It's only a matter of time before Americans, spooked by a bad economy and ever-scarcer resources, hunker down with their guns and religion and turn isolationist. Led by Lou Dobbs, we'll start hoarding corn and chardonnay, sealing borders, sticking our fingers in our ears and blocking out all news and culture from the outside world. I share my not-so-paranoid fantasy as a way of underscoring the marvelous contribution of the San Francisco International Film Festival, which kicks off its 51st edition tonight (Thursday, April 24, 2008) and cuts a swath through our global and cinematic indifference until May 8.
For casual filmgoers who don't commit the names of Danish directors to memory, the program can be an impenetrable array of tempting morsels that requires a secret code to decrypt. One should resist any whiff of intimidation, however; the only quality required to dive into a big-time film festival is a spirit of adventure. Just pick a title that grabs you and if there's anything you need to know about the filmmaker, country or social issue, trust me, someone in line will tell you.
As for the special events, it's lovely that documentary aesthete Errol Morris is receiving the Persistence of Vision Award (April 29), and his onstage interview should be well worth catching. The program also includes his new film about Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure, an absurdly over-stylized approach to a subject that has been tackled in at least a couple of other docs already. If you miss it at the festival, it opens May 9.
The great Mike Leigh will be honored with the Founder's Directing Award (April 30), his onstage interview followed by Topsy-Turvy, Leigh's impeccable, enthralling 1999 slice of Gilbert and Sullivan. Robert Towne (Chinatown) pockets the Kanbar Award for screenwriting (May 3); he'll be feted with clips, conversation and the great Hal Ashby-Warren Beatty evisceration of Nixon-era sexual/political amorality, Shampoo.
Music fans already have tickets to The Golem (April 25 at the Castro), with Black Francis (of The Pixies) performing his original score. The beat goes on with Cachao: Una Más, an invigorating concert-fueled doc about the immortal Cuban bassist, composer and bandleader, and Carlos Saura's vibrant Fados, which captures the snap, color and emotion of Portugal's distinctive musical genre.
The festival opens with The Last Mistress, French femme de scandale Catherine Breillat's latest survey of male-female power trips and head games. A 19th-century period piece that unfolds with excessively deliberate precision and obsession, it stars Asia Argento as a cross between a rebel (think Frida Kahlo) and a poseur (say, Madonna).
Swell, you're saying, but I can glean all that from the program on my own. How about a little help with the obscure titles that comprise most of the lineup? I'm here to help, hombre. The fascinating Israeli drama Vasermil centers on three teenagers struggling to find a way out of the low-hope, middle-of-nowhere development town of Beersheva. Instead of the nihilism and hair-trigger violence that propel most young-thug or disenfranchised-immigrant pictures, Vasermil walks a tightrope between possibility and futility.
Swedish director Roy Andersson has an oddball sense of humor -- detached, observant and dry, dry, dry. If your appetite for the painfully absurd remotely approaches his, you'll adore You, the Living. If not, you'll chuckle once or twice and stare blankly at the screen for the other 89 minutes,
On the documentary side, Renee Tajima-Peña's beautifully crafted road movie, Calavera Highway, follows her Mexican American husband's attempt to reconnect with his six brothers and root out the truth about his father. It's a simply terrific film about family, identity and melting-pot America in the 21st century. If you miss it, though, it airs on PBS in September.
Closer to home, resident subversive Craig Baldwin (longtime programmer of Other Cinema at Artists' Television Access in the Mission) returns with Mock Up on Mu, a feature-length science-fiction parable that marks his latest mad-hatter re-assembly of vintage educational films, old Hollywood movies and original footage. Baldwin invents a moon-colonization scenario populated by real-life figures L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Parsons, Margaret Cameron and Aleister Crowley that is more playful and more accessible than his previous mega-dense films.
Another local film that deserves every iota of praise it gets is Barry Jenkins' debut indie feature, Medicine For Melancholy. A thoughtful excavation of black identity in a gentrified city -- this one, in case you hadn't guessed -- the movie follows two twenty-something African American strangers the morning after they wake up together. A beautiful, delicate and probing film, it deserves a high-profile theatrical release in every city in the country.
We regularly choose what movies we see based on actors or directors we like, although we realize that it's not a guarantee of quality or satisfaction. The festival includes several titles by well-known filmmakers, some bearing better word-of-mouth than others. I can offer no assurances, since I've not yet seen them, but I provide a list for your convenience: The Man From London (Bela Tarr), A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol), I Served the King of England (Jiri Menzel), My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin), Lady Jane (Robert Guediguian), Mongol (Sergei Bodrov), Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (Scott Hicks), Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara) and Redbelt (David Mamet).
If, perchance, you feel no more enlightened than you were 12 paragraphs ago, revert to my previous advice. Pick a title and go. The world is calling.