Saturday, April 9, 2011

SFIFF54 2011 The Line-Up (Part 1)

It's with a mixture of optimism and anxiety that I first eyeball the line-up of our beloved San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) each year. As one who obsessively follows the major international fests – making notes along the way about prize-winners, critics' raves and new films by favorite directors and actors – I always have a clear idea about what I want to find on the SFIFF roster. This year is pretty typical. The festival programmed six of the 20 films on my wishlist and a bunch more that were bubbling just beneath it. Combine those with some intriguing titles that were previously unknown to me, and I've got enough to fill every non-working, non-sleeping hour between April 21 and May 5. I've already written about the films and special events that were announced prior to the festival's press conference, as well as a report on that press conference. Now here's my round-the-world, two-part look at what else has got me going.

We'll start off in France with films by three returning SFIFF veterans. Provocatrice Catherine Breillat follows up 2009's Bluebeard with yet another revisionist fairytale, The Sleeping Beauty. This will be Breillat's fifth film to play the The International – the third since opening the fest in 2008 with The Last Mistress. Chantrapas is 77-year-old French/Georgian director Otar Iosseliani's 11th film to screen in the festival, which must be some sort of record. I've loved several of his works (especially Farewell, Home Sweet Home), but groaned all the way through 2007's geezer-fest Gardens in Autumn. I hear good things about his latest, however, and Iosseliani is expected to attend. SFIFF reaches back to the 2009 Venice Film Festival for Claude Miller's (co-directing with son Nathan) I'm Glad That My Mother is Alive, the story of an adopted young man who re-establishes a relationship with his birth mother. In spite of good reviews and Miller having a 2008 U.S. arthouse hit (The Secret), this film fell off the radar. I'm sure looking forward to it.

Three other French narrative features are unknown entities: Children of the Princess of Clèves, Living on Love Alone and Hands Up. Based on terrific reviews I've read, I'll put my money on actor/director Romain Goupil's
Hands Up, in which a group of 5th graders plot to save a Chechen classmate from deportation. The film features performances by the always welcome Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Hippolyte Giradot. There are also two French documentaries on hand, three if you want to include Werner Herzog's 3-D Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which explores 30,000-year-old cave paintings in southern France (the film will have a local theatrical release this spring). The doc I definitely plan to catch is Florent Tillon's Detroit Wild City, a lyrical, outsider's look at an American city in decline. For those who need to see yet another documentary about a gay, European fashion designer, there's Yves Saint Laurent L'amour Fou (it opens in theaters May 27).

It won't come as a surprise that the four longest films in SFIFF54 hail from Europe. Leading the pack at 272 minutes (including intermission) is Raúl Ruiz' delightfully confounding Mysteries of Lisbon, reportedly his final film. I've enjoyed Ruiz' films in the past, most recently
Time Regained at the SFIFF in 1999. This one holds special promise because it was the #1 favorite 2010 film of Michael Guillén of The Evening Class. It only screens once, on Saturday afternoon, April 23. That same evening, the masochist in me had originally planned to catch the restored revival of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's ultra-rare, 214-minute, 1973 made-for-TV cyberpunk epic, World on a Wire. Upon learning that the lone San Francisco screening would be digital (you'll find details about that here), I changed course and will see it a week later at the Pacific Film Archive in 35mm. Last year saw a second coming of the Romanian New Wave and that's where our other two Euro butt-busters come from. Andrei Ujica's The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (187 minutes) was one of last year's most acclaimed documentaries, exploring the ex-dictator's cult of personality via clips from his official record. Clocking in at a comparatively brisk 181 minutes is Cristi Puiu's Aurora, which is the director's follow-up to 2005's groundbreaking The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The film is said to be a slow, difficult sit-thru, with Puiu making his acting debut and appearing in every frame. I know I'm game.

Several other Eastern European films are personal must-sees. Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy is said to be a brutal, allegorical road movie about life in rural Russia. It shocked audiences at Cannes, where it was the only film in the main competition by a first-time feature director. Also from Russia is Aleksei Fedorchenko's Silent Souls, which I saw at this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival and recommend. This is also a road movie, albeit one steeped in the funerary rituals of Russia's Merjan ethnic minority. Polish director Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross was perhaps the most lauded film to come out of this year's Sundance Film Festival. It brings to life Pieter Brueghel's 16th century painting, "The Road to Calvary," and stars Charlotte Rampling, Rutger Hauer and Michael York. A good film to double-bill with The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu might be Mila Turajlic's Cinema Komunisto, a documentary that examines Yugoslavia's movie industry under Marshal Tito. Lastly, Radim Spacek's Walking Too Fast is about a creepy member of Czechoslovakia's secret police bucking the system in the 1980s.

Sweden has three films in the line-up. The one I've already seen (again, at Palm Springs) is Sound of Noise, a clever yarn about musical terrorists that could be the most fun you'll have at SFIFF54. I'm especially looking forward to Lisa Aschan's She Monkeys, an edgy coming-of-age tale. In her rave review for Variety, Alyssa Simon calls it "one of the most intense and complex feature debuts to come from Sweden since Lucas Moodysson's Show Me Love." The American Black Power movement as seen from a Swedish perspective is the subject of Göran Hugo Olsson's The Black Power Mixtape (1967-1975), which has gathered accolades from Sundance, Berlin and most recently, NYC's New Directors/New Films. It will open in local theaters this summer. Other films of interest from Scandinavia include Eva Mulvad's The Good Life, a documentary about a formerly wealthy Danish mother and daughter now living on the skids in Lisbon. It's been favorably compared to the Maysles Brothers' Grey Gardens. Then there's Norwegian director André Ovredal's The Troll Hunter, a Blair Witch-like mockumentary that wouldn't normally be my thing, but it looks rather fun and has gathered excellent reviews. It also opens in Bay Area theaters on June 17.

Apart from the Fassbinder revival, SFIFF54 has two other German films I'd like to check out. Pia Marais' At Ellen's Age stars Jeanne Balibar (
The Duchess of Langeais) as a woman in spiritual turmoil who transitions from flight attendant to animal rights activist. From 2010's Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes we have Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below, an intense drama about an illicit affair set in Frankfurt's banking world.

Should you need a break from reading subtitles, there are three films from the UK to consider. Actually, the working class accents of Clio Barnard's revolutionary documentary The Arbor are so thick, you'll wish there were subtitles. I caught this portrait about the miserable life of playwright Andrea Dunbar at Palm Springs, where the struggle to understand actor's lip-synching to interviews, as well as reenactments from her plays, sent me to slumberland. Still, I know this is an important film – it was #5 on Sight & Sound's 2010 Top Ten list – and I hope to catch up with it again (preferably on a DVD with captions for the hearing impaired.) I expect fewer problems with Michael Winterbottom's The Trip, a comedic road movie with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (the same team that delivered 2005's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), and Richard Ayoade's Welsh coming-of-age comedy, Submarine. Both are scheduled for theatrical release this summer.

There are two final European films I'm dying to see, one of them for the second time. I viewed Michelangelo Frammartino's transfixing and nearly wordless cycle-of-life fable Le Quattro Volte at Palm Springs, and can't wait for a revisit. It contains one of the most astounding, continuous long-shot, long-takes in film history and even won a special Palme Dog at Cannes for Vuk, the goatherd's pooch (not a joke). If you miss is at the festival, Le Quattro Volte will open locally on June 10. The other film is Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg, which comes hot on the heels of the notorious Dogtooth as the latest exercise in transgressive Greek cinema. In fact, Dogtooth director Giorgos Lanthimos has a major acting role in Attenberg, and the film took home a Best Actress prize for Ariane Labed at last year's Venice Film Festival.

SFIFF54 The Line-Up (Part 2)


Michael Guillen said...

Always an amazing and essential guide through the line-up, Michael. Thank you.

Michael Hawley said...

Thank YOU, Maya!