, where a sexual tension develops between himself, the store's female owner and a female helper. Despite having a wife and two kids back home, crossing the border becomes less of an imperative, at least temporarily. The two women are in no hurry to see him go either, each having lost a man to the allure of El Norte. When they finally do help him emigrate, it's in a wonderfully surprising way that, of all things, is scored to Debussy's "Claire de lune." Handsomely photographed and finely acted, this observational and melancholic (but not humorless) film about the toll of economic disparity is the antithesis of last year's heart-pounding immigration melodrama Sin Nombre.

The Peddler (Argentina dir. Lucas Marcheggiano, Adriana Yurkovich, Eduardo de la Serna)
67-year-old Daniel Burmeister rolls into the Argentine Pampas village of Gould driving a beat-up red sedan. For the 58th time in his filmmaking career, he'll make a complete narrative feature using local talent in exchange for lodging, food and the right to sell tickets to a premiere. This sweet documentary takes us through the gregarious and self-effacing Burmeister's entire DIY process –from casting to location scouting, from shoot to showtime – improvising as circumstance dictates. A white sheet doubles as his movie screen and a cemetery ghost costume. A tracking shot is accomplished by having Burmeister dragged across the floor atop a blanket. This is the only Argentine film in this year's festival, which is unusual. Fortunately, this charming and respectful portrait of small town life and one man's passion is worthy of standing alone.

The Portuguese Nun (France/Portugal dir. Eugène Green)
"I never see French films. They're only for intellectuals." So states a minor character in this formalist work that will strike many as overly mannered and pretentious. I was pretty
darned transfixed by it, and believe me, I ain't no intellectual. Leonor Baldaque plays a malaise-afflicted French actress who's in Lisbon to make a film about a 17th century nun and her affair with a military officer. She wanders the city like a doe-eyed somnambulist and has a series of life-changing encounters with a suicidal man, a genuine Portuguese nun and a six-year-old waif – not to mention a one-night stand with her co-star. Among director Green's cinematic tactics are 360° pans, emotionally flat dialogue delivery, two-shot conversations spoken directly to the camera, focal shifts within single shots and a fascination with legs and feet. Green also portrays the director of the film within the film, one Denis Verde. All this will drive some people bonkers and I predict walk-outs. What might keep them in their seats are several live music interludes and the fact that Lisbon has never looked more ravishing on film than it does here.

Presumed Guilty (Mexico dir. Roberto Hernández, Geoffrey Smith)
The SFIFF staff was so impressed by this look at the horrors of Mexico's criminal justice system that they pre-awarded it the festival's Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Documentary. It's easy to see why. This powerful and moving film follows the
trials of one José Antonio Zuñiga-Rodriguez, a thoughtful young man wrongly arrested and convicted for a 2005 homicide despite a myriad of judicial injustices – not the least of which is several dozen witnesses putting him miles from the crime scene. When it's discovered that his original lawyer was practicing with a forged license, "Toño" is granted a retrial that the filmmakers are miraculously permitted to record – and what an eye-opener that is. The "courtroom" is merely one section of a large, open and chaotic office space and his judge is the same guy who convicted him in the first place. Of particular interest is the trial's "cara a cara," in which the accused is permitted to question and confront, literally face-to-face, his accusers. It's shocking, but not unsurprising when the retrial results in a second conviction. The case then goes to a court of appeals, where the retrial film footage is submitted as evidence. You'll have to see the film yourself to learn their ruling. During the end credits it's revealed that 95% of Mexican verdicts are convictions, and 92% of those are not based on any physical evidence.

To Die Like a Man (Portugal/France João Pedro Rodrigues)
Middle-aged transvestite performer Tonia has problems. Her infected breast implants are killing her, her junkie boyfriend is ripping her off, her AWOL solider son has committed murder and her once-adoring public is no longer interested. In this hyper-stylized melodrama, Portuguese provocateur Rodrigues (
O Fantasma, Two Drifters aka Odete) precariously walks the fine line between hooty camp and deeply affecting emotionalism – and largely succeeds. Since the film premiered in Un Certain Regard at last year's Cannes, it's accumulated an equal share of haters and defenders. Chances are if you disliked his two previous films, you're not gonna like this one either – and vice versa. I can't wait to see it again. After you've seen it, be sure and check out The Evening Class' Michael Guillén's interview with Rodrigues from the Toronto Film Festival. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival).

The Wind Journeys (Colombia dir. Ciro Guerra)
Following the death of his wife, taciturn accordion maestro Ignacio sets off on a mission to return his accursed instrument to its original owner. He begrudgingly tolerates the company of aspiring teen musician Fermin, and their episodic
misadventures en route shape this dazzling, roadless road movie that was Colombia's 2009 Oscar submission. The journey takes them through a variety of landscapes – desert, mountain, plains and seaside – all breathtakingly filmed in wide screen. They also come into contact with various cultures and their music. A frenetic battle-of-the-accordion-players at a village music festival is one of the most joyous and thrilling things I've seen at the movies this year. Visually, the The Wind Journeys is a stunner, with meticulously framed compositions and intricate camera choreography that at times borders on show-off-y. I regret not being able to fit a big-screen experience of this into my festival schedule.

You Think You're the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiest (Chile dir. Ché Sandoval)
While this film isn't anything we haven't seen before in such vignette-structured youthful gab-fests like Slackers and 25 Watts, it is genuinely funny and an accomplished achievement for its 25-year-old director and largely non-pro cast. Protagonist Javier (a revelatory Martín Castillo) is a pesky, motor-mouthed overthinker whose bravado masks a pathetic vulnerability. It's not really his fault that best friend Nicolás is way cooler and hotter and keeps stealing his girlfriends without trying. In addition to romantic advances and retreats, the film tracks Javier through a series of prickly social encounters. He allows a frustrated friend to punch him in the face for nine dollars, and then pays a gay guy at a bus stop to quit bugging him. Most memorable is a tender interaction between Javier and an aging prostitute who's waiting for a taxi after a hard night's work. I was sure the film couldn't possibly live up to its fabulous title. I was wrong. This will be another solid contender for the festival's New Directors prize.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

SFIFF53 2010 The Line-Up (Part Two)

(My initial post for this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) covered the films and events that were announced prior to the festival's official press conference. A follow-up post reported on that event, and also surveyed the festival's line-up of French language films. In this post I'll run through what's looking good to me from the rest of the planet.)

Peering at the SFIFF films from non-French speaking Europe, I'm especially glad to see a pair of German entries. Maren Ade's Everyone Else won a Silver Bear at last year's Berlin Film Festival and follows the dissolution of a young couple on holiday in Sardinia. The film would have been a natural for our now-defunct Berlin & Beyond festival, and I'm assuming it didn't make the recent German Gems program because SFIFF already snagged it. If you've read the reviews and also caught Ade's debut The Forest for the Trees at SFIFF five years ago, you know this is going to be special. The other film is Turkish/German director Fatih Akin's Soul Kitchen, which is said to be quite different from his previous works like Head On and The Edge of Heaven. This one's a comic look at the efforts to save a failing family restaurant and stars my two favorite German actors, Moritz Bleibtreu and Birol Ünel.

I caught Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues hyper-stylized transsexual melodrama To Die Like a Man at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and loved it. Many loathed it. If you dug his previous works (O Fantasma, Two Drifters aka Odete) you sure don't want to miss this. In his review for the New York Film Festival, critic J. Hoberman called it "the kind of film Pedro Almodóvar should be making." Also Portuguese, at least in title and setting is Eugène Green's The Portuguese Nun. I'm totally unfamiliar with the work of this U.S.-born French director who seems to be known for his formalist approach to filmmaking. Ostensibly, the film is about a French actress making a film about a 17th century nun in Lisbon, with Green portraying the director. Variety gave it a scathing review, but I'm planning to give it a chance.

The big Italian film this year is Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton as the unhappy wife of a Milanese industrialist. It's been compared to the works of Luchino Visconti. Uncoincidentally, the lone SFIFF screening of I Am Love takes place immediately after a restored print revival of Visconti's Senso at the Castro Theater on Sunday, May 2. If you're unable to make the showing, I Am Love opens at a Landmark Theater on July 2. The other Italian film I'm anticipating is Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel's La Pivellina, in which a group of circus performers find and keep an abandoned child. Also of interest from Italy is Giorgio Diritti's WWII massacre movie The Man Who Will Come, which won both Grand Jury and Audience Prizes at last year's Rome Film Festival

From elsewhere in Europe we have Serbian director Vladimir Perisic's Ordinary People, a multi-fest prizewinner and (Bruno) Dumont-ian parable of ethnic cleansing and the human potential for brutality. At an opposite extreme lies Nina Hedenius' Way of Nature, a near-silent meditation on life at a remote Swedish farm. According to some reports I've read, the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia might be the next international hotbed of inspired filmmaking. SFIFF53 has programmed one title that keeps popping up, Rusudan Pirveli's Susa, a neo-realist tale of a 12-year-old bootleg-vodka delivery boy. Also from Georgia is the documentary Russian Lessons, which examines the 2008 Georgia-Russia armed conflict.

2009 was a quiet year on the Latin American filmmaking front, with virtually none of the region's major directors releasing new films. I'd hoped to find the Mexican omnibus film
Revolución in the line-up, but perhaps it's too soon after the film's January premiere at Berlin. That reasoning wouldn't apply, however, to the absence of Claudia Llosa's sublime The Milk of Sorrow, which won Berlin's top prize in 2009 and was one of the five Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. One wonders, did the programming team really deem this film unworthy of our fest or were other factors involved? Oh well, I'm darn glad I saw it at Palm Springs.

Headlining what Latin American cinema we do have at SFIFF53 is surely Brazilian director Walter Salles' receiving the Founders Directing Award, along with screenings of his 2008 Linha de Passe and also a new work-in-progress. (I wrote more about this in my initial post). Also from Brazil come the narrative feature The Famous and the Dead and the musical documentary Simonal: No One Knows How Tough It Was, about the "spectacular rise and infamous fall of the undisputed king of Brazilian popular music." From Colombia there's Ciro Guerra's The Wind Journeys, in which a man and teenage boy set off on a roadless road-trip to return a cursed accordion. I've watched this on screener and it's visually stunning. Usually we get a bunch of titles from Argentina in the festival, but this year there's only one. The Peddler documents the work of Daniel Burmeister, a traveling septuagenarian filmmaker who uses local amateur talent to create genre movies. Rounding out the South American roster is You Think You're the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiest, a Chilean comedy about the pitfalls of being young, horny and male.

While we may not have gotten Revolución, there are three other Mexican films in the SFIFF53 line-up, two of which I've previewed and heartily recommend. Roberto Hernandez and Geoffrey Smith's documentary Presumed Guilty is an exposé of the Mexican criminal justice systems that follows one young man's efforts to reverse a homicide conviction. In Rigoberto Perezcano's meditative feature Northless, a young man's determination to cross into El Norte gets waylaid by the female proprietor of a Tijuana grocery store. The film I haven't seen is Pedro González-Rubio's docu-fiction hybrid Alamar, in which a half-Mayan boy spends a final summer with his father and grandfather along the Caribbean coast. The film has won a slew of festival awards, most recently a Tiger at Rotterdam, and I'm saving it for a big-screen festival experience (cinematography is by Alexis Zabé, who also shot Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light and Fernando Eimbcke's Lake Tahoe).

OMFG! was the reaction I had to seeing two particular Asian titles in the line-up – and I'm using 'Asian' here in its broadest geographical sense. In 2006 I was blown away by The Forsaken Land, a film by Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara for which he won Cannes' Camera d'or for best first feature. I've had fingers and toes crossed that his new film Between Two Worlds would show up at our 3rd i South Asian Film Festival next fall, but I'm just as ecstatic to see it at the SF International. The other title that got a rise out of me is Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof's The White Meadows. Rasoulof directed the phenomenal Iron Island, which the fest screened in 2006. I won't even attempt to synopsize what these two allegorical films are 'about.' Just read the program capsules and prepare yourself for an other-worldly cinematic experience. A million thanks to the programmers for securing these. (Mohammad Rasoulof, by the way, was arrested and imprisoned in Tehran along with director Jafar Panahi on March 1 and released 17 days later).

There are a handful of other Asian films I'm looking forward to. In 2006, Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang made a big splash with Last Life in the Universe. His two follow-up films took a critical beating and never made it to our neck of the woods. Now he's made Nymph, which garnered mixed to favorable reviews, and I'm really pleased to have the chance to see it. One of the highlights of the 2005 SFIFF was a sidebar devoted to New Malaysian Cinema. One of the directors feted that year was Woo Ming-jin, and his new film called Woman on Fire Looks for Water has come our way. It's described as an "utterly gorgeous meditation on yearning and regret set amid a small fishing village." I caught Hirokazu Kore-eda's Air Doll, a wistful social comedy about a blow-up sex doll come to life, at Palm Springs. It's an inevitable disappointment coming on the heels of the director's undisputed masterpiece Still Walking, but is well worth seeing for the lead performance by bug-eyed South Korean star Bae Doo-Na (The Host, Linda Linda Linda). There are two more Iranian films I might catch if time allows. Nader Takmil Homayoun's Tehroun is a crime thriller set in Tehran's slums, while Babak Jalali's Frontier Blues is an absurdist portrait of life along Iran's northern frontier. Anyone with a penchant for star-studded Chinese historical epics probably won't want to miss Bodygyards and Assassins and Empire of Silver.

Finally, we have some films that don't fit in any of these geographic categories. The top prize winner at last year's Venice Film Festival was Samuel Maoz' Lebanon, a film set entirely inside an Israeli tank during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. SFIFF53 also has this year's Grand Jury Prize winner from Sundance, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone. Set in a poor rural Ozark community, a 17-year-old girl must find her meth-cooking father to keep from losing the family home. Ted Kotcheff's 1971 once-considered-lost Australian exploitation shocker Wake in Fright (Outback) has been restored and revived with the hope of appalling a new generation of moviegoers. 2008's Baghead finally sold me on the talents of the directing Duplass Brothers and the festival will be screening their latest Cyrus, starring Marisa Tomei and John C. Reilly. Another (truly) American indie film that's sounds promising is Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us, the story of an ex-Black Panther returning home to Philadelphia in the year of the bicentennial. Finally, it you're as freaked out about Colony Collapse Disorder as I am, you won't want to miss Ross McDonnell and Carter Gunn's documentary Colony.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

SFIFF53 2010 The Line-Up (Part One)

The full line-up for the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) was announced at an unusually subdued press conference last week. With Executive Director Graham Leggat taking an uncustomary silent role in the proceedings, it was left for new Director of Programming Rachel Rosen and her staff to guide attendant journalists and Bay Area film community members through this year's impressive roster of 177 films from 46 countries. Rosen admitted that while the festival doesn't program according to 'themes,' certain ones inevitably emerge. 2010's program is characterized by "a return to basics and beauty in filmmaking," films that could be deemed "unclassifiable," films with an "intense interest in the creative process" and the beginnings of an "era of co-auteur theory" (15 of this year's selections have two or more directors). Rosen also joked that she has indulged her taste for "nuns, old men and farm animals."

In a previous post I covered the films and events announced prior to the press conference. I won't be revisiting them here, except for these few addendums. Joining the list of on-stage 'friends' at the Roger Ebert tribute will be writer/director Philip Kaufman and documentarian Errol Morris. At the world premiere of All About Evil, director Peaches Christ/Joshua Grannell is expected to duet with actress Mink Stole on the theme song from John Waters' Female Trouble. Animator Don Hertzfeldt will be the youngest person to ever receive the fest's Persistance of Vision Award. The documentary Presumed Guilty so wowed the programming staff that they've already declared it winner of the Golden Gate Awards competition for Best Bay Area Doc, leaving one less decision for the jury.

Each year when the SFIFF line-up is revealed – and I've attended every single fest since 1976 – I experience a mixture of elation and disappointment. This 53rd edition is no exception. Only six of the 20 films I most hoped for are in evidence, and several dozen more are MIA. That said, there are fully 25 films I'm very excited about seeing, with another dozen of possible interest. So here's my very subjective wander through what's in store from April 22 to May 6.

I'll begin, as I'm wont to do, with the French language selections. And right off, here's a big film-415 kiss to whoever programmed Joann Sfar's Gainsbourg (Je t'aime…moi non plus). I'm a monster fan of musical iconoclast Serge Gainsbourg, but know very little about his life apart from the scandals (which include making the only pop record ever condemned by a Pope). This biopic only opened in French theaters three months ago, so once again, bravo. Somewhat relatedly, SFIFF has also programmed visionary Hong Kong director Johnnie To's Vengeance, which stars grizzled veteran rock 'n' roller Johnny Hallyday, aka the French Elvis Presley, as a chef avenging the Hong Kong slaughter of his daughter's family.

SFIFF has always done a fine job of keeping tabs on the work of France's l-o-n-g established auteurs. This year brings us Alain Resnais' Wild Grass, which won a special jury prize last year at Cannes, and Jacques Rivette's circus-set Around a Small Mountain. I sheepishly confess to not being a particular fan of the latter director's work, but I adored 2007's The Duchess of Langeais and this new one stars favorites Sergio Castellitto and Jane Birkin (ex-wife of Serge and mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg).

A number of mid-career French auteurs also pop up this year, starting with the Opening Night screening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs, his first film since 2004's A Very Long Engagement. Bruno Dumont returns to SFIFF with his latest provocation, a tale of religious extremism called Hadejwich. Although it's received tepid reviews, everyone I know is dying to see White Material because a.) it stars Isabelle Huppert and b.) it's directed by Claire Denis. This is Huppert's second film in as many years playing a white colonialist, the other being Rithy Panh's mysteriously as-yet-unseen in the Bay Area The Sea Wall. Director Jan Kounen, whom Variety once called "the Carlos Castaneda of hipster helmers," gets a crack at the Coco Chanel legend in Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. The story takes place at a time when reviled and penniless Igor (due to "The Rite of Spring" and the Russian Revolution respectively) moves his wife and four kids into Coco's sprawling estate. The film stars Anna Mouglalis (who also plays chanteuse Juliette Gréco in Gainsbourg) and Danish dreamboat Mads Mikkelsen. Then in Christophe Honoré's Making Plans for Lena, put-upon wife and mother Chiara Mastroianni gets to spend a disastrous weekend at her parent's home in Bretagne. And yes, there's a part in it for Louis Garrel. SFIFF53 will also be showing a special sneak preview of a new-ish film by François Ozon.

Four other French language films I'm anticipating are by directors at or near the beginning of their careers. I was thrilled to find Patric Chiha's debut film Domain in the line-up because it stars the world's scariest actress and a personal favorite of mine, Béatrice Dalle (who can believe it's been almost 25 years since Betty Blue). Here she plays an increasingly unhinged, alcoholic mathematician who has a special relationship with her gay, teenage nephew. The lead actress is also my reason for wanting to see Dutch director Dorothée van den Berghe's My Queen Karo. Déborah François (The Child, The Page Turner) stars in this story of a squatting family in 1970s Amsterdam, as seen through the eyes of a young girl, Karo. Making her second appearance at SFIFF is director Mia Hansen-Løve with Father of My Children. I wasn't as taken by 2008's All Is Forgiven as many were, but I've heard nothing but great things about this true story of a French film producer's suicide and its effect on those he leaves behind. In her third feature, Lourdes, Austrian director Jessica Hausner enlists the help of yet another incomparable French actress. Sylvie Testud plays a wheelchair-bound, quasi non-believer who nonetheless makes a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

Finally, there are three French documentaries I've got my eye on. Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea's Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno attempts to reconstruct a lost masterpiece by the director of Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, while recounting the story of its troubled production. Documentarian Nicolas Philibert had a 2003 arthouse hit with To Be and To Have, about a contemporary one-room schoolhouse in rural France. His latest film Nénette looks at a 40-year-old orangutan who lives the caged life in Paris' Jardin des Plantes. Jean-François Delassus's 14-18: The Noise and the Fury is a WWI doc that programmer Rosen especially singled out as being "unclassifiable." Using a mix of newsreel footage, movie clips and the voice of an unseen soldier narrator, the film attempts to fathom a reason for the "war to end all wars" 10 million dead.

While the above titles represent a formidable effort at bringing the latest French cinema to the Bay Area, there are a number of curious omissions. Will the latest works by such notable directors as Robert Guédiguian (
The Army of Crime), Lucas Belvaux (Rapt), Gaspar Noé (Enter the Void), Tony Gatlif (Korkoro), Costa Gavras (Eden is West), Patrice Chereau (Persecution) and Sebastien Lifshitz (Going South), as well as Isabelle Adjani's Cesar-winning performance in Skirt Day pop up at the SF Film Society's autumn French Cinema Now festival? Or will they already be considered old hat and forgotten by then?

Part 2 of my look at the SFIFF53 line-up will focus on the rest of the world.