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6 Films to Watch for from the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival

6 Films to Watch for from the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival

The oldest film festival on North American soil continues to buck trends, innovate, and focus on quality over commerce as it plows ahead seemingly unencumbered by a slumping economy that has sharply altered and downsized (and in some cases bankrupt) its peers. In its 52nd year, the San Francisco International Film Festival presented the roughly same number of programs as ever, while expanding its local Bay Area focus and maintaining a commitment to screening an impressively broad range of cinema from around the world. The festival wraps tonight with a screening of Alexis Dos Santos’ “Unmade Beds.”

The 15-day event kicked off fittingly, if weakly, with Peter Bratt’s “La Mission.” A cinematic ode to the rough but vibrant San Francisco neighborhood it is based in, the film stars Benjamin Bratt as an ex-con and one-time alcoholic who sets his life straight only to be confronted by his biggest challenge ever – his son’s homosexuality. While the plot flirts with several intriguing themes – gentrification, homophobia, interracial dating, and the relationship between power, respect and violence – the film bungles away the opportunity to offer any fresh perspectives on these matters by employing a soggy, made-for-TV approach that favors the use of dumbed-down cliches over genuine storytelling.

The rest of the big-ticket events boasted heavy hitters, and these didn’t disappoint one bit. Two of Hollywood’s biggest icons were feted with on-stage tributes and interviews: first Robert Redford was honored with SFIFF’s acting award, before regaling an animated audience with behind-the-scenes accounts of preparing for his role in “All the President’s Men”; his reluctant, almost embattled, stance on his good looks and fame; and his take on the troubling state of contemporary Hollywood. Two nights later directing awardee Francis Ford Coppola was joined onstage by George Lucas, Walter Murch, Carroll Ballard, and Matthew Robbins for a chatty evening that, much to the delight of those in attendance, quickly (d)evolved into a nostalgic session of reminisces about the good old 1970s and the beginning of American Zeotrope.

The most charmingly offbeat honoree turned out to be James Toback, who was being recognized for his contributions in screenwriting (“Fingers,” “The Pickup Artist,” “Two Guys and a Girl”). Toback talked affably and articulately – without the slightest hint of either hubris or remorse – on subjects ranging from his excessive gambling and hard drug use to his fascination with athletic black men and his writing process, which boils down to six months of inactivity, followed by a few days of frenzied typing. In between these playful anecdotes, he offered extremely cogent insights on how he makes movie dialogue breathe and the stubborn wrongheadedness of screenwriters who are inflexible about their work being altered throughout the production process.

Naturalism, innovation, and a willingness – if not a mandate – to be flexible were hallmarks of the festival’s most absorbing and inspired entries. Below I’ve included a list of six films for SFIFF52 that were, for me, the absolute standouts of this year’s crop. Naturally, this is an entirely subjective exercise, and to boot, one that is unfair by nature. While the festival screened 155 films, I was only able to see 35 of them, so inevitably there were gems I missed. If you attended the fest and have films to champion, please add your picks to the comment section below.

Francis Ford Coppola and James Toback at SFIFF. Photo by Pamela Gentile.

6 SFIFF films to watch, arranged alphabetically:

City of Borders
When Berkeley-based filmmaker Yun Suh heard that there was only one gay bar in all of Jerusalem, she set out to investigate, camera in hand. How could that be? After all, Israel’s capital is only a 45 minute drive from Tel Aviv – in many ways the GLBT center of the Middle East – and home to a large annual Gay Pride parade. What she finds is a fascinatingly rich and complex set of explanations, tangents, and colorful personalities. The city is teeming with challenges for the queer community, some expected and others less predictable: coupled with a familiar brand of homophobia based on inflexible moralist arguments are thornier complications – ranging from a well-organized, highly intolerant ultra-orthodox movement to a destructive rift between the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem GLBT leadership. An even harder obstacle to overcome is the institutionalized distrust for relationships between Jews and Arabs (something not at all uncommon amongst the generally liberal and progressive youth haunting Shushan, the lone gay bar).

Yun Suh recognizes that this waterhole of a refuge is magnetically captivating precisely because of the fraught journeys its clientele must endure to get there. As she tracks the first openly gay City Council member, a Palestinian drag queen and a Jewish-Palestinian couple, she is careful to avoid reducing them to shallow archetypes for the sake of a neat cine-thesis. Instead, she strikes documentary gold by allowing each to shine individually, whether bearing their soul about hate-crimes or just giddily dancing with friends.

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Renown Hong Kong screenwriter Ivy Ho (“July Rhapsody,” “The Accidental Spy”) wasn’t planning on becoming a director. Sure, she’d dreamed of it, but when she wrote the screenplay for “Claustrophobia” it was meant to be another collaboration with frequent partner Johnnie To. Perhaps the fact that the legendary gangster-pic helmer was interested in a screenplay about romance (and one entirely devoid of violence at that!) should have tipped her off that something strange was going on, but hey, everyone wants to try something new every once in a while.

When To balked at filming her script, Ho realized she was the only one who could see the project through. As she half-joked in the Q&A following her screening, “Scripts are like babies for a screenwriter. I knew this was an unhealthy child, but I felt it still deserved to be born.” Her resultant splash into the world of directing is a quiet but extremely resonant one.

“Claustrophobia” offers short episodic glimpses along a year of an office romance, which perhaps amounts to nothing more than a crush. The timeline is laid out in reverse, with the first scene showing an awkwardly melancholy goodbye between co-workers parting ways (we assume for the last time) after their daily car-pool. As the narrative slowly unravels, we are left interpreting a series of opaque, hard-to-read glances and gestures, clinging to the same ever-so-subtle signs as those the characters themselves struggle to classify as suggestions of tenderness or rejection.

Ho masterfully toys with the mounting suspense this game creates, effectively pulling from the detective thriller playbook, but keenly replacing moments of violence with emotional pain, and smoking-gun discoveries with visual metaphor. Early on the viewer is forced to reconcile with the fact that definitive answers to this puzzle will never materialize, and the experience of watching the film becomes a tantalizingly familiar and quotidian one – it is little different than literally living alongside the characters, not so much as a cinematic voyeur of a pre-planned narrative, but as a casual inhabitant of the story itself. The film’s true success lies in that Ho reaches this holy grail of transcendent filmmaking without leaving the audience behind, managing to keep us visually and emotionally engrossed by combining a light directorial touch with a thick, fragrant moodiness reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai.

A scene from Ivy Ho’s “Claustrophobia.” Image courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Ursula Meier throws all caution to the wind in conceiving an incredibly assured debut that intelligently plucks inspiration from sources as wide ranging as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch without stooping to visual mimicry or winking references. The story centers on a quirkily lovable family that carves out a personal utopia far from civilization by setting up home by a long-abandoned strip of half-developed highway. They play roller-hockey in their concrete backyard, gleefully run around half-nude, and stock up supplies for the summer vacation, which they plan to wile away as they do the rest of their days – inventing endlessly silly games as a family, picnicking and sunbathing as a family, and listening to the radio as a family.

Their happy isolation is abruptly severed when the dormant highway springs to life, and a stream of cars gradually invades their carefully constructed sanctum with noise, pollution, and the prying eyes of traffic-waylaid passengers. As their physical world steadily caves in, we watch their already questionable mental state deteriorate and crumble in fascinating ways as well. Meanwhile the film seamlessly slaloms between lighthearted comedy, psychological thriller and absurdist drama, while somehow managing to convincingly sound deeper, sadder, and more universally relatable themes of isolation, the dread of the unknown, and the futility of fighting the so-called “progress” of modernization. Meier’s script and cinematography giant Agnes Godard’s stark photography combine to form a visually and narratively inventive scream of a movie, whose loud belting force and immediacy are complemented nicely by its profound and constant echo.

Adrian Sitaru’s (Assistant Director on “The Death of Mr. Lazerescu”) first feature updates Romanian New Wave’s penchant for dark humor with distinctively fidgety camerawork – heavy on point-of-view lensing and a curiously persuasive combination of naturalism and fabulist storytelling. The small ensemble piece starts out as a car ride with a bickering but clearly enamored couple. As they leave the city for a picnic in the countryside the source of their discontent becomes apparent: the two are engaged in an affair, and despite promises to the contrary, the cheating wife hasn’t yet broken the news to her husband. The tension mounts as uncomfortable silences punctuate short verbal volleys full of thinly veiled insults and ugly innuendo, with cynical joking filling in the remaining gaps; the unease is further heightened by the woman’s perilously inattentive driving (which is in turn visually compounded by the unnerving effect of watching her near-misses from the constantly shuffling viewpoints of the two motorist themselves).

Just as we breathe a sigh of relief when she safely guides the craft into the wide open roads of the woodlands: Plop! She mows down a young prostitute who appears out of nowhere. As the couple struggles to dump the evidence of their vehicular homicide, the girl miraculously comes to, perfectly intact. From here on out the mysterious woods nymph by turns plays both sides of the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” fairy: at once Puck – a mischievous and dubiously motivated prankster – and Titania – who uses her guiles and trickery with benevolent intent. As the three reluctantly spend the rest of the afternoon together, a novel swimming-camera approach to Fellini-esque neorealism emerges, with the girl’s bizarre behavior strangely sharpening the very real desires, insecurities, and issues of two ordinary lovers.

Lake Tahoe
Following their 2005 collaboration on “Duck Season,” director/screenwriter Fernando Eimbcke and cinematographer Alexis Zabe (DP on “Silent Light”) team up again for a matured look at many of the same themes – parental loss, teenage friendship, and spiritual aimlessness. The opening frame neatly presents the key dilemma of the film: we see a car jammed up against a roadside pole in the middle of an empty stretch of dusty plain; the unharmed 16-year old driver steps out and surveys the scene; nothing, save some gently swaying shrubbery, moves at all; the teen looks small, entirely unperturbed, and a bit pathetic.

The rest of the film concerns a bumbling search for car parts that brings him into reluctant contact with the sleepy town’s oddball inhabitants – a Bruce Lee fanatic, a teen mother lazily channeling Joan Jett and a retired mechanic joined at the hip with his pet bulldog. While these chance encounters do play for sly stylized gags, they are not mere set pieces either. As the narrative progresses we discover that the boy has very recently lost his father and his non-chalant attitude toward this tragedy and the crash is revealed as emblematic of a life lived detached. As he interacts with the locals, we watch him climb out of his shell, come of age, and gently opt for a life finally actualized. Zabe’s static camerawork, delicate wide-angle frames and frequent use of extended blackouts visually underscores this steady mental shift away from long-rehearsed inertia.

Eimbcke trades in the pop and crackle of “Duck Season” for a gentler, drawn out approach (the first hour of the film is told nearly in real time) with the zingy humor of the former similarly replaced by a deadpan Jim Jarmusch approach here. While certainly less snappy as a result, the introspective and observational dimensions heightened by the languid pacing and relaxed script seem a worthwhile payoff indeed.

A scene from Ursual Meier’s “Home.” Image courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Sacred Places
Jean-Marie Teno built his filmmaking career commenting on and exploring the legacy of colonialism in Africa. In “Sacred Places” he turns the investigative lens on a subject even closer to home – the role of African Cinema in the formation of the modern African sensibility, and the troubled relationship between the African filmmaker and the continent’s moviegoers. While extremely probing and effective in raising intriguing, and at times troubling questions, the documentary is far from a straightforward expose. Brimming with a palpable love of the land, and shot with the warm palate of a 1970s production, Teno’s goal is clearly twofold: to investigate, but also to elevate, his subjects.

Instead of interviewing luminary auteurs and discerning cineastes, Teno opts to experience and record the most widespread mode of cinematic consumption in Africa today. Namely, he begins regularly attending a cine club in Burkina Faso, profiling the attendee’s tastes, and engaging the business owner in discussions about his curatorial choices. Playing the films on a small TV, the cine club mainly sticks to American and European action and martial arts fare, but Bollywood and African movies do occasionally find their way into the rotation. The decision of what to screen is not purely based on aesthetics either; the club charges ten cents a ticket – all that the poor locals can afford – and typically plays pirated discs, which are usually priced at much higher rates for African movies than for foreign ones.

One day, the owner does manage to get his hands on a copy of “Yaaba,” an African classic by director Idrissa Ouedraogo, who happens to be a friend of Teno’s. When told of this development Ouedraogo decides to quietly attend the screening himself, a gesture of good faith that touches Teno and gets him thinking that in order to stay relevant, African filmmakers must figure out a way to reach out to their own more often. Sadly but tellingly, the question of how exactly to circumvent the current distribution system and thus turn this dream into a reality is left hanging.

[The Full list of the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival winners are available at indiewire.com.]

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