On the caboose of the spring train of Bay Area film festivals rides the San Francisco International Film Festival, which is the biggest of them all. Curated by the San Francisco Film Society, the festival is hosted by your favorite local film venues, from the Sundance Kabuki in Japantown to the Pacific Film Archive on the UC Berkeley campus. It will be impossible to go to the movies in the next few weeks and not hear something about SFIFF. With the festival’s annual inception, the landscape of the city changes. Suddenly, it buzzes with the enthusiasm of cinephiles, filmmakers, actors and artists from all over. This year’s highlights include the opening night film, “Farewell My Queen,” directed by Benoit Jacquot; the new thriller “Twixt” by old-timer Francis Ford Coppola; a Castro Theatre presentation of Buster Keaton shorts accompanied by the live music of tUnE-yArDs. Amid the headliners, the fest offers smaller narrative films and documentaries and a few experiments that integrate both (such as provocateur Harmony Korine’s “The Fourth Dimension”). SFIFF will give several awards, including a directing prize for Kenneth Branagh and a tribute to the brazen Judy Davis.
On Saturday April 21, novelist Jonathan Lethem will deliver a state of cinema address on the “ecstasies of influence” constituting contemporary film. The old adage “there’s something for everyone” has never been so true. The festival runs from Apr. 19 to May 3.
Guilty — Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 23 8:45 p.m. /Apr 25, 6:00 p.m. / Apr 27 12:00 p.m.
French director and screenwriter, Vincent Garenq, examines the controversial “Outreau Affair” in his fictional film “Guilty,” in which thirteen people were unjustly convicted and sentenced to prison for raping and molesting children in a large sex ring in Northern France in 2001. The scandalous case initially sparked attention over the grave violence, but three years later in appellate court, seething judicial corruption was unveiled when the main informer confessed to falsely accusing thirteen of the seventeen charged.Garenq focuses on one of the accused, Alain Marecaux (Philippe Torreton), from his arrest in 2001 to his eventual release in 2005. He details Marecaux’s series of appeals, prison and mental asylum transfers, attempted suicides and his hunger strike.Marecaux is portrayed as the paramount victim of the judicial corruption. As a family man, he adores his children and, more tragically, he has never seen the accusers who demonize him. To add an ironic twist to the warped situation, Marecaux is a bailiff, who is now manipulated by the system that he genuinely trusted.
Torreton gives a gritty performance, transforming from a pudgy, middle-class man to a sickly martyr, whose is stripped from his children and left by his wife.
Shot in mostly grays and blues with streaks of piercing light, Garenq conjures up an oppressing atmosphere. However, the loathsome magistrate, Fabrice Burguard (Raphael Ferret), who oversees Marecaux’s case, comes off as simply indifferent and leaves the audience with a mere prickling of irritation instead of full-fledged outrage.
— Allie Wallace
Bitter Seeds — SF Film Society Cinema: Apr 21, 3:45 p.m. | PFA: Apr 24, 8:50 p.m. |Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 26, 6:15 p.m.
Farmers in India are committing suicide by drinking pesticides. Their suicides are not truly by choice: They are left powerless because of their looming, unpayable loans. They aren’t financially irresponsible, but are victims of the cropless Monsanto seeds from the same American company responsible for the monopoly of large industrial farms.
In the documentary “Bitter Seeds,” we witness the beginning of this cycle, with farmer Ram Krishna deciding to buy the Bt cotton (a genetically-modified brand of seeds) instead of using his own natural seeds. Advertised as the cure for the farmers’ small crops, the genetically modified seeds need more pesticides, water and fertilizer than the farmers can afford, creating shriveled and infested plants. But farmers keep falling for the advertised benefits and find themselves hopeless and glassy-eyed from constantly worrying about their crops.
On top of his crops, Krishna also has to worry about his daughter’s dowry. The complications of the father-daughter relationship is also shown through Krishna’s neighbor, 18 year-old Manjusha. Her father was one of those farmers driven to suicide, and as an aspiring journalist, she decides to investigate these deaths, revealing Indian traditions and culture along the way.
“Bitter Seeds” is the last film in the “Globalization Trilogy” of director Micha X. Peled after “Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town” and “China Blue.” Peled successfully contextualizes this story globally, but the strong individual voice of Manjusha is what makes the film both memorable and more valuable.
— A. J. Kiyoizumi
Informant— Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 22 9:00 p.m. / Apr 27 9:00 p.m. | PFA: Apr 23 6:30 p.m.
Brandon Darby’s identity in “Informant” is no secret. He is first illustrated as a Katrina relief hero driving from Texas to New Orleans to save his friend. He stays to form Common Ground, a grass-roots relief collective, when he sees the trauma and destruction. But then as other people’s testimonies come into the story aside from his own account, he morphs into a paranoid anarchist.
Unexpectedly, Darby becomes an undercover informant for the FBI, making him one of the most hated people in the radical leftist community.
As journalist Michael May from the Texas Observer points out, “There’s a lot of people justifying things in this story.” Darby himself faces dissonance with his intentions, although is never remorseful, making his personality impossible to summarize. Cutting back and forth from his account and other peoples’ versions forces the viewer to decide who to believe. The most interesting scenes in the film are when the reenactments of his story are cut for him to give more direction, showing a more candid explanation of what happened rather than a speech for the camera. Even the people with whom he spends his most intimate moments don’t seem to know him that well, and it’s hard to grasp what his underlying motives are, other than to gain attention.
In a twisted journey full of self-made stories and justifications, the exploration of the complicated world of anarchists reveals a part of America that shocks with its unrealized power.
— A. J. Kiyoizumi
Bonsai — Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 20 , 9:30 p.m. /Apr 22, 12:45 p.m.| PFA: Apr 24 6:30 p.m.
Marcel Proust once said, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” With his latest feature, “Bonsai,” Chilean writer-director Cristian Jimenez translates such Proustian themes of memory and romance into a modern tale of losing one’s first love.In a modern literature course, a class of young, college students is asked the question: “Who here has read Proust”? Both Julio (Diego Noguera) and Emilia (Nathalia Galgani) raise their hands. However, Julio is lying. He’s never read the famous modernist author. He goes to the library, attempts to read Proust, but falls asleep instead and receives a tanline in the shape of his book. Later, he hooks up with Emilia and they eventually fall in love.This initial lie becomes the basis for a film that blurs the line between reality and memory. We see these quotidian visions of the young couple intercut with Julio, eight years later, somewhat miserable, committing this story to paper. With minimal dialogue and delicate direction, Jimenez weaves these two, ambiguous tales together through a series of novel-inspired chapters. Only, unlike the literature so central to the film, “Bonsai” comes across less like Marcel Proust than it does an understated Nicholas Sparks.
— Jessica Pena
The Giants — Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 20, 6:15 p.m. / Apr 21, 4:45 p.m.
Belgian director Bouli Lanners brings us his third feature-length film, “The Giants,” about three youngsters spending a summer in rural Belgium on their own. With their mother out of the country, teenage brothers Seth and Zak fend for themselves, surviving on dwindling funds and living in their deceased grandfather’s country house. One day, while driving around the countryside, they meet 15-year-old Dany, and a friendship quickly blossoms among them. Unrestricted by parental control, the three teenagers relish their independence. We watch them dodge cops, smoke weed, camp around a bonfire, shoot birds, break into solitary homes, dye their hair for no reason, talk about girls and dream about a spirited future in Spain.
With autobiographical elements, Lanner’s film feels deeply personal, almost nostalgic for those adolescent years. There’s a dreamlike element to the story as the camera gazes over wide open spaces that allude to Mark Twain novels. The boys could even be said to be modern-day European Tom Sawyers or Huck Finns, embracing their newfound freedom within the pristine Belgian landscape. Yet, as much as these boys indulge in juvenile behavior, it’s also a coming-of-age story. Director Lanners captures with astonishing delicacy the more subdued moments of these boys. Their happier interactions also incline toward quiet introspection of their precarious situation, and they come alive in these sad, but revealing instances. “The Giants” proves one of the most tactful, tender and generous films around, rich with humor and characterization. It’s an exquisitely modest film that nevertheless steals your heart.
— Braulio Ramirez
Dreileben: Don’t Follow Me Around — Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 21, 4:00 p.m. / Apr 25, 6:15 p.m. / Apr 29, 5:00 p.m.
“Don’t Follow Me Around” is the second installment of a German triptych titled “Dreileben.” Just like the U.K.’s “The Red Riding Trilogy” — a huge hit with U.S. audiences some years ago –– three different directors handle their own respective films, connected together by a storied crime, or, more precisely, by the hunt for an escaped sex offender. This is not a trilogy that requires an ordered, consecutive viewing of the three films. With different artists at their helm, the three films stand surprisingly on their own, with subtle, detailed elements linking them together. And director Dominik Graf may probably just have crafted the most astute and stylized of the three, with a distinct palette of fogged colors that gives the movie a ’70s feel.
The story centers around Johanna, a psychologist who travels to Dreileben to help recapture the fugitive. She’s forced to stay with an old friend, Vera and Vera’s husband Bruno, a prolific German novelist. The film provides plenty of scenes with Johanna on the job, expanding on the personalities and quirks of police officers that were peripherally covered in the trilogy’s first installment. But it’s Johanna’s friendship with Vera that’s at the heart of this film. Director Graf injects a unique dose of humor and character detail that probes deep into the ambivalent, almost mysterious history surrounding Johanna and Vera’s friendship. Sure, this movie is a thriller, but it’s the ensuing drama surrounding the friends rather than the murderer that provides the most shocking dose of suspense.
— Braulio Ramirez
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty — PFA: Apr 22, 8:30 p.m. | Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 30, 9:00 p.m. / May 1, 12:15 p.m. / May 2, 4:00 p.m.
Native Texan/New York transplant Terence Nance’s hypnotic quasi-documentary “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty” is a filmed essay on love and its discontents. The man is a visionary, a cine-poet who integrates media of all kinds, including animation, literature and contemporary music, which is why his film feels so of-the-moment.
A simple episode of a date gone wrong is leavened with self-reflexive gestures and a gymnastic cinematic syntax, leaping from narrative to autobiography and back again, often in the same scene. Nance plunges into his own artistic inscape, asking big questions about how “humans come to experience a singular emotion.” His camera moves with the fluidity of the human mind as it traces and dissects memories, digressing from one thing to the next. Nance, who also stars in the film, is plagued by unrequited romance and the asymptotic nature of human relationships. Self-absorption, as it turns out, is the stuff of aesthetic exuberance.
This all sounds heady, but the film is quite light on its feet. Filled with films-within-the-film, reenactments and voice-overs, this collage never takes a breath. More punk rock than cinema verite, “An Oversimplification” works because its sentimentality is genuine and its cerebral preoccupations are very much like our own. The true object of Nance’s affection is not a woman, but cinema itself.
— Ryan Lattanzio
Ok, Enough, Goodbye — Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 20, 6:30 p.m. / Apr 29, 12:00 a.m. | PFA: May 1, 8:50 p.m.
In Tripoli, Lebanon, a depressingly complacent 40-year-old baker still lives with his mother. He is, with no exaggeration, the epitome of a “mama’s boy.” His mom cooks for him, cleans for him – she even keeps his nights busy by acting as his poker buddy or by making him help her dye her hair. It’s apparent that his life is a bit less than thrilling. Yet when his mother uncharacteristically takes a trip out of town, he is forced to finally make an effort to take his place as an adult.
“Ok, Enough, Goodbye,” by writer/director duo, Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, tries its best to maintain its identity as a dark, indie comedy, but ends up looking like a confused, MFA project. The film inter-splices its series of long, static takes with documentary style interviews and panning shots of Tripoli, but without obvious reason. Adding to the unease with the film direction, the camera technique is inconsistently unsteady to give a sense of realistic voyeurism or, more believable, as a result of amateur filmmaking. To top it all off, the movie’s untrained actors (friends and family of the directors) are unable to sustain their intentions for long. In their efforts to make dialogue seem raw and spontaneous, the actors instead throw out emotionless statements that make it even more painfully obvious how much more direction Attieh and Garcia should have given to polish the film.
— Dominique Brillion
Oslo, August 31 — PFA: Apr 20, 8:50 | Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 21, 6:45 p.m | SF Film Society Cinema: Apr 27, 9:15 p.m.
Cinematically, “Oslo, August 31” looks like a drop of morning dew reflecting a prism of saturated colors. Director Joachim Trier soaks the film with a palette of leafy hues, bold shadows and a revelatory light — and has a tinted shade accompanying specific emotions as a way to evoke the rather muted psychological state of the protagonist, Anders. This subtle underlay of poignant lighting follows Anders, a recovering drug addict, through a simple plot encompassing the duration of a single day.
The compelling power of “Oslo, August 31” lies in the artistically composed framing of individual scenes. Trier gradually and gracefully unfolds the narrative, transporting us from one location to the next, weaving in and out the theme of human dynamics and Norway’s contemporary young adult culture. There is a rather transfixed, silent noise — undoubtedly reflecting the emotional and psychological immobility of Anders — that pervades the film, every so often broken by a perfect Daft Punk or Desire song.
The brilliance of the performances, rightfully showcased in various intimate one-on-one dialogues, dominates the film. These conversational scenes play with complex and subtle emotions — such as numbness, shame, pity, sympathy — in a tragically realistic way. Despite the movie being in Norwegian dialogue, the emotional tensions readily exhibited through the facial expressions and gestures of the actors, whose convincing depictions of Oslo’s 20- and 30-something residents reach out of the screen and break down human emotions to a universally understandable language.
— Soojin Chang
Crulic – The Path to Beyond — PFA: Apr 26, 6:30 p.m. / Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 29, 12:30 p.m. / May 2, 6:15 p.m
“Crulic — The Path to Beyond” is a beautiful and powerful animated film that manages to wield philosophical themes while remaining true to its basic emotional foundations.Claudiu Crulic, a recently deceased 33-year-old Romanian immigrant, narrates the harrowing story of his life from beyond the grave. At the dawn of the new millennium, as the European Union extends membership to the former Soviet Satellite states, Crulic tells of how he moved to Krakow, Poland to try his luck in the big city. As a small town boy lost in Krakow’s urban milieu, he ekes out a living on the fringe of society and eventually experiences friendship, love and captivity.Piotr Dziubek’s animation juggles the stylistic influences of Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and Terry Gilliam’s “Monty Python” work to create a surreal contrasting world that swings from an organic to artificial aesthetic on a whim.
Told from a Romanian perspective, but set largely in Southern Poland, the film borrows from the influences of several Eastern European art movements to wondrous effect. At times it feels as though Damian set out to re-imagine the work of Kafka in the bold imagery of Van Gogh or the Polish artist Stanislaw Wyspianski. Human forms twist and contort themselves. In the oppressive prison, the floors of the long, undulating corridors move this way and that with an angry, restless energy.
Damien never loses sight of the fact that the film is driven by Crulic’s personal and familial struggle. For all of Drulic’s philosophical inquisitiveness, it is this strong narrative base that makes the “Crulic — The Path to Beyond” successful.
17 Girls — Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 28, 6:30 p.m. | SF Film Society Cinema: Apr 30, 9:30 p.m. / May 2, 1:00 p.m.
A combination of teenage rebellion and peer pressure drives the premise of “17 Girls,” in which a circle of high school girls decide to get pregnant together. Is this an outlandish story conjured up by filmmaking sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin? Nay, the French film is based on real events that took place in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 2008, and has since birthed lots of media hype, documentaries and a Lifetime movie.
The Coulins’ film is fashioned as a coming-of-age film, beautifully shot in a seaside town and filled with lovely young actresses. The situations are often ridiculous, including an entertaining episode in which the “pregnancy pact” girls invade a party seeking to get knocked up. But naturalistic acting grounds the provocative plot. In particular, the charismatic ringleader Camille (Louise Grinberg) envisions a utopia of young girls raising babies together, away from the hypocrisies of adults. And of course, many ironic, ethical complications arise, including when the baby-faced Clementine (Yara Pilartz) reverse-prostitutes herself, paying a male friend for sex.
While the film doesn’t offer the grittier social impact of pregnancy that American politics is obsessed with, it performs a smart study of how youth friendships form and drift apart. Strangely, the film is feminist though the girls deny abortions. One can imagine Rush Limbaugh turning purple with anger when the girls defend their actions as the right to exert control over their bodies.
— Deanne Chen
The Day He Arrives — Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 20, 7:15 p.m. / Apr 23, 9:30 p.m. | PFA: Apr 25, 9:00 p.m.
In the last decade, South Korean director Hong Sang-soo (“Hahaha,” “Oki’s Movie”) has made a name for himself crafting surreal slice-of-life movies about misanthropic cinephiles in the city. Yet another self-reflexive satire of the narcissistic lives of over-educated, media-centric intellectuals, “The Day He Arrives” is shot in crisp black-and-white, populated by nervous romantics with delusions of grandeur.“He” is Sang-Joon (Yu Jun-sang), a film professor and retired director who arrives in Seoul for a few days to visit Youngho, a film critic who enjoys more professional and personal success than his friend. Sang-Joon wanders the streets, binge-drinks, meets up with an old flame and muses on coincidence and chance. “Random things happen for no reason,” he tells his friends at a bar called Novel. “We choose a few and form a line of thought.”Despite naturalistic dialogue and mumblecore sensibility, “The Day” is not entirely of this world. Doppelgangers dot the cityscape; lines and scenes repeat; temporality is blurred. At times, Hong crams so many characters into each frame that it’s worth repeated viewings to take note of the interplay of facial gestures and social behavior.
Hong is right on target about the myth of the sad-sack cinephile: the ennui, the chain-smoking, the diet of instant noodles. His characters are people perhaps too influenced by cinema — they constantly try to dramatize and narrativize their own lives. They are drunk on freedom, possibility and, let’s not forget, alcohol.
— Ryan Lattanzio
Alps — SF Film Society Cinema: Apr 20, 9:00 p.m. | Kabuki Cinemas: Apr 21, 2:30 p.m. / Apr 24, 6:30 p.m.
“Who’s your favorite actor?” a paramedic asks a bloody woman on a gurney. “Brad Pitt? Johnny Depp?” She doesn’t respond. “Why not Johnny Depp?”Enter the wacky world of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, who directed the deranged dark comedy “Dogtooth” (2009) about a dysfunctional family with twisted methods of child-rearing. Lanthimos also juxtaposes absurdity with tragedy in “Alps,” and his latest is just as uncompromising. The title refers to a secret society of actors who impersonate a grieving person’s deceased loved one for a fee. Like “Dogtooth,” Lanthimos’s latest exercise in extremity deals with the nature of performance ands its bodily tolls. One member of Alps is a gymnast whose patriarchal instructor subjects her to a difficult regiment, resulting in the film’s most uncomfortable use of nudity. Another character is the lonely nurse who palliates her patient’s grief. Freudian undertones and bursts of weird violence in “Alps” recall the clinical distance of Michael Haneke (“Cache,” “The Piano Teacher”). Nobody’s having a good time in this movie.The burgeoning Greek auteur’s cinema of alternate realities has already established him as one of his nation’s most startling and outspoken filmmakers currently working. “Alps” has little to offer in the way of humanity, as the characters are more like cyphers for ideas, and subjects for Lanthimos’s sadistic debasement. The film’s brightly lit, symmetrical composition makes the off-kilter narrative all the more squeamish.
— Ryan Lattanzio