Michelle Yeoh and Jenny Slate both appear this year's 65th SFFILM festival. (Thomas Laisne/Getty Images / KatieMcCurdy)
I’ve been attending and covering the SFFILM Festival (known as the San Francisco International Film Festival for nearly its entire existence) for 35 of its 65 years, and I can’t recall a time when its identity was murkier. To be sure, it was approaching a crossroads even before the pandemic, as the festival and film worlds—and San Francisco itself—had changed in ways that turned SFFILM from a pioneering beacon to a nice regional festival.
SFFILM was once the sun around which a handful of much smaller Bay Area film events revolved. Then the local calendar grew full with niche film festivals, crammed with local premieres. The audience for daring foreign films in the Bay Area—one of the top markets in the country for decades—declined. Meanwhile, streaming platforms, in the course of evolving into production houses on par with Hollywood’s legacy studios, have turned your home screen into a first-run theater.
At the same time, the departure of SFFILM's popular director of programming Rachel Rosen after the 2020 festival, and the subsequent departures of longtime programmers Audrey Chang and Amanda Salazar, heralded an abrupt changing of the guard. The current programming team, with the exception of SFFILM veteran Rod Armstrong, consists of newcomers.
So if the 2022 edition of the SFFILM Festival (playing April 21–May 1 at the Castro, Roxie, Vogue and Victoria Theaters in San Francisco, and in Berkeley at BAMPFA) feels more like Sundance Redux than Postcards from the Edge of the World, c’est la vie.
None of this, however, is meant to dampen your enthusiasm for the dozens of quality films among the 60-odd features and equivalent number of shorts. Here are my guesses as to the programs likely to sell out first.
'32 Sounds' April 24, Castro Theatre
Sam Green began his career in San Francisco with the wonderful short documentary The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 and the essential feature doc The Weather Underground. Before he relocated to New York, he devised a unique performance-oriented format that marries his onstage narration and live music to nonfiction film sequences. 32 Sounds, which premiered at Sundance, outfits every audience member with a headset for Green’s iconoclastic and beautifully guided road/head trip through the aural universe. Yes, the Castro is a big house, but trust me: You don’t want to miss this show.
A Tribute to Michelle Yeoh: In Conversation with Sandra Oh April 29, Castro Theatre
Less than two weeks ago, the mere appearance of athletic, acrobatic Malaysian-born action superstar Michelle Yeoh was sufficient to pack the Castro. (OK, there was also a film premiere, and her Everything Everywhere All at Once costars and directors, but we all know who the draw was.) Surely there are more than enough Yeoh fans in the Bay Area to fill the vast movie house again, especially in the city that she calls her home away from home. (And, as a warmup, the festival is reprising Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) on 35mm at the Castro on April 27.)
A Tribute to Jenny Slate April 22, Castro Theatre
I’d be surprised if anyone is more surprised that Jenny Slate has become a household name than Jenny Slate. Sure, she’s been working nonstop (although often as a voice actor), going on two decades. But now she’s everywhere, with sufficient box-office clout to leverage her trilogy of animated web shorts into the new feature Marcell the Shell with Shoes On. A laugh-filled, love-filled evening awaits.
'American Justice on Trial' April 22, Roxie Theater
Judge-turned-author Lise Pearlman struggled for years to make a movie from her 2012 book, The Sky’s The Limit: People v. Newton, The Real Trial of the 20th Century? She found top-drawer collaborators in Bay Area doc maker Andrew Abrahams (Under the Skin) and Emmy-winning editor Herb Ferrette, who revisit Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton’s notorious 1967 death-penalty trial for the death of an Oakland policeman. The 40-minute film screens with A.K. Sandhu’s short, For Love and Legacy, which follows sculptor Dana King as she creates a bust of Newton, publicly installed last year in West Oakland.
'I Didn’t See You There' April 29, Victoria Theatre; April 30, BAMPFA
Reid Davenport’s bracing and beautiful view of Oakland and BART from a wheelchair is off-putting and endearing, pragmatic and poetic, contemporary and historic(al). A landmark in disability representation and one of the most valuable documentaries we’ll see all year. I Didn’t See You There debuted at Sundance, when we covered it here.
'Fire of Love' April 23, Castro Theatre; April 24, BAMPFA
Sara Dosa’s heat-seeking portrait of French husband-and-wife volcano nerds, er, scientists Katia and Maurice Krafft opened Sundance to rapturous reviews. Crafted from troves of archival footage, Fire of Love is the most accomplished film by the beloved Bay Area filmmaker and former SFFILM staffer, though I prefer her The Last Season and The Seer and the Unseen (both available on Kanopy, hint hint). An excellent date movie, for obvious reasons.
'Navalny' April 23, Castro Theatre
A late and wildly satisfying addition to the Sundance program, this doc has ripped-from-the-headlines political and hot-ticket frisson. The filmmaker had extraordinary access to Russian electoral candidate and opposition leader Alexei Navalny while he recovered in Germany from his Putin-ordered poisoning before courageously flying back to Moscow. Even before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and Navalny's conviction last week for fraud and contempt of (kangaroo) court, Navalny provided inspiration that people of character and conviction still roam the land.
'Happening' April 22, BAMPFA; April 23, Victoria Theatre 'The Janes' April 30, Victoria Theatre
Any day now, the headlines will announce the radical Supreme Court’s vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Tia Lessin and Emma Pirdes’ prosaic yet galvanizing Sundance doc The Janes collects the memories and testimony of the gutsy young Chicago women who devised and ran an illegal abortion-services operation in the late ’60s. Audrey Diwan’s Happening is a devastating adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel about a young French woman seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy in 1963.
'Cha Cha Real Smooth'
Apr. 30, Castro Theatre
The festival’s Big Nights—Opening, Centerpiece, Closing—are, by definition, high-profile and quick sellers. I didn’t lead with them because, well, folks who like klieg lights and dressing up for movies and being the first on their block to see a new flick don’t need anyone’s encouragement to hop online and grab tickets.
But the Sundance crowd-pleaser Cha Cha Real Smooth is the perfect Closing Night film: It manages to sustain and entertain the whole way through without being deep or even substantial, and boasts a mainstream star (Dakota Johnson) doing the indie-film thing. Writer-director-star Cooper Raiff—playing a charming, decent, newly coined college grad at loose ends—hugs the camera a little too much for my taste, but I have a hunch you’ll disagree.
Jamie Sisley’s family drama Stay Awake (April 21, Castro), featuring Chrissy Metz (This is Us) as a mother addicted to opioids, marks an unexpectedly hard-hitting Opening Night selection. The fact-based Centerpiece pick, Abi Damaris Corbin’s 892 (April 27, Castro), blends thriller elements with social concerns in its taut reenactment of an ex-Marine (John Boyega) who goes off in an Atlanta-area bank after Veterans Affairs bungles his disability payment.
Once upon a time, I could predict with some confidence that new films by Terence Davies (Benediction) and Claire Denis (Both Sides of the Blade) would sell out, along with Nothing Compares, Kathryn Ferguson’s riveting reframing of Sinéad O’Connor as a no-fucks-to-give artist scarred by childhood abuse instead of the mischaracterizations of her as a shallow pop star/insulting heretic/fashion casualty/spoiled brat (take your pick) following her 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live.
But who can say, at this tenuous moment in our relationship with movies, and the arts-agnostic attitude of so many of San Francisco’s newer arrivals? So my advice is the same as always: If a film catches your interest, don’t hesitate to buy a ticket.
The 65th SFFILM festival runs April 21–May 1, 2022, at various venues. Details here.
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