The role and relevance of the S.F. International Film Festival has become a topic of discussion in recent years, as its 50th anniversary came into view on the horizon. The world has changed just a wee bit in half a century, and the SFIFF was slow to acknowledge the altered landscape. A plethora of local fests vie for our attention year-round, for one thing, while younger audiences are migrating from theaters to home video and laptop viewing. There's also this newfangled doohickey called the Internet, which (among other things) is acclimating people to watching videos in a 2 x 2-inch box.
The current SFIFF management is alert to all three factors -- great news for the fest's long-term prospects -- and it also holds a pair of aces that we tend to overlook: it is the most prestigious film event in town, and it has more resources than anybody else.
In other words, it's still the big dog of the film scene. And when it's in top form, as it looks to be as it kicks off its 50th edition, the SFIFF has more glitter AND grit than any of the other fabulous showcases on the movie calendar.
On a macro level, the fest has always wrestled with making its vast and varied program user-friendly. Even knowledgeable film buffs who can tell Oliviera and Iosseliani apart in the dark are momentarily paralyzed by the slew of unfamiliar offerings. I'm here to help, by following the blueprint devised for the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival by my savvy fellow blogger, Marie K. Lee.
DUDE FLICK: Congorama. This rueful study of a struggling inventor who discovers in his 40s that he's adopted is a resonant ode to ordinary, sensitive guys. No, it's not a macho man-date movie, but French Canadian director Philippe Falardeau's sneakily structured drama is pure pleasure from start to finish.
DATE MOVIE: Once. An ideal first date, this music-soaked Irish yarn centers on a Dublin busker and the young Eastern European immigrant who approaches him on the street one day. The term "knockabout charm" was coined for this poignant, low-budget riff, which finds some lovely middle ground between docudrama and polished music video. Director John Carney and the stars (Glen Hansard of The Frames and MarkÃ©ta Irglova) are scheduled to appear, so catch it at the fest (and turn on your friends when it opens later in May).
HISTORY BUFFS: Bamako. As much about present-day Africa as its past, the latest work of Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako puts the World Bank on trial. As political films go, this pointed comment on North and South, and white and black, looks to be one of the smartest and wittiest to come down the river in a long while.
HOLLYWOOD FANS: Fog City Mavericks. This George Lucas-produced doc purports to be a history of Bay Area filmmaking, but I expect that Francis Ford Coppola, Philip Kaufman, Carroll Ballard and the chief Wookie himself get more screen time than the dozens of documentary and experimental filmmakers who have most eloquently expressed the Bay Area's iconoclasm, progressivism and humanity. We'll find out at the world premiere April 29 at the Castro.
CHICK FLICK: Mukhsin. Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad brings a post-feminist edge to her sagas of domestic life. Her latest is a fresh and unpredictable coming-of-age story that centers on the curious friendship between two adolescent girls.
TEARJERKER DOCUMENTARY: Audience of One. Local Pentecostal minister Richard Gazowsky believes God has instructed him to make a feature-length science-fiction extravaganza. (The pastor is different in this regard from most indie filmmakers, who think they ARE God.) His efforts are a train wreck of (wait for it) Biblical proportions. I haven't yet seen Michael Jacobs' film, so don't sue me if you end up wincing -- or laughing -- more than crying.
DARK SIDE: Slumming. Austrian director Michael Glawogger is best known for his documentaries, including last year's Workingman's Death, but he's also drawn to fiction. This pungent slice of Viennese urban gamesmanship is bitterly funny and strangely affecting.
A few additional tips, in no particular order:
TUNE IN, TURN ON, DROP OUT: The fest's KinoTek sidebar features a range of digital and new-platform events. All sound great, but I can vouch for the wondrous work of Canadian animator Pierre HÃ©bert and S.F. new-music composer Bob Ostertag. Together they comprise Living Cinema, a performance that artfully interprets current events and has to be seen to be experienced. Their brand-new work, Special Forces (May 4 at SFMOMA), is inspired by last year's Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon.
LOCAL HERO: I've always been a fan of Rob Nilsson, the black-clad, hog-riding heir to John Cassavetes' thespian-loving throne. The East Bay filmmaker takes a turn in the spotlight to screen scenes from his numerous works-in-progress and describe his truth- and heat-seeking approach to street-level filmmaking. Carved Out of Pavement: The Work of Rob Nilsson happens Sat., April 28 at the Kabuki.
LOCAL HERO, Part 2: Les Blank is another local treasure, and his latest documentary reflects a career-long fascination with food, culture, exotic locales and idiosyncratic characters. All in This Tea follows Marin County tea importer David Lee Hoffman around China's breathtaking back roads; insights into globalization are included at no extra charge.
The lineup of special events is impressive indeed. Here's just a sample:
Theatre and opera director Peter Sellars (who also turns 50 this year) delivers the annual State of Cinema address, a riff on art, community, society and the near future, April 29 at the Kabuki.
British film historian and avid preservationist Kevin Brownlow, honored with this year's Mel Novikoff Award, brings several treats. The silent swashbuckler The Iron Mask (1929) screens Sat., April 28 at the Castro and Brownlow's two-hour bio, Cecil B. De Mille -- American Epic plays that evening at the Kabuki.
Spike Lee, a legend in his own mind and the recipient of this year's Film Society Directing Award, sits for an interview with former Examiner (and current Boston Globe) critic Wesley Morris Wed., May 2 before a screening of the middle two segments of his epic Hurricane Katrina doc, When the Levees Broke.
Fans of The Queen will want to hear (and see) screenwriter Peter Morgan interviewed by fellow erudite Brit David Thomson on Sat., May 5 at the Kabuki. Their chat is followed by The Deal, a 2003 TV drama that marked the first Tony Blair-related collaboration between Morgan and Queen director Stephen Frears.
Guy Maddin, the wild warrior of Winnipeg -- he's not a warrior, actually, but every film festival preview has to contain a bit of pointless alliteration -- returns with another deliriously melodramatic blend of silent-film technique, boozy music, squabbling siblings and family obsession. Brand Upon the Brain! will hit theaters later this year with a recorded soundtrack, but the May 7 show at the Castro features 13 ace musicians serving up the score -- plus the redoubtable Mr. Maddin.
The Golden Gate Awards ceremony Wed., May 9 at 6:30 p.m. at Cowell Theatre is free to the public, which should be all the enticement you need. It's a great place to hobnob with filmmakers, and to make a list of the great stuff you missed during the festival and will need to track down on DVD. A ticket is required; visit www.sffs.org for the lowdown.
As lengthy as this overview may seem, it is roughly equivalent to grabbing a handful of sand at Ocean Beach. The festival lineup is ambitious, illuminating and, quite frequently, transformational. Dive right in.
The San Francisco Film Festival runs from Thursday, April 26th through Thursday, May 10th.