Saturday, August 16, 2008


He's baaaaaaaaaack! With more knotty hands-on-the-hips complaints about Bay Area film programming.

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Summer is here and the time is nigh for an annual accounting of the Bay Area film scene—and as far as new international cinema goes, I'd say we've done quite well in the past 12 months. Using Cannes as a barometer, I see that 18 of the 21 films in 2007's competition eventually found their way here (although you needed to go all the way to San Jose's Cinequest to catch Naomi Kawase's Grand Prix winner, The Mourning Forest). This spring's San Francisco International Film Festival did a great job of shrinking my own personal movie wish list, and it looks like their Sundance Kabuki screen is starting to program more Bay Area premieres (Yang Li's Blind Mountain was a good start). Two special programming shout-outs go to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, for bringing us Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light and Jia Zheng-ke's Dong and Useless, and to the Smith Rafael Film Center for their annual "For Your Consideration" series, which saw the only local screenings of Baltasar Kormákur's Jar City and Suo Masayuki's I Just Didn't Do It.

But I'm here today to ungratefully kvetch about what we haven't seen, not reminisce about what we have. Looking back at last year's tabulation, I notice that out of 50 films, only 12 eventually played the Bay Area and an additional six had Region 1 DVD releases. Let's hope for better results when we look back a year from now.

The following films are all 2007 releases that were screened somewhere other than their country of origin in 2007. None have appeared in the Bay Area (roughly defined by Berkeley to the east, San Jose to the south and San Rafael to the north) or been released on Region 1 DVD. Their prospects, unfortunately, look dimmer by the day. One or two may have been shown on pay-per-view, but until the majority of those films start being broadcast in a format other than full screen pan-and-scan, for me at least, they just don't count. These films are a reflection of my own tastes and interests only, which makes the following lists certainly less than exhaustive.

12—Nikita Mikhalkov's Russian adaptation of 12 Angry Men was one of 2007's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees, and one of the more compelling films I saw at this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up some time ago, but there doesn't appear to be a release date.

24 Measures (24 mesures)—One of my favorite young French actors (Jalil Lespert) makes his directorial debut with a film starring two of my other favorite young French actors (Benoît Magimel and Sami Bouajila).

Afghan Muscles—Andrea Dalsgaard's film about Afghanistan's obsession with competitive bodybuilding won Best Doc at last year's AFI Fest.

Angel—François Ozon's tale of an Edwardian-era lady novelist got pummeled by critics when it closed 2007's Berlin Film Festival. Still, I like Ozon and want the chance to judge for myself.

Après lui—Catherine Deneuve stars as a mother obsessed with her dead son's best friend in this new film from Gaël Morel (Full Speed, Three Dancing Slaves). Co-written by Christophe Honoré, with bonus points for co-starring Élodie Bouchez (whom I haven't seen in a film since Roman Coppola's CQ).

The Banishment (Isgnanie)—Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return was one of my 10 favorite films of 2004. Based on a William Saroyan story, this 2007 Cannes competition entry got a lukewarm reception, but still managed to garner a prize for its lead actor, Konstantin Lavronenko.

Blue Eyelids (Párpados azules)—This debut feature from Mexican director Ernesto Contreras has won a slew of festival awards, including a Special Jury Prize for World Cinema at this year's Sundance.

The Dictator Hunter—Klaartje Quirijns' documentary about the bloody 1980s reign of U.S.-backed Chadian dictator Hissene Habre.

Disengagement—Israeli director Amos Gitai received great reviews for his latest film, which stars Juliette Binoche and Jeanne Moreau. A very surprising omission from this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Dr. Plonk—Rolf de Heer follows up his delightful Aboriginal fable Ten Canoes with a silent B&W comedy in which a scientist/inventor in 1907 tries to prevent the world from ending in 2008.

Eat, for This Is My Body (Mange, ceci est mon corps)—Michelange Quay's quasi-surrealist poem to Haiti and its turbulent past. Starring Sylvie Testud.

Ex Drummer—This Belgian film is the offensive black comedy about handicapped people that didn't make it to the Bay Area. Norway's The Art of Negative Thinking is the one that did.

It’s a Free World…—Despite winning a Palme d'Or in 2006 for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach found his latest film thrown into IFC Films' "Festival Direct," an On Demand dumping ground for stuff they have no intention of releasing theatrically. Actually, you can rent this film today if you don't mind kissing the ass of the Great Satan Blockbuster. In what is probably the most revolting piece of film distribution news of 2008, IFC Films struck a deal with Blockbuster giving them an exclusive 60-day VOD and DVD rental window. After 60 days the films will be available elsewhere for retail or VOD purchase, but for THREE YEARS Blockbuster will be the only place you'll be able to rent them, effectively shutting out Greencine and Netflix from IFC product. Oh well, it's a free world…

The Last Lear—Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan plays an aging thespian who takes on the role of King Lear, in this new film from Indian arthouse director Rituparno Ghosh (Lady of the House, Choker Bali: A Passion Play).

A Lost Man (Un homme perdu)—Melvil Poupaud stars as a photographer working in the Middle East in Lebanese-born director Danielle Arbid's follow-up to 2004's extraordinary In the Battlefields.

M—In 2000, I flipped for Korean director Lee Myung-Se's ultra-stylish policier, Nowhere to Hide. I was less taken by 2005's thin, but still jaw-droppingly gorgeous Chosen Dynasty martial arts flick, Duelist. Unfortunately, reviews indicate that his latest is another triumph of style over substance, but I won't miss it should it come our way.

Munyurangabo—Of all the films on the list, this one's absence from Bay Area's screens is perhaps the hardest to explain. Premiering to unanimous acclaim at Cannes, this tale of Rwandan reconciliation went on to receive accolades at dozens of subsequent festivals. The fact that it was directed by a Korean-American, Lee Isaac Chung, should have made it a natural for the SF International Asian American Film Fest. But it didn't show up there, or at the SF International. What gives?

Nightwatching—This was another one of my favorites from Palm Springs, in which Peter Greenaway delves into the mystery behind Rembrandt's painting, "The Nightwatch." To the best of my knowledge, the Bay Area hasn't seen a Greenaway film since 1999's 8½ Women. A tradition continues.

The Pope's Toilet (El baño del Papa)—Yet another Palm Springs favorite, this arch comedy follows one man's efforts to profit from a 1988 papal visit to Latin America. The film was Uruguay's Oscar submission for 2007.

Promise Me This (Zavet)—It appears that two-time Palme d'Or winner Emir Kusturica's new film is destined to suffer the same fate as the one before it. One of the very few 2007 Cannes competition films not to have come our way.

Sad Vacation—We haven't seen a Shinji Aoyama film in these parts since 2000's 216-minute endurance test, Eureka. This one appears to be a sequel of sorts, and stars Tadanobu Asano.

A Secret (Un secret)—Nominated for 11 Cesar awards, Claude Miller's latest tells of one Jewish family's survival of WWII and the effect it has upon the next generation. Starring Mathieu Amalric and Cécile De France.

Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story—Jeffrey Schwarz' tribute to the supreme master of B-movie horror schlock won last year's AFI Fest Audience Award.

Sukiyaki Western Django—I stopped keeping up with Takashi Miike's prolific output ages ago, but this samurai spaghetti western sounds like it's worth seeking out (and not just for the Quentin Tarantino cameo). Since its world premiere at Venice, Miike's released three more features.

The Sun Also Rises (Tai yang zhao chang sheng qi)—Jiang Wen is considered one of China's best actors, and this is his first time behind the camera since 2000's masterful Devils on the Doorstep.

This next batch of anticipated films all hail from 2008 film festivals leading up to, but not including Cannes (i.e., Sundance, Rotterdam, Berlin, SXSW, Tribeca, Guadalajara). All await their Bay Area debuts. While there's no reason to fret at this point, it's not too early to begin keeping a wary eye on them either. Again, hats off to the San Francisco International Film Festival, which screened a number of semi-obscure Berlin titles that would have otherwise appeared on this list (such as Robert Guédiguian's Lady Jane and Yousry Nasrallah's The Aquarium).

Absurdistan—I adored Veit Helmer's 1999 nearly-silent, Denis Lavant-starring, Bulgarian bathhouse comedy Tuvalu. His latest is set in a remote Azerbaijani village where the pissed-off womenfolk go on a sex strike.

Ain't Scared (Regarde-moi)—Teen drama set in the low-income housing projects of Paris, written and directed by 23-year-old Audrey Estrougo. The story is told twice—from the male point of view in the film's first half, and then from the female POV in the second.

Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis—The film that's en route to becoming the biggest box office comedy in French film history. It was the opening night film of this year's City of Lights/City of Angels festival in L.A. and I'd love to see it before the already-announced Hollywood remake arrives (tentatively titled Welcome to the Sticks).

Charly—This well-reviewed film from Tribeca is the second feature to be directed by young French actress Islid Le Besco.

Desert Within (Desierto adentro)—Mexican director Rodrigo Plá follows up his acclaimed La Zona with this Guadalajara Film Festival top prize winner.

Don't Look Down (No mires para abajo)—The latest from veteran Argentine director Eliseo Subielo (Man Facing Southeast, The Dark Side of the Heart).

Downloading Nancy—Maria Bello jumps off the deep end in what Variety's Todd McCarthy calls a "forbidding and morbid piece of psycho-sadomasochism." Co-starring Rufus Sewell and Jason Patric, and shot by the great Christopher Doyle "in greenish blue hues that make everyone look like they've got full-body gangrene." Can't wait!

Elite Troop (Tropa de Elite)—José Padilha's first feature since 2002's Bus 174 was seen by 11.5 million Brazilians on pirated DVD before it ever opened in a single theater last fall. This hugely controversial tale of police and drug dealers battling it out in the slums of Rio went on to win the top prize at Berlin. It was bought by The Weinstein Company for U.S. distribution, and word is that Harvey's completely re-editing the film for American audiences (something about switching the film's protagonist to one that's more sympathetic). The film is scheduled to open in U.S. theaters on September 19, and the listed running time is 96 minutes (22 minutes shorter than the version shown in Berlin). Bah!

Julia—This is Erick Zonca' second feature since 1998's career-making The Dreamlife of Angels, and unfortunately the critics at Berlin were not kind. But Tilda Swinton is supposed to be absolutely fearless as a slutty, middle-aged drunk who gets herself involved in a child kidnapping.

Lake Tahoe—This is perhaps the film I'm anticipating more than any other, Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke's follow-up to 2004's hilarious and completely original deadpan comedy Duck Season. It world premiered at Berlin, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize and Alfred Bauer Award.

The Lemon Tree (Etz Limon)—Eran Riklis' follow-up to 2004's The Syrian Bride, in which a Palestinian widow fights to keep Israeli security forces from ripping up her ancestral lemon grove. Panorama Audience Award winner at Berlin.

My Marlon and Brando (Gitmek)—This docudrama about a Turkish actress' journey to rejoin her lover in Iraqi Kurdistan won a Best New Narrative Filmmaker prize at Tribeca for its director, Huseyin Karabey.

Night and Day (Bam gua nat)—Hong Sang-soo makes a "Hong Sang-soo film" in Paris.

Paris—Cédric Klapisch (Auberge Espangnole, Russian Dolls) also makes a film in Paris, with his favorite actor Romain Duris.

Somers Town—Shane Meadows follows his critically acclaimed This is England with another film about British working class youth—this time set in the present and filmed in B&W (and once again starring This is England's Thomas Turgoose).

Sugar—From the directors of Half Nelson comes this story of a Dominican Republic baseball player who finds himself playing for a minor league team in Iowa. This was a Sundance favorite, and for some reason Sony Pictures Classics is delaying the film's release until 2009.

Summer Hours (L'heure d'été)—Olivier Assayas' tale of three siblings (Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche and Jérémie Renier) deciding what to do with their late mother's noteworthy art collection. Like Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, the film was commissioned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Musée d'Orsay.

They Killed Sister Dorothy—This documentary about an American nun killed by wealthy Brazilian ranchers over a sustainable development project in the Amazon won both the Audience and Jury prizes at this year's SXSW.

United Red Army (Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi)—Kôji Wakamatsu's three-hour plus docudrama about extreme leftist Japanese radicals in the early 70's was The Greencine Daily's Dave Hudson's favorite film from Berlin.

It'll be interesting to see how many films from both lists show up at one of our fall festivals, such as the Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 2), the Arab Film Festival (Oct. 16), SF Indie's DocFest (Oct. 17), the Latino Film Festival (Nov. 7) and the 3rd i Festival (dates TBA). I also see that the SF Film Society is initiating a French Cinema Now series at Landmark's Clay Theater from October 8 to 12. I've been squawking for years about how the Bay Area needs a separate French festival similar to NYC's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema or L.A.'s City of Lights/City of Angels—I mean, even Sacramento's got a French Film Festival. As far as international cinema showing up in local art houses this fall, things certainly couldn't be worse than last year. That's when Ang Lee's Lust/Caution was literally the only foreign language film in release for nearly three months. Landmark's printed fall calendar is encouraging, with films like Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two, Chris Smith's The Pool and Gonzalo Arijon's Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains. All three passed through town earlier this year, but are great films nonetheless.


Paul Martin said...

FWIW, here's my drive-by comments to some of the titles:

Angel - worth seeing in the context that it's a film by Ozon (whom I admire), but the film is a bit flat and covers ground already trodden.

Après lui - I didn't like it from the start but tried to grant it leverage. Ultimately, I felt it was simply a Deneuve star vehicle that felt overly contrived.

Dr. Plonk - de Heer is a really interesting film-maker with a wide range of films under his belt. I discussed the film with the director who mentioned that young people who have never seen a silent film didn't get it. I thought it was a good ride and simultaneously a nod to the silent era with a modern political twist.

The Pope's Toilet - culturally interesting, but a fairly predictable comedy.

Desert Within - I recently walked out of this film at Melbourne International Film Festival, not because it was bad, but I didn't find anything worth staying in it.

My Marlon and Brando - a compelling love story across multiple countries and cultures, a sort of stark comparison to how things change as you travel from Turkey to Iraq. Great stuff.

Night and Day - quietly satisfying without as much impact as Woman on the Beach, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Unlike last year, I've not seen any of the films you listed this time. Even with a new, somewhat independent three-plex in Denver, the programmers are not as adventurous as I'd wish.

Anonymous said...

Hey Michael~

Actually,you must have blinked and missed it, but IT'S A FREE WORLD did indeed play at the Labor FF in SF on July 5th at The Victoria....
(Thankfully I'd already seen it at TIFF'07 -- worth seeing -- because I only heard about this screening at the very last minute.)

And if you expand your notion of "Bay Area" to (theoretically) driveable distances, UN SECRET was the closing night film at this year's Sacramento French FF in July. (I had a ticket, but at last minute, didn't make the drive!)

Hopefully the upcoming SFFS FRENCH FF in early October will close some of those gaps.

(btw, I snagged APRES LUI on TV5 -- worth the monthly fee, imho, more films all the time -- new and old -and all films & mini-series are sub-titled.)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone...and my apologies for not acknowledging them sooner. I just spent two weeks visiting my Mom and was reliant upon her creaky AOL dial-up connection, which was OK for checking e-mail but not much else.

Paul, your observations are always appreciated and I certainly envy you for having had the opportunity to see those eight titles. I have to say, though, that there was very little about The Pope's Toilet that I found predictable.

Peter, sorry to hear that this hasn't been a particularly good year for international cinema in Denver.

Carole, of course I'm kicking myself for having missed the Loach film at this year's LaborFest. I guess I'll put on a disguise, hold my nose and go rent it from Blockbuster. I was aware that Un Secret played the Sacramento French Film Festival, but when you don't have a car, Sacramento is very much outside the "Bay Area." Like yourself, I also have high hopes for the SF Film Society's French film series in October (although it's a shame they had to schedule it smack in the middle of the Mill Valley fest). I'd happily subscribe to TV5 Monde, but it appears that in SF it's only available through RCN or Dish Network.