Sunday, April 21, 2013

SFIFF56 2013 Preview Capsules

The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF56) gets underway in just a few days and Bay Area cinephiles are busy gearing up for two weeks of movies, movies and more movies. The entire line-up has been announced, save for who will receive this year's Peter J. Owens Award for acting. To those who might be concerned I would say, please remember two years ago when the festival pulled Terence Stamp out of its hat at the eleventh hour – surely one of the most inspired award choices SFIFF has served up in recent years. Here are a dozen capsule reviews of films I've had the opportunity to preview. All were seen via DVD screener or on-line streaming, except where noted.

Museum Hours
When I read that SFIFF56's Persistence of Vision Award winner was to be one Jem Cohen, I drew a complete blank. An imdb search revealed he co-directed the acclaimed 2000 documentary Benjamin Smoke and a slew of familiar R.E.M. videos. Now I've seen his fascinating and unclassifiable new film and declare it my favorite of all the works I previewed for this year's festival. On the surface, Museum Hours follows a developing friendship between Johan, a distinguished-looking ex-punk band manger turned museum guard and Anne, a broke and bewildered Canadian woman in Vienna visiting her hospitalized distant cousin. At its heart, Museum Hours is also a tribute to the riches of Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, most famous for the Pieter Brueghel collection of which we're given an on-screen docent tour. In both conversation with Anne and in voiceover, Kunsthistorisches guard Johan ruminates on the purpose, origin and future of museums, and what it's like for him to be an observer of other people observing art. Museum Hours' most whimsical moment follows a discussion of frank nudity in an Adam and Eve painting with a cut to several museum visitors who are also, quite frankly, nude. Cohen's film frequently flees the museum's confines and becomes an ode to Vienna in wintertime, albeit a shabbier Vienna than one sees in travel brochures. While the movie operates on many other levels, the festival's "Hold Review" restrictions prohibit me from saying a whole lot more. Museum Hours screens just once, at the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award program which will also feature an on-stage conversation with Jem Cohen. My advice is not to miss it.

The Strange Little Cat
The little cat is the only thing that isn't strange in this mini-masterpiece of choreographed chaos from Ramon Zürcher, a film student whose little movie made big noise at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Save for a few flashbacks, the film is staged entirely within a cramped apartment as an extended German family spends the day hanging out and preparing meals. The kitchen is ground zero for all manner of hustle-bustle, petty arguments and wounding both physical and psychological. A toy helicopter flies through the air, sausages squirt grease, a popping cork extinguishes the ceiling light and a little girl screams every time an appliance is in use – all while grandma naps in the next room. Zürcher's camera spends most of its time hovering at belly button level, when it isn't foot-fetishizing or obsessing over a hair floating in a glass of milk. Meanwhile, a hyperactive sound design refuses to be ignored. What's nice is that amidst all this craziness, Zürcher's characters are never reduced to human cartoons, but emerge as real people with relatable quirks and foibles.

Good Ol' Freda
In 1961, a Liverpool typing pool secretary named Freda Kelly got taken to the Cavern Club for lunch. The 16-year-old dropout ingratiated herself with the band she saw perform that afternoon and was soon hired by manager Brian Epstein to run The Beatles fan club. She held that pleasurable but arduous position for 11 years. Until now the charmingly self-effacing Kelly, who remains a secretary at age 67, has remained quiet about her front-row seat to Beatlemania. She was fiercely loyal to the band then and remains so now, meaning no real dirt gets dished here. But she is full of lovely anecdotes, such as when she convinced Ringo to sleep on a pillowcase sent in by an adoring fan, or when she made John get on his knees and beg her to stay after getting sacked for spending too much time in the Moody Blues dressing room (she was dating a band member). Other subjects include Epstein's legendary tantrums and Kelly's close relationships with the band's family members. Apparently, there was no problem securing rights to use original Beatles recordings in the soundtrack. While director Ryan White's documentary never strays from a talking heads and archival materials template, it should be considered essential for fans – and really, who isn't one? Be sure and stay for a video message from Ringo that plays over the closing credits.

Sofia's Last Ambulance
The workaday routine of a paramedic emergency response team in Bulgaria's capital is the subject of this verité documentary from director Ilian Metev. Over the course of its 75 minutes, we ride along with Krassi the doctor, Mila the nurse and Plamen the driver as they bounce along pothole-ridden streets in a race against time and a wrecked system. A dashboard-mounted camera alternately observes the road ahead and stares at our protagonists parked in the front seat. The camera then goes into hand-held mode as it films the trio in action, sticking tightly on the crew and keeping those they're helping out of frame as much as possible. In the case of a woman whose head has been eaten by worms, that's a very good thing. Spurts of intensity are contrasted with periods of downtime, in which these colleagues who are clearly fond of each other chain smoke, banter and kvetch about things like being put on hold for 30 minutes when phoning dispatch for a new assignment. "This country is broken," sighs Plamen, the young driver whose changing hairstyles indicate that filming took place over an extended period. 

The Cleaner
There's an epidemic of lethal lung infections in Lima, Peru and it's middle-aged sad sack Eusebio's job to clean up the mess. On one particular assignment he discovers newly orphaned Joaquin hiding in a closet. He brings the skittish child home to his rudimentary apartment and the two gradually bond. Eusebio spends the rest of the film tracking down Joaquin's relatives – no easy task thanks to overwhelmed social services and uninterested bureaucrats. Director Adrian Saba's tenderly somber feature debut employs tropes common to contemporary Latin American art cinema – a stationary camera, impressive compositions, minimalist electronic scoring and barely perceptible humor. In one scene, Joaquin asks to be read a bedtime story and all Eusebio has available is the manual for his TV set. Unlike a lot of Latin American art cinema, however, The Cleaner moves along at a relatively brisk pace. While I can't be sure how, or even if, Saba's film is commenting upon contemporary Peruvian society, it's clear that his distinct voice is one we should be hearing more of in the future.

What Maisie Knew
Six-year-old Maisie is a poor little rich girl caught in a custody battle between her unmarried rock star Mom (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Dad (Steve Coogan). When Dad marries the nanny (Joanna Verderham) out of the blue, Mom ties the knot with a hot young bartender (Alexander Skarsgard) out of revenge. How Maisie survives thanks to the love and care of her newly-acquired step-parents is the focus of this new film from former S.F filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture, Bee Season). They fully succeed in conveying the conflict from a child's POV, in no small part aided by a heartbreaking titular performance by Onata Aprile. It strains credulity, however, that in light of the insecure harpie and boorish slimeball she has for parents, angelic Maisie never once "acts out." Other elements of plot and characterization are wobbly, but that doesn't stop What Maisie Knew from being an engaging and frequently powerful entertainment that should serve well as SFIFF56's Opening Night film. Seen at a SFIFF56 press screening.

The Patience Stone
In an unnamed war-torn country clearly meant to be Afghanistan, an abandoned woman spends her days verbally unburdening herself of heretofore unspeakable thoughts over the body of her comatose husband, a mujahedeen who's been wounded in a brawl. As battles rage around her home, she seeks help from a long lost aunt, now a prostitute, to care for her two little girls. Additional solace appears in the form of a shy, stuttering soldier, himself an abused former bacha bazi, with whom she'll share a guarded intimacy. Director Atiq Rahimi has adapted his best-selling novel for the screen with the help of legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, although their decision to fashion the film as basically one long monologue can feel unnecessarily stodgy. The cinematography, production design and Golshifteh Farahani's lead performance are flawless. The title derives from Persian lore in which a person pours all their tribulations into a stone until it shatters, thereby bringing deliverance. Seen at a SFIFF56 press screening.

Habi, the Foreigner
In this low-key feature debut from Argentine director María Florencia Álvarez, a young woman arrives in a new city, checks into a seamy pension and begins insinuating herself upon the local Muslim community. Director Álvarez parcels out information very slowly. Eventually we learn we're in Buenos Aires and the woman is of Lebanese descent, but the question of where she came from and why she left largely goes unanswered. Most of the film is spent watching her try on this new personage – wearing a hijab, learning to pray, sampling Arab foods – and dealing with conflicts of the secular world as they arise. A romance with a handsome Argentine Arab leads to what could be an enormous revelation about her past, but the film weirdly takes it nowhere. Habi, the Foreigner works as a portrait of someone testing a new identity, though it ultimately proves more frustrating than enigmatic and mysterious.

After Lucia
Following the death of their spouse/mother, an upper class father and daughter move to Mexico City and begin a new life. The father, a chef, has come to open a new restaurant but is having an extremely hard time coming to terms with grief. His high-school aged daughter, however, has been accepted by the cool kids at school and appears to be doing well. That changes when a moment of poor judgment launches a wildly over-the-top onslaught of peer bullying made all the more aggravating by the girl's astonishing passivity and surrender to fate. As with Michel Franco's previous film Daniel and Ana, in which a wealthy brother and sister are kidnapped and forced to have sex with each other on film, I suspect this director is less interested in exploring so-called social issues than he is in dragging our faces through muck. At Cannes last year, the Un Certain Regard jury awarded After Lucia its top prize, and it is certain to be one of the most talked about films at SFIFF56. Seen at the 2013 Palm Springs International Film Festival. 

Short Takes
Three other Palm Springs crossover films appear in the SFIFF56 line-up and all are highly recommended. Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void is a stirring and nuanced tale set within Tel Aviv's Orthodox Hasidic community, whereby a young woman is asked to put aside her own romantic aspirations and marry her sister's husband after she dies during childbirth. The film opens in the Bay Area on June 7, but director Burshtein and the amazing Hadas Yaron, who won the Best Actress prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, are expected at the SFIFF56 screenings. Next, those who were blown away by Russian director Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy when it screened at this festival two years ago, won't want to miss his latest, In the Fog. While stylistically less audacious, this saga about the ambiguity of wartime morality set in 1942 Byelorussia is no less
haunting, complex and visually arresting. Finally, Hungarian director Bence Fliegauf returns to the festival for the first time since 2005's memorable Dealer, with his latest film Just the Wind. This Berlin Silver Bear winner is based on real events and uses the plight of one Romany family to expose ethnic prejudice in modern day Hungary. Employing methods similar to early Dardenne brothers' work – grainy, close-up hand-held camera work and non-pro actors – Fliegauf follows his characters through a day of mounting tensions en route to an inevitably tragic and unforgettable climax.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

SFIFF56 2013 Perusing the Line-Up

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF56) announced the full line-up for its 56th edition last week, and while only two of 20 films from my wish list made the cut, I've got plenty to be excited about comes April 25. Here are 20 SFIFF56 films I'm especially looking forward to, plus some commentary on what's to be found elsewhere in the line-up. While I ordinarily fill my SFIFF itinerary with smaller, distribution-less films, more than half my choices below have significant distribution, often with firm Bay Area theatrical release dates. Last year the fest went out of its way rustling up the in-person talent necessary to make these films worth catching sooner, rather than later, and I'm banking on that happening again.

The Act of Killing
I've followed the rapturous reviews of this documentary since its Telluride world premiere and it has remained high on my must-see list. The gist is that Indonesian paramilitary leaders responsible for over one million deaths in the 1960's are invited to re-enact their crimes and have them filmed in the style of various Hollywood genres, with shocking results. None other than Werner Herzog has called The Act of Killing "unprecedented in the history of cinema." This Drafthouse Films release has a local Landmark exhibition date of August 9.

Before Midnight
Regrettably, work will keep me from attending the festival's closing night screening of Richard Linklater's follow-up to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, with the director and star Julie Delpy in person. (I hope to catch a press screening for review before the fest begins). The previous evening, however, SFIFF56 presents A Conversation with Richard Linklater, in which he and Delpy (and perhaps, as it was intimated at the press conference, a certain unnamed co-actor) will share an in-depth discussion about this beloved cycle of films. (Before Midnight opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema on May 31).

The Cleaner
I regrettably missed this Peruvian indie at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, where it ultimately won the fest's New Voices/New Visions Award. I'm very pleased to find it at SFIFF56, along with other little known but promising Latin American films from Argentina (Habi, the Foreigner), Mexico (Mai Morire), Colombia (La Sirga) and Brazil (They'll Come Back).

Computer Chess
Mumblecore pioneer Andrew Bujalski has been M.I.A. since 2009's Beeswax. This well-reviewed new comedy about nerds attending a 1980 computer chess convention was shot with a 60's-era Portapak videocam, in B&W with a 4:3 aspect ratio. At Sundance it took the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for a science-related film and Kino-Lorber has plans for a summer U.S. theatrical release.

Crystal Fairy
As a big fan of Sebastián Silva's The Maid – and an even bigger fan of its little-seen follow-up Old Cats – I was intrigued when the Chilean director came to Sundance with not one, but two new films, both of which starred Michael Cera. Crystal Fairy is the one that received all the accolades, with Cera as an obnoxious American tourist on a psychedelic drug quest. Landmark Theatres will open this one in San Francisco on July 17.

Everyday Objects
The desire to check out a few more selections from the festival's New Directors section led me to this reportedly enigmatic and formalist character study about a German woman's vacation plans gone awry.

Frances Ha
Even though I found Noah Baumbach's last two films insufferable (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg), I have extremely high hopes for this purported B&W valentine to Woody Allen and the French New Wave, co-written by and starring the effervescent Greta Gerwig as a flighty NYC girl trying to get her shit together. Extra points are given for featuring Girls' Adam Driver as a love interest. The film opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema on May 24.

Good Ol' Freda
A documentary about Freda Kelly, who was secretary to The Beatles for their entire 10-year career and beyond? Say no more.

A Hijacking
This nerve-wracking drama about negotiations between a Danish shipping company and the Somali pirates who've hi-jacked one of their vessels was a bit hit with audiences at last year's Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. It's another one I missed at Palm Springs that I'm grateful to find here. Magnolia Pictures is planning a limited U.S. release in June.

Inequality For All
This year's Centerpiece Film is a Sundance Special Jury Prize-winning documentary described by its director, Jacob Kornbluth, as an "Inconvenient Truth" for the U.S. economy, specifically the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. The film's guide is Robert Reich, the charismatic ex-Secretary of Labor, political economist and current UC Berkeley prof whose succinct on-line tutorials on subjects like Chained CPI I strongly admire. Weinstein Company subsidiary RADiUS-TWC plans to release the film this summer, but I have no intention of missing this lone SFIFF56 Centerpiece screening with Kornbluth and Reich in person.

Three years ago, Mexican director Pedro González-Rubio won SFIFF's New Director Prize with Alamar, a lyrical portrait of a boy spending the summer with his father and grandfather in a Yucatan fishing village. He follows that up with this docu-drama about the five remaining elderly inhabitants of a remote Japanese mountain village.

"Mesmerizing," "mind-blowing" and "visceral" are three adjectives critics have used to describe this documentary set aboard a North Atlantic fishing trawler. It's also one of the two SFIFF56 films that appeared on my wishlist and it will be the first film I see at the festival on Friday, April 26. Distributor The Cinema Guild opened the film in NYC back in early March, but I'm unaware of any plans for a local theatrical release.

Nights with Theodore
I'm looking forward to this 67-minute made-for-French-TV featurette if for no other reason than its setting in one of Paris' loveliest parks, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Oh, and it stars Pio Marmaï, who played the sexy drug runner in Living On Love Alone, which the festival screened two years ago.

Peaches Does Herself
While I'm not a big admirer of electro-clash pioneer/performance artist/anti-star Peaches, I did spend a dollar on an mp3 of "Fuck or Kill" from her 2006 album, "Impeach My Bush," so I suppose I should see this self-directed documentary/cock opera with Peaches herself in attendance. During the festival she'll also be performing at The Mezzanine on Wednesday, May 1, to which select Peaches Does Herself ticketholders will be given free admission.

Finding this made-for-Japanese TV movie in the SFIFF56 line-up was an unexpected surprise, given its five-hour length and the mixed reviews from Toronto and Venice. But we haven't heard from acclaimed director Kiyoshi Kurosawa since 2008's Tokyo Sonata, so I'm certainly game for it. I've read that the acting and direction are first rate, the first three one-hour chapters are the best and the fifth chapter brings it all to a pretty lame conclusion – which means I may slip out after three hours in order to sqeeze in the next film on this list.

As evidenced by last year's Audience Award win for The Intouchables, SFIFF audiences do like their French fare mainstream. While I had little patience for that Hollywood-styled culture-clash dramedy, I have greater hopes for this 1950's set, Tashlin-esque rom-com about a secretary entering a speed-typing contest, starring two of my fave French actors Déborah François (The Child, The Page Turner) and Romain Duris (L'Auberge Espagnole, The Beat My Heart Skipped). The Weinstein Company is scheduled to release this in theaters later in the year.

Sofia's Last Ambulance
Cannes is rarely thought of as a festival that showcases great documentaries, but last year critics fell over themselves to praise this up-close look at an over-burdened, three-person paramedic team responding to emergencies throughout the Bulgarian capital.

Something in the Air
Director Olivier Assayas' examination of post-1968 radical French youth opens at a local Landmark Theatre a week after the festival ends (May 17). I seriously doubt Assayas will be making the trek to our fair city for the festival screenings but still, this is something I need to see ASAP.

The Strange Little Cat
While the SFIFF56 line-up is packed with films by novice directors, none have received the kind of rave reviews garnered by this extremely weird-sounding little German film that made its auspicious debut in the Forum Section of this year's Berlin Film Festival. And its director is reportedly still in film school!

Twenty Feet from Stardom
Who hasn't fantasized about being a back-up singer, belting out sha-la-la's with hairbrush in hand in front of a bathroom mirror. Morgan Neville's acclaimed Sundance documentary profiles the women who actually got to live that life – women like Phil Spector powerhouse Darlene Love, Claudia "Brown Sugar" Lennear and Merry Clayton, the female force propelling the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." This should be terrific fun and it's another film RADiUS-TWC plans on releasing this summer.

Lastly, had I not already seen them at the Palm Springs International Film Festival back in January, After Lucia, Fill the Void, In the Fog and Just the Wind would have certainly appeared on this list. Capsule reviews of these films will appear here at film-415 shortly before the festival opening.

Elsewhere in the fest

This year's festival features an impressive eight programs worth of repertory/archival screenings. At the top of my list is Phil Kaufman's 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which I haven't seen in decades. This shot-in-San Francisco time-capsule will screen at the Castro Theatre in conjunction with Kaufman's receipt of 2013's Founder's Directing Award. William Friedkin, who's a guaranteed live wire in person, will be in town for a showing of what's often called the ultimate '80s flick, To Live and Die in L.A. (which I sheepishly admit to never having seen). Regrettably, that program conflicts with this year's silent-film-with-live-music event at the Castro, Paul Leni's German expressionist horror/fantasy film Waxworks. Spend It All showcases 16mm restorations of three documentary shorts by Les Blank, the renowned and eccentric Bay Area filmmaker who sadly passed away in his Berkeley home this past weekend. The festival also honors recently deceased philanthropist, SFIFF booster and cinema enthusiast George Gund III with a showing of the 1966 Eastern European masterpiece Marketa Lazarová, which I recall, philistine that I am, sleeping through when the fest last played it in 1997. Other SFIFF56 archival screenings include new restorations of Bahram Beyzaie's 1971 Downpour, which is said to be a major work of pre-Revolutionary Iranian cinema, and Francesco Rosi's 1972 political thriller The Mattei Affair. Finally, there's 1972's butt-busting, 316-minute "Finnish cinema's masterpiece," Eight Deadly Shots, which was selected by this year's Mel Novikoff Award recipient, Peter von Bagh. Sadly, apart from the Les Blank 16mm shorts, only two of these movies will actually be film projections – Waxworks and Marketa Lazarová.

While nearly one-third of the feature films in this year's line-up are by first and second-time directors, there's no shortage of established voices to be found. The festival will screen the final films of recently deceased world cinema giants Raúl Ruiz (Night Across the Street) and Claude Miller (Thérèse), as well as a welcome new work from aging auteur Bernardo Bertolucci (Me and You). From Spanish director Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque, Chico & Rita) comes The Artist and the Model, which was nominated for 13 Goya Awards and stars Jean Rochefort and Claudia Cardinale. American indie cinema is represented by veterans David Gordon Greene (Prince Avalanche) and Michael Polish (Big Sur). On the documentary front, director Kim Longinotto makes what I believe is her sixth appearance at this festival with Salma, and Raoul Peck (Lumumba) does an unaccustomed turn as documentarian with Fatal Assistance, an exposé on failed international efforts to reconstruct his native Haiti. Other documentaries of possible interest include looks at aging gay men (Before You Know It), late term abortions (After Tiller), killer whales in captivity (Blackfish), the Google Books Project (Google and the World Brain) and folk-music legend Kate McGarrigle (Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You).

Monday, April 1, 2013

SFIFF56 2013 Anticipating the Line-Up

It would be an understatement to say that tomorrow morning's press conference for the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF56) will yeild surprises. The SF Film Society (SFFS) has held its cards closer to the chest this year, with most film titles and at least five major awards (Peter J. Owens Acting Award, Founders Directing Award, Kanbar Screenwriting Award, Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award and Mel Novikoff Award) still to be announced. In addition, this year film society members were not sent a PDF of the festival's mini-guide prior to the press conference, which has helped to amp up the suspense. Here's an overview of what's already been announced, followed by some fanciful speculation on what we might expect tomorrow, and a wish list of 20 films I hope made the cut.

The festival opens at the Castro Theatre on April 25 with Scott McGehee and David Siegel's What Maisie Knew. Loosely based on Henry James' 1897 novel, the film traces a bitter custody battle between a former rock star (Julianne Moore) and her art dealer husband (Steve Coogan), as experienced by their six-year-old daughter Maisie (newcomer Onata Aprile). It premiered last year at Toronto to strong reviews. Former San Francisco residents McGehee and Siegel have attended SFIFF twice before, with Suture in 1994 and The Deep End in 2001. Both are expected on opening night, along with child actress Aprile.

Closing out the fest 15 days later will be one of the most anticipated movies of the year, Richard Linklater's Before Midnight. Once again starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, it continues the romantic journey that sparked in 1995's Before Sunrise and was reignited in 2004's Before Sunset. Linklater attended SFIFF just last year with Bernie, and he's expected to attend May 9's closing night at the Castro Theatre, along with Julie Delpy. (The film will open at a SF Landmark Theatre on May 31.)

SFIFF56's Centerpiece Film is Jacob Kornbluth's documentary Inequality for All, in which ex-U.S. Secretary of Labor, political economist and current UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich examines our country's widening economic gap. The film premiered at Sundance, where it won a Special Jury Prize. Kornbluth is the brother of Bay Area playwright/actor Josh Kornbluth and previously directed the film adaptation of his brother's play The Haiku Tunnel. Both Jacob Kornbluth and Reich are expected to attend the screening on May 4.

One of this year's hottest tickets, in fact it's already at rush, is director Steven Soderbergh's State of Cinema Address on April 27. This annual event was inaugurated 10 years ago and past addressers have included Tilda Swinton, B. Ruby Rich and Walter Murch. Other announced SFIFF56 Live & Onstage Programs include Inside the Drunk Mind of Derek Waters, Show or Tell and No More Road Trips?, the latter a filmic coast-to-coast U.S. tour comprised of clips from over 9,000 home movies, assembled by film archivist Rick Prelinger.

This year's silent film with live musical accompaniment at the Castro will be Waxworks, a 1924 German expressionist horror/fantasy from director Paul Muni (The Cat and the Canary). It's the tale of a poet hired to write back stories for three wax museum figures: the Caliph of Baghdad, Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper, portrayed respectively by a power trio of German actors Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt and Werner Kraus. Performing alongside the film on May 7 will be Mike Patton, ex-vocalist/multi-instrumentalist of bands such as Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, accompanied by percussionists Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi and William Winant.

Ten films will compete for SFIFF56's New Directors Prize. The only one already on my radar is Adrián Saba's The Cleaner from Peru, which I missed at this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival. I've heard very favorable things from friends and it won that fest's New Voices/New Visions award. Scanning the other nine films on the list, I'm intrigued by the pedigree of Youth, directed by Justine Malle (daughter of Louis) and starring Esther Garrel (daughter of Philippe and sister of Louis).

The festival's Golden Gate Documentary Competition features a dozen films, including one I'm especially excited to see. Illian Metev's Sofia's Last Ambulance received rave reviews when it screened in Cannes' Critics Week last year, and it follows a stressed paramedic team as they respond to emergencies in the Bulgarian capital. I'm also interested in After Tiller, a notable doc from Sundance about the few remaining U.S. doctors who perform third trimester abortions.

As someone who obsessively tracks international art films from their premieres to their eventual theatrical/VOD/DVD release (or not), I can't help but speculate which ones will turn up at our own hometown festival. Whatever SFIFF56 brings us, the festival's importance to Bay Area cinephiles will be greater than ever this year. San Francisco lost five arthouse screens in 2012 (including the film society's own cinema at Japantown's New People). Now rumor has it that the city's biggest, five-screen arthouse will be closing for extensive renovations this summer and fall. This means that even films from major distributors may have to forego Bay Area theatrical release, making festival showings our only chance to catch them on the big screen.

Here are a few high interest films I don't expect to hear about at tomorrow's press conference. YBCA Film/Video curator Joel Shepard recently announced that he's bringing Ulrich Seidl's acclaimed Paradise trilogy and Carlos Reygadas' controversial Post Tenebras Lux to that venue in the coming months. Jeff Nichols' Mud (his follow-up to Take Shelter) and François Ozon's In the House have a scheduled SF Landmark opening date of April 26, the day after the festival begins. If Fruitvale, the Sundance-winning film about the final day of BART murder victim Oscar Grant were to be in the festival, I would have expected it in an Opening Night, Closing Night or Centerpiece slot. I'd love to be wrong.

I imagined Pablo Trapero's White Elephant a shoe-in for SFIFF56 until I read that Strand Releasing is sending it straight to DVD – literally tomorrow! I caught it at Palm Springs, along with Marco Bellocchio's Dormant Beauty, Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways, Peter Greenaway's Goltzius and the Pelican Company and Sergei Loznitsa's In the Fog, all strong contenders for the SFIFF56 roster. At that same festival I admired Kim Ki-duk's Venice Golden Lion winner Pieta and Joachim Lafosse's Our Children. Both, however, were part of the Rafael Film Center's "For Your Consideration" series in January and consequently unlikely for SFIFF inclusion. Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha with Greta Gerwig already has a May 24 local opening date, but I wouldn't mind seeing it sooner. Other desirable films with mid-to-large U.S. distributors that just might be in the festival include Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess, Sebastián Silva's Crystal Fairy, Tobias Lindholm's A Hijacking and Haifaa Al-Mansour's Wadjda, the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. I'm also thinking that the apocalyptic Eli Roth-starring Aftershock and Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem have a potential shot at SFIFF56's Late Show sidebar.

Finally, here is my 20-film wish list for the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival. To the best of my knowledge, all of these films currently have very limited or zero U.S. distribution.

3 (Uruguay, dir. Pablo Stoll)
The Act of Killing (Denmark, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Burn It Up, Djassa (Ivory Coast, dir. Lonesome Solo)
Camille Claudel, 1915 (France, dir. Bruno Dumont)
Celestial Wives of Meadow Mari (Russia, dir. Aleksei Fedorchenko)
Child's Pose (Romania, dir. Calin Peter Netzer)
Dream and Silence (Spain, dir. Jaime Rosales)
Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (Bosnia/Herzegovina, dir. Danis Tanovic)
Escape from Tomorrow (USA, dir. Randy Moore)
Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen (Hungary, dir. György Pálfi)
Gloria (Chile, dir. Sebastián Lelio)
Horses of God (Morocco, dir. Nabil Ayouch)
I Used to be Darker (USA, dir. Matthew Porterfield)
The Last Time I Saw Macao (Portugal, dir. João Pedro Rodrigues)
Leviathan (France, dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
The Nun (France, dir. Guillaume Nicloux)
The Repentant (Algeria, dir. Merzak Allouache)
Rhino Season (Iran, dir. Bahman Ghobadi)
Thy Womb (Philippines, dir. Brilliante Mendoza)
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Canada, dir. Denis Côté)