Noah Cowan trekked in a driving rain storm to his first San Francisco International Film Festival (April 24 to May 8) press conference at the Fairmont Hotel as head of the San Francisco Film Society. He recently moved to the Bay Area from his home in Toronto, where he ran The TIFF Bell Lightbox after years programming for the Toronto International Film Festival. Cowan is the third SFFS Executive Director since Graham Leggat’s death in August 2011. Bingham Ray served for only ten weeks before his sudden death in January 2012, and Ray was succeeded by Ted Hope, who left after a year, and is now the CEO of Fandor.
So it was no wonder that a number of the questions in the Q & A session after the presentation of the festival lineup were directed at Cowan, in-between the usual tedious ones asking how many Chinese or Middle Eastern films are in the lineup. He mentioned how happy he was to be in the Bay Area, working not only with the Festival, but with its education arm, recently cited by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times as a model for the rest of the country, and Filmmaker360, the filmmaker-support branch of the Film Society. Cowan mentioned six films supported in part by Filmmaker360 grants that would screen at SFIFF this year: “Hellion,” “Little Accidents,” “Manos Sucias,” “Obvious Child,” “The Overnighters,” and “Ping Pong Summer.” (Previous support, among others, went to such films as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Fruitvale Station.”)
Then followed a brisk presentation of the highlights of the festival from Director of Programming Rachel Rosen and her colleagues Rod Armstrong, Audrey Chang, and Sean Uyehara, trying to make sense of the 168 films from 56 countries in 40 languages scheduled (hey! 45 women directors!)–as well as the various awards, both the ones honoring filmmakers that feature an onstage presentation and interview, and the ones given to films shown during the festival, and the special events such as silent films with live musical accompaniment, and stand-up comedy, and storytelling.
Rosen pointed out that this year’s Founder’s Directing Award honoree, Richard Linklater, was performing a double hat trick: appearing at his third SFIFF in a row, and joining Satyajit Ray and Spike Lee in an exclusive club, since the first film of all three directors was shown at SFIFF, which then awarded all three their Director’s Award. His film “Boyhood,” shot over 12 years, will also be shown.
Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana,” “Traffic”) will be this year’s recipient of the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting, joining honorees Isaac Julien, winner of the Persistence of Vision award, and film critic David Thomson, whose Mel Novikoff award afternoon will include a conversation with writer Geoff Dyer, as well as a screening of Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve.” (Cowan, in explaining who he was to a subsequent questioner, allowed as how he would have chosen “The Palm Beach Story.” For me it’s a toss-up.)
Both the Peter J. Owens Award for acting and the person who will give the State of Cinema address (after such luminaries as Steven Soderbergh, Walter Murch, and Tilda Swinton) are to be named later. Watch this space.
Here’s a tip sheet of films I’ve seen:
- Catherine Breillat’s autobiographical “Abuse of Weakness,” starring Isabelle Huppert.
- “Club Sandwich,” from Mexico, about a mother and son vacationing together and apart.
- “The Dog,” a documentary about John Wojtowicz, who Al Pacino impersonated in “Dog Day Afternoon.”
- “Palo Alto,” the festival’s centerpiece film, based on a book of short stories by James Franco and directed by the talented Gia Coppola.
- Mark Cousins’ lyrical and loving “A Story of Children and Film,” a pendant, focusing on how children are portrayed in movies, to his 15-hour documentary “The Story of Film.”
- Mike Myers’ loving documentary “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon,” about the irrepressible producer.
- Lucas Moodyson’s charming “We Are the Best!,” about an 80s female punk rock trio.
Me, I’m looking forward to the gourmand “The Trip to Italy,” with Steve Coogan, by Michael Winterbottom; Tsai Ming-Liang’s “Stray Dogs”; three music docs, “20,000 Days on Earth,” about Nick Cave; “The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir,” about the Grateful Dead guitarist; and “Heaven Adores You,” about doomed musician Elliott Smith. And, most especially, a five-part miniseries by and about Agnes Varda, “Agnes Varda: From Here to There,” which I’ll gulp down in one 225-minute screening (but can also be seen, one episode at a time, five days in a row).
And I’m also looking forward to a panel discussion about the future of the film business, featuring Jonathan Marlow of Fandor, Gary Meyer of the Telluride Film Festival, and SFIFF’s Noah Cowan, moderated by our own Anne Thompson, who will afterwards sign her new book “The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System.”
And I know full well that there will be several films I now know nothing about that will knock my socks off.