It might be difficult to discern with the naked eye, but there's a perceptible sense of rejuvenation in this year's model of the San Francisco International Film Festival. You might even call it a feeling of refreshment, of welcome renovation. Suddenly it's Springtime in Festival Land.
Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, the annual festival's governing body, reports that even though endowments and grants are still somewhat restrained compared to the flush times of a few years ago, the 53rd edition of the SF International arrives this week fully loaded with sponsors — a prime requisite for the nonprofit festival.
On the artistic side — where the flavor is for this event's film-crazy audiences — brand new Director of Programming Rachel Rosen booked nearly all of the fest's films since she came on board in the autumn of 2009. The festival now bears her stamp. For Rosen it's a homecoming of sorts — she was an SFIFF associate programming director for seven years in the 1990s before departing for a stint with Film Independent and the Los Angeles Film Festival. She promises "a return to basics and classical storytelling" in her selections for the Western Hemisphere's oldest film festival.
There is truly something basic and classical about Jean-Francois Delassus' enthralling "doctored documentary" 14-18: The Noise and the Fury, but those adjectives don't begin to describe the emotional power of Delassus' deliberately disorienting chronicle of World War I. For the French, the five-year conflict was a tsunami of horror and disillusionment, leaving 1.4 million Frenchmen dead and three million wounded.
Delassus' first-person narration in the voice of an ordinary soldier (the English version was written by Paul Bandey) takes a personal view of the misery and folly of trench warfare, using colorized black-and-white images from newsreels, re-creations, and excerpts from period films, including Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms. The shock accumulates as Delassus sets a tone of weary resignation and infinite sadness to stand alongside All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory as one of the very best meditations on that long-ago war. 14-18 is also one the very finest films in the 2009 SFIFF lineup. It screens April 26, May 1, and May 3 at the Kabuki.
A few years ago in these pages I lightheartedly described the offerings of the typical all-inclusive international film festival as belonging to four main groups: Coffee Table Films, Village Pictures, Documentaries, and Shelfniks.
Most durable of these categories has been the Coffee Table Film, which customarily features sumptuous foreign settings (preferably in Europe), elaborate costumes, a sheen of historical interest, and a double-cream dollop of romance — especially between white men and women, and most especially when one of them is either a noble or a literary figure, or both. This favorite genre has truly withstood the test of time. Although fests seem to have tired of Coffee Table Films lately, they're still a staple of commercial art theaters. Recent ones include Bright Star, The Young Victoria, and The Last Station.
Village Pictures, those glimpses into the daily life of faraway societies, can either be an epiphany or an ordeal. The original function of the Village Picture was to provide festival representation from countries without established film industries, and to prove to audiences that the festival does indeed girdle the globe. The hallmark of the most egregious Village Picture has always been intense boredom, accompanied by a warm glow of self-satisfaction that you have now fulfilled your moral obligation to pay attention to people from places you'd never go for vacation. The all-time classic Village Picture would be a saga of rural electrification in India, circa 1988. But for contemporary examples all we need to do is check this year's SFIFF schedule: Frontier Blues, Alamar, Constantin and Elena, Nymph, Northless, Between Two Worlds, and A Brand New Life, to name a few.
Documentaries are still very much amongst us. That's a good thing. Shelfniks — a type of movie from the old Soviet Bloc that typically used veiled satire to condemn and/or ridicule the regime in question and which led the film (and often the filmmaker) to be placed "on the shelf" for political reasons — have thankfully gone defunct. No more need for them in the brave new world.
Shelfniks have been replaced by a robust new genre, Youth Bait. Festivals share the same worries that plague museums, university film studies programs, and other institutions faced with the realization that times have changed. Today's college students and twentysomethings are no longer content to sit around discussing cognitive dissonance, let alone lap dissolves and Jean-Luc Godard. They'd much rather watch a zombie flick on their handheld devices. Wised-up fests like the SFIFF were quick to add "midnight shows" to their playlists to attract the elusive youth demographic with a wide range of the entertainment young auds appreciate most: horror movies, sex-and-horror movies, and sexy horror movies shot on iPhones.
All the Late Show offerings in this year's SF International are genuine Youth Bait: the Swiss sci-fi entry Cargo; a gory Butcher Brothers/Mitchell Altieri/Phil Flores film called The Violent Kind; the world premiere of Joshua "Peaches Christ" Grannell's slasher pic All About Evil; and the pick of the litter, director Sean Byrne's 2009 Australian teenage shockeroo, The Loved Ones. It's the story of a long-haired surfer type named Brent (Xavier Samuel) who makes the mistake of blowing off a prom invitation from a high-school wallflower named Lola (creepy Robin McLeavy) and lives — barely — to tell about it. The Loved Ones is one of the best films in the film festival of any kind. It plays May 2 at the Castro, May 6 at the Kabuki.
One subdivision of Youth Bait is films about regular, everyday slackers shot on someone's cell phone, or with professional visuals made to look homemade. Nothing much happens, which leads to charitable descriptions of the films as "observational." The festival boasts at least two of these rare items. José Manuel "Che" Sandoval's intriguingly titled You Think You're the Prettiest (But You're the Sluttiest) introduces us to the Chilean Beavis and Butt-Head. Nico is a spiky-haired art student who fancies himself post-modern. His pal Javier, a buck-toothed musician with scraggly facial hair, suffers from premature ejaculation. Neither of them has a job, and they spend most of their time sitting around drinking 40s, smoking cigarettes and weed, drawing on their friends' faces, watching South Park, and talking about getting laid. As their dry predicaments accumulate, we find ourselves drawn to these boys, not to find out if they finally have sex, but to see if they finally grow up, even a little bit.
Esmir Filho's teen idyll The Famous and the Dead plays a slight variation on that theme — the Brazilian Beavis and Butt-Head. In a remote German-immigrant community in Brazil, sedated-looking young folks are committing bridge-jump suicide, and we, uh, observe. One of them, nicknamed Mr. Tambourine Man, is obsessed with Bob Dylan. And so it goes. Should you care to see either of these, You Think You're the Prettiest plays the Kabuki on April 28 and May 6, the Clay on May 3. The Famous and the Dead hits the PFA this Saturday, April 24, then the Kabuki April 29 and May 1.
Frontier Blues may well be the Village Picture Supreme. Director Babak Jalali's comic drama manages to evoke equal measures of Napoleon Dynamite and National Geographic in its episodic dip into the lives of three distinct sets of characters on the Turkmenistan border of Northern Iran: a group of wedding entertainers led by one Mr. Minstrel; a developmentally challenged young man named Hassan (the impolite description would be "village idiot") who collects license plates and feeds his donkey newspapers, and whose uncle runs the town's forlorn "fashion shop;" and a lovelorn poultry farm worker named Alam. Most of the characters are men. And everyone greatly desires to leave for Baku — it's hard to blame them. At one point filmmaker Jalali appropriates the chicken-dancing scene from Werner Herzog's Stroszek. That tells us he does a sense of humor after all. You'll have to travel to the Kabuki, April 23, 25, or 27, to see it.
Much less ambiguous and easier to admire is Alamar, a Mexican production by writer-cinematographer-editor-director Pedro González-Rubio. In the best tradition of the third-person-plural essay documentary, a father named Jorge Machado and his young son, Natan Machado Palombino, spend some time living the fish-and-swim life together — catching and selling lobsters, avoiding sea crocodiles, feeding their pet egret, etc. — in Banco Chinchorro, a beautiful coral reef off Quintana Roo in the blue Caribbean, just before the boy leaves to live with his mother in Rome. A more peaceful tone poem about parental bonding would be hard to find. Recommended. See it at the PFA on May 6, or if you can't wait, try the Kabuki May 1 or 2.
China and its satellite Hong Kong still have a long way to go to become a gross exporter of movies rather than an importer, but they're working hard to close the gap. Witness Christina Yao's Empire of Silver, Teddy Chen's Bodyguards and Assassins, and Johnnie To's Vengeance, a trio of 2009 releases brought to this year's SFIFF.
The weakest of the three, Bodyguards, may have the sexiest production values — Chen's crew recreates turn-of-the-20th-century Hong Kong in its routine tale of behind-the-scenes mayhem surrounding a visit by political reformer Dr. Sun Wen to the Crown Colony. Everyone wants him dead, especially the Dowager Empress and the British authorities. It stars Tony Leung Ka Fai, Donnie Yen, and Li Yuchun as the kung-fu beggar girl dynamo, Fang Hong. Empire of Silver also time-travels back to the Qing Dynasty, where an extended family of bankers combats both the Boxer Rebellion and Western powers (plus a pack of CGI wolves) to promote their own "too big to fail" business plans. The sets, costumes, and cinematography are first-class, and Jennifer Tilly shows up in a cameo as a gwai lo schoolteacher.
But Johnnie To's HK gangster-bonker Vengeance is the easiest to chew popcorn along with, an old-fashioned actioner starring aging Euro-pop singer Johnny Hallyday (the pic is a French co-prod) as a reformed Parisian hood trying to get even with the hit men who wasted his grandchildren in the gaudy casino city of Macau. Things get complicated when the Hallyday character develops amnesia in the middle of the hunt, leading all concerned to wax philosophical: What does revenge mean when you've forgotten everything? Indeed. Bodyguards is at the Castro, May 2. Empire plays the Kabuki on April 25 and May 1. Vengeance visits the Kabuki, April 27 and 30.
With the death in January of SF International favorite Eric Rohmer, the list of revered French masters has dwindled considerably. One could argue that Jacques Rivette's Around a Small Mountain (36 vues de Pic Saint Loup) is an "old man's film" — it certainly doesn't have the snap of Rivette's 2007 Ne touchez pas la hache (released in the US as The Duchess of Langeais). But if anyone is entitled to make a gentle, pocket-sized drama about a mini-circus troupe struggling through the provinces, the 82-year-old Rivette is. Jane Birkin and Sergio Castellito star as the circus' proprietor and its biggest fan, respectively. You can take a walk Around a Small Mountain at the PFA, April 28.
The French family drama is another festival perennial. No one does a deceptively lightweight examination of personal idiosyncrasies with as much panache as the French — they've been specializing in this type of film for more than a hundred years. The 2009 SFIFF's finest example is Mia Hansen-Løve's Father of My Children, in which a lovably disorganized movie producer (Louis-Do De Lencquesaing) leaves his family ill-equipped to save his financial shambles of a company. The wistful mood of regret is heightened by director Hansen-Løve's selection of needle drops, including "Egyptian Reggae" by Jonathan Richman. It screens at the PFA Monday, April 26.
Sweet-natured discombobulation also is the theme of Fatih Akin's German comedy, Soul Kitchen, the story of Zinos, an accident-prone restaurateur in Hamburg for whom nothing is more important than throwing a good party. Turkish-German filmmaker Akin, who made 2007's The Edge of Heaven, gets TV-sitcom-style performances from actors Adam Bousdoukos (as Zinos) and Moritz Bleibtreu (as Zinos' ex-com brother), and makes us like it. Soul Kitchen has two showings, April 26 and 28, both at the Kabuki.
Opening the festival this Thursday, April 22 (7:00 p.m.) at the Castro is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs, a typically busy Jeunet tale of neglected people rising up and righting wrongs, very much of a piece with Amelie and Un long dimanche de fiançailles, minus Audrey Tautou.
Other recommended films: My Dog Tulip, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's delightful animated "my best friend" story about an elderly Londoner named J.R. Ackerley (voice of Christopher Plummer) and his Alsatian canine companion. Not just for dog lovers, the Fierlingers' earthy, vital portrait of friendship is yet another example of the ongoing animated film renaissance. It plays the PFA on May 1. Patricia Clarkson stars in Ruba Nadda's travelogue-ish character study Cairo Time, in which a woman comes to Cairo to meet her husband and finds novel ways to kill time waiting for him. April 28 and 29 at the Kabuki. Animal Heart, a Swiss drama by Séverine Cornamusaz about a brutish farmer, his abused wife, and the hired hand who comes to stay, is one of the fest's hidden treasures of characterization. It shows at the Clay, April 30 and May 2; and at the Kabuki, May 3.
The festival honors three more-than-usually-notable individuals this year, all of whom make personal appearances. Writer, producer, and Focus Features studio chief James Schamus (The Ice Storm; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain; Lust, Caution) receives the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting. He'll also be on hand to show the director's cut of Ang Lee's 1999 western Ride with the Devil, for which he wrote the screenplay, May 1 at the Kabuki.
Actor Robert Duvall, a driving force behind many memorable movies (Apocalypse Now, The Great Santini, Lonesome Dove, Tender Mercies, etc.) is feted with the Peter J. Owens Award on April 30 at the Castro. A clips reel, onstage interview, and a special screening of Duvall's latest film, Aaron Schneider's Get Low, are part of the evening.
The Mel Novikoff Award goes to indefatigable critic Roger Ebert, who is scheduled to show Erick Zonca's 2008 drama Julia at the Castro on May 1. For years Ebert has walked the most difficult of critical tightropes, balancing a legendary command of his subject with a daily newspaper reviewer's knack for speaking plainly to a general audience. His special talent is to educate and raise awareness without condescending, and in the best Midwestern manner Roger almost never takes himself too seriously. Ebert will be joined on the Castro stage by filmmakers Philip Kaufman, Errol Morris, Jason Reitman, and Terry Zwigoff. Best wishes.
For up-to-date info on all the events, go to: SFFS.org.