Every burg from Portland to Columbus makes a big deal out of its filmmakers, regardless how scarce/plentiful or promising/untalented they are. Very few locales, though, can tout their practitioners of the moving image without looking at least a little ridiculous. The Bay Area is assuredly one of those places, with a remarkable array of iconoclastic and gutsy artists drawn to social-issue docs, experimental narratives and avant-garde shorts. The great surprise, therefore, is that the San Francisco Film Society's annual Cinema By the Bay festival, unspooling this weekend at the New People Cinema in Japantown, fairly brims with accomplished narrative features.
The disarming opening night film, Trattoria (Friday, Nov. 9 at 7 and 9:30pm), directed by Jason Wolos from a screenplay he wrote with partner Dawn Rich, warmly invites us into the life of a semi-successful middle-aged chef. Sal Sartini (wonderfully portrayed by Tony Denison) has earned grudging respect from the critics (there's just one that matters in this town, actually, as the movie makes clear), but has yet to break through into the upper rank of destination restaurants. His ambition, along with a demanding, nay uncompromising, attitude toward cooking and food, has a cost, embodied by the estranged son who's just returned from the East Coast after several years living with Sam's ex-wife. Does Vince (a winsome John Patrick Amedori) want to follow his dad into the business, or is he a slacker meandering down his own path?
The film doesn't offer many surprises plot-wise, but it gracefully insinuates us into the everyday dramas that go on behind the scenes in every restaurant. We root for Sal's success, and yearn for Vince to take his own talent seriously. All of the characters are witty and likable, allowing us to gradually realize that most of our frustrations and disappointments in life are self-generated, stemming from tunnel-vision expectations and a tendency to take for granted the love that surrounds us. If "Accept thyself, and others" seems like an insufficient moral, you need to get out more.
One of Trattoria's smartest moves is seamlessly integrating casual interviews with real-life S.F. restaurateurs (such as the Delfina duo) about the sacrifices and commitments of their chosen profession. This canny element, combined with sumptuous shots of Sal's succulent creations and nocturnal, unexpected snapshots of San Francisco, makes us feel not only like a member of Sal's restaurant family, but part of the vast community of local chefs, line cooks, waitresses, and maître'ds.
Frazer Bradshaw's ace cinematography deserves a shout-out, as does Wolos' relaxed direction, which continually expresses a generous, humanistic attitude toward the characters and their world. Needless to say, this is the kind of movie you shouldn't see on an empty stomach -- or without a taste of the grape, for barely a scene goes by without a glass being poured, sampled, and savored.
With its cast of attractive, wild-and-lost-at-heart late-twentysomethings, Sean Gillane's endlessly fascinating CXL, from a script by Theo Miller and Katherine Bruens (based on Gillane's idea), initially calls to mind the several excellent indie features shot in the Mission and the Haight in recent years. Nolan (the terrifically natural and game Cole Smith) is an aspiring writer who seems to be having a bit of a crackup. He lives in a (literally) black-and-white world broken up by color flashbacks, or are they fantasies?
Enter Cassie (a magnetic Lisa Greyson), the kind of live wire who looks like big fun for about 30 seconds before triggering our "manic pixie dreamgirl" alarm. Nolan falls for Cassie, but their unpredictable, fragmented relationship is unlike any you've seen in movies (though it will almost certainly evoke the viewer's memories of a real-life romance).
CXL, which has its world premiere Sunday, November 11 at 8:30pm, is a puzzle movie that I haven't cracked. A second viewing would certainly help, and that's anything but a dig: I happily left Antonioni and Bergman films with swarms of unanswered questions. I'll advance the proposition that CXL is a kind of urban coming-of-age story about a protagonist who isn't as certain in his identity as he'd like others -- or himself -- to think. He's a good guy, and he's trying to do his best, but life is more of a conundrum than he can perhaps handle.
CXL is invigoratingly and unwaveringly cinematic, and full of visual and sonic pleasures. It's never nihilistic, despite some outward appearances, and that may be what ultimately defines a San Francisco film.
Cinema By the Bay runs November 9-11, 2012 at New People Cinema in San Francisco. For more information, visit sffs.org.