Wednesday, March 23, 2011

SFIFF54—Michael Hawley Massages the Press Releases

While the full line-up for the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54) won't be made public until next Tuesday, the press releases announcing this year's awards, special events and competition films have been filling my inbox since the first of the month. Judging from these anticipatory peeks, I think it's safe to say they've assembled yet another winning event—one befitting SFIFF's stature as the longest-running film festival in the Americas.

Of course, SF Film Society Members get a gander at the entire line-up five days early. Look for an email on Thursday with a link to a PDF file of the mini-guide and remember that we're sworn to secrecy until Tuesday morning's press conference. Until then, here's an overview of what we know thus far. Most of the hyperlinks below lead to press releases for each event.

The festival opens at the Castro Theater on Thursday, April 21 with a film I'm very keen on seeing. Beginners is director Mike Mills' highly anticipated follow-up to
Thumbsucker, which was one of my 10 favorite films of 2005. Ewan McGregor stars as an emotionally floundering man whose 75-year-old father (Christopher Plummer) has come out of the closet. Mélanie Laurent and Goran Visnjic co-star as McGregor's and Plummer's respective love interests. Mills and McGregor are expected to attend the screening and participate in a Q&A, which will be followed by an Opening Night party at the Terra Gallery on Rincon Hill. I wonder if The Future, the new film by Mills' wife Miranda July, will also be part of this year's line-up?

SFIFF54 closes two weeks later with On Tour, for which actor Mathieu Amalric (
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum of Solace) won the Best Director prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival (the film also took the FIPRESCI prize in the main competition). Amalric directs his own performance as a worn-out manager who takes a bevy of American neo-burlesque dancers on a tour of provincial France. As best I can tell, the film doesn't have U.S. distribution so this could be the Bay Area's only chance to catch it on a big screen. It's expected that several of the film's burlesque performers will be at the Castro Theater that evening, and afterward the party will move to The Factory nightclub at 525 Harrison Street on Rincon Hill. I'd like to personally thank the festival for putting both Opening and Closing Night parties just two blocks from my home!

For a number of years, the SFIFF has presented a classic silent film at the Castro Theater, with a contemporary music artist performing a newly composed score. With Tindersticks: Claire Denis Film Scores 1996–2009, this formula gets a slight twist. British band The Tindersticks will accompany a 70-minute montage of scenes from six Claire Denis films for which lead singer Stuart Staples and his band wrote and performed the original music. With their sound augmented by live strings and brass, the group will play alongside clips from
Nénette et Boni, Trouble Every Day, Friday Night, The Intruder, 35 Shots of Rum and White Material, all of which have been stripped of their score. San Francisco is one of only six lucky cities to host this sure-to-be magnificent audiovisual experience. (The others are London, Istanbul, Los Angeles, Paris (in Église St. Eustache, no less) and Umea, Sweden.

Eleven films will compete for this year's $15,000 New Directors Prize, "given to a narrative first feature that exhibits a unique artistic sensibility." In looking over the titles, I was surprised and a bit discomfited that only one film rang any bells. That would be Russian director Sergei Loznitsa's
My Joy, which walked away from last year's Cannes with the distinction of being the most disturbing and transgressive film in the main competition (as well as the only one by a first-time feature director). Needless to say, I'm dying to see it. On the same day that the New Directors line-up was announced, the festival also revealed the 12 official selections for the $20,000 prize Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition. Here I found two films previously on my radar. Eva Mulvad's The Good Life profiles a formerly wealthy Danish mother and daughter now living on the skids in Lisbon, Portugal, and it's been favorably compared to Grey Gardens. In the other film, one man's dubious transition from bloodthirsty Liberian warlord to Pentecostal preacher becomes the subject of Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss' The Redemption of General Butt Naked.

Since 1988, the festival has been presenting its Mel Novikoff Award to "an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." This year's honoree is none other than collector, preservationist, exhibitor, programmer and consummate showman Serge Bromberg, who is no stranger to Bay Area audiences. I believe his most recent appearance was at the 2007 SF Silent Film Festival and his last visit to the SFIFF was in 2001 with his delightful
Treasures from a Chest presentation. (He also co-directed my favorite documentary of 2010, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, which the fest screened last year.) After receiving his award, Bromberg will once again thrill a Castro Theater crowd—this time with his collection of stereoscopic films in a timely program titled, "Retour de Flamme: Rare and Restored Films in 3-D." Among the highlights will be the Lumière Brothers' Arrival of a Train (not the 1896 original, but a 1936 remake in 3-D!) and Chuck Jones' Lumber Jack-Rabbit (the only one of Warner Bros. Looney Tunes made in 3-D).

This year's State of Cinema Address will be delivered by producer Christine Vachon, who will speak on "the current state of independent film and the role of producers of provocative cinema going forward." Vachon has produced 60-some films in her 25-year career, including works by John Waters, Todd Solondz, John Cameron Mitchell, Larry Clark, Kimberly Peirce and perhaps most notably, Todd Haynes' entire oeuvre, from 1991's
Poison right up to his current HBO mini-series adaptation of Mildred Pierce. As SF Film Society's Director of Programming Rachel Rosen states, "She is someone who is in an ideal position to tell us how the business has changed and where she sees it going in the future."

At the 1976 Academy Awards ceremony, Frank Pierson wasn't on hand to pick up his Best Original Screenplay Oscar® for
Dog Day Afternoon (Gore Vidal accepted it on his behalf). Just where he was on that momentous evening might be a good question to ask when Pierson accepts this year's SFIFF Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting. Following an on-stage interview about his 50 years in the business—years that included two other Oscar®-nominated screenplays for Cat Ballou and Cool Hand Luke, plus writing and directing (gulp) the Barbra Streisand remake of A Star is Born—the festival will screen Sidney Lumet's gripping tale of a bank robbery gone wrong starring Al Pacino and John Cazale. Pierson will also conduct a master class on the craft of screenwriting.

Thanks to Gucci and Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation, the SFIFF will screen the recent 4K digital restoration of Federico Fellini's 1960 wide-screen classic, La Dolce Vita at the Castro. I haven't seen it in well over 20 years, missing three recent opportunities at the Pacific Film Archive in 2008-2009. Due to the high volume of must-see new films at the fest, I tend to stay away from its revival/repertory offerings. But an exception probably needs to be made here.

The festival's Persistence of Vision Award for 2011 goes to multimedia artist Mathew Barney, best known for his five-part
Cremaster film cycle. At the award ceremony, Barney will be interviewed by Bay Area writer, curator and critic Glen Helfand, which will be followed by the North American premiere of Drawing Restraint 17. The film is the latest installment of Barney's Drawing Restraint series, "which merges sculpture, athleticism, and cryptic symbolism into a stunning meditation of artmaking and physical exertion."

Finally, while it hasn't been "officially" announced, anyone who's scrutinized the Pacific Film Archive calendar for March/April knows that venerated Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán (
Chile, Obstinate Memory, Salvador Allende) will be in town during the festival with his new film, Nostalgia for the Light. Since its Cannes premiere, the film has received unanimous acclaim on the festival circuit and also won the European Film Award for Best Documentary. Guzmán's new work is set in Chile's Atacama Desert, where astronomers search the sky and grieving families search the earth for the remains of loved ones murdered during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. A PFA retrospective from April 2 to 28 will feature five other Guzmán films, including the three-part The Battle of Chile. Amazingly—at least for a documentary from Chile—Nostalgia for the Light will have a local theatrical release beginning May 13.

* * *

For whatever reason, the optimist and masochist in me feels compelled to draw up a festival wish list each year. The 20 films below were culled from a larger, 100-film list, from which I've eliminated anything with impending theatrical release or LGBT content (Frameline will reliably program most of those). I've also left out stuff from 2011's Sundance / Rotterdam / Berlin triumvirate, although I'd sure be impressed to see something like Berlin Golden Bear winner
Nader and Simin, a Seperation or Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse turn up.

This year's SF International Asian American Film Festival uncharacteristically ignored 2010's crop of Asian auteur films, so I'm counting on the SFIFF to fill in that gap. I'm also hoping they've programmed films from last year's second coming of the Romanian New Wave—films that were oddly absent from Toronto (which I didn't attend) and Palm Springs (which I did). Speaking of Palm Springs, here are a dozen terrific movies I saw at that festival which I hope the Bay Area gets to experience as well:
The Albanian, Cirkus Columbia, Essential Killing, The Four Times, Honey, Life Above All, Nothing's All Bad, October, A Screaming Man, Silent Souls and Sound of Noise. Now without further ado—my wish list for SFIFF54:

13 Assassins (Japan dir. Takashi Miike)
Attenberg (Greece dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Aurora (Romania dir. Cristi Puiu)
The Autobiography of Nicolas Ceausescu (Romania dir. Andrei Ujica)
Black Venus (France dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
Brother and Sister (Argentina dir. Daniel Burman)
Caterpillar (Japan dir. Kôji Wakamatsu)
The Clink of Ice (France dir. Bertrand Blier)
Leap Year (Mexico dir. Michael Rowe)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Portugal dir. Raoul Ruiz)
The Names of Love (France dir. Michel Leclerc)
Neds (UK dir. Peter Mullan)
Old Cats (Chile dirs. Pedro Peirano, Sebastián Silva)
On the Path (Bosnia/Herzegovina dir. Jasmila Zbanic)
Pál Adrienn (Hungary dir. Ágnes Kocsis)
Post Mortem (Chile dir. Pablo Larraín)
The Sleeping Beauty (France dir. Catherine Breillat)
The Tree (France dir. Julie Bertucelli)
Tuesday, After Christmas (Romania dir. Radu Muntean)
Viva Riva! (Congo dir. Djo Munga)

Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.

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