Tuesday, April 4, 2017

SFFILM Festival 60 – The Films

Now that we've had a look at the SFFILM Festival 60 programs announced prior to the opening press conference as well as the Big Nights, Awards & Tributes and Special Events, it's time to zero in on the movies themselves. By my count, there are 100 feature films in this year's fest, which breaks down to 66 narrative and 34 documentary features. Ten of those are revival/repertory screenings. Here's my subjective round-the-world overview of the highlights, accompanied by a few words on those I've had the opportunity to preview.


We'll begin our tour with the French language selections. I had hoped the departure of SFFILM's French Cinema Now mini-fest would inspire an expanded French line-up, but the roster measures with years past. Within that roster, however, lies a sizable chunk of 2016's preeminent French flicks. Leading the pack is The Unknown Girl from Belgian master auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. It premiered in Cannes' competition to some of the most lackluster reviews of their career, which is perhaps why the film has taken 11 months to reach the Bay Area. Those reviews hardly diminish my desire to see it – after all, it IS the Dardenne Brothers. The fact that The Unknown Girl also stars Adèle Haenel, who made such a resounding impression in 2014's Love at First Fight, and includes supporting roles for Dardenne-land habitués Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier, seals the deal for me.

One of the most revered names in French cinema is Jean-Pierre Léaud, who debuted as a child actor in 1958's New Wave classic The 400 Blows. At age 72 he caps a hallowed career as the lead in The Death of Louis XIV, for which the actor reportedly stayed in character for the entire 15-day shoot. The movie is by experimental Spanish filmmaker Albert Serra, who dipped a little toe into mainstream-ish movie-making with 2013's Casanova-meets-Dracula fantasy Story of My Death. Louis XIV has triggered Serra's warmest critical reception to date. A second mid-career director who generated rave reviews last year was Katell Quillévéré, whom Bay Area cinephiles might remember from French Cinema Now selections Love Like Poison (2010) and Suzanne (2013). Her latest, Heal the Living, is a poetic drama set in the world of organ transplants (of all things) and stars Tahir Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner and the great Anne Dorval (best known for her maternal turns in the films of Xavier Dolan).

A third important mid-career French director is Bertrand Bonello, who personally attended 2015's festival with his delightfully raunchy and oversized Saint Laurent biopic. His equally controversial and well received Nocturama, which I was able to view at a press screening, hits the festival with a lone presentation at the Castro on April 7. The new movie centers on a group of multi-culti young French radicals who execute an intricately planned quartet of terrorist acts in Paris. Afterwards, they re-group and hide out in an upscale urban shopping mall. Unfortunately, Nocturama's intense, highly calibrated first half comes undone in the second, when these young masterminds inexplicably transform into millennial knuckleheads who fully deserve the ensemble Darwin Award that befalls them.

Elsewhere in the Francophile-sphere we have a glossy-looking Marie Curie biopic from German director Marie Noëlle, and a behind-the-scenes documentary about The Paris Opera (in the event that Frederick Wiseman's 159-minute doc La Danse left you hungry). I especially look forward to catching The Stopover, a pointed social drama starring French-Greek actress Ariane Labed (Attenberg, The Lobster) as an Afghanistan war vet decompressing at a Cyprus seaside resort. The film is by sibling directors Delphine and Muriel Collin, whom fest-goers might remember from their 2011 debut 17 Girls. Finally, in what could be the most inspired repertory/revival screening of the entire festival, we have a 50th anniversary presentation of Story of a 3-Day Pass. This romantic drama about a black American G.I. on leave in France was novelist-filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles' (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) feature debut. It's worth noting that SFFILM members can access the organization's screening room, where many festival films will eventually stream for free. Story of a 3-Day Pass is the first title they've announced.

Of the remaining Western European films playing SFFILM Fest, I'm most excited about João Pedro Rodrigues' The Ornithologist. The Portuguese maverick's latest, for which he won Best Director at 2016's Locarno Film Fest, has been intriguingly described as everything from a "happily blasphemous" St. Anthony biopic to a cross between Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady and Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake. Another European LGBT prize-winner playing the fest is Francis Lee's God's Own Country. Lee took Sundance's Directing Award in World Cinema for this Brokeback Mountain-ish tale set amidst the Yorkshire moors.

Two other Western European films piquing my interest are the UK's Lady Macbeth, which transports the Russian novella "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" (source of the Shostakovich opera) to Victorian England, and Park, wherein disaffected Greek youth live out a nihilistic existence among the ruins of Athens' 2004 Olympics. I'm also likely to take a look at Spain's Next Skin, if for no other reason than it stars Sergi López and Bruno Todeschini. Director Isaki Lacuesta's previous feature, The Double Steps, played the festival in 2012. I previewed and heartily recommend Mister Universo, an Austria/Italy co-production by documentarians Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel. I was a huge fan of La Pivellina, which screened in 2010 and landed in my Ten Best list. Their new work rejoins one of Pivellina's protagonists, a young down-on-his-luck Italian lion tamer, as he tracks down a circus strongman who once gave him a treasured talisman.

There are three Eastern European films in the festival, all of which I've watched and recommend to varying degrees. The one not to miss is Cristi Puiu's Sieranevada, a 3-hour familial dramedy set almost entirely within a cramped Bucharest apartment as an extended family gathers to honor their recently deceased patriarch. Puiu is one of the greats of Romanian New Wave and his latest equals previous masterworks like The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005) and Aurora (2010). The festival's only new Russian film is Kiril Serebrennikov's The Student, a somewhat overwrought satire on post-Communist Russia's newfound hyper-religiosity. Its protagonist Venya wages a one-man war against "depravity" at his high school, which includes getting bikinis banned in swim class and terrorizing a Darwinism lecture dressed in a gorilla suit. I was particularly taken by the film's wide-screen compositions, candy-glossed interiors and agitated camera movements.

God's role in a post-Communist world also informs Ralitza Petrova's bleak and austere Godless, in which a morphine-addicted Bulgarian homecare nurse steals her clients' ID cards so her boyfriend can sell them on the black market. The film's milieu of hopelessness gets fed by a murky plot, boxy aspect ratio, sludge pacing and wintry mise-en-scène of soulless public housing blocks. It also has a WTF ending I'd appreciate having someone explain. Godless won prizes for Best Film (Golden Leopard) and Best Actress at last year's Locarno Film Festival.


Hong Sang-soo's Yourself and Yours is the Asian film I'm most anticipating at SFFILM Festival 60. It's the South Korean master's 18th feature in 21 years and I'm grateful this festival religiously keeps us abreast of his work (his Right Now, Wrong Then was my second favorite film of last year). Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker Magazine described Yourself and Yours as "intermittently very funny but also an emotional horror movie" that's the director's "most structurally radical film yet," which for Hong is saying something. During the festival I'm also keen to see Anocha Suwichakornpong's By the Time It Gets Dark, which finds the Thai filmmaker riffing on a 1976 student protest that was brutally suppressed by government forces. I was very impressed by the director's earlier work, Mundane History, when it screened at CAAMFest back in 2010. I'm also scheduled to catch The Cinema Travellers, a promising-sounding doc about India's mobile movie caravans.

The only Asian film I had a chance to preview was Brillante Mendoza's Ma' Rosa. Like his notorious 2009 Cannes shocker Kinatay, it's a portrait of Philippines police corruption. As is the case with many Mendoza films, Ma' Rosa features a strong female protagonist, in this case a shopkeeper who runs a small notions store on the ground floor of her family home. She also sells drugs to make ends meet, sparking a police raid that results in Ma' Rosa and her (addict) husband being dragged to police HQ and basically held for ransom. Ma' Rosa's dynamic first half-hour reminded me of the breathtaking police slum raid that kicked off Mendoza's 2007 Slingshot, my first unforgettable exposure to this director. Frankly, I'll be surprised if I experience a more bravura piece of filmmaking this year. The energy tapers off in the second half as it becomes concerned with the attempts of Ma' Rosa's three children to raise bail money. That doesn't render the film any less affecting. Jaclyn Jose won Cannes' Best Actress prize for her titular performance.

Latin America

There were two Latin American films on my festival wish list and I was thrilled both made the line-up. Chilean cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky's autobiographical Endless Poetry picks up where 2013's Dance of Reality left off. His personage, once again played by the director's son Adan, is now in his 20's, freed from his oppressive provincial family and living a poet's life in Santiago. Endless Poetry debuted in the Director's Fortnight sidebar at Cannes and its April 10 screening at the Roxie Theater will be the film's U.S. premiere. My other must-see from the region is Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante's The Untamed. Following on the heels of 2013's brutal drug cartel drama Heli, for which he won a Best Director prize at Cannes, The Untamed appears to present a new direction for Escalante. Guy Lodge at Variety tantalizingly describes the film as a "strange stew of socially conscious domestic drama and tentacular sci-fi erotica." The Untamed premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival, where Escalante was once again awarded a Best Director prize.

I had the chance to preview The Human Surge, a big-buzz 2016 debut feature from Argentine director Eduardo Williams. This singular work is "about" young people in three different locales – Buenos Aires, Mozambique and the Philippines – and their relationship to technology. Someone is always seeking a functioning internet connection. Shot in quasi-documentary style, Williams' film conveys a tremendous sense of place, with elaborate tracking shots that leave the viewer wondering, how'd they do that? Most of the talk surrounding The Human Surge rightly focuses on the awe-inspiring transition sequences that link the film's three locations. One involves an anthill and I'll let the other remain a surprise.

Although none of Argentina's top directors released new films in 2016, the festival still managed to assemble the four-film World Cinema Spotlight, Argentina: A National Cinema in Movement. Apart from The Human Surge, Matías Piñeiro's Hermia & Helena has achieved the most international recognition. The director's recent films have all been oblique Shakespearean riffs, with his latest taking on A Midsummer Night's Dream in a New York City setting. Other titles in the sidebar include Nele Wohlatz' The Future Perfect, about a rebellious Chinese Buenos Aires teenage girl, and Emiliano Torres' Patagonia-set The Winter.


As always, the festival's bulk is comprised of new works by domestic narrative and documentary feature filmmakers.The top three U.S. narrative films I'm hoping to catch are Beach Rats, The Incredible Jessica James and The Transfiguration, which all appear to share a NYC setting. Beach Rats is the highly praised second feature from director Eliza Hittman. Her poetic portrait of a rough-edged Brooklyn teen who secretly pursues older gay men on-line won Hittman Sundance's Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. As a big fan of former The Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams, I was taken by her strong supporting performance in Jim Strouse's 2015 People Places Things. The director's new film, a rom-com with the uninspiring title of The Incredible Jessica James, was written specifically for Williams and co-stars Chris O'Dowd. Premiering in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes and screening in our festival's Dark Wave section, Michael O'Shea's elevated genre piece The Transfiguration imagines the life of a teenage African-American vampire.

A handful of well-established U.S. indie filmmakers have new movies playing SFFILM Fest. Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip, The Color Wheel) – stop the presses – has made yet another movie about brittle, unlikeable people. His Golden Exits boasts a promising cast that includes Jason Schwartzman, Cholë Sevigny, Mary-Louise Parker and ex-Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. Festival-mainstay Michael Almereyda, whose Experimenter screened on closing night two years ago, comes to SF once again with Marjorie Prime. Mad Men's Jon Hamm stars as a hologram employed to spark memories in a dementia patient (Lois Smith, reprising the stage role she originated). Experimental composer Mica Levi (Jackie) supplies the music and Geena Davis and Tim Robbins co-star.

Also attending this year's festival will be acclaimed director James Gray (Little Odessa, Two Lovers). His adventure yarn The Lost City of Z stars Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson as early 20th century explorers seeking a mythic city in the Amazon jungle. It's also worth noting new films from Interior. Leather Bar director-provocateur Travis Mathews (Discreet) and another SFFILM Fest regular, Mike Ott (California Dreams). Finally, star-gazers need to know that Ellen Burstyn (recipient of the festival's 2016 Peter J. Owens Acting Award) will be on hand for the screening of House of Tomorrow and Kevin Bacon will pop up at the 2-episode presentation of Amazon Studios' new TV series I Love Dick.

Moving on to U.S. documentaries, I'm sure the most popular will prove to be Long Strange Trip. Amir Bar-Lev's four-hour profile of the Grateful Dead screens just once, at the Castro on April 15. I disliked the Dead even in my hippie daze, so I'll be giving this one a pass. The music doc I wouldn't dream of missing is Matt Schrader's Score: A Film Music Documentary, which profiles movie composers Ennio Morricone, Mark Mothersbaugh, John Williams, Quincy Jones, Alexandre Desplat and of course, Bernard Herrmann. Speaking of Herrmann, I'm equally excited about the Dark Wave doc 78/52, which promises to analyze Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho shower scene to within an inch of its life. The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's film refers to Psycho's 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits.

Documentaries that survey the lives of notable people are a festival staple. If I only catch one this year it'll be Bill Nye: Science Guy, a personal hero of mine who famously spends much of his time debating creationists and climate change deniers on TV. The April 10 screening will feature a Q&A and conversation between Nye, directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, and Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, former Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. Festival-goers interested in Bill Nye will also want to see Chasing Coral, Jeff Orlowski's look at how rising sea temperatures have decimated the world's coral reefs. Orlowski also directed the impressively frightening Chasing Ice, which the fest played in 2012.

Other personality profile docs in the festival include Dolores, Peter Bratt's look at the work of iconic Latina political activist Dolores Huerta, and This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous from Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple. I had never heard of the transgender YouTube sensation who currently has 2.5 million subscribers, but the fact that Kopple chose to document her story certainly makes this worthy of attention. Following the April 12 screening, Gigi Gorgeous and Kopple will be joined by Ian Roth of YouTube Originals and other guests for a discussion about social media's impact on our lives. Of the many remaining documentaries playing the festival I'll briefly mention three. Former Persistence of Vision award winner Jem Cohen returns with World Without End (No Reported Incidents), an impressionistic portrait of British resort town Southend-on-Sea. Brian Knappenberger's timely Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press uses the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker Media brouhaha to explore a very timely issue. Then in Casting JonBenet, director Kitty Green offers a fresh take on the infamous (and still unsolved) murder of a six-year-old beauty queen.