(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.