Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ten Intriguing Films

Between April 23 and May 7, the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival will be bringing nearly 150 films and videos to Frisco Bay, from over 50 countries. No, I didn't go through the program and count them; I'm just taking the word of festival director Graham Leggat, who supplied those numbers in his program guide welcome message. The same message announces plans to build something called the San Francisco International Film Center as part of the Main Post Redevelopment Plan for the Presidio.

At Tuesday's press conference, Leggat talked a little bit more on this project: a plan to build a three-screen cinema to become the home of the San Francisco Film Society's year-round programming. Can Frisco sustain another three screens? What does this do to the Film Society's relationships with existing venues that host SFIFF and other events?

Questions for later, I suppose. Right now I'm still digging through the program guide to figure out a preliminary viewing schedule. With so many films to choose from, I'm tempted to just pick out the films by auteur directors I'm already familiar with, or those that sounded most interesting when described by the programming team at the press conference. Sticking to either of these two strategies is a sure-fire way to miss out on some under-heralded gems. So to fight against that tendency, here's a list of 10 films left un-mentioned by Leggat and his team at the press conference, with pedigrees I know little or nothing about. All images supplied by the festival publicity office.

1. Artemisia

The only Taiwanese production in this year's SFIFF is the feature-length debut by director Chiang Hsiu-Chiung, who in 1991 played one of the sisters in Edward Yang's great a Brighter Summer Day. She has since assisted both Yang and SFIFF regular Hou Hsiao-hsien behind the camera. It has already been announced as the Golden Gate Award winning film in the television narrative category (one of the few GGA categories where the winner is traditionally announced prior to the festival).

2. For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism

Fresh from its SXSW world premiere and resultant press attention is this documentary on one of my favorite love-hate topics, the very nature of film criticism. Just after its first festival screening on the afternoon of May 3, there will be a free panel entitled "A Critical Moment", which is expected to draw appearances from John Anderson, David D'Arcy, Jonathan Curiel, Dennis Harvey, Gerald Peary (the doc's director), Mary F. Pols, and Susan Gerhard. And perhaps others.

3. Go Go 70s

Though this review is merely mixed, I'm always interested in seeing what the SFIFF brings from South Korea. Based on a true story, it apparently proves that 1970s soul music could also be Seoul music. (Ooooh- sorry about that.) It also provides the big program guide with its cover image.

4. It's Not Me, I Swear!

Directed by the maker of Congorama, which I sadly missed at the SFIFF two years ago, this film and its protagonist (who sounds a bit like a morbidly precocious Harold) has been making the rounds on the festival circuit, and proves that the Québec Film Week the SFFS organized last December didn't empty that province of all its cinematic product.

5. Mesrine: a Film in Two Parts

Likewise, the Film Society's French Cinema Now series inaugurated last fall certainly didn't come close to exhausting the supply of fest-worthy films from that country. Including shorts and co-productions France is represented by 21 films in this year's SFIFF, nearly as many as last year when a terrific crop including wonderful stuff like the Secret of the Grain and the Romance of Astrea and Celadon played. This year brings films by well-known names like Breillat, Denis, and Assayas, but of the unknown quantities I'm probably most intrigued by Jean-François Richet. Forget that he was involved in that Assault on Precinct 13 remake I didn't see; he just won the César award for Best Director for this two-part crime epic with an all-star cast.

6. Modern Life

The only film on this list made by a director I've seen work by before: Raymond Depardon. In 2005 the SFIFF programmed two of his documentary features: 10th District Court and Profiles Farmers: Daily Life. The latter was the one I was able to fit into my schedule, and though I heard from many that the other one was the better of the two, I was still fascinated enough by Depardon's approach to his rural subject matter, that I'm now excited to view what appears to be a follow-up in a similar milieu.

7. Sacred Places

Now I'm really kicking myself for skipping Chief! at the Pacific Film Archive's Way of the Termite series, still chugging along with entries from Rouch and Resnais this Sunday for example. It was directed by Jean-Marie Teno, as is Sacred Places, a documentary about cinephilia in Burkina Faso that was inspired by a screening of the earlier film at the FESPACO festival. No matter; I hope to see this anyway. Thankfully an early Teno short (Homage from 1987) has been programmed to give us a taste of the Cameroonian filmmaker's early work.

8. Soul Power

If, like me, you're not much of a boxing fan, you might not remember much of the detail of the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. But you might remember the concert footage of the "Zaire '74" festival that preceded Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's rumble in the general vicinity of the African jungle. Soul Power was constructed from outtakes from the earlier, Academy Award-winning doc, focusing on the concerts and not the fighting. Presumably someone else somewhere is making a film based on the outtakes from Norman Mailer's interview.

9. Tulpan

OK, so this one's got a pretty bona fide pedigree, having won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the last Cannes Film Festival. That's the same award won by Blissfully Yours, Moolaade, and the Death of Mr. Lazarescu, in case you're wondering. But I still know next to nothing about Tulpan; only what I've scanned from this page. Made in Kazakhstan, by a Kazakhstan-born director, though with funding from some other countries, it also opens at local Landmark Theatres the day after the festival ends.

10. The Window

Three Argentinian feature films play the SFIFF this year, and none of them were mentioned from the podium at Tuesday's press conference. An unintended oversight, I'm sure. This one is directed by Carlos Sorín, who pleased festgoers with Historias Minimas in 2003 and the Road to San Diego in 2007. Despite all the positive word-of-mouth these titles (particularly the former) received at the time, I still haven't seen any Sorín film. This may be the year to fix that.

Want more SFIFF pre-coverage as you start blocking out your schedule? Try the Evening Class for information about the Late Show (films still running as the witching hour chimes), or Susan Gerhard for a more general overview.


  1. As ever, Brian, thanks for the shout-out. Although some of the festival darlings that I hoped would make an appearance at this year's SFIFF are no-shows; I take your cue in cradeling my curiosity about titles which have received less attention in the past festival year.

    My main question for the plans for an International Film Center in the Presidio is what kind of shuttle service SFIFF is going to provide to the many many green-conscious citizens of SF reliant upon public transit? As it is, I have to take three buses to get out to the Presidio. It borders on arrogance that SFFS presumes their constituency are all motorists. They better think that one through carefully.

    Frako Loden caught Mesrine at the Palm Springs International and wholeheartedly enjoyed it. I'm anticipating the same.

    I caught both Tulpan and The Window at Toronto and will be posting my interview with Carlos Sorin within the week. Tulpan is entertaining and joins the recent batch of films about nomadic life in the Mongolian steppes, maintaining a kind of ethnographic allure, even if seeming a bit repetitive at this point. The Window is a very quiet, meditative piece. Frako didn't care for it much when she caught it at Palm Springs. I accepted it for what it was. The reflective last breath of an old man hobbling into the death horizon.

  2. Thanks, Michael. Now that you mention it, I remember Frako raving about Mesrine after her return from the PSIFF. And Michael Hawley sounded very excited about it when talking to him the other day. So it's not exactly a completely unknown quantity, but it still caught me by surprise when looking through the program guide.

    Thanks for the comments on Tulpan and the Window and the Film Center at the Presidio. Did you poke around in the Main Post link I found? It seems the Presidio is going to be looking completely different than we're used to presently. I didn't investigate the transit plans, but I too hope they're friendly to us carless city-dwellers.

  3. Mesrine is definitely worth seeing, although I must admit it hasn't stayed with me. Jean-Pierre Cassel really inhabits the role, and apparently, he gained the weight to play the "older" Mesrine that you see in the beginning of part 1 (and towards the end of part 2). He's completely transformed in this role.

    That said, I think part 2 is a stronger film because it's where you see his personas and attempts at self re-invention surface. It's almost as if he's trying to live up to his reputation/myth, and it leads to his undoing.

  4. acquarello, so glad to have you by again. I see you've been seeing a lot of French cinema lately, so I'll take you comments on Mesrine especially to heart. You recently reviewed the SFIFF selection Versailles, as well as the Beaches of Agnes, which is playing this week at PFA.

    Speaking of the PFA, it's bringing the Nagisa Oshima retrospective in May. I'll certainly be using your pieces on the director to help me intellectually handle his films.

  5. Thanks Brian, yup, the annual French cinema series in NY just finished a couple of weeks ago, so it's still somewhat fresh in my mind. The Varda film is definitely not to be missed. It's almost Chris Marker-ish.

    Unfortunately, I didn't get around to writing about the Oshima when it hit NY (it was the sidebar to NYFF and I was pretty backlogged - and exhausted - towards the end), but I also highly recommend Three Resurrected Drunkards and Pleasures of the Flesh.

    Dear Summer Sister is unusual for Oshima, less formalized, a bit messy, but worth seeing. It's the one film that's really puzzled me in the series, and I suspect that I would have gotten a lot more out of it if I had a better handle on Okinawan history (beyond the WWII stuff).

  6. I will wind up seeing 7/10 on your list (The Window is today). Tulpan would have been on the list but it was on Landmark's release calendar months ago. Not sure if you ended up seeing Go Go 70s, but the film made the same Soul/Seoul joke, so no need to apologize for that!

  7. You beat me! How would you rank the seven?

  8. Ah... ranking is so hard and I'm bad at it! I enjoy all seven, in different ways that was often hard to squeeze into a Twitter messaage! Artemesia and It's Not Me are definitely my type of movies. It sounds like that there won't be a Quebec Film Week this year. That's too bad as there's plenty more Quebec movies out there.

    Modern Life and Sacred Places weren't as great as I had hoped, but still enjoyable and insightful. Depardon sure knows how to photograph people, and Sacred Places and Nollywood Babylon would make a wonderful double feature.

    I was very happy with Go Go 70s. Aside from the overall experience, it was just good to know that someone's putting Korean film's excellent techniques into something that isn't RomCom nor action.

    I don't know if Mesrine warrants its length, but to Richet's credit it didn't feel that long. My only gripe would be that there wasn't much for Matthieu Amalric to do.

    The Window reminds me that I still have ways to go in learning about cinema. I liked it but can't explain why, in a similar way I had with Alexandra last year. That might not have been an coincidence, as the director mentioned Sokurov's Mother and Son being a major influence on this film.