Tuesday, March 24, 2009

SFIFF52—Michael Hawley Anticipates the Line-up

Bay Area cinephiles will be obsessively checking their in-boxes this Friday, awaiting e-mail instructions on how to access the program for the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF52). The line-up won't be officially announced until the March 31 press conference, but for the third year in a row, SF Film Society members get to peek (and start buying tickets) four days earlier. Press releases have arrived at a steady clip over the past few weeks, and the festival has already revealed much of its hand. Here's a recap of what we know so far, followed by a bit of speculation and wishful thinking over what Friday might have in store.

The Opening Night film will be the hometown premiere of Peter Bratt's La Mission. The film stars the director's brother Benjamin and is a redemption drama set in San Francisco's Mission District. The after-party will take place in the very neighborhood where the film was made and will be a two-venue affair: Bruno's Restaurant on Mission Street between 19th and 20th, and two blocks north among the ruins of the old El Capitan movie theater.

I'm really thrilled by the festival's choice for
Closing Night film, Alexis Dos Santos' Unmade Beds. The director's first feature, Glue, was a wholly original look at teen angst in an Argentine backwater and one of my ten favorite films of 2007. His latest is set amongst young creative types living in a London squat, and features rising French star Déborah François (The Child, The Page Turner). The after-party takes place at the popular downtown nightclub Mezzanine.

Equally exciting is programmer Sean Uyehara's annual pairing of an iconic silent film with a live, newly composed score. This year's wild combo is 1925 stop-motion dinosaur epic
The Lost World with music composed and performed by exotic Bay Area club favorites Dengue Fever. I've written more about this highly anticipated event here (click and scroll to the bottom).

Receiving this year's Peter J. Owens Award for acting will be none other than screen legend Robert Redford. I can think of dozens of more interesting choices, but hey—when someone of his stature agrees to show up and collect an award, the resulting publicity and cachet for the festival rightfully trumps all. (At least he's not getting the directing award à la Warren Beatty in 2002). Redford's career will be celebrated with a retrospective of film clips, on on-stage interview with SF Chronicle editor-at-large Phil Bronstein, and the world premiere of a newly restored print of This Property is Condemned (just joking … it'll be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, natch.)

Newly restored prints are a recurring highlight of SFIFF52, and here are three more that have been announced: Sergio Leone's 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West, Michelangelo Antonioni's 1955 Le Amiche, and John Cassavetes' 1974 A Woman Under the Influence (with an expected live appearance by Gena Rowlands).

Bruce Goldstein will be the recipient of this year's
Mel Novikoff Award, which is given each year to "an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." Goldstein has been the programming whiz behind New York's Film Forum for the past 22 years, and is the founder of Rialto Pictures, a distributor which specializes in classic restorations. He'll be interviewed on-stage by another great programmer, Anita Monga, following a 20-minute reel of Rialto trailers. The evening will be capped off by a screening of Federico Fellini's 1957 Nights of Cabiria.

All of the above-mentioned programs will take place at the Castro Theater, continuing the festival's recent trend of using the historic venue exclusively for special events. This year the Castro will host only three regular screenings. Although not as yet officially announced, the titles are up on the theater's website, so I'm hardly revealing state secrets here. The Tiger's Tail is an unreleased 2006 John Boorman film starring Brendan Gleeson which has received mixed to poor reviews (we're talking a Rotten Tomatoes 7% freshness rating). The film obviously has its defenders, as it was included in last month's Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center. Every Little Step is a documentary about the Broadway musical A Chorus Line, and is scheduled to open in theaters immediately after the festival. Moon is the feature directorial debut of Duncan Jones (who happens to be the son of David Bowie) and stars Sam Rockwell as an astronaut whose three-year stint on the moon is about to come to an end.

Four films comprise this year's
Cinema by the Bay section. The anticipated highlight is undoubtedly the world premiere of Christopher Felver's documentary on Bay Area poet/writer/activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The other selections are Frazer Bradshaw's Everything Strange and New, Allie Light and Irving Saraf's Empress Hotel and David Lee Miller's My Suicide.

In a SFIFF first, the festival has generously pre-divulged the names of all the documentaries competing for the Best Documentary Feature Golden Gate Award, plus all the narrative features competing for the New Director's Prize. Thirteen feature documentaries will contend for a GGA $20,000 cash prize, and I confess they're all unknown entities to me. Three which catch my eye are City of Borders (about Jerusalem's only gay bar), Kimjongilia (an indictment of North Korea's Kim Jong II) and Speaking in Tongues (a look at four SF public schoolchildren enrolled in Chinese and Spanish language-immersion programs). Of the 11 narrative features competing for the $15,000 New Director's Prize, Autumn from Turkish director Özcan Alper and Snow from Bosnian director Aida Begic have received considerable acclaim and were films I'd very much hoped to find in the SFIFF52 line-up. Ursula Meier's Home stars Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet and features cinematography by the great Agnès Godard, making this a personal must-see. I'm also pleased to see three Latin American films in this section, representing Guatemala (Gasoline), Argentina (The Paranoids) and the U.S. (Don't Let Me Drown).

So that's everything we know so far. Strangely, we're still waiting to learn the recipient of this year's Founders Directing Award. Whoever it is, they'll be getting their award at the Castro on May 1. Also TBA are the Centerpiece Event, the Persistence of Vision Award, the Maurice Kanbar Screenwriting Award, the Midnight Awards and the State of Cinema Address.

Now all that's left to ruminate upon are the individual films that'll make up the balance of the program. I haven't attended any festivals outside the Bay Area in the past year, so my wish list has grown to an unwieldy length of nearly 100 films that have played the international festival circuit between last year's Cannes and this year's Berlin (with a few stragglers leftover from Berlin08). I've painfully narrowed them down to 25, and the list could easily have been comprised exclusively of French-language films or films from Latin America. Since there's no use in wasting wishes, I've excluded several films I know for certain will open soon after the festival (Tulpan, Adoration, Rudo y Cursi, Summer Hours, Departures and Lorna's Silence). When the program is revealed on Friday, these are the 25 titles I'm most hoping to see laid out before me:

35 Rhums (France dir. Claire Denis)
Bellamy (France dir. Claude Chabrol)
The Country Teacher (Czech Republic dir. Bohdan Sláma)
Desert Within (Mexico dir. Rodrigo Plá)
Eden is West (France dir. Costa-Gavras)
El Olvido (Netherlands/Peru dir. Heddy Honigmann)
Everyone Else (Germany dir. Maren Ade)
The Girl on the Train (France dir. André Téchiné)
The Headless Woman (Argentina dir. Lucrecia Martel)
Il Divo (Italy dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
I'm Going to Explode (Mexico dir. Gerardo Naranjo)
It's Not Me, I Swear (Canada dir. Philippe Falardeau)
Julia (France dir. Erick Zonca)
Lake Tahoe (Mexico dir. Fernando Eimbcke)
Lion's Den (Argentina dir. Pablo Trapero)
Little Joe (US dir. Nicole Haeusser)
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (Parts I & II) (France dir. Jean-François Richet)
The Milk of Sorrow (Peru dir. Claudia Llosa)
Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire (US dir. Lee Daniels)
The Sea Wall (France dir. Rithy Panh)
Still Walking (Japan dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
Three Monkeys (Turkey dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Tony Manero (Chile dir. Pablo Larrain)
United Red Army (Japan dir. Kôji Wakamatsu)
The Window (Argentina dir. Carlos Sorin)

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

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