Please excuse the TV-commercial metaphor, but there appears to be a fresh new breeze blowing through the San Francisco International Film Festival this spring.
Just a year ago, the Western Hemisphere's oldest continuous film festival opened under a cloud after the loss of Graham Leggat and Bingham Ray. The untimely deaths of two executive directors in one calendar year put the festival in a somber, reflective mood. Never mind that the San Francisco Film Society's staff of programmers and enablers remained more or less the same, carrying out the day-to-day work of running a complex, year-round schedule of film-related events and programs. The public face of such an organization is the one people see, and that face was missing.
But now Ted Hope is in town. The 51-year-old former New Yorker is the first working movie producer to hold the top job in San Francisco. He has collaborated with such talents as Ang Lee (The Ice Storm), Todd Solondz (Dark Horse), Tamara Jenkins (The Savages), Greg Mottola (Adventureland), and Sean Baker — whose Starlet was one of the best films of this past winter season. Hope's taste tilts decidedly indie. This can only mean good things for a venerable film festival trying to hang on to its cultural cachet in the brave new world.
The SFIFF doesn't need any new coffee-table pics, it needs more Nicole Holofceners and Sean Durkins. Hope understands the complicated marketplace. Combine that with his filmography and his multi-pronged web presence (HopeforFilm.com and HammertoNail.com) and suddenly the 56-year-old film fest acquires a sassy, irreverent, more bohemian point of view. Not a moment too soon.
The true spirit of the San Francisco fest has always been its grassroots appreciation of art for art's sake, the more rough-edged the better. Bay Area audiences are not especially impressed with glitz. Filmmakers mean more than movie stars here. This year's event opens Thursday, April 25 (7 p.m.) at The Castro Theatre with the Julianne Moore-Steve Coogan starrer What Maisie Knew, but the heart of the festival is to be found in strange little items like The Search for Emak Bakia. Spanish writer-director Oskar Alegría pays whimsical tribute to artist Man Ray's 1926 cine-poem Emak-Bakia ("leave me alone" in Basque) by wandering the pathways of Biarritz and Paris in search of the "meaning" of Ray's original film. Might as well watch a plastic glove blow down the street — which Alegría does. It's kind of a surrealist scavenger hunt, with clowns, tombstones, eyelids, happenstance, and coincidence. Showing May 4 and May 6 at the Sundance Kabuki, May 9 at New People Cinema.
In a similar vein is Nights with Théodore, Sébastien Betbeder's murky, somnambulistic romance featuring two restless lovers (Pio Marmaï and Agathe Bonitzer) who can't resist sneaking into Paris' Buttes Chaumont park in the midnight hours for a little cave exploring. Contrast and compare that to Before Midnight, the third film (so far) in director Richard Linklater's series detailing the fleeting amorous encounters between a girl (Julie Delpy) and a guy (Ethan Hawke) just passing through, à la Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. In this installment, the on-again, off-again sweethearts, played by Delpy and Hawke, are pushing middle age — next title in the series: Before I Have to Take My Sleeping Pill. Nights with Théodore plays the Kabuki, April 28-29 and May 5. Before Midnight is the festival's closing night offering, May 9 at the Castro. Additionally, Linklater holds forth in "A Conversation with Richard Linklater," live on stage at the Kabuki, May 8.
Speaking at the SFIFF's press conference about the Founder's Directing Award and its recipient, veteran helmer Philip Kaufman (May 5, Castro), Hope expressed his enthusiasm for "intelligent movies for grownups, complex and deep." Two impressionistic glimpses into the workaday lives of ordinary individuals also fit that descriptive.
Leviathan throws us onto the slick, wet deck of a Massachusetts fishing trawler working the North Atlantic (occasionally throwing us overboard), for an extremely subjective, narration-less, sometimes spooky tone ode to hard work at sea. Quite often it's a fish-eye view, courtesy documentarians Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, who must have spent the entire voyage soaked. The crewmen never stop slicing, ripping, selecting. Caution: could provoke sea-sickness in audiences. It screens at the Pacific Film Archive on April 29. Sofia's Last Ambulance takes us for a ride with that Bulgarian city's most intrepid team of emergency medical techs as they navigate the bumpy streets en route to a decomposed body, a broken leg, and ER care in an auto garage. Filmmaker Ilian Metev's kaleidoscopic tour has the feel of a scripted cinema vérité hybrid, but no, it's being sold as the real thing, an actuality. Whatever else it may be, it's a big hit for fans of documentary realism. The PFA has it, April 30.
The large German family in Ramon Zürcher's The Strange Little Cat never stops moving, talking, and bumping into each other as friends and relatives drop by its cramped apartment one weekend morning. The place is a hive of nonstop activity and yet nothing overtly dramatic happens, so we watch what's going on around the edges, and the beauty of Zürcher's construction opens up. Mom (Jenny Schily) seems preoccupied, Grandma (Monika Hetterle) sleeps all the time, but the household's conscience is the cat, the only one that isn't bustling around telling stories. Anyone who grew up in a family can relate. Catch it at the Kabuki, May 1, 5, and 8.