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Last-Minute Delights at the San Francisco International Film Festival

The long-running film fest is 54 years old and still spontaneous.


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When Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, got up in front of a press conference on the top floor of the St. Francis Hotel on Tuesday morning, March 29, and admitted that the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival was still, at that late date, somewhat of a work in progress, it was a refreshing bit of candor in a business that's notable for the lack of it.

Wiry, affable Leggat, the very model of a leading cultural bureaucrat, has the polished arts presenter's knack of spinning complete disasters into minor glitches, and anything less catastrophic into full-fledged triumphs. "The single hardest part of my job," he explained that morning, "is getting the festival honorees to show up, on time and under budget." Evidently Leggat had had more than usual trouble in that regard this year or he wouldn't have mentioned it.

Lots of last-minute arrangements were still being made, he confided to the gathered hundred or so reporters and film folks in the hotel's Alexandra Room. One prospective special guest was under the impression that San Francisco was part of Los Angeles. That meant logistical problems, so that particular program was scratched. And so on. The festival brass were still trying to figure out who would receive the Founder's Directing Award and the Peter J. Owens Award for acting. But not to worry, Leggat assured the audience, the show would go on.

And it will, and no one who buys a ticket will feel short-changed. In fact, the longest-running film festival in the Western Hemisphere could afford to dispense entirely with movie stars — it had them aplenty in the Sixties and Seventies — geographically challenged filmmakers, and other talent, and just show its 188 films without the publicity ballyhoo, with nothing lost. It's always a pleasure to encounter the odd director, writer, or actor in person at the annual festival, but for Bay Area audiences the films themselves are the big draw.

This year's crop — the first full festival put together by director of programming Rachel Rosen — doesn't overwhelm us at first with bright lights and brash showmanship, but insinuates itself in the collective audience consciousness by degrees, until we're ready to declare that it's been a remarkable year for festival-weight international movies. Under the circumstances.

Three and a half years into the Great Recession, we're starting to see the full effect of the worldwide economic slowdown as a thematic point. There's a decided whiff of bust in the air, and a wistful, farewell-to-all-that mood to go along with it. Hence the clump of films that might as well go out under the rubric "Things Ain't What they Used to Be." Detroit Wild City is just such an experience. Florent Tillon's documentary on the economically battered Motor City stumbles into all the obvious pitfalls of a French filmmaker trying to draw sweeping conclusions about American power based on shots of Detroit's empty downtown and rows of abandoned homes. And yet, if we view it as an impressionistic tone poem rather than as reportage, Detroit Wild City comes across as a sympathetic portrait of survivors — the men and women who plant vegetables amid the ruins. As one urban gardener declares: "They fed themselves once. They stopped, started making cars. Now they can't eat them. So maybe they'll go back to farming." See it at the Pacific Film Archive, May 4.

No such sense of hopefulness in My Joy, writer-director Sergei Loznitsa's rambling narrative visit to his Russian homeland (shot in Belarus). Loznitsa, usually a documentary maker, uses a string of central characters, each less trustworthy than the last, to populate a chaotic countryside where crooked highway patrolmen, violent thieves, a teenage hooker, a bitter old veteran of the Great Patriotic War Against Fascism, and desperate, demented villagers all lie in wait for the unwary — essentially anyone who passes by. If you're crazy enough to turn your back on one of these people, they will bash your head in and steal your shoes — obviously destined to work wonders for tourism to the former USSR. A bit hard to take, but filmmaker Loznitsa manages to turn misery into art. My Joy screens April 30 and May 3 at the Kabuki.

Mette and Annemette Beckmann are also having money problems. The subjects of Eva Mulvad's documentary The Good Life, a mother-daughter pair of formerly well-off Danish expats trying to keep their heads above water in Portugal, bear a distinct resemblance to the women of Grey Gardens — but a notch or two lower on the grandeur scale. Daughter Annemette, a one-time debutante, doesn't seem to grasp the situation: "I'd rather die than work." They survive by penny-pinching and borrowing, and filmmaker Mulvad hovers over them like a vulture. Good, clean, morbid fun. Plays the Kabuki on April 22 and 28, and May 1.

The "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" tour continues with The Last Buffalo Hunt, another stealth social commentary by Cal Arts film prof Lee Anne Schmitt (she made the brilliant California Company Town). Schmitt's doc packs us along with the modern-day cowboys who escort wealthy hunters and trophy-tourists on licensed hunting trips in search of wild bison near Hanksville, Utah. Business is good (at $3,000 for a four-day hunt), but the hunters' dirty jokes and "dominant individualism" are growing stale. Meanwhile, tubby townsfolk are content to see pictures of buffalo in a museum. Warning: You will watch a buffalo die, slowly. For that and other reasons, it's one of the saddest movies you'll ever see. Showing April 23 and 26 at New People (1746 Post St., San Francisco) and April 27 at the Kabuki.