Monday, March 28, 2016

SFIFF59—MICHAEL HAWLEY PREVIEWS THE EARLY ANNOUNCEMENTS

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) heads crosstown to the Mission District for its 59th edition, thereby concluding nearly three decades of being headquartered at Japantown's Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. Robert Redford's independent movie chain was sold last autumn to Carmike Cinemas, who in turn sold it to AMC Theatres last month. All of this fortuitously coincided with the December opening of Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre following a two-year, $10 million restoration and retrofit. The gloriously reborn Mission Street movie palace will serve as the ornate nexus of SFIFF59, running from April 21 to May 5.

A movie theatre of some sort or other has existed since 1911 in the spot where Alamo Drafthouse Cinema stands today. Additional SFIFF59 venues, all relatively nearby and also hailing from the early 20th century include the Roxie Theater (1909), Victoria Theatre (1907) and of course the Castro Theatre (1922). The former Grand Theatre (1940) just down the block from New Mission is now a non-profit called Gray Area ("Supporting Art & Technology for Social Good") and will be utilized for select non-screening events. Festival-goers also have the option of taking in the spanking new Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. All venues but the Castro are located within two blocks of a BART subway station.

Last month I cocooned in the New Mission for 12 continuous hours, watching five back-to-back programs at the SF Jewish Film Festival's Winterfest event. It's truly astounding how they've transformed this former dilapidated futon store, which is what the building became once movies stopped being shown in 1993. It will be interesting to see how festival audiences respond to Alamo Drafthouse's modus operandi of selling seat-side food and cocktails. My own reaction was mixed. Yes, it was occasionally distracting having servers slip in and out making deliveries in the auditorium. On the other hand, I loved being able to suck down a Singapore Sling and nosh on a lamb meatball pizza without having to get off my butt and go get them.

I've faithfully attended SFIFF every year since 1976 and this will be my 10th year covering it as accredited press. Last year's edition was majorly epic—six of my Top Ten Films of 2015 had their Bay Area premieres at the festival. This year is looking pretty impressive as well. Here's an overview of what's been announced thus far.

Opening NightThe festival opens on Thursday, April 21 with Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship. The perpetually preppie director's Damsels in Distress is probably my favorite comedy of the past 10 years and I'm thrilled he's expected to attend the Castro Theatre screening along with star Kate Beckinsale. The film is based on Jane Austen's posthumously published early novel Lady Susan and reunites Beckinsale with Chloë Sevigny, her co-star in Stillman's 1998 The Last Days of Disco. Critics at Sundance declared Austen and Stillman's sensibilities a perfect match, while heaping special praise upon Beckinsale's performance as ruthless, social-climbing Lady Susan. After the program, SFIFF59's opening night party takes place at Mission District event space Public Works, located a not-too-strenuous stroll from the Castro.

Closing Night—In keeping with a tradition of closing the fest with something offbeat, SFIFF59 concludes at the Castro 15 days later with The Bandit. Fresh off its SXSW world premiere, the latest from Bay Area documentarian Jesse Moss celebrates the close friendship between actor Burt Reynolds and his Smokey and the Bandit director, legendary Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham. Smokey, for those too young to remember, was the second highest grossing film of 1977 after Star Wars. If director Moss' name sounds familiar, it's because he won the festival's Best Documentary award two years ago with The Overnighters, a controversial portrait of a North Dakota fracking boomtown. The closing night party will be at the Mezzanine in downtown San Francisco.

Centerpiece Film—The movie chosen for this year's Centerpiece slot is Indignation, based on Phillip Roth's 2008 semi-autobiographical novel about a Jewish student from NJ attending college in 1951 Ohio. It reps the directorial debut of James Schamus, the writer / producer and Focus Features CEO perhaps best known for penning the majority of Ang Lee's films. Schamus last attended SFIFF in 2010, when he was presented with the Kanbar Award for Screenwriting. Indignation stars Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and garnered stellar reviews at both Sundance and Berlin. Roth himself has called it the most truthful adaptation of his work to date. The Centerpiece presentation will take place at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, April 30.

Vampyr with Mercury RevThe festival brings back its annual pairing of silent cinema with contemporary music when alt-rock iconoclasts Mercury Rev world-premiere their new score for Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 horror classic, Vampyr. To be honest, I haven't thought about Mercury Rev since their 1991 debut album "Yerself is Steam," but research shows me they've had a long career, winning NME's Best Album of 1998 and releasing a new album just last year. Joining current Rev members Jonathan Donahue and Sean Mackowiak will be Simon Raymonde, the ethereal-sounding multi-instrumentalist who comprised one-third of classic-era Cocteau Twins, as well as Jesse Chandler of Midlake and Michael Jerome Moore from Better Than Ezra. Vampyr was Dreyer's follow-up to his venerated The Passion of Joan of Arc and while not technically a silent film, its story is largely told through visuals and intertitles. This special performance takes place at the Castro Theatre on Monday, May 2.

Mel Novikoff AwardWho could possibly be more deserving than Janus Films and Criterion Collection to receive this award, given to an "individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." At a Castro Theatre presentation on Saturday, April 30, current Janus / Criterion partners Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell will be on hand for an on-stage conversation, followed by a screening of their most recent restoration, Joel and Ethan Coen's 1984 breakout, Blood Simple. The Coens themselves are expected to attend the program and participate in the on-stage discussion with Variety critic Scott Foundas. Bay Area exhibitor Novikoff was an avid champion of the brothers' debut film. They honored him nearly 30 years later by naming an Inside Llewyn Davis supporting character "Mel Novikoff."

Persistence of Vision AwardSince its inception in 1997, the festival's Persistence of Vision Award has honored the "achievement of a filmmaker or institution whose main body of work is outside the realm of narrative feature filmmaking." This year's honoree is none other than four-time Oscar® winner Aardman Animations, the beloved British studio responsible for Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep and Peter Gabriel's groundbreaking "Sledgehammer" music video. To help celebrate Aardman's 40th anniversary at a Castro Theatre program on Sunday, May 1, co-founder and creative director Peter Lord will participate in an on-stage discussion and preside over a screening of Aardman shorts.

Golden Gate Awards New Directors PrizeNine narrative features will compete for this year's New Directors Prize. I saw both Yaelle Kayam's Mountain and Lorenzo Vigas' From Afar at the Palm Springs International Film Festival back in January. Both are compelling enough to warrant second viewings and both feature provocative endings that could render them the most talked about films at SFFF59. Mountain is the story of a Jewish Orthodox housewife in Jerusalem whose life changes when she discovers the nearby cemetery doubles as a nocturnal hangout for prostitutes and drug addicts. From Afar won the top prize (Golden Lion) at last year's Venice Film Festival and stars esteemed Chilean actor Alfredo Castro (Tony Manero, The Club) as a closeted gay man who enters into a volatile relationship with a young street tough.

Amongst the remaining seven entries, I'm most excited about Clément Cogitore's Neither Heaven Nor Earth, which premiered in Cannes' Critics Week sidebar and has thus far screened at festivals under the title The Wakhan Front. In this elevated genre piece, French star Jérémie Renier plays an Afghanistan army captain whose men are disappearing under possibly supernatural circumstances. I've also heard terrific things about Leyla Bouzid's As I Open My Eyes, which places the struggles of a free-spirited young woman within the context of Tunisia's 2010 Arab Spring revolution. Remaining New Directors Prize contenders include films from Canada (The Demons), Bulgaria (Thirst), India (Thithi), Lebanon (Very Big Shot) and Czech Republic (Home Care, which was also that country's 2015 Oscar® summission).

Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature CompetitionOf the 11 films competing for SFIFF59's top doc prize, the only one to previously cross my radar is Kirsten Johnson's autobiographical Cameraperson, which collected rave reviews at festivals like Sundance, True / False, New Directors / New Films and SXSW. Johnson is a celebrated non-fiction cinematographer best known for her collaborations with directors Laura Poitras (Citizen Four, The Oath) and Kirby Dick (The Invisible War, This Film is Not Yet Rated).

Golden Gate Documentary Feature CompetitionElsewhere in the competition I have high hopes for Moby Longinotto's The Joneses. The director is the son of 2015 Persistence of Vision Award winner Kim Longinotto and he got his start as assistance editor on mum's 1998 documentary Divorce Iranian Style. The Joneses won the SF Film Society's 2014 Documentary Film Fund Grant and concerns a family of Mississippi trailer park denizens and their 73-year-old transgender matriarch. Another doc I don't want to miss is Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega's The Return. The directors won this competition in 2011 with their powerful film Better This World and their latest shadows the fate of several inmates following the loosening of California's Three Strikes law. Other challengers for the doc prize include looks at a remote Bolivian salt flat (Salero), life in North Korea (Under the Sun) and a portrait of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, an early 20th century radio mogul, politician and champion of goat testicle impotence cures (NUTS!, directed by Our Nixon's Penny Lane).

Cross-published on film-415.

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