Monday, January 31, 2011

SF IndieFest 2011

The 13th San Francisco Independent Film Festival, better known around these parts as SF IndieFest, hits town this Thursday with two weeks of outsider cinema. Although 2011's line-up contains more "high profile" films than is customary – fear not – for most of this year's roster still hails from the outer limits of international indie-dom.

Things get going on opening night with the local premiere of Gregg Araki's Kaboom. Araki made a name for himself in the 1990's with a series of nihilistic youth manifestos (The Doom Generation, Totally F***ed Up, Nowhere) and then shocked the world with 2004's uncharacteristic and accomplished Mysterious Skin. Three years later came the woefully under-seen stoner flick Smiley Face – possibly my favorite comedy of the last 10 years. Kaboom is said to be a return to the spirit of those earlier anarchic works, but executed with greater directorial chops. The plot defies easy summarization, so let's just say it involves college students, sex, drugs, mind control, cults and the apocalypse. The film premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival (MUBI's David Hudson compiles the largely favorable reviews here), where it copped the inaugural Queer Palm, Cannes' newly created LGBT award that apes Berlin's Teddy and Venice's Queer Lion. Kaboom will open at a local Landmark Theater on February 18, but a ticket to IndieFest's opening night will get you a personal appearance by Araki, plus entry to a blowout party at CELLspace with three live bands and a free drink!

Another opening night highlight should be the on-stage introduction of Araki by none other than Joshua Grannell, director of last year's All About Evil and reverse alter-ego to local cine-drag icon Peaches Christ. In a recent e-mail missive, Ms. Christ admitted to being a long-time Araki fan and called Kaboom "super weird and sexy." Both directors employed Thomas Dekker in leading roles, and Peaches gushes that, "yes, it's true, Kaboom opens with a full frontal nudity shot of Thomas in all his glory." Furthering the Peaches/IndieFest connection will be a special co-presentation on Saturday, February 12 of 2004's Seed of Chucky, with star Jennifer Tilly and writer/director Don Mancini in attendance. This event will happen at the Victoria Theater, with all other IndieFest screenings taking place at the Roxie Theater two blocks down on 16th Street.

IndieFest13 closes with the latest from Spanish cult director Álex de la Iglesia (The Day of the Beast, A Ferpect Crime). His The Last Circus (alternately known as A Sad Trumpet Ballad and Balada Triste during 2010's festival circuit) nabbed second prize at the Venice Film Festival, which proved almost as controversial as the Golden Lion bestowed upon Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. This bloody disgusting fable about Spain's fascist past tells the tale of two circus clowns battling for the affections of a beautiful acrobat. MUBI's David Hudson gathers up the reviews from Venice and Toronto, which range from Jay Weissberg's Variety nay ("Loud, tedious and unattractive in every sense") to Richard Corliss' Time Magazine yay ("Beginning in carnage and soaring into surrealistic tragicomedy, Balada Triste is a film hellbent on madness and in full control of it.") Other reviews reference everyone from Alejandro Jodorowsky and Frank Tashlin to James Whale and Tod Browning, making this the IndieFest film I'm most dying to see. While The Last Circus allegedly has U.S. distribution through Magnolia Pictures, you won't find it mentioned anywhere on their website, leading me to suspect this might be our only chance to catch it on a Bay Area big screen.

Another IndieFest film with U.S. distribution whose theatrical release seems unlikely is Jorge Michel Grau's Mexican cannibal movie, We Are What We Are. IFC Films will be releasing it on VOD February 18, but none of our likely local exhibitors (Landmark Theaters, the Roxie, YBCA) are listing it on their upcoming calendars. In this combo of domestic drama, social commentary and full-on horror film, a family of Mexico City cannibals struggles to survive when its patriarch dies and stops bringing home the "bacon." After premiering at last year's Guadalajara Film Festival, the film made stops at Cannes (screening in Directors Fortnight) and Toronto, eventually landing a slot at the ultra-selective New York Film Festival (where MUBI's David Hudson collected these reviews). Also screening at IndieFest from IFC Films is Heartbeats, Canadian whiz kid Xavier Dolan's follow-up to 2009's multiple prize-winning I Killed My Mother. Dolan once again directs himself, this time as a guy competing with his female best friend for the attentions of a dim Adonis. Heartbeats appeared at last autumn's Mill Valley Film Festival and is scheduled for a Landmark Theater release on March 18. Reviews have been mixed, but given that I Killed My Mother was one of my 10 favorite films of 2010 (it had a single screening at Frameline), I have no intention of missing it.

IndieFest has always had a soft spot for exploitation films and I was thrilled to find that they'd programmed Machete Maidens Unleashed!, a movie I've been salivating over since learning of its existence during the Toronto Int'l Film Festival. This documentary about made-in-the-Philippines exploitation films of the 1970's and 80's comes courtesy of Mark Hartley, the same guy who gave us 2008's rollicking Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! I'm a sucker for that era's jungle-set women's prison movies like Black Mama, White Mama and The Big Bird Cage, and judging from the trailer, it looks like I'll be getting my fill of clips and wild production tales from the likes of Roger Corman, Jack Hill and fave character actor Sid Haig. In a tip of the hat to neo-exploitation, IndieFest will also be showing the fabulously awful-looking Nude Nuns with Big Guns from director Joseph Guzman (Run! Bitch Run!). Asun Ortega stars a Sister Sarah, a nun who extracts bloody revenge on the motorcycle gang who kidnapped and held her in drug-addled, sex-slave captivity. It takes a stronger man than I to resist a film with the taglines "Hell hath no fury like a nude nun with a big gun" and "This Sister is One Bad Mother."

For the second year in a row, the IndieFest folks will be running a SF Winter MusicFest in conjunction with the film festival, with over 40 bands performing live at CELLspace. I'll leave it for the young'uns to savor the song stylings of groups like Shit Outta Luck, Nihilist Cunt and Sistas in the Pit. Meanwhile, IndieFest will be featuring seven new music documentaries, two of which I've previewed and strongly recommend. Pascal Forneri's Gainsbourg, the Man Who Loved Women is a 2010 made-for-French-TV doc that's a perfect companion piece to last year's phantasmagorical biopic – and my top film of the year –
Gainsbourg (vie héroique). The focus here is on the provocative singer/songwriter/superstar's relationships with the women in his life, both musical and personal – or as often as not, some combination of the two. Interestingly, the director skipped the talking heads approach to bio-doc filmmaking and has constructed his film entirely of archival footage. Voiceover commentary is layered over these materials by all the pertinent players, including wife and daughter Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Brigitte Bardot, France Gall, Françoise Hardy, Juliette Gréco and Vanessa Paradis. And oh what archival materials! As someone who's spent days trolling YouTube for clips of Gainsbourg and his pop music progeny, I can attest that much of what's in this film in super-rare. My only complaint is that none of Gainsbourg's brilliant lyrics are subtitled in English. This is understandable given that his penchant for poetic, intricate wordplay would have made this too massive an undertaking for a film that will certainly never see US/UK theatrical or DVD release.

Another terrific documentary, especially for armchair ethno-musicologists, is Dominique Margot's Toumast: Between Guitars and Kalashnikovs. Toumast means "identity" in the language of the nomadic Tuareg tribespeople who've inhabited the Sahara Desert for millennia. The film focuses on their struggle for autonomy in the post-colonial era, and how it's evolved into a musical liberation movement. At the center is Moussa Ag Keyna, former freedom fighter and now guitarist and lead vocalist for the group Toumast. He shares the film's musical spotlight with Tilwat, an energetic collective of marginalized female musicians and vocalists from Mali, a country that has been especially ruthless – along with Nigeria – in its oppression of the Tuareg people.

The only other film I've seen in this year's IndieFest line-up is Jeanne Labrune's Special Treatment, which I caught at the Palm Springs International Film Festival a few weeks ago. Isabelle Huppert stars as a high class prostitute who specializes in staging elaborate fantasies for her customers. She's also looking to get out of the business and has a taste for pricey antiques. Sharing that passion for objects d'art is Bouli Lanners (Eldorado), a miserable shrink who hopes that a call girl assignation will cure his contentious marriage. For its first hour, Special Treatment zips along as a slick, snarky satire that lampoons both psychiatry and prostitution. Unfortunately, it descends into a maudlinness that's laughably ingenuine, based on all that has preceded it. Still, the film is a must-see for Huppert fans, and not just for the outlandish costumes she gets to wear (my favorite being the 1950's housewife drag, replete with curlers, polka-dot "Lucy" dress and a lap full of crocheting).

I've only covered 10 of the 35 features and none of the five shorts programs being screened this year, so be sure and check out the rest of what's on offer. Some interesting possibilities might include a documentary about a Petaluma Ugliest Dog contest (Worst in Show), a doc about the founder of Est (Transformation: The Life & Legacy of Werner Erhard) and a film created entirely from imagery lifted off the video game Grand Theft Auto IV (The Trashmaster). IndieFest has also become legendary for its parties, which this year includes the 8th Annual Big Lebowski Party, Superbowl XLV: Men in Tights, a Roller Disco Wrap Party and February 14th's Love Bites: Power Ballad Sing-a-long, which is IndieFest's very own anti-Valentine's Day event. Finally, for those who go to film festivals to watch "film," I've been informed that the following movies will be shown in 35mm, with everything else being digital: Kaboom, Fuerteventura, Special Treatment, Heartbeats and We Are What We Are.

Cross-published at The Evening Class and Twitch.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Favorite Films of 2010

As always, I held off posting my year-end lists until all 365 days ran their course – inclined as I am to watch stuff right up to the stroke of midnight on December 31. That said, my final lists didn't change one iota from drafts I made three weeks ago. I managed to watch around 300 "new" narrative and documentary features in 2010, kicking the year off with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and finishing it up with some True Grit.

2010 Ten Favorite Narrative Features
1. Gainsbourg (Vie héroique) (France, dir. Johan Sfar)
2. The Milk of Sorrow (Peru, dir. Claudia Llosa)
3. Mother (South Korea, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
4. Black Swan (USA, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
5. Dogtooth (Greece, dir. Giorgos Lanthimos)
6. I Killed My Mother (Canada, dir. Xavier Dolan)
7. The Social Network (USA, dir. David Fincher)
8. About Elly (Iran, dir. Asghar Farhadi)
9. Domain (France/Austria, dir. Patric Chiha)
10. La Pivellina (Italy/Austria dir. Tizza Covi, Rainer Frimmel)

Out of the 230 narrative features I saw, roughly 25% were viewed at home via DVD screeners, cable-VOD or on-line streaming, and the rest I watched in theaters. As I sat reveling in
Gainsbourg at last spring's SF International Film Festival (where it was shown under the title Gainsbourg (Je t'aime, moi non plus), I knew I had my top movie of the year. In his filmmaking debut, graphic novelist Johan Sfar took key moments from Serge Gainsbourg's life and career, and turned them into richly-conceived mythical fantasias. Eric Elmosino delivers an astounding lead performance, aided by brilliant supporting turns by actresses portraying the women in his life (particularly Laetitia Casta and Anna Mouglalis as Brigitte Bardot and Juliette Gréco). While my obsession for the man's music may have colored my appreciation for a film many disliked, at least Neue Zürcher Zeitung agrees with my assessment. It's unlikely this film will have a U.S. theatrical release or English-subtitled DVD for that matter, so I'm thrilled to be seeing it again next week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

And speaking of the Palm Springs festival, that's where I first encountered five of the films on this list – all highlights of 2009's Berlin and Cannes film festivals. They were so terrific, I'd see four of them again when they later came to the Bay Area. Mother had a surprising six-week run at various local Landmark Theaters, while About Elly showed up at the SF International Asian American Film Festival. Dogtooth, which was simultaneously the funniest and most disturbing film I'd see all year, had one showing (in abysmal digital) at the Greek Film Festival and a later one-week run (in 35mm) at the SF Film Society's Kabuki Screen. I Killed My Mother entertained a packed Castro Theater one Saturday night during Frameline. Only the spellbinding The Milk of Sorrow never made it to these parts, despite an Oscar® nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and the top prize at 2009's Berlin Film Festival.

Slots nine and 10 of my list could have been filled by any one of two dozen contenders. I picked
Domain, which stars Béatrice Dalle as a scary alcoholic mathematician, after noting that John Waters had named it his #1 film of the year. Mr. Waters and I both saw it at the SF International Film Festival. You can see it, too, by spending three bucks at MUBI. Also at this year's SFIFF was La Pivellina, an endearing nod to neo-realism centering on a family of Italian circus performers. Rounding out the list are my two favorite American films of the year, Black Swan and The Social Network.

The Best of the Rest
127 Hours (my fave Danny Boyle film since Trainspotting, for which James Franco deserves an Oscar®), Alamar, All About Evil (we love you, Peaches), Animal Kingdom, Carlos, Chloe (minus the crackpot ending), City of Life and Death, the first half hour of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, Cyrus, Everyone Else (simply flawless), Father of My Children (especially the first half), Inception, Kinatay (Mr. Ebert, you embarrass yourself by calling this the worst film shown in the history of the Cannes Film Festival), The King's Speech, Leo's Room, Love Like Poison, Plan B, Please Give (the first Nicole Holofcener film to wow me), Police, Adjective (the dictionary scene!), The Robber, The Silence, Toy Story 3 and The White Meadows (let's not forget that Mohammad Rasoulof was convicted along with Jafar Panahi).

2010 Ten Favorite Documentary Features
1. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (France, dir. Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea)
2. Marwencol (USA, dir. Jeff Malmberg)
3. Agrarian Utopia (Thailand, dir. Uruphong Raksasad)
4. Inside Job (USA, dir. Charles Ferguson)
5. Beautiful Darling (USA, dir. James Rasin)
6. Dzi Croquettes (Brazil, dir. Raphael Alvarez, Tatiana Issa)
7. 14-18: The Noise and the Fury (France, dir. Jean-François Delassus)
8. My Perestroika (USA/UK/Russia, dir. Robin Hessman)
9. The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls (New Zealand, dir. Leanne Pooley)
10. Most Valuable Players (USA, dir. Matthew D. Kallis)

I watched nearly 70 documentary features in 2010 – 25% of them in theaters and the remainder at home on DVD screeners or on-line streaming – the inverse ratio of my narrative feature viewing. The doc that should be at the top of this list is David Weissman's devastating We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco. I left it off because the showing at Frameline was a sneak preview screening. The film will have its official world premiere at Sundance this month, and then immediately proceed to the Berlin Film Festival.