Some may disagree with me, but despite the San Francisco Bay Area’s famed array of nearly-constant film festivals (more than there are weeks in the year), I rarely find it necessary to make hard choices when confronted with what’s on at any time. This is decidedly not the case when I’m considering this November’s line-up: there are overlaps that will confound even the most selective cinephile.
The San Francisco Film Society is leading the list, with its three annual fall festivals devoted to a variety of national cinema. French Cinema Now screens 11 films from November 6th through the 9th, including the first-ever pairing of Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Pierre Darroussin (stop the presses!), Paris Follies; Marion Cotillard in her deliberately deglamorized turn as a downsized factory worker in the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days One Night, the official Belgian entrant for the Foreign Language Film Oscar; and Olivier Assayas‘ latest, Clouds of Sils Maria, featuring three knockout performances by three knockout actresses: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz.
The weekend after, three days are devoted to Hong Kong Cinema, from November 14th through the 16th, with eight movies including Chow Yun-fat in opening night con game thriller From Vegas to Macau; The Golden Era, another official foreign Oscar submission, director Ann Hui‘s over-three-hour biopic about female novelist Xiao Hong; and a twentieth-anniversary revival screening of Wong Kar-wai‘s inventive and delightful Chungking Express.
With barely a pause for breath, New Italian Cinema picks up the following Wednesday, screening November 19th through the 23rd, 14 programs featuring an evening with Edoardo Ponti, with two of his short films, including “The Human Voice” starring his celebrated mother, Sophia Loren; Charlotte Gainsbourg in the Asia Argento-directed Misunderstood; and the first animated film to be shown in New Italian Cinema’s history, The Art of Happiness, about a 43-year-old Neapolitan cab driver.
Since it’s become difficult, to say the least, to see foreign films in general release, I look forward to these brief but essential annual surveys. But I would be a liar if I didn’t say I was disappointed in their new venue, the Vogue Theater, in which my cinephilic joy in the preservation of one of San Francisco’s iconic single-screen theaters is tempered by its smallish screen and deep, narrow room. And I wish that somehow San Francisco could slide in on the amazing French film festival held in Los Angeles in the spring, City Of Lights City of Angels (they share some sponsors), which last year showed 40 films in a week, most of which have not appeared anywhere in the Bay Area.
Running directly opposite French Cinema Now is 3rd i’s 12th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, with 15 programs running November 6th through the 9th and a fifth day scheduled for November 15th in Palo Alto. There’s a special focus on music and dance in film, with live performances, including a live kathak-tap performance on November 8th after the film UPAJ:Improvise, and a program about the 1960 color blockbuster Mughal-e-Azam, with an illustrated talk about its effects on Bollywood culture. They celebrate Bollywood at the Castro with a screening of Queen, and continue their Women Behind the Lens program with the Himalayan-set Liar’s Dice, India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, directed by Geethu Mohandas.
From November 6th through the 8th, there’s the fifth San Francisco Dance Film Festival at the Brava Theater Center: 70 dance shorts and docs, including Paul Taylor: Creative Domain; three shorts about Rudolf Nureyev; and a dance film forum held at the San Francisco Public Library.
And a concurrent attraction, over the same jam-packed, fun-filled weekend, is the alluring conference sponsored by City Lights Booksellers and Publishers with several other institutions, Haunted Reflections: Walter Benjamin in San Francisco, running from November 5th through the 9th. Okay, not a film festival per se, but breathes there a filmgoer with soul so dead that he can resist the author of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”? Plus there is a film screening: the debut of a new documentary, “The Passages of Walter Benjamin” on November 6th. The intriguing agenda includes panel discussions, academic presentations, and art openings.
Programmed against Hong Kong Cinema, from November 14th through the 17th, is the saucily-titled The French Had a Name For It: Classic French Film Noir from the 40s through the 60s, at the Roxie Theatre. Don Malcolm and programmer Elliot Lavine have assembled a mouthwatering collection of a dozen titles lesser-seen in the US, including Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s La verite (The Truth), starring Brigitte Bardot, who will also be seen opposite Jean Gabin in En Cas de Malheur (Love is My Profession), by Claude Autant-Lara. Gabin plays the chef of a celebrated small French bistro in the curious Voici les temps des assassins (Deadlier than the Male), by the divine Julien Duvivier. Other directors include Rene Clement, Henri Verneuil, and Yves Alleget, and there are other stars featured, such as Simone Signoret, Lino Ventura, and Marina Vlady. Just a note to you film purists: if not for DCPs, this program would not exist. Sourcing and shipping prints would have been nearly impossible, as well as prohibitively expensive.
Less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco (in non-rush-hour traffic!) is the star-studded Napa Valley Film Festival, running from November 12th through the 16th, which places emphasis on the regions’ famed food and wine, as well as the eclectically-programmed movies: “12 Screening Venues. 125 Films. 300 Filmmakers. 50 Chefs. 150 Wineries.” Spread out over four small Napa towns — Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga — are enticing dinners, chef demonstrations, and tastings, along with industry panels, red carpet screenings, and movies for both the star-seekers and hardcore cinephiles. There’s an embarrassment of riches, including documentaries Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank; Finding Gaston, about a Peruvian chef; and Lutah, about Lutah Maria Riggs, the female architect influential in Southern California who designed the famed Mayan Theatre in LA, among other influential structures. Among the features, there’s East Side Sushi, about a Latina sushi chef; and the charming Like Sunday Like Rain, with Leighton Meester, one of the pleasant surprises of the current film festival circuit. Star-seekers will enjoy catching up with The Fault in Our Stars, attended by Shailene Woodley, and Black or White, in the presence of director Mike Binder and star Kevin Costner, as well as the Oscar-contending documentary about Shep Gordon, Supermensch, with director Mike Myers.
Throughout the month, there’s always the regular interesting programming occurring across the bay at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, right in town at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and down the peninsula at the Stanford Theatre. The Stanford makes things easy by booking the 75th anniversary of “Gone with the Wind” for two weeks, from November 7th through the 21st. But the other hard decisions are up to you.