Sunday, April 1, 2012


So - The San Francisco Independent Film Fest is upon us. (The 55th annual!) I think it is a pretty mixed bag, as far as fests go. On the one hand, it goes for two weeks, so there is a lot to see. On the other, it really is geared towards retiree-types, in several ways, but most annoyingly in their refusal to use Festival Genius. (Why, god, why?!? When there is software out there that programs a schedule for you, why make people do it by hand?!) Also incredibly frustrating in that it caters to the wealthy. The opening night film, at member's prices, is $75. Closing night is $30 for members. A pass for the festival, for members, $900. For comparison, the Boston independent film fest is $200. For everything (only one week there, but still).

The programming is eclectic. It doesn't just bring buzzy titles from Sundance, so some of the films are more obscure or unknown. It makes deciding what to see a little trickier. (Not always, though; Twixt? Cherry? Really, SFIFF?) The only five I was waiting to see before the lineup was announced were: Wuthering Heights, Alps, Where Do We Go Now, !Vivan Las Antipodas!, and Robot & Frank.

That said, here's a rundown on what I'm planning to see. I am not planning on seeing Farewell, My Queen (opening night - and interestingly also closing night in Boston) or Everyman's Journey (closing night). Because as much as I enjoy Journey (thank you, 2010 World Champion Giants™), I don't enjoy it $30 worth. 
First up, the special events. They haven't yet finalized the Peter J. Owens award (last year, it was Terrence Stamp). But Kenneth Branagh is getting the director's award, along with a screening of Dead Again, which I have been meaning to see. The Kanbar award is going to David Webb Peoples (of Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, and Unforgiven, which is showing). 

Unfortunately they decided to schedule that presentation of Unforgiven opposite a tribute screening for Bingham Ray of The Third Man, which is where I'll be. 

The Mel Novikoff Award is going to Pierre Rissient with Fritz Lang's House by the River

Peaches is presenting Tommy. The tUnE-yArDs are playing with Buster Keaton shorts, which I am SO excited for. And there will be a members only screening on my birthday, tba. 

In the 'midnight' category, we have Headhunters; "An art heist goes terribly wrong in this darkly comic, fast-paced thriller."

And the rest (all descriptions from the SFIFF guide):
Alps; Stepping outside of the manor into urban terrain, the audacious director behind Dogtooth returns with a tragicomedy about a tightly knit group that specializes in impersonating the recently deceased. You’ll never look at tennis or rhythmic gymnastics—or modern life and grief counseling—the same way again. [I still need to see Dogtooth!]

Chicken with Plums; Having told her own riveting story in Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi explores the life of her great-uncle, revered Iranian musician Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), as he reflects on the past and future while pining for a lost love, in this romantic, richly textured adaptation of her own illustrated novel. [Rated a B on CriticWire]

 Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel; This portrait of the commanding New York haute couture figure and rip-roaring editor at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue meshes archival footage and talking heads, the most talkative of which is Vreeland herself, perhaps the preeminent 20th-century aesthete, her inventive wit on full display. [Rated a 7.8 on IMDB]

The Dreileben Trilogy: Beats Being Dead, Don't Follow Me Around, One Minute of Darkness; All three films of Dreileben’s character driven crime drama trilogy are set in and around a small town by the Thuringian Forest. This entry taps into the Grimm nature of the setting. Two protagonists as green as the leaves face more romantic trouble than they can handle, while a murderer lurks nearby. A self-possessed police psychiatrist travels to a normally tranquil burg tense over an escaped killer’s unknown whereabouts. Her working rural “vacation” with friends won’t leave anyone feeling rested, safe or at peace with the past in this droll, suspenseful and slippery midsection to the Dreileben trilogy. Dreileben’s final chapter finds mad yet resourceful hunted man Frank Molesch front and center, pursued through the wilderness by a detective. Is Frank a murderous criminal or lifelong victim? The triptych’s vertical narratives—not linear but vaguely simultaneous—conclude on a note that resonates with poignancy, tragedy and bitterest irony.

Hysteria; The invention of the vibrator is at the center of this historical romp. Weary from treating female hysteria with his hands, a young doctor (Hugh Dancy) contrives a contraption capable of making women sing arias of pleasure, with a little help from a layabout friend (scene-stealing Rupert Everett). Maggie Gyllenhaal costars. [B- on CriticWire]

Leave Me Like You Found Me; On what is supposed to be a romantic camping trip in Sequoia National Park, a couple gives their relationship a second chance but finds the reunion more complicated than expected. With a restrained tone and deftly achieved authenticity, this heartfelt debut contrasts an intimate story with a majestic backdrop. [B+ on CriticWire]

The Loneliest Planet; Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) trek through the Caucasus Mountains, led by Georgian guide Dato (real mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze). A split second decision becomes a seismic event in this visually stunning chamber drama by the acclaimed director of Day Night Day Night. [B+ on CriticWire]

Made in USA; This shorts program is an eclectic, idiosyncratic concoction, composed of ingredients bubbling up from the recesses of American culture. Ranging over such subjects as alchemy, robot sex and surveillance culture, the films here are by turns humorous, beautiful, experimental and challenging.

Meanwhile in Mamelodi; Set against the raucous backdrop of the 2010 World Cup, this beautifully crafted portrait of a place and a family features stunning cinematography and a lively score, as the Mtswenis’ day-to-day struggles and victories echo the promise of a new South Africa. US Premiere.

Mosquita y Mari; Set in Huntington Park, near downtown Los Angeles, this earnest, beguiling coming-of-age tale follows two Chicana teens in the midst of the delicate dance of self-discovery and sexual awakening as they explore a new friendship and young love. An assured feature debut that puts the Chicana experience firmly on the cinematic map.

The Orator; Hailed as the first Samoan-language feature film, The Orator is a tale that pits pride, grief and shame against forgiveness and courage. Saili, small in stature, must face the roles of manhood and speak up for his deceased loved ones in this tense, complex present-day look at Samoan tradition.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty; A broken date serves as catalyst for an introspective, poetical ride through the heart and mind of a filmmaker in this documentary/ narrative hybrid employing myriad styles of animation and live action to express the personal yet universal pain of unrequited love, or in the filmmaker’s words, the “friend zone.” [A- on CriticWire]

Rebellion; A French counter-terrorism captain negotiates with his rebel counterpart for a bloodless end to a hostage crisis in this powerful film, based on a 1988 military action in the French Pacific. Actor/director Kassovitz (La Haine) precisely dissects imperial arrogance and political expedience, building to a dramatic conclusion of great force. [7.2 on IMDB]

Robot & Frank; When an aging and cantankerous cat burglar (played with magnetic gravitas by Frank Langella) receives a helper robot against his wishes, a new chapter in his life begins. This crowd-pleaser is an elegant and heartfelt meditation on the nature of character, memory and trust.

Shanimation; These short animations cover a vast range of subjects, with styles and techniques to match. Fictional stories by Enrico Casarosa and Barry JC Purves brush up against documentary works by Hayoun Kwon and Michaela Copikova, while SFIFF faves semiconductor (aka, Ruth Jarman and Joseph Gerhardt) opt for an experimental approach.

Sleeping Sickness; A German doctor working to fight an epidemic in Cameroon must make difficult choices in director Ulrich Köhler’s subtle examination of African postcolonial ties with the West. Echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a sense of dread pervade this lush meditation on the experience of being European in Africa. [B+ on CriticWire]

Terrafirma; When African refugees reach the shores of the paradisiacal Italian island of Linosa, members of a tight-knit Sicilian family get caught between cultural tradition and moral responsibility, in this gripping drama by the acclaimed director of Respiro (SFIFF 2003) and Golden Door (SFIFF 2007). [Special Jury Prize at Venice]

Valley of Saints; Using Kashmir’s picturesque Dal Lake as its backdrop and underpinned by the political unrest in the region, this moving drama explores the relationship between two best friends and the female researcher, studying environmental degradation, who threatens to distract them from their dreams of escape. [A on CriticWire. Also I like how incredibly similar the promo shots for this and Sleeping Sickness are.]

!Vivan las Antipodas!; This captivating documentary takes a common musing—What would you see if you dug a hole straight through the planet?—and pursues it to the ends of the earth, traveling to four pairs of global opposites: Argentina and China; Russia and Chile; Hawaii and Botswana; Spain and New Zealand.

Where Do We Go Now?; Winner of the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, Nadine Labaki’s humorous and warmhearted follow-up to Caramel tells the story of a group of women in a Lebanese village who resort to extreme measures to keep their Christian and Muslim husbands from engaging in religiously motivated violence. [Trailer]

Wuthering Heights; Adolescent infatuation between star-crossed lovers deepens into wild passion in this cinematic incarnation of Emily Brontë’s classic 19th-century novel. Set against the rainy windswept Yorkshire moors, this adaptation is a haunting and almost tactile depiction of romantic obsession pared down to its most visceral and elemental form. [Ed: This is directed by Andrea Arnold. I LOVE her.]

The maybes:
Crulic - The Path to Beyond; Anyone who claims dead men tell no tales hasn’t seen this inventive, beautifully animated feature, which relates one Polish man’s hunger strike against false imprisonment. Watercolor backdrops, collage cutouts and other visual flourishes intensify the stark subject matter and bring history to life. 

Somebody Up There Likes Me; Behold a chronicle of the unremarkable yet strangely ageless waiter Max Youngman through more than 25 years of failed marriages, betrayals and unlikely success in writer/director Bob Byington’s sardonic comedy, backed with music by Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio and a strong supporting role by Nick Offerman. [B on CritcWire]

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