Approaching the end of the first month in his new job, San Francisco Film Society executive director Noah Cowan met the press Tuesday morning in a vista-rich meeting room atop the Fairmont Hotel. The focus of the shindig, and the draw for the majority of film critics and journalists, was the announcement of the complete program of the S.F. International Film Festival (Apr. 24-May 8). Cowan’s appearance was simply the shrimp cocktail on the smorgasbord.
To say that Cowan’s introduction was slightly above and to the side of the main event is simply to acknowledge that he was hired after the vast majority of the festival lineup was set. His influence on the organization and the program won’t be discernible for a while, although the Canadian native’s enthusiasm had a palpable effect on the representatives of the Third Estate as well as the members of the local film community in attendance.
Although you are no doubt enjoying the vicarious pleasure of sipping coffee and gazing at stunning bay views (even obscured by gray clouds), our pressing business together is identifying the fest’s most intriguing offerings and hottest tickets. Open another window at sffs.org, and let’s go browsing.
Between the sponsors’ allotment, the glitterati and the party crowd, opening and closing night tickets are at a premium. The cognoscenti know the films bookending any festival will likely open within a few months, and turn their attention to the treasures lurking in the program outside of the spotlight. Now that you’ve been advised, the delicious Patricia Highsmith thriller The Two Faces of January, serving up an Athens feast of Viggo Mortenson, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac in Kennedy-era attire, launches the festival at the Castro on April 24. The party is at Public Works. The fest wraps May 8 with Chris Messina’s directorial debut, Alex of Venice, which centers on an overcommitted environmental lawyer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) whose husband (Messina) and father (Don Johnson, 25 years (!) after Miami Vice) have had enough.
Other certain sellouts include the Centerpiece film, Palo Alto, (May 3) adapted by Gia Coppola (Francis’ granddaughter) from James Franco’s book about teenagers on the cusp. Speaking of the journey to adulthood, Richard Linklater presents Boyhood, his pioneering (fictional) portrait of a lad from 6 to 18 and picks up the Founder’s Directing Award at the Castro May 2.
Tickets don’t tend to last long for the festival’s annual music-related shows, headed by Stephen Merritt’s live performance of his new score to the disturbing 1927 Tod Browning-Lon Chaney-Joan Crawford silent flick, The Unknown (May 6 at the Castro). Merritt’s accompaniment to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea four years ago at the SFIFF didn’t knock me out; perhaps the creepy-nasty subject matter will bring out the darkness in his musical soul. On a more upbeat note, guitarist Thao Nguyen and The Get Down Stay Down deliver an eclectic show Apr. 29 at the Castro that finds them backing a blizzard of silent shorts (from Chaplin’s physical comedy to Harry Smith’s mind-bending animation) augmented with Nguyen’s original sound-video work.
The buzz for those shows extends to a trio of documentaries about musicians with cult followings: The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir (plus a live set, reportedly); the world premiere of the melancholy homage to Elliott Smith, Heaven Adores You; and 20,000 Days on Earth, which worships at the altar of Nick Cave. I’ll go refill my coffee mug while your fingers do the walking at the SFIFF site.
I pray to a bust of Isabel Huppert, which makes me anything but unique. You’d better hurry to score tickets to Serge Bozon’s murder comedy Tip Top and Catherine Breillat’s autobiographical Abuse of Weakness, starring Huppert as a filmmaker made vulnerable by a stroke. French matriarch Agnes Varda’s expansive documentary, From Here to There, is a must-see, as well as Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful. The 20th anniversary restoration of the director’s cut of Patrice Chereau’s Queen Margot puts a bloody bow on the Gallic offerings.
The most intriguing foreign titles, to my eye, are Romanian wunderkind Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, persecuted Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Chinese-based iconoclast Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs and Swedish director Lukas Moodyson’s We Are the Best. Johannes Holzhausen’s documentary, The Great Museum, provides a gorgeous behind-the-scenes view of Vienna’s stunning Kunsthistorisches Museum.
On the domestic front, Berkeley documentarian and former SFIFF staffer Sara Dosa world premieres the poignant, moody The Last Season, about mushroom foragers in Oregon. Local audiences finally get a look at Jesse Moss’ multi-garlanded study of economic tensions in North Dakota, The Overnighters. Another sure-to-be-hot Bay Area ticket is Jeremy Ambers’ Impossible Light, which tracks the process of lighting the new Bay Bridge. The American indies Hellion, Night Moves, The Sacrament and Skeleton Twins (with Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader in attendance) are also likely to be packed.
Bob Fosse’s breathtakingly audacious (and indulgent) All That Jazz returns to the screen, while the brilliant essayist and Novikoff Award-winner David Thomson plucks Preston Sturges’ timeless The Lady Eve from the vault. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Lino Brocka’s restored 1975 tour de force, Manila in the Claws of Light, takes us back to the Marcos era. Steven Gaghan, recipient of the Kanbar Award for screenwriting, is saluted with his tough-minded Middle East thriller, Syriana
This year’s Persistence of Vision awardee, Isaac Julien, sits for an onstage chat and screens Ten Thousand Waves, a past-and-present meditation on Chinese culture originally conceived as an installation. And if you haven’t gotten a sense of the breadth of the festival, I haven’t even mentioned the New Voices in Latin American Cinema sidebar, the array of carefully curated shorts programs, a camouflaged Michael Fassbender in Frank and the West Coast premiere of Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, an affectionate documentary by Mike Myers. Yes, that Mike Myers.
If you can’t find something to love in the SFIFF program, the world must not be big enough.