Over the last few weeks, the San Francisco International Film Festival whetted our appetites with occasional announcements of titles and honorees coming to town between April 21 and May 5. This morning the SFIFF unwrapped the entire enchilada, which means the race is on for tickets to the most coveted shows. S.F. Film Society members get first crack while the public must wait until April Fool’s Day, but non-members can join the society today (the cheapest level is $70) and start shopping.
Here’s a tip sheet of what’s likely to sell out first, keeping in mind that the festival has swapped its longtime home at the Sundance Kabuki for Alamo Drafthouse, the Victoria and the Roxie, along with its usual haunt at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.
May 2 at Castro Theatre, San Francisco
The annual pairing of live musicians with a silent film isn’t just a SFIFF trademark but a festival highlight. This year’s electric matchup (mashup?) pairs Mercury Rev and Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde with Vampyr, Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer’s haunting 1932 evocation of a walking nightmare. Don’t be lulled into procrastinating by the size of the venue.
April 30 at Castro
In an age when shameless self-promotion is so de rigeur that candidates run for president on Twitter, Joel and Ethan Coen are practically perverse in their preference for privacy. The brothers devote their energies to making movies, not selling them, so public sightings are extremely rare. The Castro will be packed to the rafters when the Coens take the stage to honor Janus Films and the Criterion Collection, recipients of an award given to those “whose work has enhanced the film-going public's appreciation of world cinema.” There’s a movie, too: the Coens’ 1984 neo-noir debut Blood Simple.
April 21 at Castro
Opening night of any festival isn’t about cin-eh-mah so much as celebrities, entertainment and partying. If that’s your cup of Earl Grey, and you’re too late to score a ticket to stilted upper-crust satirist Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Love & Friendship -- only his fifth film in 25 years -- simply get to the Castro early on April 21 and admire star Kate Beckinsale posing on the red carpet.
April 23, 25 and 26 at Alamo Drafthouse, San Francisco
There are movie stars and there are actors, and fans of the latter will pack the house to see and hear David Oyelowo (Selma) talk about his wrenching turn in writer-director Maris Curran’s low-key indie drama Five Nights in Maine.
April 23 at Castro
Five decades into one of the most remarkable careers in the history of motion pictures, Werner Herzog has yet to run out of things to say. The beloved iconoclastic returns to San Francisco with his latest philosophical essay, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, on the most unfilmable of subjects: the internet.
April 28 at the Victoria, San Francisco; April 30 and May 1 at Alamo Drafthouse
Social media, perhaps the internet’s most hotly debated aspect, figures prominently in Audrie and Daisy, the latest documentary from popular local filmmakers Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen. A pair of high school girls (one in nearby Saratoga and the other in small-town Missouri) were sexually assaulted after drinking and passing out, then tormented online.
May 1 at the Victoria, May 2 at Alamo Drafthouse and May 3 at the PFA, Berkeley
European filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck lived in the East Bay while she shot National Bird, her harrowing hot-button doc about the U.S. military’s use of drones. Three veterans bravely describe their experiences at the console and return to civilian life, with such power that Wim Wenders and Errol Morris signed on as executive producers to get the film the attention it deserves.
April 30 at the Victoria
Recognizing that Bay Area residents don’t shy away from difficult conversations, the SFIFF has long offered various forums for reasoned discussion. The latest brouhaha over Hollywood’s chronic failures to honor actors of color (see David Oyelowo, above) or hire women directors should provide plenty of grist for the annual State of Cinema address, which former San Francisco Examiner film critic Wesley Morris (a Pulitzer Prize-winner at The Boston Globe and now cultural critic for The New York Times) delivers April 30.
April 24 at the Castro
If you support more diversity in film -- and what forward-thinking American doesn’t? -- snag a ticket for the presentation of the Irving M. Levin Directing Award to Indian-American helmer Mira Nair. The first woman director in the festival’s history to be so honored, Nair has brilliantly bridged Manhattan and Delhi, indie film (Salaam Bombay!) and Hollywood (Vanity Fair). An exceedingly candid and articulate filmmaker, Nair will take the Castro stage for a lengthy interview prior to a screening of her irresistible 2001 family comedy-romance Monsoon Wedding.
April 30 at the Castro
Short films are enjoying a boon in popularity, perhaps related to the internet’s downward pressure on attention spans. “Shorts 5: Family Films” may not sell out like it did the last several years in smaller theaters, but you dare not risk the ignominy of being turned away at the door with your child. Appropriate for those aged six and up, the lineup includes a vintage Wallace and Gromit cartoon among the cornucopia of delightful new films.
May 1 at the Castro
If you sneered and cursed my lowbrow use of the word “cartoon,” the tribute to Aardman Animations on Wallace’s parents’ 40th anniversary should be near the top of your list. Almost certainly the most commercially successful artists ever to receive the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award, the British studio will be represented by cofounder Peter Lord and a greatest hits compilation.
April 28 at Alamo Drafthouse
“Things in Films” may not be the sexiest moniker ever coined, but it refers to the most alluring objects in the frame. Well, other than the actors, you might say, but we can each name a movie where the set, costumes, or light sabers held our attention better than the performers. The quarterly publication THE THING, in conjunction with SFIFF, has lined up a bevy of local luminaries to riff on a few of their favorite things in the background of the shot.
That’s my top dozen, but don’t go to sleep on these brisk sellers: the buzzy documentaries Weiner (about the scandal-ridden New York politician) and Author: The JT Leroy Story; the restored 1955 British noir Cast a Dark Shadow with creepy Dirk Bogarde; the 20th anniversary salute to The Watermelon Woman and director Cheryl Dunye; and the music docs Miss Sharon Jones! and The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. And one for the road: the can’t-miss, Bay Area-shot indie feature Radio Dreams.
The San Francisco International Film Festival takes place April 21–May 5, 2016 at theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley. For tickets and more information visit sffs.org/sfiff59.