San Francisco International Film Festival

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David Liu, Jill Cowan and Jawad Qadir talk about the films they saw at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival.

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Photo: Micmacs   Photo: Budrus   

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On April 22, under the ornate fixtures of the Castro Theatre, a momentary fade to black saw gold letters, "San Francisco International Film Festival" emerging triumphantly on the drapes. The response from the packed house? Nothing less than a deafening ovation that screamed: cinema is fine and alive, thank you very much. The sentiment carried through the night, with Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Micmacs" launching the city's film gala to a spirited start. The next two weeks saw over 150 films and 100 filmmakers from around the globe play to sold-out audiences across the Bay Area. While first-time directors and foreign auteurs made up a large part of the venue, cinema's century-old history rightfully retained its place in the spotlight. From renovated prints of classics to interviews with luminaries, the festival matched or exceeded our highest expectations. In other words, SFIFF '53 revitalized us with its rich tapestry of images and ideas, and we emerged humbled, dazzled and enlightened.

-David Liu


Cinema is no stranger to sad stories. At this point, it's probably a lame platitude to say that for basically as long as film's been around, it has captured images of war, death and human despair. On some level, though, it does bear repeating. Sometimes topical films are uplifting, but - especially in today's world - filmmakers seem more intent on telling tales that need to be told, and not just showing audiences what they want to see.

Perhaps that's why a relentlessly heart-rending film like Philippe van Leeuw's "The Day God Walked Away" (a fictional treatment of the Rwandan genocide) or any of the numerous politically-charged documentaries the Festival screened may not see the wide recognition they deserve. Then again, maybe that's why broad and far-reaching international film festivals like SFIFF are important.

-Jill Cowan


Directed by Julia Bacha

Symbolic politics takes the focus in "Budrus," a political documentary by Julia Bacha. The film centers on the construction of the Israeli West Bank barrier and the nonviolent demonstrations against the wall by Palestinians hoping to protect their olive trees. At the forefront of the struggle is community organizer Ayed Morrar and his family who attempt to bring members of Hamas, Fatah, and Israeli supporters together to protect the land.

Julia Bacha is known for her work on political documentaries that take place in the Middle East, but "Budrus" differs from the bunch. It offers a heart to its story due to its focus on community.

The audience reaction to such a politically charged film provided a lively atmosphere, and with many Americans starting to sympathize with the Palestinian struggle, it was no surprise hearing the applause and cheers.

-Jawad Qadir


Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

In documentarian Tim Hetherington's Q&A session at the Pacific Film Archive, he stated, "I think it's important that regardless of the politics, we understand what these men are actually doing­." It was a brave remark, given that he was speaking to an audience of staunch liberals who had just seen his harrowing picture of the Afghanistan War. But the film itself made it difficult to disagree.

"Restrepo" is composed of footage shot by Hetherington and Sebastian Junger over the course of one platoon's stay in the Korengal Valley, one of the military's most dangerous postings. The raw footage is cut with post-assignment interviews, which are brought to their full heartbreaking potential with long pauses and painful close-ups. Hetherington and Junger didn't use gratuitous violence to make their point, because the men's faces said it all.

-Jill Cowan


Directed by Andrei Nekrasov and Olga Konskaya

In August 2008 when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced Russia's invasion of Georgia, the world was puzzled at what threat the tiny Eurasian nation could be posing to the enormous political superpower. In their documentary "Russian Lessons," directors Andrei Nekrasov and Olga Konskaya travel across the conflicted region, returning with a slew of evidence that they use to debunk the Russian government's shady dealings in Eurasia.

Instead of indoctrinating viewers with anti-Putin dogma, the directors' collection of footage speaks for itself. As they compile their firsthand civilian accounts and critically examine the Russian and European media, sinister possibilities materialize. Politics aside, the graphic footage and personal testimonies in "Russian Lessons" show the horrifying realities of modern warfare, regardless of which side you're on.

-Nastia Voynovskaya


This year's SFIFF saw a bevy of old directors we all know and probably love such as the legendary French filmmakers Alain Resnais and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. At the same time, it established a nexus of auteurs and amateurs. Fledgling directors like Aaron Katz, of indie darling "Cold Weather" fame, or Debra Granik, who won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for "Winter's Bone," were featured among big names. SFIFF annually gives out a New Director's Award, which this year went to Pedro-Gonzalez Rubio for his minimalist drama "Alamar." With this in mind, it seems San Francisco values its newcomers as much as someone like director Walter Salles or screenwriter James Schamus. It's a pleasure to witness a festival free of hierarchy, where the playing field is leveled to allow new filmmakers to flourish alongside their predecessors. -Ryan Lattanzio


Directed by Josh Radnor

TV star Josh Radnor's directorial debut charmed viewers at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Audience Award earlier this year, and as the Centerpiece Film of SFIFF, it did essentially the same. While the film, at times, feels a little self-indulgent in its treatment of young people living in New York City, it's pretty endearing.

But maybe that's in part because Radnor, himself, was there to earnestly stick up for the film's, well, earnestness. "The thing about irony is it demolishes things and it doesn't rebuild them," he said. Which might explain how Tony "Buster Bluth" Hale's performance turns out so sweet as a homely suitor to Malin Akerman's Annie, and how the lovers' spats between side characters feel so real. Despite its few eye-rollingly trite moments, "happythankyoumoreplease" will make you happy. So thank you, Josh Radnor. More please?

-Jill Cowan


Directed by Aaron Katz

Director of slice-of-life indie "Quiet City" (2007), Aaron Katz is considered part of the mumblecore movement: a series of lo-fi movies about disillusioned 20-somethings. Yet beneath its surface, "Cold Weather" departs from that tradition. Part pulp fiction, part sibling fable, "Weather" is an aesthetically chilly yet warmly witty film set in the dreary milieu of Portland. Forensics graduate Doug (Cris Lankenau) works in an ice-bagging factory (how apropos!) but his quotidian reality quickly becomes surreality when his ex-girlfriend disappears. The circumstances are mysterious, and the ensuing scenarios even stranger, yet Katz focuses on Doug and Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) who have the most endearing brother-sister bond in recent cinematic memory. With uncanny twists and naturalistic dialogue, "Cold Weather" is a dazzling gem. -Ryan Lattanzio


Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

In "Micmacs," Jean-Pierre Jeunet's first film since "A Very Long Engagement" (2004), mild-mannered video store clerk Bazil (Dany Boon) leads a frantic existence. After accidentally receiving a bullet in his head, he loses his job and apartment, then befriends a clique of eccentrics including happy-go-lucky contortionist (Julie Ferrier) and idiom-spouting oddball (Omar Sy). Together, they embark on shenanigans while Bazil seeks revenge against those responsible for a death in the family.

Yet for all of Jeunet's storytelling verve, the film itself emerges curiously flawed. In "Amelie," Audrey Tautou's warm interpretation of the heroine effectively balanced Jeunet's stylistic excesses; here, however, the director's indulgence in whimsical digressions and eye-candy quickly grows tiresome, undermining spirited performances from Boon and the supporting cast.

-David Liu


The San Francisco International Film Festival continued its yearly tradition of inviting world-renowned filmmakers, writers, and actors with this year's various events and awards ceremonies. The Sundance Kabuki as well as the Castro Theater played host to the likes of Roger Ebert, Walter Salles, Robert Duvall and James Schamus.

Events also included festival exclusive film screenings, including the Walter Salles's documentary, "In Search of On the Road (A Work in Progress)." Other events had screenings of restorations, new prints and world premieres of films that will be seen in theaters later this year.

The usual Q&A with the audience provided insight into each artist's work, as well as causing the occasional awkward moment. The events were an overall success with audiences and artists alike, as evident with the rise in this year's ticket sales.

-Jawad Qadir


'Julia,' directed by Erick Zonca

Filmmakers from all walks of life had lovely things to say about Roger Ebert, when he received the San Francisco International Film Festival's Mel Novikoff Award at the Castro Theatre. Terry Zwigoff of "Ghost World" fame spoke first, describing how Roger Ebert went out of his way to promote Zwigoff's 1994 film "Crumb." Next came documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who observed that "there's something very odd about this man." (Ebert responded by looking at the audience, raising his eyebrows and pointing an accusatory finger at Morris). Jason Reitman succinctly captured Ebert's ability to bring life to small films: "He is the thumb." And finally, Philip Kaufman, who sat down beside Ebert and gave a touching anecdote about Ebert's efforts to remove the MPAA's X rating from "Henry and June," and to permanently change the X rating to NC-17.

Ebert has been battling thyroid cancer, and spoke via a computer running software that emulates his voice. He gave a short and informative speech on the direction film is currently taking. "Films have become solitary activities," he said, and then seemingly contradicted himself by lamenting, with a roll of his eyes, that "studios are running like lemmings to 3D." Ebert finished by lifting his hands and saying, "Now let's turn our eyes to the screen and enjoy one hell of a great movie."

The film he decided to play, "Julia," was a baffling choice. It features a fiery performance by Tilda Swinton, playing a psychotic alcoholic who gets involved in a ridiculous abduction plot. This is a film that is both far too long and abrasive. Worse, "Julia" deceives its viewers: It passes off cruelty for entertainment, while using arbitrary cutesy moments to try to convince the audience that all is okay. "This is all just a big scam," Julia tells members of a Mexican gang, who have ironically kidnapped her. Honey, you couldn't have said it better.

-Max Siegel


'Get Low,' directed by Aaron Schneider

The Castro Theater hosted SFIFF's Peter J. Owens award recipient, Robert Duvall. The night included a moderated discussion on the life of Duvall, as well as a short career retrospective

Although the moderated discussion was a rehash of what you might see on an A&E Biography, Duvall was as lively as ever. The real insight into some of his career choices didn't come out until the Q&A session with the audience. Known for his blunt statements Duvall pointed out specific producers, directors and films he felt needed to be highlighted for their failures. When an audience member finally asked the question about his choice to not reprise his role for "The Godfather: Part III," he dodged the subject.

That night Duvall screened his latest film, "Get Low." Unfortunately, it falls far from Duvall's best.

-Jawad Qadir


Founder's Director Award recipient Walter Salles ("Central Station," "Motorcycle Diaries") and Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Peros," "Babel") held their onstage conversation at the Sundance Kabuki. Much of the discussion focused on Salles' Brazilian background, childhood, and the themes that permeate his body of work. The real center of the conversation dealt with Salles' fascination with road movies and characters that are constantly on a physical journey.

However, a look at some of Salles' filmic inspiration, ranging from Antonioni's "The Passenger" to the '80s classic "Paris, Texas," shed quite a bit of light on his career. As a bonafide cinephile, Salles' breadth of film knowledge was refreshing to hear, especially considering the monumental project he is on hand to direct next.

The night ended with a special presentation of a film exclusively put together for the festival that documents Salles' attempt to unearth the heart of the director's next project: A film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." The short documentary also included the countless attempts at trying to adapt "On the Road" for film, and the failures that arose with each effort. The film illustrated the influence the Beat Generation has had on mainstream America.

Salles' respect for the book will no doubt serve him well on this project, but the real question is whether such a monumental undertaking can be anything but a failure.

-Jawad Qadir



directed by Jan Kounen

With her sharply tailored suit and strings of pearls around her long, graceful neck, fashion design virtuoso Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) walks down the hallway of her decadent Paris chateau. Silently placing her hat on a chair, she enters the piano room, where the great composer Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) busies himself with his instrument. Before his fingers can leave the keys, she straddles him on the piano bench and he kisses her neck. This sounds like the beginning of a liberal arts major's wet dream, which is an apt characterization of Jan Kounen's 2009 film, "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky."

With its decadent scenery and larger-than-life characters, the film examines the brief union between two creative minds whose legacies have molded the culture of the past century. When Stravinsky arrives in Paris, his unorthodox ballet "The Rite of Spring" impresses Chanel. She offers to host him and his family at her home, and the illicit love affair begins.

Though the film dramatizes their personal relationship, Stravinsky and Chanel's acquaintance is like a slice of Paris in the early twentieth century, when the metropolis reigned supreme as Europe's cultural center. With his decadent cinematography, Kounen creates a splendorous, fantastical world befitting for such regal subject matter. Safely hidden among the exotic, themed rooms and lush flora of Chanel's estate, the two artists' passion is allowed to flourish.

As the plot progresses, the film invites the audience to observe how the two geniuses' egos drive them apart. Compared to the generous visual feast Kounen offers, the dialogue is minimalistic. Still, Anna Mouglalis adeptly channels the ambitiousness and no-nonsense attitude that ultimately makes Chanel threatening to Stravinsky the alpha male. This love story is by no means soft-core porn for housewives.

-Nastia Voynovskaya


Directed by Hirokazu Koreda

Those who watched Hirokazu Koreeda's 2004 film "Nobody Knows" will find familiar tropes in his latest film, "Air Doll." Koreeda, who was raised in Tokyo, noted during the Q & A that he's struck by modern life: There are so many people, yet everybody remains unconnected to each other.

In "Air Doll," Koreeda explores that contradiction via a life-size sex doll named Nozomi that magically comes to life. Nozomi takes in her surroundings, and befriends tired characters: An aging man, a paranoid woman, among others. An air of sadness pervades the film, which makes for a beautiful, but not entirely engaging experience. Nozomi has a heart, yet she's incomplete because she's filled with nothing but air. Real-life people experience similar feelings of worthlessness, but this doesn't necessarily make for compelling material in a feature-length film.

-Max Siegel


Directed by Claire Denis

Parting the veil on a dreamscape of silent injustices, Claire Denis' "White Material" emerges from the specter of Europe's colonial heritage and unfolds as an indictment of its convoluted legacy. As rebel insurrections ravage an African nation, the owner of a coffee plantation (Isabelle Huppert) fights to complete her final harvest. Her desperate actions affect the individuals around her, leading to a growing sense of dread as things fall apart.

Denis' organic, explorative style of direction lends the film its hyperrealistic atmosphere, adding potency to its protagonist's unwavering resolve. While the film's narrative remains murky throughout, Denis' command of her medium makes "White Material" the latest in a distinguished line of postmodern fables centered on the clash between developing societies and their bourgeoisie occupants.

-David Liu


Directed by Sandra Corveloni

A passion project if there ever was one, "Linha de Passe" brings vitality and color - both in visual and narrative terms - to a burgeoning Brazilian cinema. Sandra Corveloni, who won Best Actress at Cannes in 2008, plays the impoverished mother of four sons, ranging from boyhood to manhood, in the crime-filled sprawl of Sao Paolo.

While the plot is sparse, as the directors favor character over drama, the attention to complex emotional detail is subtle and stirring. The screenplay makes few attempts to address political issues but the humanism in "Passe" feels genuinely complete without such concerns. Mauro Pinheiro Jr.'s gritty yet painterly cinematography offers a lurid gaze into Brazilian culture and transfigures the film's potentially brutal moments into pure poetry. This film is both a love letter and an elegy to Brazil.

-Ryan Lattanzio


Directed by Esmir Filho

What draws filmmakers like moths to a flame to the topic of small-city restlessness? In Brazilian director Esmir Filho's first feature-length film, "The Famous and the Dead," the city serves as a mirror to a depressed teenager's inner turmoil. Calling himself Tambourine Man (he's a Bob Dylan fan), the teenager ignores his local culture and flees to the Internet: a netherworld for a nowhere man.

The opening is a marriage of mood and aesthetic. A strange man staring at Tambourine Man sitting on a street corner walks away. Aided by striking images, the scene has a compelling sense of foreboding and sexual tension.

"The Famous and the Dead" loses energy, because Tambourine Man's troubles are ethereal to a fault. But Filho consistently surprises with a skillful pairing of beautiful aesthetics and haunting undertones.

-Max Siegel


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