After weeks of anticipation, the 53rd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) is finally set to launch this Thursday, April 22. I'm looking to catch 30 or so films during the next two weeks and hope to file a wrap-up report when it's all over and done with. Meanwhile, here's a fistful of capsule write-ups of films I've had the chance to preview on DVD screener (except where noted). These 14 films represent only a fraction of what's on offer, so pick up a festival mini-guide, browse the entire roster of films on the festival's website, or check out my previews of the line-up here, here and here. Also, if you're interested in knowing which films are screening in 35mm and which ones will be digitally projected, be sure to have a look at the Film on Film Foundation's indispensable Bay Area Film Calendar.
Air Doll (Japan dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
A blow-up sex doll comes to life and discovers that having a heart is heartbreaking in this perhaps destined-to-disappoint follow-up to 2008's masterful Still Walking. Kore-eda laboriously overworks his premise here to deliver a gnarly parable about loneliness. Still, the film looks great and is a choice vehicle for Korean actress Bae Doo-na (Linda Linda Linda, The Host), whose gifts for pathos and physical comedy are put to sublime use in the title role. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)
A Brand New Life (South Korea/France dir. Ounie Lecomte)
Based on the director's own childhood spent in a South Korean Catholic orphanage, this powerful and affecting film is a testament to the adaptability of youth. In 1975, nine-year-old Jin-hee (adorably resolute Kim Sae-ron) is brought to an orphanage by a father who can no longer care for her. Over the course of the film, we witness her disbelief and anger painfully transform into resignation, and finally acceptance. Realizing her father will never return, Jin-hee intuits that her best bet is to play the system and present herself in a way that will facilitate a foreign adoption. Remarkably unmanipulative considering its subject matter and engaging throughout, the film should be a strong contender for the festival's New Directors prize. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)
Cairo Time (Canada dir. Ruba Nadda)
The talents of Patricia Clarkson aren't nearly enough to save this hokey tale of a Western woman's reawakening amidst an exotic culture. Magazine editor Juliette gets waylaid in Cairo while waiting to be joined by her U.N. relief worker husband, meanwhile vaguely falling for the handsome Egyptian assigned to watch over her. Clunky dialogue, an overwrought score, and lack of chemistry are among its chief problems. The only winner is Cairo itself, which is beautifully photographed. (Seen at a festival press screening.)
Father of My Children (France/Germany dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
A beloved art-film producer commits suicide after becoming financially overextended, leaving family and business associates to deal with his legacy in this splendid Special Jury Prize winner from Cannes (Un Certain Regard). The film kicks off with a bravura sequence detailing a day in the life of producer Grégoire Canvel, as he chain smokes, juggles multiple cell phones, irons out production snafus, evades creditors and smoothes the ruffled feathers of temperamental actors and directors. He has a loving, if exasperating relationship with his wife and three daughters, which renders the suicide at the film's exact mid-point all the more tragic. The second half almost seems like an anti-climax in comparison, as Canvel's wife tries to salvage the production company and a family secret is discovered by his eldest daughter. The film was inspired by the life and death of Hubert Balsan, whose list of productions includes films by Claire Denis, Youssef Chahine and Lars von Trier. I found it a big step up from Hansen-Løve's debut film All is Forgiven, which certainly had its ardent admirers. Father of My Children will be of special appeal to those interested in the economics of contemporary art film production. (Seen at a festival press screening.)
The Invention of Dr. NakaMats (Denmark dir. Kaspar Astrup Schröder)
Yoshiro Nakamatsu holds the world's record for patents–3,357 and counting–as compared to Edison's paltry 1,093. This snappy and entertaining bio-doc follows Nakamatsu in the months leading up to his 80th birthday and the debut of his latest invention, the B-Bust Bra for small breast enhancement. Brilliant and eccentric, the good doctor also comes off a sardonic self-promoter and pompous ham. He's best known for inventing the floppy disk, an idea that came to him, like many others, while swimming underwater (he takes notes on his waterproof notepad, which of course, he invented). Among his other creations are spray-on aphrodisiac Love Jet and a vehicle that runs on water. A dapper dresser who does all this "out of love" for humanity, the doctor gets by on four hours sleep and one meal per day (he won a Nobel Prize in nutrition after photographing and analyzing every single meal he ate for 34 years). "I think that nothing is impossible" is his credo and this film will convince you he sincerely believes it. With a fun music score by Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo, Pee-wee's Playhouse).
Marwencol (USA dir. Jeff Malmberg)
In 1993, Mark Hogencamp was viciously attacked outside a Kingston, NY bar and consequently spent nine days in a coma. His face had to be rebuilt and all his motor skills had to be relearned. Hogencamp's mental recovery from this trauma has been precipitated by Marwencol, a miniature, doll-populated WWII-era Belgian village he's built outside his trailer home. Marwencol and its inhabitants are the subject of a captivating and poignant film that recently won the jury prize for best documentary at SXSW. Hogencamp works through emotional issues by staging and photographing elaborate dramas with dolls, many of whom represent people he knows in "real" life. One day there might be staged catfights at "The Ruined Stocking" bar, and the next day might find Hogencamp's avatar doll being stripped and tortured by sadistic SS officers. Eventually the Art World comes calling–Hogencamp's photos are compiled into a nifty volume and a NYC gallery stages a one-man show. It's then we learn of a "twist" in his story; one that explains a lot about Marwencol and the "reason" for the 1993 attack. Director Malmberg lays all this out in a compelling way, using judicious stop-motion animation and period music to bring Hogencamp's extraordinary creation to life.
My Queen Karo (Belgium dir. Dorothée Berghe)
The ups and downs of communal living are explored in this bittersweet, autobiographical flashback to 1974. Ten-year-old Karo and her Belgian parents help establish a squatters artist commune in an abandoned Amsterdam building. Trouble invades paradise when Karo's father invites another woman to move in and share his bed, sending Karo's less liberated mother into an emotional tailspin. Ideological differences involving money start to strain the couple's relationship as well. A confused and conflicted Karo, who observes the adults having sex in the commune's un-partitioned living space, does her childlike best to navigate a way through it all, with metaphorical swimming lessons providing some needed structure and discipline.
Northless (Mexico/Spain dir. Rigoberto Perezcano)
After being abandoned in the desert by his coyote, Oaxacan Andrés is captured by U.S. immigration authorities and sent back to Tijuana. He falls into work doing odd jobs at a bodega, where a sexual tension develops between himself, the store's female owner and a female helper. Despite having a wife and two kids back home, crossing the border becomes less of an imperative, at least temporarily. The two women are in no hurry to see him go either, each having lost a man to the allure of El Norte. When they finally do help him emigrate, it's in a wonderfully surprising way that, of all things, is scored to Debussy's "Claire de lune." Handsomely photographed and finely acted, this observational and melancholic (but not humorless) film about the toll of economic disparity is the antithesis of last year's heart-pounding immigration melodrama Sin Nombre.
The Peddler (Argentina dir. Lucas Marcheggiano, Adriana Yurkovich, Eduardo de la Serna)
Sixty-seven-year-old Daniel Burmeister rolls into the Argentine Pampas village of Gould driving a beat-up red sedan. For the 58th time in his filmmaking career, he'll make a complete narrative feature using local talent in exchange for lodging, food and the right to sell tickets to a premiere. This sweet documentary takes us through the gregarious and self-effacing Burmeister's entire DIY process–from casting to location scouting, from shoot to showtime–improvising as circumstance dictates. A white sheet doubles as his movie screen and a cemetery ghost costume. A tracking shot is accomplished by having Burmeister dragged across the floor atop a blanket. This is the only Argentine film in this year's festival, which is unusual. Fortunately, this charming and respectful portrait of small town life and one man's passion is worthy of standing alone.
The Portuguese Nun (France/Portugal dir. Eugène Green)
"I never see French films. They're only for intellectuals." So states a minor character in this formalist work that will strike many as overly mannered and pretentious. I was pretty darned transfixed by it, and believe me, I ain't no intellectual. Leonor Baldaque plays a malaise-afflicted French actress who's in Lisbon to make a film about a 17th century nun and her affair with a military officer. She wanders the city like a doe-eyed somnambulist and has a series of life-changing encounters with a suicidal man, a genuine Portuguese nun and a six-year-old waif–not to mention a one-night stand with her co-star. Among director Green's cinematic tactics are 360° pans, emotionally flat dialogue delivery, two-shot conversations spoken directly to the camera, focal shifts within single shots and a fascination with legs and feet. Green also portrays the director of the film within the film, one Denis Verde. All this will drive some people bonkers and I predict walk-outs. What might keep them in their seats are several live music interludes and the fact that Lisbon has never looked more ravishing on film than it does here.
Presumed Guilty (Mexico dir. Roberto Hernández, Geoffrey Smith)
The SFIFF staff was so impressed by this look at the horrors of Mexico's criminal justice system that they pre-awarded it the festival's Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Documentary. It's easy to see why. This powerful and moving film follows the trials of one José Antonio Zuñiga-Rodriguez, a thoughtful young man wrongly arrested and convicted for a 2005 homicide despite a myriad of judicial injustices–not the least of which is several dozen witnesses putting him miles from the crime scene. When it's discovered that his original lawyer was practicing with a forged license, "Toño" is granted a retrial that the filmmakers are miraculously permitted to record–and what an eye-opener that is. The "courtroom" is merely one section of a large, open and chaotic office space and his judge is the same guy who convicted him in the first place. Of particular interest is the trial's cara a cara, in which the accused is permitted to question and confront, literally face-to-face, his accusers. It's shocking, but not unsurprising when the retrial results in a second conviction. The case then goes to a court of appeals, where the retrial film footage is submitted as evidence. You'll have to see the film yourself to learn their ruling. During the end credits it's revealed that 95% of Mexican verdicts are convictions, and 92% of those are not based on any physical evidence.
To Die Like a Man (Portugal/France João Pedro Rodrigues)
Middle-aged transvestite performer Tonia has problems. Her infected breast implants are killing her, her junkie boyfriend is ripping her off, her AWOL solider son has committed murder and her once-adoring public is no longer interested. In this hyper-stylized melodrama, Portuguese provocateur Rodrigues (O Fantasma, Two Drifters aka Odete) precariously walks the fine line between hooty camp and deeply affecting emotionalism–and largely succeeds. Since the film premiered in Un Certain Regard at last year's Cannes, it's accumulated an equal share of haters and defenders. Chances are if you disliked his two previous films, you're not gonna like this one either–and vice versa. I can't wait to see it again. After you've seen it, be sure and check out The Evening Class' Michael Guillén's interview with Rodrigues from the Toronto Film Festival. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)
The Wind Journeys (Colombia dir. Ciro Guerra)
Following the death of his wife, taciturn accordion maestro Ignacio sets off on a mission to return his accursed instrument to its original owner. He begrudgingly tolerates the company of aspiring teen musician Fermin, and their episodic misadventures en route shape this dazzling, roadless road movie that was Colombia's 2009 Oscar submission. The journey takes them through a variety of landscapes–desert, mountain, plains and seaside–all breathtakingly filmed in wide screen. They also come into contact with various cultures and their music. A frenetic battle-of-the-accordion-players at a village music festival is one of the most joyous and thrilling things I've seen at the movies this year. Visually, The Wind Journeys is a stunner, with meticulously framed compositions and intricate camera choreography that at times borders on show-off-y. I regret not being able to fit a big-screen experience of this into my festival schedule.
You Think You're the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiest (Chile dir. Ché Sandoval)
While this film isn't anything we haven't seen before in such vignette-structured youthful gab-fests like Slackers and 25 Watts, it is genuinely funny and an accomplished achievement for its 25-year-old director and largely non-pro cast. Protagonist Javier (a revelatory Martín Castillo) is a pesky, motor-mouthed overthinker whose bravado masks a pathetic vulnerability. It's not really his fault that best friend Nicolás is way cooler and hotter and keeps stealing his girlfriends without trying. In addition to romantic advances and retreats, the film tracks Javier through a series of prickly social encounters. He allows a frustrated friend to punch him in the face for nine dollars, and then pays a gay guy at a bus stop to quit bugging him. Most memorable is a tender interaction between Javier and an aging prostitute who's waiting for a taxi after a hard night's work. I was sure the film couldn't possibly live up to its fabulous title. I was wrong. This will be another solid contender for the festival's New Directors prize.
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.