The Bay Area's press corps gathered at the Fairmont Hotel's breathtaking Crown Room last week for the unveiling of the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF55)'s full line-up. SF Film Society (SFFS) Board President Pat McBain, himself pinch-hitting for acting Executive Director Melanie Blum, spoke about the "unbelievably sad and challenging past year" and revealed plans to honor former Executive Directors Graham Leggat and Bingham Ray during the festival. Opening Night on April 19 will be dedicated to Leggat, "who led us with his passion and leadership and vision for 5½ years." Bingham Ray, who succeeded Leggat for a brief two months, will be honored at the Castro Theatre on April 28 with a screening of Carol Reed's The Third Man, his all-time favorite film. Prior to turning the press conference over to Director of Programming Rachel Rosen and her team, McBain stressed that the search for a new Executive Director was well under way and would go "full throttle" once this year's festival wrapped.
Before diving into the nitty gritty of this year's line-up, Rosen prefaced that "our best revenge against what life has handed us this year is to put on the best, most celebratory festival that we could in honor of Graham and Bingham and to all of you who support us." Indeed, it appears they've done just that. In a previous post at film-415 I gathered up all the early announcements of SFIFF55's special awards and programs, to which we can now add the following: The festival will close on May 3 with Ramona Diaz' documentary Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey, the story of a Journey cover band singer from the Philippines who became a member of the actual group. The Kanbar Award for screenwriting will go to David Webb Peoples, who penned such films as Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys and Unforgiven (the latter of which will be shown at the awards presentation). And while the Peter J. Owens Award for acting wasn't ready to be announced at the press conference, it has just been revealed that Australian actress Judy Davis will be the recipient, a choice certainly as inspired as last year's selection of Terence Stamp. Following an on-stage interview and clips reel, the festival will show Fred Schepisi's new film The Eye of the Storm, in which Davis stars with Geoffrey Rush and Charlotte Rampling.
I've attended SFIFF every year since 1976 and this will be my sixth year writing about it as accredited press. As has become tradition, I kick off my coverage with a broad overview of the line-up, which contains over 100 narrative and documentary features. I'll touch upon the ones I'm dying to see as well as those that have piqued my interest, all loosely organized under geographic headings.
French language films are always my top priority, so that's where we'll begin. While it was disappointing not to find the new films of such SFIFF alumni as Bruno Dumont, Christophe Honoré, André Téchiné, Chantal Akerman, Philippe Garrel and Lucas Belvaux in SFIFF55, I'm more than pleased by the selections on hand. First, a big thumbs up for Robert Guédiguian's The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which sees the prolific director return to the working class milieu of Marseilles that marked his 1997 breakthrough hit, Marius and Jeanette. Guédiguian is one of my favorite filmmakers and I've always been grateful that this festival has consistently supported his work. I caught this one at Palm Springs and am likely to see it again.
Also high on my must-see list are three films by directors best known for their acting careers. In Bouli Lanners' The Giants, three teenage boys are left to fend for themselves in rural Belgium. The festival mini-guide incorrectly lists this as Lanners' feature directorial debut (his last film Eldorado played the SFFS Kabuki screen in 2009). The Giants won several awards in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar at Cannes last year. Mathieu Kassovitz is probably best known in this country for playing Amélie Poulain's object of desire. He both directs and stars in Rebellion, based on a bloody 1988 insurgency in the French Pacific island territory of New Caledonia. Mono-monikered actress Maïwenn won Cannes' Jury Prize for her third feature directorial effort, Polisse. This drama about a Parisian Child Protective Custody unit was perhaps the most divisive film in competition at Cannes last year. While some critics found it brilliant, others dismissed it as a shallow TV cop show on steroids.
Nearly all of this year's French language selections were already on my radar—the two which were not sound like potential winners. Vincent Garenq's Guilty is the true story of a husband and wife wrongly imprisoned for pedophilia. In his favorable review for Variety, Boyd Van Hoeij says this "stomach-churning thriller-drama hybrid … dissects one of Gaul's most famous miscarriages of justice with chilling precision." Van Hoeij was somewhat less enthusiastic about Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's 18th century historical drama, Smuggler's Songs. This represents a new direction for the director, whose other three films explored issues surrounding contemporary French-Arab immigration (SFFS screened Adhen at 2009's French Cinema Now, and Wesh Wesh and Bled Number One played our 2006 Arab Film Festival). Smuggler's Songs co-stars (along with Ameur-Zaïmeche) the always interesting actor/director Jacques Nolot (Before I Forget).
Amongst the remaining French films, I'm sure everyone is looking forward to Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's follow-up to the wildly successful Persepolis. Again working from one of her graphic novels, this is the story of Satrapi's Iranian musician great-uncle, who's played by Mathieu Amalric. Two French selections are competing for SFIFF55's New Directors Prize. Delphine and Muriel Coulin's 17 Girls concerns the circumstances surrounding a port town's massive outbreak of teen pregnancy and John Shenk's Last Winter explores the struggles of a young farmer. The latter stars Vincent Rottiers, who made such a strong impression in last year's I'm Glad My Mother is Alive. Anyone desiring a look at populist French cinema won't want to miss The Intouchables, which is now France's second most popular film of all time in terms of domestic admissions (the first being Welcome to the Sticks, which played French Cinema Now in 2008). At this year's Cesar Awards, Intouchables co-star Omar Sy bested The Artist's Jean Dujardin for meilleur acteur. For a taste of French horror from the festival's The Late Show sidebar, there's Last Screening, a shocker about a psychopathic cinema projectionist. Finally, whether you love him or hate him, there's no denying that SF Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle is a passionate and knowledgeable advocate of French cinema. That's why I plan to sit in on his master class, Mick LaSalle: The Beauty of the Real, based on his new book about contemporary French actresses.
At the festival press conference, SFFS programmer Rod Armstrong revealed that he had long suggested Ken Russell for the Founder's Directing Award, an idea Graham Leggat nixed as "crazy." Alas, Russell passed away in November and the festival now honors him posthumously, in raucous Peaches Christ-style, with a Late Show screening of 1975's Tommy. Equally exciting, SFIFF55 will present the other filmic adaptation of a rock opera by The Who, Franc Roddam's 1979 Quadrophenia, in a rare 35mm print at the Castro. A pair of contemporary UK films programmed in the festival finds two acclaimed British directors reimagining works of classic 19th century literature. Ultra-versatile Michael Winterbottom transports Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Ubervilles to modern day India in Trishna, which stars Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto. Then in Andrea Arnold's follow-up to Fish Tank, the character of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is recast as a former Afro-Caribbean slave. Both films were well received at their respective Toronto and Venice premieres. The fest will also be screening Tanya Wexler's Hysteria, a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator (opening May 25 at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema).
Shifting back to (non-French speaking) continental Europe, I spy five films I'm especially hot to see. When local festivals Berlin & Beyond and German Gems both passed on screening the Dreileben Trilogy following its 2011 Berlin Film Festival premiere, I feared it had forever passed us by. Characteristically, SFIFF55 has now stepped up to the plate. Dreileben (meaning "three lives") consists of three loosely interlocking films about the manhunt for an escaped murderer. Each is told from a different point of view, in radically different filmmaking styles, by three of Germany's most important contemporary directors: Christian Petzold (Beats Being Dead), Dominik Graf (Don't Follow Me Around) and Christoph Hochhäusler (One Minute of Darkness). Petzold is certainly the most renowned of the three (Yella, Jerichow) and Hochhäusler's unsettling The City Below was in last year's festival. SFIFF55 presents three opportunities to view the trilogy; twice as an all-day marathon and once spread over three consecutive days. My two remaining compulsory European films are Norway's Oslo, August 31, Joachim Trier's follow-up to his astonishing 2006 debut, Reprise, and what is possibly my most anticipated film of the entire festival, Yorgos Lanthimos' ALPS. It's been two years since Greece's Dogtooth became the most transgressive film ever nominated for an Oscar® and I'm ready to be shocked silly all over again.
Finally, here are a few remaining European films of potential interest. There's a second Greek film in the fest, Filippos Tsitos' Unfair World, which took prizes for best director and actor at San Sebastian last year. The trailer for Morten Tyldum's Norwegian genre thriller Headhunters looks like a real kick in the head. It screens in the festival's The Late Show sidebar and will open theatrically at a Landmark Theatre on May 4. Russia is represented at SFIFF55 with two films, Alexander Zeldovich's futuristic epic Target, and Michale Boganim's post-Chernobyl drama Land of Oblivion (which is technically from the Ukraine). Italian director Emanuele Crialese's Golden Door opened the festival in 2007 and I caught his latest, Terraferma at Palm Springs. What's important to know is that the film's ubiquitous poster / still of young hotties diving off the sides of a fishing boat has virtually nothing to do with the movie itself. Another Italy-set film, Rolando Colla's Summer Games, was Switzerland's 2011 Oscar® submission. Those disappointed that the festival didn't program Tabu, Miguel Gomes' follow-up to Our Beloved Month of August (the big discovery of SFIFF52), might console themselves with Gonçalo Tocha's three-hour plus Portuguese doc, It's the Earth Not the Moon, about the remote Azores island of Corvo. Lastly, and for me personally, leastly, those who can't get enough of farm animal documentaries should find pleasure in Winter Nomads and Women with Cows.
Click here for Part Two, where I discuss SFIFF55's line-up of films from Asia/Pacific, Middle East/Africa, Latin America and the USA.
Cross-published on film-415.