Tuesday, April 08, 2008

SFIFF51—Michael Hawley Previews The Lineup

Citing last year's 50th anniversary festival as a "fantastic benchmark" and "a gateway to a brighter future," SF Film Society Executive Director Graham Legatt and his programming team revealed this year's equally impressive line-up at a press conference last week. In a recent Evening Class write-up, I summarized all the special events that had been announced prior to the press conference, to which we can now add the following:

* Errol Morris will receive this year's Persistence of Vision Award, with an on-stage interview and a screening of his latest work, Standard Operating Procedure.

* The Maurice Kanbar Award for screenwriting will go to Robert Towne, who will be interviewed on stage by Eddie Muller prior to a screening of Shampoo.

* This year's State of Cinema Address will be given by Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine and former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog.

* Rose McGowen and Jason Lee are to be the recipients of this year's (2nd annual) Midnight Awards, presented to an actor and actress "entering the prime of their careers."

That same pre-press conference write-up contained the Cinema by the Bay and Castro Theater roster of films. We now know what the other 80-plus programs worth of narrative and documentary features will be, and it's quite something—full of movies I'd been hoping the festival would bring our way. I've had a week to digest the line-up and now offer this overview of what I personally find exciting about SFIFF51.

I'll begin, as I'm wont to do, by looking at the French selections. Here in the Bay Area, where we have film festivals exclusively dedicated to German, Italian, Latino, South Asian, Irish, Arab and Armenian cinema (to name a few), it baffles me why there isn't one exclusively dedicated to new French films. By default, the SFIFF is our Rendez-Vous with French Cinema and City of Lights/City of Angels. This year they came through with the three films at the top of my French wish list, Catherine Breillat's opening nighter The Last Mistress, Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two and Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain. The latter swept this year's César Awards, winning Best Film, Director, Original Screenplay and Most Promising Actress. (Back in 2004, SFIFF was one of the first festivals to show Kechiche's L’esquive (aka Games of Love and Chance), which also went on to win four César Awards and was my favorite film of that year). I'm also pretty excited about Céline Sciamma's Cannes-fave Water Lilies, set in the world of adolescent synchronized swimming, and I'm always happy to have a look at any new Eric Rohmer concoction (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon). The inclusion of Marseilles auteur Robert Guédiguian's Lady Jane is a surprise, given that it just premiered in Berlin, and unfortunately, received mostly unkind reviews. But I'm enough of a fan of both the director (The Town is Quiet, The Last Mitterrand) and his actress-wife Ariane Ascaride, to make this film a personal must-see. Rounding out the French selection are Serge Bozon's La France (which I saw at Palm Springs) and Mia Hansen-Løve's All is Forgiven, about which I know nothing except that Cahiers du Cinema named it best film of the year—testimonial enough for me. As far as the films that didn't make it into the festival (Jalil Lespert's 24 Measures, François Ozon's Angel, Gäel Morel's Après lui, Jacques Nolot's Before I Forget, Claude LeLouch's Roman de Gare, Michelange Quay's Eat, For This is My Body, Erick Zonca's Julia, Cedric Klapisch's Paris, Claude Miller's Un secret, Christophe Honoré's Love Songs), I'll just have to hope I cross paths with them somewhere else down the line.

From elsewhere in Europe, I would direct everyone's attention to Jaime Rosales' Solitary Fragments, one of my two favorite films from this year's Palm Springs festival. At the recent Goya Awards, Rosales' stunning, intimate family drama mopped the floor with blockbuster The Orphanage, winning Best Film, Best Director and Best New Actor. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Although not a European film per se, Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales is an Italian/French co-production that was filmed in Rome's Cinecittà studios. I've been salivating over this NYC strip club comedy ever since Asia Argento's Rottweiler kiss sent tongues wagging at Cannes. Toss in a supporting role by rarely-seen-these-days Sylvia Miles and boy, am I ever there. In addition to Go Go Tales (and The Last Mistress), Argento also stars in her daddy Dario's latest horror film, The Mother of Tears. Both of these are part of the festival's The Late Show series, along with Hitoshi Matsumoto's Big Man Japan and Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes. Finally, Italian master Ermanno Olmi's latest, One Hundred Nails screens at this year's festival. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a new Olmi film has been shown in the Bay Area since his 1978 art-house hit, The Tree of Wooden Clogs. I won't miss it if I can help it.

From Eastern Europe come two films that were high atop my festival wish list, Bela Tarr's The Man From London and Alexandr Sokurov's Alexandra. SFIFF has been a steadfast supporter of both directors over the years, and it's reassuring to see this tradition continued. From veteran Russian director Sergei Bodrov comes Mongol, a sprawling Genghis Khan epic starring Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano. I've read good things about Vera Storozheva's Traveling With Pets, which won the top prize at last year's Moscow Film Festival. Lastly, I'm looking forward to Czech virtuoso Jirí Menzel's I Served the King of England. This was one of the very few Best Foreign Language Oscar submissions that did not appear at Palm Springs this year.

Two other European films of possible interest are Just Like Home, which is the latest from Danish director Lone Scherflg (Italian For Beginners, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself), and Valse Sentimentale, from Greek director Constantina Voulgaris. The latter, like eight other titles in the festival, was recently shown in NYC as part of the MOMA's New Directors/New Films series. Nick Schager's blistering review of the film at Slant has me convinced this is something I've got to see.

There's not a lot in the way of African narrative features in this year's festival—Maghrebi or sub-Saharan—but I'm very excited about two that are. The first is renowned Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah's The Aquarium, which I'm impressed the festival has snagged so soon after its Berlin premiere (the film only opened in Egypt two weeks ago). The other is Ezra, Newton I. Aduaka's tale of an African child-soldier which won the Grand Prize at last year's FESPACO (Africa's main film festival). I might also want to take a look at French-Algerian director Philippe Faucon's Two Ladies. The director's two previous films, Samia (which I liked) and The Betrayal (which I didn't), were shown at the festival in 2001 and 2006 respectively.

The Asian line-up is a complete mystery to me, with the exception of two films. Twenty long months after winning the Golden Lion at Venice in 2006, local audiences will finally have the chance to see Jia Zheng-ke's Still Life. I recently saw it on DVD and it's stunning—can't wait to see it on a big screen. The other Asian film I'm anticipating is Aditya Assarat's Wonderful Town, a melancholy romance set in a Thai seaside town affected by the 2004 tsunami. The film won the Tiger Award at Rotterdam earlier this year.

Festival Director Legatt admitted that Latin America is underrepresented in the festival—his programmers having perceived it an off year for the region. Try telling that to Mexico, which is experiencing somewhat of a cinematic renacimiento. There are four recent Mexican films I've been anxious to see, and the festival's got three of them. Alex Rivera's neo-sci-fi take on globalization, Sleep Dealer, recently won several prizes at Sundance and Berlin. La Zona, Rodrigo Plá's tale of vigilante justice in a wealthy Mexico City gated community, took the FIPRESCI prize at last year's Toronto Film Festival. Winning the Discovery Award at Toronto was Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán's Cochochi, which Michael Guillén enthusiastically wrote up here. (The fourth, missing film would be Lake Tahoe, Fernando Eimbcke's follow up to Duck Season.)

I've yet to take a close look at the festival's dizzying line-up of documentaries because frankly, I'm feeling somewhat docked-out these days. But a casual glance through the program turns up three of immediate interest, all of which come from or relate to Latin America. Latent Argentina is Fernando E. Solanas' (The Dignity of the Nobodies) latest look at the maddening economic realities of that country. Theodore Thomas' Walt & El Grupo remembers a goodwill/research trip to South America taken by Walt Disney and several of his artists in 1941. Gonzalo Arijon's Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains recounts in interviews and recreated footage the tale of how 16 Uruguayan rugby players survived a 1972 Andean plane crash. (I watched Stranded on screener this weekend and I think it's probably one of the best documentary films I've ever seen. More later).

Finally, from north of the border comes a trio of films I'm keen on seeing. Lance Hammer's rural Mississippi-set Ballast has been compared to the work of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and won Best Director and Best Cinematography prizes at Sundance. The Toe Tactic is the animated/live action feature debut of Emily Hubley, daughter of illustrious film animator Faith Hubley and sister of Yo La Tengo singer/drummer Georgia Hubley (who provides the film's music). Last, but certainly not least, is Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg. The SFIFF is getting to be a habit for Maddin, who received the festival's Persistence of Vision Award is 2006 and then presented Brand Upon the Brain! with live narration and on-stage foley effects in 2007. It is expected that Maddin will be here to present My Winnipeg, but he will not be narrating it live as he did last year in Toronto.

So there it all is … nearly three dozen films in which I have a strong interest. I'm happy to say that between press screenings, DVD screeners and the 24 programs I've purchased tickets for, I'll be seeing them all but one (Craig Baldwin's Mock Up On Mu ... I hope to see you at the San Francisco Cinematheque or Pacific Film Archive some day). Of course for every one of these films, there are one or two more on my radar that didn't make it into the festival, for whatever reason. I should probably be thankful they didn't. Hopefully many will turn up in theatrical release, at some other festival or at an alternative venue such as the always surprising Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Which brings me to the exciting announcement that was made by Legatt at the festival press conference. Starting June 13, the Film Society is completely taking over one of the screens at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. Dubbed the SFFS Screen, it will feature daily showings of foreign, independent and documentary feature films with limited distribution. The plan is to start out with one or two week runs of single films, or split runs. Then in the fall they hope to start programming themed series, such as surveys of national cinemas and retrospectives. This is truly great news. Bravo to the SFFS for its efforts to make the festival experience last year long.

Cross-published on Twitch.


Chris Knipp said...

Thanks for all the tips and pointers--I've made some notes and posted them with some other possible selections--and as always I appreciate your thoroughness and your accuracy; and this time your caution about recommendations. Only one minor quibble: you sort of imply Egypt is a Moghreb country whereas of course the Moghreb is only the western part of northern Africa. I watched the clip of Aquarium and I know I want to watch that one, just for the dialogue. I have seen some of the French films you wish were in the SFIFF, but not La graine et le mulet. I also appreciate your pointing to Two Ladies, which looks good in the clip. I had Ballast on my must list. I'm looking for more American films to see.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for stopping by, Chris. I'm glad you found my post helpful. Isn't it nice having those individual clips to watch on the festival website?

Definitions of what exactly constitutes The Maghreb seem to vary. The following is from the Wikipedia entry on the subject (not that I'm saying Wikipedia is necessarily the most accurate word on any given topic):

"The Maghreb, also rendered Maghrib (or rarely Moghreb), meaning "place of sunset" or "western" in Arabic. It is generally applied to all of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia but in older Arabic usage pertained only to the area of the three countries between the high ranges of the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea."

Accompanying the Wikipedia entry is a map of the Maghreb in which Egypt is labeled as "sometimes included in the Maghreb definition." So according to the strict definition, you're absolute right. I was just using it as a convenient (lazy?) way of differentiating between sub-Saharan cinema and that from the north of Africa.

Chris Knipp said...

Yes, the clips are useful in guessing what to see at the SFIFF. So are recommendations of people like you, my colleague on Filmleaf Oscar Jubis and others, and reviews.

It's best not to use Maghreb to include Egypt or even Libya. Do "Definitions of what exactly constitutes The Maghreb seem to vary"? No, they really don't, not in general current usage. The usual understanding of Maghreb is just Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, and that linkage has a strong cultural and linguistic basis, apart from their being the western end of the Arab world indicated by the word Maghreb. Stick to that usage, and if you want to refer to all six of the countries at the top of Africa call them not "North Africa" but "the countries of Northern Africa." An Egyptian would never, ever want to be called a "maghrebi." Trust me; I've lived there, in both Morocco and Egypt, and I know the language.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for your informed insight, Chris.