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San Francisco International Film Festival 2011

Photo by Tommy Lau

Updated through 5/8.

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), the longest one running in the Americas, opens tonight with Mike Mills's Beginners and closes on May 5 with Mathieu Amalric's On Tour. Among the 150 films screening in between, give or take, will be the centerpiece, Azazel Jacobs's Terri.

"In terms of artistic achievement, it's safe to say no producer has contributed to independent American cinema over the last two decades like Christine Vachon," writes Dennis Harvey, introducing his interview. Vachon will be delivering the State of Cinema address on Sunday evening (it's a busy time for her; she's also on Tribeca's Documentary and Student Short Film Competitions jury). Also at SF360, Michael Fox has cinema studies professor Bill Nichols give him a preview of the discussion he'll be leading on the Social Justice Documentary and talks with Bay Area filmmakers who have work in the lineup.

Max Goldberg previews a slew of highlights from the lineup and then notes that "several of the festival's awardees are known for pushing audiences into the deep end. One hopes that Oliver Stone, winner of this year's Founder's Directing Award, might unravel his longstanding attraction to conspiracy stories. Serge Bromberg, a richly deserving winner of the festival's Mel Novikoff Award, will present one of his inimitable tours through his archival recoveries (this time in 3D!). And of course the cinematic benchmarks of Matthew Barney, this year's Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award winner, are both celebrated and harassed for their steroidal surrealism. Tucked into the 'Live & Onstage' section of the festival, the baroque pop group Tindersticks is set to perform a selection of their scores for the already-immersive work of Claire Denis at the Castro, providing this festival with at least one 'once in a lifetime' event."

On to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, where Matt Sussman takes on a batch of speculative fictions: "It's hard to tell which way the world ends (or if it is ending at all) in Jo Sung-Hee's dark, head-scratcher of a debut feature, End of Animal… Unlike other contemporary ruminations on the apocalypse, such as Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf (2003) or Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Charisma (1999) and Pulse (2001), End of Animal's explanatory obstinacy does not enhance the drama or emotional intensity of watching its protagonists endure their trials by fire, but rather, leaves viewers feeling just as lost in the woods. Alejandro Chomsky offers something more transparent in his serviceable adaptation of fellow countryman and frequent Borges collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares's 1973 novel Asleep in the Sun." But he finds the film's "Kafka-esque pretensions are all bark and no bite. Well, thank your SFIFF programmers for including the recently restored version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1973 techno-caper World on a Wire. Originally made as a two-part miniseries for German TV, Fassbinder's only foray into science fiction finds the uber-prolific director borrowing a page or two from Alphaville (1965) while blowing some air kisses to Stanley Kubrick's monolith 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and out Matrix-ing 1999's The Matrix by some 25 years."


"Films that get the workplace right have a special dynamism insofar as a whole social order is at stake," writes Max Goldberg, who considers Koji Fukada's Hospitalité ("The difficulty distinguishing what's threatening from what's just odd is part of the film's charm"), Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below ("Hochhäusler has pulled off the neat trick of realizing expressionistic motifs as translucence rather than shadow") and Lee Anne Schmitt's documentary The Last Buffalo Hunt: "It's a familiar story by now — that as the West was won, it was made consumable as iconography and fantasy — but rarely has the laboriousness of this task been brought into such close focus as it is here."

Kimberly Chun finds that "the specter of Leonard Cohen looms over the short films by Alex Da Corte, Christian Holstad, and the other artists who try their hand at making 11 new pieces inspired by the 11 tracks comprising New Skin for the Old Ceremony, the 1974 long-player that some consider the songwriter's most sublime." Screens Tuesday.

"Considering that they've been making films for at least 15 years (and home movies before that), Nathan and David Zellner are something of a mystery pair," finds Dennis Harvey, who previews the program From A to Zellner (Sunday night). "At their best, the Zellners are like Beckett meets Upright Citizens Brigade, or something like that. Existential rudderlessness almost invariably slaps already hapless protagonists in the face like a wet trout, amid distressed circumstances of deadpan ridiculousness."

"Though it has spooky elements, The Selling is more comedy than frightfest." Cheryl Eddy talks with Emily Lou about her first feature.

And then there are the capsule reviews. Page after page of them. A sampling. Matt Sussman on Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross: "Beguiling yet wholly absorbing, this portrait of a portrait is like nothing else at the festival." Cheryl Eddy on the shorts program Mind the Gap: "Experimental film fans: come for the big names, but don't miss out on the newcomers." Michelle Devereaux: "At just over an hour long, the animated A Cat in Paris is an enjoyable little amuse-bouche that employs all the standards of the cats-in-Paris meme: Billie Holiday warbling on the soundtrack, a dashingly heroic antihero who scales the rooftops as if he studied parkour under Spider-Man, and the titular untamable black cat who serves as his partner in crime."

SF Weekly has a collection of capsules, too; here's Michael Fox on Risteard Ó Domhnaill's The Pipe: "It's impossible to remain unmoved by this alternately scenic and raw portrait of an Irish fishing and farming burg bulldozed by Shell's construction of an offshore gas pipeline."

Michael Hawley's been previewing the lineup for a couple of weeks now (parts 1, 2 and 3). Just one of the many notes that caught my eye: "If you've seen the films of Wong Kar-wai, Hirokazu Koreeda, Tran Anh Hung, Jiang Wen and especially Hou Hsiou-hsien, you've no doubt exalted in the visual aesthetics of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin. In Kwan Pun-leung and Chang Hsiu-chiung's documentary Let the Wind Carry Me, they seek insight into the Taiwanese DP's artistry, which Lee himself ascribes to a balance between 'visual poetry and realism.' All the aforementioned directors go on camera to discuss Lee's artistry and work methods, praising his use of natural and household light, and his adaptability to fickle weather conditions. Actors Shu Qi and Romain Duris speak of his ability to accommodate his camera to their movements, which Mark claims is unintentional and unconscious. For me, it was a pleasure to finally see the man who's given me so many moments of cinematic ecstasy, like for starters, the opening scene of Hou's Millennium Mambo with Shu Qi's trance-inducing strut along a neon-lit urban skywalk." Update, 5/4: "The impression one gets from watching Let the Wind Carry Me is that Lee will accept any job that he feels will allow him to continue to elevate the art of cinematography," writes Brian Darr. "[W]e viewers may rarely appreciate that many of the greatest contributions to cinema as an artform come from the kind of devotion to craft and work that involves a good deal of personal sacrifice…. I was surprised to verge on tearing up at one particularly emotional reunion moment between mother and son. Others may find the moments we're taken away from Lee's artistic process to be extraneous, but I found the tension between the subject's crossed desires to be a dutiful son as well as a prolific filmmaker to save the film from becoming a pure hagiography; it veers close enough as it is."

At the Evening Class, Jackson Scarlett previews a batch of French films, including Régis Sauder's documentary Children of the Princess of Clèves (2009), "an unforced inspection of a lower-tier school in Marseille whose students are studying the literary classic La Princesse de Clèves — recently revived in the French public consciousness by disparaging remarks made by President Nicolas Sarkozy — in preparation for their baccalaureate exam. In a surprisingly inspired bit of filmmaking, passages from the novel act as a formal device, sectioning the film into metaphorical frameworks for director Sauder and his subjects to organize their thoughts on school, sex, and sociality within not only the subjective context of their teenage years but also within the wide swath of France's marginalized ethnic communities." Also, Frako Loden reviews a dozen titles, "from the least to the best."

Ryland Walker Knight on Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light and Werner Herzog's The Cave of Forgotten Dreams: "The Guzmán is a tad less poetic than I'd've hoped (in fact it's kind of hokey near the close) but the Herzog, though I could quibble with it, is just great."

Update, 4/22: To the above previews, Brian Darr adds "Kelly Vance's epic East Bay Express preview, which covers a ton of titles, as well as getting into some of the organizational difficulties the festival has had to overcome to secure exciting award recipients." He then turns to "Frisco Bay film events now known to be happening after the festival. Most local film organizations rely to some degree on the SFIFF hubbub to get cinemagoers excited about continuing their frequent filmgoing after the festival has gotten them into the habit, and make sure to distribute to festival venues their new calendars advertising their own 'products' for the months ahead."



Updates, 4/23: "Once a bustling acropolis filled with monuments to post-war American prosperity and industry, the Detroit of [Florent Tillon's] Detroit Wild City is now a silent necropolis," writes Matt Sussman. Such representations as Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre's The Ruins of Detroit, Andrew Moore's photo essay Detroit Disassembled and Julien Temple's 2010 TV documentary Requiem for Detroit "haven't gone unchallenged, with Detroit residents and expats claiming such 'ruin-porn' smacks of sensationalism and lacks a proper contextual framework. Detroit-based photographers Romain Blanquart and Brian Widdis launched the website Can't Forget the Motor City, which focuses on scenes of residential life, with the abandoned buildings squarely in the background. Critic and former Michigan resident Andrew Sargus Klein speaks for many, perhaps, when he writes in his critique of Marchand and Meffre's photos, 'What I begrudge is the feeling that it's now too easy, that urban downfall elicits such spectacular photographs.' Tillon's interlocutors — an animal control officer who chases stray pit bulls, a Howard Zinn-esque armchair historian, a hipster who acts as the director's Virgil among the ruins, a fix-it man who lives off the grid, a community gardener, an anti-blight crusader — are not meant to be a demographic sample of Detroit's 81.5 percent African American population, however, and a brief pan across a packed Sunday BBQ and the film's closing footage of crowds on the 4th of July gives an indication that these isolated individuals are not the only ones who live in and around the empty streets, overgrown lots and abandoned real estate of Detroit."

Also at SF360, Dennis Harvey finds Fassbinder's World on a Wire (1973) to be "a Borges-like labyrinth of conspiratorial whateverness that's sometimes slow or hard to follow, yet rendered endlessly fascinating by force of overpowering cinematic style."

"As usual, Carl Martin of the Film On Film Foundation is playing watchdog for those cinephiles who are concerned with whether SFIFF films are screening on film or on video," notes Brian Darr: "in addition to an overall preview of the festival from this angle, he's created a very handy calendar listing all the festival screenings expected to be presented on film rather than digitally. Not only does he list the features, but even certain individual short films to be shown on film amidst a program of otherwise-video work. Coming Attractions is one such example, the lone 35mm entry in the Mind the Gap shorts program. It's the latest by Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky, whose Outer Space won a Golden Gate Award from SFIFF eleven years ago, and whose excellent follow-ups Dream Work and Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine have played subsequent festivals. Like these prior collage films, Coming Attractions is an optical printing tour-de-force constructed out of footage repurposed from other sources, in this case largely images from the first few decades of cinema history… It's hard to image another 25 minutes of film in the festival providing as much pleasurable sensory overload as this film does."

The San Francisco Chronicle's picked out a few highlights from the lineup.

Update, 4/24: Brian Darr on Federico Veiroj's A Useful Life: "Though its story of a Montevideo cinematheque facing a funding crisis that might force it to close, and of the stalwart projectionist/programmer/archivist who must suddenly contemplate an existence outside of the cinema, may seem small, it's a start-to-finish parade of moments of veracity. As well as humor, depth, and even a tingle of romance."

Updates, 4/25: Ryland Walker Knight's seen Hong Sang-soo's Hahaha, which "is just superb. It's casual, like a good dinner: one story leads into another and after a couple hours you're full or you're wasted and it's time for one last joke before you hit the road satisfied you understand your friend, and maybe life, a little better." Then, "Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below is practically apocalyptic from the get-go." And as for Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon, the "entire film is trying to bend you to its formal will, put you in a place, force you into roles you hear inside your own head, make you lose yourself as much as our first/primary narrator winds up losing himself through the course of his maze of a life."

Brian Darr on The Troll Hunter: "Norseman André Øvredal's debut feature presents itself as a found-footage object: a documentary footage recovered from the hands of a trio of student filmmakers traveling around the Norwegian back-country on the trail of the country's remaining specimens of these dangerous creatures…. Clever formal note: the film's cinematography style changes subtly but perceptibly when different members of the team are behind the camera."

Viewing (73'03"). The festival has posted Christine Vachon's State of Cinema address.

This year's recipients of the Midnight Awards are Clifton Collins, Jr and Zoe Saldana. Kim Nunley's met them both for SF360.

Updates, 4/26: "What makes HaHaHa different from any other Hong feature is the typical bifurcation is not a temporal cleave between the first and second halves of the film," writes Brian Darr. "Rather, Moon-kyoeng's and Joong-sik's stories are alternated and interwoven throughout the running time. This 'normalizes' the film somewhat, which may be why it's the first of Hong's films to have energized a few former detractors I'm spoken to. As a devotee, I find this new approach refreshing and intriguing as well. When writing about Hong's other 2010 release Oki's Movie (which comes to YBCA June 23 & 26, incidentally), Marc Raymond suggested that 'perhaps no other director is less repetitive than Hong,' which on the face sounds like an even more perverse provocation than Hasumi Shigehiko's (via Max Tessier) that Yasujiro Ozu is the 'least Japanese of all directors.' But there's truth in both claims. Perhaps HaHaHa and Oki's Movie (also an obvious structural departure) will help observers (including fans such as myself) better see how to distinguish all of Hong's films from each other, despite their surface similarities."

Ryland Walker Knight on Veiroj's A Useful Life: "The style echoes Bresson's presentational purity (this desk, this bag, this staircase) and the film is full of so many references that they're too many to name here but the two that matter most are pretty tough to miss."



Updates, 4/27: "What to watch, part two," from the SFBG. Plus, Dennis Harvey meets "Agustí Villaronga, a fascinating Spanish director whose new film, Black Bread, is the latest in a career of superbly crafted films almost-commercial enough to gain US release. Yet seldom quite enough. Villaronga's cinema is gorgeously cinematic, often historical, high in strikingly managed melodramatic content, sexually (often homoerotically) charged, frequently tinged by the fantastical, very interested in children's perceptions of adult corruption. He's a middleman between Luis Buñuel and Guillermo del Toro — less abstract than Buñuel, but evidently less accessible than del Toro, even if the ambitious Black Bread possibly got green-lit because in many respects it resembles del Toro's international success Pan's Labyrinth (2006)."

Brian Darr recalls a Q&A with Catherine Breillat at a screening of The Sleeping Beauty in Toronto: "Among other things, she revealed that the casting of the all-previously-unknown actors was the most time-consuming aspect of the production, that the water in the bathing scene... was in fact ice-cold, and that the last shot of the film was taken in her own home."

"As with all great director-composer pairings," writes Dennis Lim for Artforum, "from Hitchcock-Herrmann to Leone-Morricone to Paul Thomas Anderson's associations with Jon Brion and Jonny Greenwood, the Tindersticks make film music that goes far beyond its traditional illustrative role. You could call this a match made in synesthetic heaven — critics have long tagged the Tindersticks's expansive orchestral rock as 'cinematic' and Denis's elliptical films certainly have a musical quality — and it's telling that the musicians have described this artistic kinship in the most fundamental terms. Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples has said that their music and Denis's films both create 'a sense of space'; for violinist and multi-instrumentalist Dickon Hinchliffe the common factor is that they 'don't fit easily into standard time.'" As mentioned above, on Monday night, the band accompanies a montage of scenes from six Denis films.

Update, 4/28: "Though Nostalgia for the Light comes across as more a richly imagistic philosophical contemplation than an activist doc, it ultimately indicts the present with almost an equal fervor as the past," writes Brian Darr.

Updates, 4/29: Craig Phillips posts a roundup at GreenCine Daily; a clip on one we haven't touched on yet: "Carlos César Arbeláez's appealing debut feature is set in the remote mountainous region of Columbia near Panama border, where a group of village boys' passion for soccer gives them some pleasure in a place disrupted by political strife — as violent guerilla fighters increasingly dominate the villagers lives. When Manuel's new ball — a rare, decadent gift in an impoverished place — ends up on a mine field, he and his cohorts try to figure out if it's worth getting it back. The Colors of the Mountain's deceptively simple storyline may seem not quite enough to hang your hat on, and it could use more ferocity at times, but there's certainly more going on here than the kiddie story on the surface."

Brian Darr: "Loosely based on the story 'Never Bet the Devil Your Head' by Edgar Allan Poe, Toby Dammit is Fellini at his most chillingly hostile towards his industry and perhaps humanity. Many of his films contain sequences that raise the goose-pimples, but this is the closest the iconic auteur ever came to filming a bona fide horror movie."

For SF360, Dennis Harvey reports on David D'Arcy's onstage interview with Oliver Stone: "One of our most wide-ranging, politically engaged directors provided one of the most wide-ranging, politically engaged festival evenings in recent memory. This sharp, succinct, hugely knowledgeable director offered a whole lot of razored insights along with candid commentary."

"Where the Tribeca Film Festival is heavy on premieres but contains only the occasional true find, San Francisco creates a cohesive slate drawn from the best of available cinema." An overview from Ilya Tovbis at indieWIRE.

Update, 4/30: Brian Darr on Fassbinder's World on a Wire: "The music is superb; Gottfried Hüngsberg's original compositions make industrial noise artists of the late seventies like Throbbing Gristle seem just a bit less ahead of the curve (I say this as a big fan of TG), and the employment of a Strauss waltz in a futuristic film made only 5 years after the release of Kubrick's 2001 takes a certain kind of daring — and it fits here equally well, if differently. Without spoiling anything, I'd also point out that the final scene of the film, though interpreted many ways in the places I've looked or listened, seems to me to hold a clue to understanding the rest of the film in the way its look and even the performance styles contained within it, contrast so sharply against the other 3+ hours. Needless to say, this is a work that grows more and more fascinating with every successive reel."

Updates, 5/1: Max Goldberg: "I was delighted when the SFIFF folks asked me to write a catalog note for Foreign Parts, a sparkling documentary portrait of uncommon (and intertwined) social and sensory acuities. I watched it again with an appreciative crowd last Thursday and had the distinct feeling that I've only just started in with this movie."

Brian Darr previews Retour De Flamme: Rare and Restored Films in 3-D, happening at 5 pm today at the Castro: "Curated and presented (and, in the case of silent films, accompanied on piano) by French archivist, filmmaker and impresario Serge Bromberg, this set includes films made in 3-D from all eras, and each person who attends will receive two different pairs of 3-D glasses to keep up with the different kinds of processed used over the decades…. In addition to the screenings, Bromberg will be interviewed on stage in conjunction with his receipt of the Mel Novikoff Award for 'work which has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema.'"

Updates, 5/2: With the Golden Gate Awards to be presented on Thursday, Kevin B Lee writes at Fandor, "Given the Festival's special attention to slightly below-the-radar jewels by up-and-coming filmmakers from around the world, the GGAs can serve as a helpful nudge for such films in nabbing a coveted distribution deal. Two of last year's winners, the Chinese documentary Last Train Home (dir. Fan Lixin) and the Mexican arthouse sleeper Alamar (dir. Pedro González-Rubio), later found their way to theaters and eventually landed on numerous end-of-year top ten lists. Given the upside momentum bestowed upon the GGA winners, I delved into all the films competing for prizes in the Documentary and New Directors sections to see which ones are most deserving of an awards boost."

For the Playlist, Sean Gillane's taken notes — a lot of notes — on Elvis Mitchell's onstage interview with Terence Stamp. More from Kimberly Lindbergs at Movie Morlocks.

Updates, 5/5: "Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway's documentary Better This World topped the 54th annual San Francisco International Film Festival Awards," reports Dana Harris for indieWIRE. Yoav Potash's Crime After Crime wins in the Investigative Documentary Feature category. The New Directors Award goes to South Korean director Park Jung-bum for The Journals of Musan, the FIPRESCI Prize to Sébastien Pilote for The Salesman. Harris lists the winners of the Golden Gate Award Short Film Awards as well.

"I have trouble arguing against the shorts jury's choice in this case: The External World by Irish-born, Berlin-based animator David O'Reilly is conceptually the most expansive and ambitious of the six nominated shorts." Brian Darr then turns to today's Get With the Program, recommending Max Hattler's Sync, "which was not in competition for an award at all. Hattler's had a piece in each of the past five SFIFF editions now, starting with Collision in 2007. Sync is much less overtly political than that piece, and in fact might be argued to be an example of animation completely free of representational attributes. But it's even more beautiful, and in fact hypnotizing in its constantly spiraling, expanding complexity."

"How do you make a philosophic, talk-pause-smoke-pause French art-house movie when your cast centers around a brash, boisterously American troupe of leopard-clad, grind-and-shimmy dancers who sleep in their false eyelashes and speak almost no French?" asks Stephanie Rosenbaum at SF360. "Such was director/actor Mathieu Amalric's challenge in making On Tour, the closing night film for San Francisco International Film Festival '11. By French standards, he got it right: The film, inspired loosely by Colette's turn-of-the-century music-hall memoirs, earned him a Best Director's Award at Cannes last year." And she talks with "San Francisco native Suzanne Ramsey, who plays and sings as emcee Kitten on the Keys."

Update, 5/6: An overview from Adam Nayman for Cinema Scope: "This year's selection (or at least what I saw of it on an abbreviated jaunt for FIPRESCI jury duty) was heavy on end-of-days fables, from Mike Cahill's literally and figuratively fuzzy multiverse story/Sundance buzz item Another Earth, starring the imminently ubiquitous Brit Marling (who also co-wrote the screenplay) as an ex-felon brooding on the possibilities of meeting her interplanetary doppelganger, to South Korean rookie Jo Sung-Hee's cruel travesty of virgin birth myth tropes in the awful End of Animal, a sort of junior varsity Time of the Wolf (2003) (with an actual symbolic white wolf)."

Update, 5/8: Ryland Walker Knight has issues with Meek's Cutoff. But he's had a good SFIFF, meeting Stuart Staples of Tindersticks and seeing Ben Russell's Trypps #7, Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross and more.

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At last night’s SFIFF54 opening came the 11th hour announcement that Terence Stamp will receive this year’s Peter J. Owens for acting, a very classy and savvy choice, I think. He’ll appear at the Castro Theater next Friday with a clips reel, on-stage interview and film screening that’s still TBA (I vote for BILLY BUDD). I believe Stamp last attended the festival in 1994 when it hosted the world premiere of PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT.
The above should read, “this year’s Peter J. Owens AWARD for acting.”
And speaking of 11th hour, Ewan McGregor, star of the Opening Night film BEGINNERS, was announced as a no-show due to a delay in his flight from Paris yesterday morning. But 15-minutes into the post-screening Q&A with director Mike Mills, who comes bounding down the Castro Theater aisle but Mr. McGregor. He told some great tales, including one about shopping for skinny jeans with Christopher Lee at an exclusive L.A. men’s boutique (an “acting” exercise imposed on the two actors by director Mills).
Many thanks for the updates, Michael! Sounds like the festival’s off to a fun start.
Last night before the screening of the amazing World On A Wire Rachel Rosen said the fest is “99% certain” to screen Fellini’s Toby Dammit as part of the Terence Stamp event. Which would make two Fellinis at the Castro in one weekend (Sunday’s screening of La Dolce Vita being the other.)
The beautiful photograph at the top of this article, of the SFIFF logo on the curtain of the Castro Theatre, should be created to Tommy Lau.

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