The perennial challenge for local moviegoers who don't know Mathieu Kassovitz from Victor Kossakovsky -- the vast majority, needless to say -- is rooting out the revelations, rarities and rarefied delights in the dauntingly wide-ranging San Francisco International Film Festival program. My advice doesn't vary from year to year: When in doubt, take a chance. If a film piques your curiosity, especially (though not exclusively) if it doesn't have a U.S. distributor and may not play here again, pop for a ticket. All you have to lose is 13 clams (12 for seniors and students). Kassovitz's Rebellion (a fact-based drama about a 1988 hostage negotiation between a French officer and an insurgent leader, and Kossakovsky's Vivan Las Antipodas!, a globe-trotting, small-world documentary made even more enticing by the filmmaker's appearance at the festival, are worthy possibilities. If you'd rather be with the crowd, here are my guesses for the programs most likely to sell out.
The SFIFF's most eagerly anticipated event is the live pairing every year of a contemporary band or musician with a vintage silent treasure at the venerable Castro Theatre. Not every combo's been a winner, but that's the nature (and the exciting uncertainty) of collaboration between living and dead artists. It's impossible to go wrong with Buster Keaton, though, and four comic shorts from the late teens and early 1920s screen Monday, April 23 to the original accompaniment of Merrill Garbus (of Oakland's tUnE-yArDs) and guitarist Ava Mendoza. Tickets for this show are $25.
Another one-of-a-kind talent from cinema's glorious past, the daringly flamboyant, frequently entertaining and always provocative Ken Russell, died late last year at the age of 84. Local performer and impresario Peaches Christ honors the over-the-top master of garish (read bad) taste with a glitzy, late-night drag revue and screening of Tommy (1975) Saturday, April 21 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. Tickets for "Acid Queens: Peaches and Tommy" are $20, but the SFIFF revives Quadrophenia (1979) at the Castro the following Saturday night, April 28, for those who prefer their Who fix at regular prices without the sideshow.
The documentary section is consistently one of the festival's most popular, year after year. Topping the bill is the great Barbara Kopple, who is saluted Sunday, April 22 with the annual Persistence of Vision Award, an onstage interview and a timely screening of her timeless, Oscar-winning record of a coal miner's strike, Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976). My crystal ball reveals no less than three nonfiction programs with local connections that are guaranteed to be electric: Peter Nicks' The Waiting Room (April 21 in Berkeley and April 30 and May 1 in S.F.) is a mesmerizing (and also timely) look at Oakland's Highland Hospital. Jamie Meltzer's Informant (April 22 and 27 in S.F., April 23 in Berkeley) brings shadowy FBI informant Brandon Darby, the villain in last year's wrenching, locally made doc, Better This World, into the spotlight. Speaking of idealists, the beloved Sam Green returns with the latest installment in his marvelous series of live, performative documentaries, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller), Tuesday, May 1 at SFMOMA (a $25 ticket).
Nobody gives more articulate, informed and amusing interviews than British directors and actors. Kenneth Branagh checks both boxes, of course, so he should be positively scintillating when he receives the Founder's Directing Award Friday, April 27 at the Castro. The $30 ducat includes an interview and his 1991 directing-acting turn, Dead Again. (What, no Shakespeare? Well, be grateful the festival didn't pick Peter's Friends.)
My last tip is a film that is unlikely to spark a mad frenzy at the ticket office or the rush line. But I'll use my bully pulpit here, such as it is, to tout Goodbye, the latest work by the profoundly observant Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof. His previous film, a gorgeous, mysterious fable entitled The White Meadows, was my 2010 SFIFF highlight. Goodbye (April 20, 21 and 23 in S.F.) eschews that movie's open-air vistas for the claustrophobic apartment of a pregnant lawyer desperate to emigrate and escape the choking atmosphere of religious, political and police encroachment. (Rasoulof and fellow director Jafar Panahi were recently banned from filmmaking and sentenced to prison in a ruling that became an international cause celebre.) Actually, given the recent critical and box-office success of the Oscar-winning Iranian drama A Separation, it's quite possible that Goodbye turns out to be a tough ticket, after all. A word to the wise: Get your tickets today, and thank me later.
The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival runs Thursday, April 19-Thursday, May 3, 2012 at the Sundance Kabuki, Film Society Cinema and Castro Theaters in San Francisco and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For more information, visit festival.sffs.org.