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Youth Bait and Village Pictures at the San Francisco International Film Festival

The annual fest reemphasizes storytelling, and once again manages to be all things to all people.



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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.

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