Hollywood may have some movies. But the longest running international film festival in the Americas is in San Francisco.
Last Thursday, the SF Film Society kicked off its 55th annual San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre with a screening of "Farewell, My Queen," Benoît Jacquot’s portrayal of court life at Versailles during the final days of the French Revolution, followed by an equally lavish party at Terra Gallery. Since then, nearly 200 films have flickered across SF screens.
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And the films have not disappointed. Within the monstrous lineup are documentaries, soon-to-be art house classics and heavily-publicized heavyweights like "Hysteria" –- Tanya Wexler's ode to the vibrator, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal -- and "The Last Gladiators", about infamous hockey fighter, Chris "Knuckles" Nilan and his well-documented drug addiction and inner turmoil.
In true SFIFF form, the festival has so far been as much about the events as the films.
On Saturday, San Francisco's favorite drag queen Peaches Christ hosted "Acid Queens: Peaches & Tommy" – an exploration into cinematic religiosity and cult rites, complete with a screening of The Who's "Tommy." On Monday Merrill Garbus of Oakland sensation tUnE-yArDs performed live as the score for a collection of Buster Keaton short films.
And on the festival's closing night on May 3, the Castro Theatre will present "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey" –- a documentary of the meteoric rise of homeless YouTube sensation turned Journey frontman, Arnel Pineda –- followed by a late-night party at Sloane Squared.
As always, contributions come from dozens of countries. But this year's fest has a particularly close eye on the Bay Area: not only are our local directors front-and-center, but San Francisco herself plays muse in more than one film.
Check out a few of the local favorites in our slideshow below:
This bold debut film by author Stephen Elliott, a visual love letter to San Francisco, is the story of high school student Angelica (a mesmerizing Ashley Hinshaw), whose choices lead her from a depressing home life and dead-end job in Los Angeles to the fetish-filled Bay Area adult film world. A stepfather with dark motives lurks in the background, as Angelica watches over her younger sister and questions her options. In memorable supporting roles are Festival favorite Lili Taylor as Angelica's manic and opportunistic mother, Jonny Weston as her sexy but sleazy boyfriend and Dev Patel as best friend and much-needed nonsexual support. The vibrant cast also includes James Franco as a coke-addicted attorney who spots Angelica in a strip club, and Heather Graham as a female porn director who launches Cherry's adult film career with mixed feelings. A gritty and defiantly voyeuristic look at the life of a youth who never loses her innocence, even as she gyrates for the camera, <a href="http://festival.sffs.org/films/film_details.php?id=12" target="_hplink">Cherry</a> captures a rare point of view, urging us to consider the delicate tension between body and self by focusing on society's most sought after objects of desire. -- Kim Bender
The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller
Documentarian Sam Green ("The Weather Underground," SFIFF 2003) returns to SFIFF with the world premiere of a new work. Like his previous project, Utopia in Four Movements (SFIFF 2010), "The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller" matches original and found footage with live narration by Green and live musical accompaniment. This time, Green teams up with indie superstars Yo La Tengo (whose last Festival appearance, in 2001, brought a singular score to the short films of Jean Painlev). YLT will perform their score live for Love Song on this special night. The film itself is part of a larger Green project that includes a multi-channel installation (built by Obscura Digital) on display in a concurrent exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Mosquita y Mari
The power of cinema includes the experience of seeing your own story reflected on the big screen. For filmmaker Aurora Guerrero, this was an experience she thought she'd never have--unless she made it herself. "<a href="http://festival.sffs.org/films/film_details.php?id=65" target="_hplink">Mosquita y Mari</a>" is a painterly, earnest and beguiling coming-of-age tale of two Chicana teens in the midst of the delicate adolescent dance of self-discovery and sexual awakening. Set in the predominantly Latino community of Huntington Park--a neighborhood of Los Angeles that goes virtually unnoticed in the shadow of downtown--Guerrero's subtle exploration of friendship and love between two young women feels both unique and utterly familiar. Yolanda is the straight-A student with the sweet smile and hard-working immigrant parents who hope she will achieve everything they did not. Mari is the rebel with the smoldering looks and adventurous nature who works part-time to help her undocumented mother pay the rent. When circumstances bring them together as neighbors and study partners, their immediate connection surprises them, leading each to think, feel and act in ways she had never contemplated. Infused with the culture of its community and propelled by the stellar performances of its female leads, Guerrero's debut feature is an assured work that puts the Chicana experience firmly on the cinematic map. -- Joanne Parsont <em>(Editor's Note: Filmmaker Aurora Guerrero was born and raised in the Bay Area!)</em>
Porchlight: True Stories from the Frontiers of International Filmmaking
San Francisco's beloved nonfiction storytelling series returns to the Festival for a special night of film industry-themed stories. The rules for telling a story at "Porchlight" are deceptively simple. Tell a true 10-minute tale to an audience of strangers as if you're speaking with a good friend. The results can vary wildly, but are uniformly unforgettable. Arline Klatte and Beth Lisick, the show's cofounders and hosts, move the night along with grace, charm and wit. The night showcases six storytellers, each accompanied by video clips. As of press time, the lineup of participants includes Tom Barbash, Mario de la Vega, Lorelei Lee (cowriter of SFIFF 2012 film "Cherry") and the duo of Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri. Barbash, a writer probably best known for his bestselling book <em>On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick & 9/11: A Story of Loss & Renewal</em>, will recount his experience with the espionage classic The Falcon and the Snowman. Director/producer de la Vega (Robbing Peter) will choose from his considerable array of uncomfortable film experiences. Mosher and Palmieri, codirectors of the SFIFF 2012 documentary Off Label, will expand on that movie's look at the endlessly fascinating and worrisome world of prescription drug misuse and abuse. Visit festival.sffs.org for updates on these and other guests expected to participate in this informal bean-spilling session. --Sean Uyehara
In Victorian London, young doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) possesses some vanguard ideas about medical treatment, including the heretical belief that wounds should be thoroughly cleaned rather than treated with leeches. Such notions make it difficult for him to find steady employment, until he meets up with Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who is weary from a successful practice devoted to treating women with "hysteria" through manual methods. Eager to please and an apt pupil, Mortimer is welcomed into the Dalrymple household, where the quietly intelligent Emily (Felicity Jones) and the crusading suffragette Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) present a powerful study in contrasts. While Mortimer aspires to take over the Dalrymple practice and perhaps even become a member of the family, the daily demands of his job prove physically taxing. Fortunately for him, his decadent layabout friend Edmund (a reliably witty Rupert Everett) is about to finally find his calling in the realm of invention. In her third feature film, Tanya Wexler extends her interest in unconventional approaches to genre: This is a historical costume romp and courtroom wig drama, but one with the invention of the vibrator at its center. Aided by Dancy's and Jones's charm and Everett's scene-stealing flair, Hysteria celebrates a moment in medical history devoted to pleasure rather than pain. -- Johnny Ray Huston (Editor's Note: The vibrators seen in "Hysteria" can be viewed at San Francisco's new <a href="http://www.goodvibes.com/content.jhtml?id=antique-vibrators" target="_hplink">Antique Vibrator Museum</a>!)
"He gets in people's minds and can pull you in," organizer Lisa Fithian once warned a journalist en route to an interview with Brandon Darby, bête noir of last year's Golden Gate Award winner "Better This World." "He's a master. And you are going to feel all kinds of sympathy for him." Vilified by some and venerated by others as the FBI informant largely responsible for the imprisonment of two youths following the 2008 Republican National Convention, Darby was once a charismatic activist mythologized by the American Left for his daredevil aid work in New Orleans' Ninth Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "<a href="http://festival.sffs.org/films/film_details.php?id=46" target="_hplink">Informant</a>" meticulously constructs a portrait of his life--before and after the death threats--through intimate interviews with Darby and tense reenactments starring the man himself. These aspects are accompanied and often contradicted by commentary from acquaintances and expert commentators on various points of the political spectrum. An ear-perking investigation into the exploits of a glory hound who values bravado above brotherhood, the film cedes Darby center stage as a reluctant antihero ready to advance his agenda by any means. With uncommon restraint, Meltzer delivers a fascinating study that transcends political chest beating. Informant raises the possibility of fluid truth in a system addicted to false binaries. -- Jackson Scarlett <em>(Editor's Note: Filmmaker Jamie Meltzer is Bay Area-based!)</em>
Palaces of Pity
"The country has changed, but we are the same." <a href="http://festival.sffs.org/films/film_details.php?id=76" target="_hplink">Palaces of Pity</a>'s first line of dialogue sets the stage for Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt's languid exploration of Portugal's burden of memory. The words come from an elderly woman sitting alone in a soccer stadium as her two granddaughters run drills on the field below. She wishes to see the rivaling adolescents in full bloom, but their inheritance proves to be a curse. In spite of its concise running time, Abrantes and Schmidt's mysterious object makes room for knights-errant, religious inquisitions, nightclubbing, amorous Moors, text messaging and haunted paintings. Recalling Manoel de Oliveira's slippery narratives and the dark intimations of female adolescence in Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl (SFIFF 2005), Palaces of Pity manifests a strong sense of the uncanny in its beautiful, grave visions of characters living at the edge of the world. If, adapting Joyce, "History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake," the Portugal of Abrantes and Schmidt's film remains lost in the dream.
Aptly subtitled "a city poem," John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson's documentary, "<a href="http://festival.sffs.org/films/film_details.php?id=104" target="_hplink">Tokyo Waka</a>," is as much a carefully etched, lyrical portrait of Tokyo and its denizens as it is a full-fledged rendering of the surprisingly rich life of crows, here embodying the wild, adaptive animistic spirit of the city. Populated with telling moments that add up to an uncanny snapshot of a metropolis's "metabolism," as one architect interviewed here puts it, Tokyo Waka takes its cues from the least visible of city scavengers: the crows that pick through garbage, cut stark black shapes in the sky and build astonishingly intricate nests of purloined hangers. Drawing from art, culture, Buddhist and Shinto spirituality and everyday anecdotes, the directors come at Tokyo's elusive crows from all angles, gathering remarkable footage of the whip-smart animals making twig tools to find juicy insects in trees, utilizing cars to crack walnuts and pouncing on hapless passersby who happen to walk beneath their nests. Along the way Haptas and Samuelson also construct an evocative encapsulation of a post-bubble Tokyo at a very particular moment--one where otaku maid culture, a homeless population and a kind of youthful bohemia are finding their own precarious perches in the city, in parallel to flocks of omnipresent, intelligent avian outsiders. <em>(Editor's Note: Both of the filmmakers are Bay Area-based!)</em>
n the shadow of the MacArthur freeway, Oakland's Highland Hospital is the community's busiest and perhaps most critical source of emergency medical help for the uninsured and indigent. Over 73,000 patients of every ethnicity and creed pass through the ER annually, including more than 2,000 trauma cases. Peter Nicks' documentary is an intimate and intense day-in-the-life portrait of those seeking care, and the doctors, nurses and social workers that serve them. Ranging from underemployed to chronically destitute, the patients present a grim portrait of the country's dual economic and healthcare crises: a middle-aged man with agonizing spinal bone spurs who must continue to work to pay his mortgage; an addict with severe respiratory issues who has nowhere to go; and a 15-year-old gunshot victim whose body is temporarily held as crime scene evidence, among others. Their vulnerability is embraced by a compassionate staff that toils under a constant state of triage, a predicament that can leave people waiting for hours. In the midst of so much pain and suffering, Nicks shows us that life's most dire situations are often illuminated by extraordinary acts of kindness and humanity's innate ability to find a way to connect. -- Monique Montibon <em>(Editor's Note: Filmmaker Peter Nicks is a UC Berkeley grad!) </em>
Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey (our closing night)
Arnel Pineda's path from YouTube obscurity to stadium fame in becoming Journey's new lead singer has inspired newspaper articles and TV talk show segments, but Ramona S. Diaz's inspiring new film is an up-close and in-depth look at his past and present, from a homeless young adulthood singing on street corners in Manila to the sudden pressures of touring around the world and performing before crowds of thousands. Placing interviews with the candid Pineda (who at one point says he looks like he was placed in the band's photos through Adobe Photoshop) alongside backstage camerawork that faithfully assumes his perspective, Diaz's documentary is a counterpart to the exploration of public popularity in her 2003 portrait Imelda--focusing on Pineda's rise from poverty to wealth, Diaz reveals the generosity of his spirit. She and the band also deliver electrifying musical sequences, including two distinctive homecoming shows, one of which registers as a validation of Pineda's commitment to albums that he kept in his hope chest, and the power of his voice. "The way I see it, it's a temporary thing," Pineda says of his current gig, but Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey--while looking at a pair of cities by the Bay--gives it lasting life. -- Johnny Ray Huston