These are strange days, and the turmoil has seeped into the world of film. The amusing-but-trivial race to the Academy Awards that supplies the lens through which every new release has an added filter, provided by the non-stop shock from front-page headlines. The real-world stakes are so high this fall that we’re compelled to engage seriously with the subjects of movies rather than be distracted by star power, backstage gossip and glamour. Frankly, we can’t afford the luxury of merely being entertained. With that caveat in mind, there’s plenty to engage us on the big screen in the coming weeks.
San Francisco Latino Film Festival
To be sure, the S.F. Latino Film Festival hasn’t abandoned its perennial themes of identity, assimilation and inter-generational conflict. For example. the opening night film, Ruta Madre, depicts a heartbroken young San Diego singer’s picaresque journey through Baja with his cynical uncle. But the selection of Spanish-language films from the southern hemisphere and beyond moves the Bay Area festival season towards outright political themes. Phillip Rodriguez’s one-hour doc, The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo, profiles Chicano civil rights activist, attorney and author Oscar Zeta Acosta. On the Roof centers on a trio of Havana friends whose entrepreneurial impulses lead to life lessons, while Last Days in Havana contrasts a man waiting in frustration for the papers to start a new life abroad with another fighting against his waning health. (Last Days in Havana was censured by the Cuban government.)
Opens Sept. 15
From Ferguson to Baltimore to Cleveland to Charlottesville, there’s no denying that there's a gulf of mistrust between police officers and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect. The Oakland Police Department reached such a low point that it agreed to a court order to reform in 2003. In The Force, local filmmaker Peter Nicks (The Waiting Room) tracks the path to progress through cops on the street, classes at the police academy and meetings with community activists. Nicks’ observational, non-judgmental approach earned him the Best Director award at Sundance. By all rights, The Force should galvanize a debate that could conceivably forge a bridge between Oakland’s residents and police officers.
Political incorrectness, in its highest form, challenges dogma and incites constructive debate. The true provocateur brazenly violates taboos, which is how Italian director Lina Wertmuller achieved notoriety in the 1970s with a series of brutal and beautiful comedies. This one-day marathon revives Wertmuller’s greatest films -- all of which feature the smolderingly gorgeous Giancarlo Giannini -- and even includes a new documentary on Wertmuller. In Swept Away….By an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, class hierarchy is turned upside down when a socialite and a crewman are yacht-wrecked on a deserted island. In Seven Beauties, the astonishing saga of an amoral crook who winds up in a concentration camp, Wertmuller (who was nominated for the Best Director Oscar) demolishes the heroic clichés and myths of both war and Holocaust films. Wertmuller’s work was distinguished by a unique blend of savviness and savagery that still has the power to rile and disturb.
Mill Valley Film Festival
Forty years on, the Mill Valley Film Festival has outgrown its modest beginnings as Marin County’s down-home fall frolic to become a favored destination for international stars and directors. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Sacramento-native Greta Gerwig with her directorial debut Lady Bird (accompanied by star Saorise Roman), or Richard Linklater, Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and/or Laurence Fishburne with Last Flag Flying. At the same time, MVFF has established itself as a prime showcase for new Bay Area documentaries. This year’s highlights include Frances Causey’s history of slavery and racism, The Long Shadow, and Kate Webber’s portrait of a woman vying to be the first to swim from the Farallons to the Golden Gate Bridge, Kim Swims. Social issues and celebrities are not incompatible, you know.
Three times a year, SFFILM and SFMOMA collaborate on an in-depth film series that draws connections between a contemporary filmmaker and the movies that informed and influenced him or her. The queer New York directing-producing duo of Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon share the spotlight for three weekends that span their ‘90s breakthroughs Poison, Safe and Velvet Goldmine through the better-known Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, Mildred Pierce and Carol. The intriguing—though unsurprising—films they love by other directors include Performance, Sweetie, Strangers on a Train and a couple of Fassbinders. The series coincides with Haynes’ Oct. 13 visit to receive an award from the Mill Valley Film Festival and present his new film, Wonderstruck (also screening at SFMOMA on Oct. 22), so presumably he’ll make an appearance in San Francisco.
opens Oct. 13
Hollywood shifts its focus to adults after Labor Day, but fall no longer offers the cornucopia of thinking-people’s pictures that it once did. The studios now save their best films until December and January to impress Academy Award voters, and spin out second-tier dramas to accompany the (fall)ing leaves. Andy Serkis’ directorial debut may well exceed those modest expectations; his straight-to-the-heart saga of Robin Cavendish, who pursued a life of advocacy and innovation after being diagnosed with polio in his late 20s, combines an inspiring human portrait with an irresistible love story. Andrew Garfield stars as the British protagonist opposite Claire Foy, fulfilling a rite of passage — and possibly following the well-worn path to an Oscar nomination — by portraying a character with a disability.