As usual, this year’s narrative films at the San Francisco International Film Festival drop you smack into the middle of lives so far from your own experience that immersing yourself is tantamount to a guided tour of some of the more interesting nooks and crannies of global human experience. So prepare yourself to meet Italian beekeepers, Albanian cross-dressers and Chinese serial killers, because when cinema from all over the world comes to your own fair city, it's an opportunity, indeed. And not to be outdone, there are plenty of homegrown gems with their own dynamic casts.
From Apr. 23 to May 7, the SFIFF will present 181 films, including 65 narrative features. Of those made available for previewing, here are my recommendations. If you crave nonfiction fare as well, see Michael Fox's picks for this year's top documentary films.
May 3, 5 and 6 at the Sundance Cinemas Kabuki
My favorite festival film this year. Less lyrical and diffuse than many of the other narrative offerings, the movie depicts a string of cause-and-effect incidents and the ascending tragedies that result from each. The plot concerns Luis, a father and downsized teacher struggling in the midst of the Spanish financial crisis, who wants to buy his terminally ill daughter a dress he can ill afford. By the most absurd of coincidences (it has to do with vomit) he meets Barbara, a married, beautiful and mentally unstable woman who refuses to take her medication. Seeing only her affluence and not privy to her private torment, Luis blackmails her. The poignancy and tension of the film reside in his reasoning: faced with the eventual death of his child, desperate measures seem in order to provide her with any pleasure possible. But will the end justify the means? In a film full of sneaking horrors, perhaps the most awful moment comes not from violence, but from one very innocent reaction of the sick child.
Distant Lives, Well Told
A Borrowed Identity
Apr. 26 and 28 at Kabuki, Apr. 30 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley
Is there any more fertile ground for a modern Romeo and Juliet love story than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? A Borrowed Identity provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Israeli Arabs, spanning the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the Gulf War of 1991. These events are seen through the eyes of Eyad, a fiercely bright Palestinian boy who as a teenager becomes the first Arab to attend one of the best schools in the country. There he meets the Jewish Naomi, and a secret love affair results. As Naomi's mother says: "Tell me you're a lesbian, tell me you're a drug addict, tell me you have cancer, but don't ever tell me you have an Arab boyfriend." Meanwhile, Eyad's friendship with a disabled, Jewish boy, deepens his connection to his "borrowed" community. The film balances between his loyalties to these relationships, the crushing enmity that exists between the two cultures and the deeply felt wounds of racism he himself experiences.
Black Coal, Thin Ice
Apr. 25 at PFA, Apr. 27 at Landmark's Clay, Apr. 29 at the Kabuki
Body parts show up in coal stacks, and police think they’re onto a female serial killer. But plot twists abound, so don't get too comfortable. Liao Fan plays a drunken, dissolute detective with a memorably dogged but saturnine restlessness as he pursues the femme maybe/maybe not fatale. Black Coal, Thin Ice is niftily directed, with several scenes of sudden, erupting violence that are fresh and unique. Full of memorable images and winner of the 2014 Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, its ending may seem a non sequitur, but I think I got it.
May 1 and 7 at the Kabuki, May 3 at the PFA
Domingo, a very religious man, accidentally kills a woman but can’t bring himself to feel guilty about it. He does, however, feel guilty about not feeling guilty, and thus a film replete with ideas takes off as an exploration of what classifies an individual as moral. As his character plunges further into the dark side, actor Daniel Muñoz’s doleful, almost clownish aspect provides a wry counterpoint to the grim doings. Muñoz seems to be perpetually on the verge of great expressiveness, if only something would give way -- you’re not sure what. El Cordero is a mix of Albert Camus and Breaking Bad, with just a hint of Buñuel. How can you go wrong?
Apr. 25 at the Clay, Apr. 26 at the Kabuki and Apr. 29 at the PFA
This whimsically observed story follows a family of beekeepers while the paterfamilias attempts to preserve their way of life in the face of new government regulations and regional pressures to convert to a tourist economy. The symbol of this transformation is a TV show called The Countryside Wonders, which dresses up local artisans as ancient Etruscans and pits them against each other in a contest of who can, apparently, be the most charming. The story is told through the eyes of the eldest of four daughters, all of whom radiate adorableness. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, The Wonders is an emotionally rich journey on its way to the big TV show. If this is not your jar of honey, you’ll still be charmed by a scene-stealing camel.
May 2 and 7 at the Clay, May 4 at the PFA
A complicated tale of gender identity, Sworn Virgin doesn't fit into any cultural preconceptions. Mark is a woman living as a man who leaves his rural life in an Albanian mountain village and shows up unexpectedly at the Italian home of his adopted sister. In flashbacks, we see he was once Hana, a young girl who refused to live by the blatantly sexist mores of the village, and who, as a way around them, underwent an extreme but socially acceptable transformation. In Italy, Mark tries to both reclaim his relationship with his long-lost sister and forge a new existence in a modern society free of the customs, rituals and antiquated culture that so dictated life back home. “Someone once told me we’re more free than we think,” Mark says, a life lesson in the midst of this very unusual, belated coming of age story.
A Potpourri of Weird
Apr. 24 and 28 at the Kabuki, Apr. 26 at the PFA
Two stories are set around the same mysterious explosion in the sky over Troy, N.Y. During the blast, a migraine-inducing sound occurs, followed by a lot of strange behavior. The first story is the creepier of the two. A middle-aged couple is mired in a long-term marriage; the wife is immersed in the hobby of collecting “reborn angels” -- like-like baby dolls that postmenopausal women care for as real infants. This is before the precipitating event, and things get weirder still. If you happen to enjoy the somber apocalyptic atmosphere of the HBO show The Leftovers, you’ll probably eat this film up. Odd clouds, a mysterious floating rock, people who go to sleep in fields, an improbable horse -- it’s a potpourri of creepiness casually laid out in nicely restrained style. Have fun debating whether you've just witnessed an alien invasion, the end of the world, a manifestation of deep marital discord, or all three.
Bonnie and Clyde, They Ain't
Apr. 25 at the Castro
This independent feature from 1970 melds an old Hollywood trope -- the couple on a crime spree -- with a documentary-like character study. In 1967 Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway blazed a path of anti-hero Hollywood glitz across the central U.S.; here writer-director-star Barbara Loden and actor Michael Higgins play the most banal of partners in petty crime. She mumbles and drifts from event to event wielding as much agency as a windblown butterfly; he has all the charm of an alcoholic gym teacher. Wanda’s dialogue is minimal, and the film holds our interest in asking us to decipher her actions -- what’s her motivation? Certainly there’s a feminist interpretation: she has left her husband, kids and meager economic prospects behind. Yet a deeper disaffection can be gleaned in one arresting long shot in which she walks among a landscape of coal mounds, a lone figure in white against the engulfing gray and black. She doesn’t know where she’s going, she only knows where she doesn’t want to be.
A Vehicle for Jason
7 Chinese Brothers
Apr. 30 at the Clay, May 1 and 2 at the Kabuki
Can Jason Schwartzman, a sort of poor man’s Bill Murray, carry an entire movie, as opposed to merely providing that familiar dollop of eccentric irony? Yes -- that is, if you like Jason Schwartzman. Here he plays the quintessential misfit, a stranger to his own life whose sardonic apathy has reached a critical, self-destructive phase. He’s the kind of guy who when filling out “present address” on an employment application asks, “Is that where you want gifts to go?” Ha ha, the world says. The thinnest of plots is held together by Schwartzman’s insouciance and our interest in his inability to give a rat’s ass at suffering indignity upon indignity. He’s a real character in this character study of a guy who is either fatefully depressed or a kind of idiot savant in Zen-through-irony living. A good supporting cast helps.