San Francisco International Film Festival 2011

From giant trolls to Werner Herzog fare, the SF International Film Festival 2011 showcases some of the best new films of this year.

Photo: The Arbor
San Francisco Film Society/Courtesy
The Arbor

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Photo: Attenberg   Photo: Chantrapas   Photo: Hospitalite

Photo: Cave of Forgotten Dreams   Photo: Foreign Parts   Photo: Meek's Cutoff

Photo: Miss Representation   Photo: Meek's Cutoff   Photo: The Troll Hunter

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The Troll Hunter, Andre Ovredal

In the cold mountains of the Norwegian countryside you'll find trolls the size of buildings, kept at bay by high voltage power lines. But what happens when those power lines fail? Taking lessons from "Jurassic Park" and "The Blair Witch Project," Andre Ovredal's "Troll Hunter" is a highly original movie that already has a cult following. In 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" popularized the mockumentary style of filmmaking; now, "The Troll Hunter" brings it into the 21st century.

"The Troll Hunter" follows three young filmmakers from Volda University. The crew tracks down an expert hunter who exposes them to the world of Trolls, whose only weakness is a sensitivity to UV light. And if you were wondering if the Trolls explode or petrify under light ... the answer is both.

It's always refreshing to see an independent film successfully use CGI in a prominent manner. Unlike other low budget films that opt to merely leave the fictitious subject to the imagination, "The Troll Hunter" has brilliant moments where trolls take center screen. The film provides a unique sense of reality through its cinematography, bringing the creatures to the real world.

­- Carlos Monterrey

Chantrapas, Otar Iosseliani

Otar Iosseliani's "Chantrapas" joins the long list of works about a director who struggles to make a film. Like those characters in the other movies, Nicolas (Dato Tarielashvili) tries to find an escape. Not from himself, like Guido in Federico Fellini's "8 1/2," but from Soviet-era Georgia.

Iosseliani nicely captures the tension between older and younger generation Georgians. Nicolas, a young but impetuous jerk, butts heads with the older producers who are funding his art film. The producers bring in an older editor to make something out of the failing movie, but Nicolas blocks his way. "We don't want you, grandpa," he warns.

"Chantrapas" is at its best when dealing with this tension, but the film becomes an exceedingly passive viewing experience. The camera sits back as people pass the time sitting around while drinking or smoking. This lack of energy is odd, considering the social tensions underlying the film. After his film fails at its premiere, Nicolas jumps off a pier and is - literally - taken away by a mermaid. The older men on the lakeshore simply relax and picnic, while the country's youth is left to swim with the fishes.

- Max Siegel

Hospitalite, Koji Fukada

After escaping from a terrible film, it's essential to take step back and look at the silver lining: You wouldn't be able to fully appreciate great movies if not for awful films. "Hospitalite," written and directed by Koji Fukada, falls into the latter category. Somewhere in a working-class neighborhood in Japan, a timid brother and his half-sister run a small printing shop. They spend most of their day making pension envelopes for the labor department, a knock at Japan's aging population. And the brother's daughter loses her pet parakeet, Pea. Yes - its name is Pea.

A creepy, bearded man claims to have seen Pea the Parakeet, yet never brings the bird back home. Instead, he starts working at the printing shop, gradually taking over the business so as to house illegal immigrants. The story is flat, but Fukada's direction is even more uninspired. Frequently, a character (like the bearded man) will stand in the center of the frame for 10 seconds before someone in the background comes forward and starts the scene proper. The pacing and visuals of the entire film are so flat that it makes you want to step in and tell the characters to just get on with it.

- Max Siegel

Miss Representation, Jennifer Siebel Newsom

In "Miss Representation," actress, filmmaker, and former first lady of San Francisco Jennifer Siebel Newsom covers well-documented territory as she grapples with media messages that dumb down women's strength to merely skin-deep.

The film presents startling facts and statistics and explores recent instances of sexism within the public sphere, all supported by well-aware high school students' testimonies. In-depth interviews with media specialists add expertise to the candid observations made by students and Newsom herself, who weaves personal narratives throughout the film - an incorporation that exacerbates a sense of saccharine compassion.

Newsom's directorial debut doesn't merely assess media's obsession with women's appearances. Rather, it is a movement that campaigns for fair representation of gender. While cheers and ovations indicate diffused enthusiasm, Barbara Berg reminds us that "patriarchy is America's default setting." Yet Newsom's motivation to provide women and men with an equitable world could very well be predictor of her documentary's future social impact.

- Charlene Petitjean

The Arbor, Clio Barnard

Director Clio Barnard redefines the documentary film genre with her unconventional yet captivating piece "The Arbor." The film centers on the tumultuous life of the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar and the family dysfunction that became a hallmark of her plays. Here, Bradford weaves together reenactments of Dunbar's works, interviews with past relations and news footage of her life.

"The Arbor" delves into the drug-riddled, depression-filled trajectory of Dunbar's life. The latter half draws parallels between the writer's life and that of her half-Pakistani daughter.

The most fascinating and crucial element of the multi-faceted work is Barnard's employment of actors to lip-sync extensive recorded interviews with Dunbar's family and acquaintances. The actors mouth the audio - exasperated sighs and slight chuckles - with exact precision and effectively give new faces to the voice of Dunbar's past and posthumous presence.

Nothing is too personal for the audience to know. In the midst of documentary experimentation, Bradford has created a stunning piece that forthrightly confides a kind of jarring intimacy.

- Dominique Brillon

Attenberg, Athina Rachel Tsang

Athina Rachel Tsangari's potentially alienating character study takes its title from a mispronunciation of naturalist Sir David Attenborough's surname; protagonist Marina (Ariane Labed) relishes his films, mimicking the animals as she watches. It's a fitting moniker for what is essentially a distorted nature documentary, fixing its camera unflinchingly on the awkward sexual awakening of its subject. At 23, Marina splits her time between caring for her sickly father and goofing around with her best friend. Despite a stated disdain for the idea of intercourse, she embarks on an affair with a man who she chauffeurs, adding to rather than breaking from the monotony of her life.

It's tempting to compare "Attenberg" with "Dogtooth," a film Tsangari produced, since both deal with the late induction of adults into sex and society. But "Attenberg" is a more somber dissection of the same themes. By discarding conventional portrayals of physical intimacy, Tsangari fools the audience into aligning with Marina's mixed disgust and fascination. She makes you think she's showing you the peculiarities of a new species, when really, it's your own.

-Sam Stander

Foreign Parts, Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki

The urban infrastructure is confused as human societies develop in industrial wastelands, as documented in Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki's "Foreign Parts." The ethnography focuses on Willets Point in Queens, New York: a community of garages that repair, trash or scrap cars for parts.

Within this industrial boardwalk lives a tenacious collection of people who welcome the camera into their home without hesitation. Those who live, work or squat in the neighborhood face the threat of urban redevelopment, already approaching their doorstep in the form of the nearby Mets stadium.

Composed without the constraints of voice-over or staged interviews, the documentary does not try to spin a narrative out of the footage, but explores the human impact of urbanism.

The din of mechanized tools, combined with airplane traffic over LaGuardia Airport, almost overwhelms the human presence, a consciously planned urban society looming over a naturally grown one. "Foreign Parts" documents a tense time in modern American neighborhoods, where naturally-arising human societies face extinction in the expansion of American cities.

­- Amelia Taylor-Hochberg

Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt

In Kelly Reichardt's quietly devastating "Meek's Cutoff," the setting of untamed 1840s Oregon serves her well as she continues to study the tenderness and emptiness that vie for sovereignty at the vertices of human interaction.

Scripted by Jonathan Raymond, a frequent Reichardt collaborator, the movie - based loosely on a real incident - follows three families traveling by covered wagon. They're guided along a supposed shortcut by the grizzled Stephen Meek, played with self-important sleaze by Bruce Greenwood. But they're going nowhere fast, and Solomon (Will Patton) and the other men in the group consider hanging Meek rather than following him to their death.

When Solomon's wife Emily - a tenacious Michelle Williams - encounters a lone American Indian (Rod Rondeaux), the already desperate tone changes to one of potential violence. Short on water, the party holds the man hostage in hopes he will guide them, despite an impenetrable language barrier. Meek's barbarism clashes with Emily's pragmatism and compassion, in an open-ended and morally challenging narrative of wayward souls doing what they must to find their way again.

-Sam Stander

Silent Souls, Aleksei Fedorchenko

Part folklore and part ethnography, Aleksei Fedorchenko's "Silent Souls" is an unsentimental but ardent story of love and grief in the lives of the Merja people, an ethnic minority from Russia's Volga region.

The film follows two men, Aist and Miron, performing the funereal rites of Miron's wife, Tanya. In sober voice-over, Aist narrates the film as the two men lovingly prepare Tanya's body for cremation. In lingering, patient fragments, the story sketches the relationship between individuals steeped in a deep loss. The camera endures the two men's mourning, gazing on them for long periods of stoic silence as they travel through frigid landscapes to where they will cremate Tanya, on the shores of the riverbank where she spent her honeymoon.

In the eyes of cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, bleak terrain becomes the beloved homeland of these two men - a community being dissolved into city outskirts. The camera follows the men in transit, but often faces backwards, eager to trace the past to this moment and continue ebbing traditions. "Silent Souls" chronicles and celebrates that ritual's persistence through death.

­- Amelia Taylor-Hochberg

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is the only filmmaker working today who should be allowed to use 3-D technology. Actually, he can do whatever he wants and the cineastes will line up in troves. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," the auteur's latest foray into natural history, reminds us that the mysteries of our world are far more enigmatic than the hyper-constructed world of films like "Avatar."

With a camera that heaves and flows, torques and twists through the deep network of the Chauvet Cave in southern France, Herzog encounters what he calls "proto-cinema" and "the beginning of the human soul" in Paleolithic paintings. Like a museum built in rock, the cave contains the earliest known cave drawings, predating even Lascaux. Cinema rarely has this much texture: The 3-D camera allows us to see the calcified contours of the cave, the colors of the paintings and even the petrified ooze of stalagmites.

Herzog crafts a lyric poem worthy of Whitman, all with landmark technology. If this is the future of film, get me to a time machine.

-Ryan Lattanzio


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