I finished my final preview screener from the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival exhilarated and exhausted. Those two emotions coexisted uneasily during much of my time in the trenches. At my giddiest, I entertained thoughts about the great redemptive power of cinema: If only we could all just sit down and watch each others’ movies! Then there was Tsai Ming Liang’s 13-minute two-shot of a man and woman staring at a wall — that was more likely to incite violence. Or at least a kind of awestruck insanity.

In watching many of the films below, I had to resist a reflexive craving  for the default aesthetics of Hollywood, inculcated by virtue of thousands of hours at the movie theater or in front of the TV. A recognizable moral scheme, obvious but entertaining storytelling, rapid-fire editing — not much of that going on in the movies I saw. Many of these films have a fraction of the edits you find at the cineplex. Slow and reflective, they exhibit a fondness for mood, ambiguity, and a lingering on the passive — I often found myself watching characters thinking. Which got me to thinking what are they thinking? Which is the beginning of empathy as opposed to mere sentimentalism.

It’s not always easy to step outside your own cinematic culture. Cognitive dissonance erupted, for example, while watching Salvation Army, a beautiful Moroccan film set partly in Casablanca. Just the mention of that city sets off a visceral nostalgia for American myth-making, for exultant lies told in the high style of circa 1942 Warner Bros. My first association with the word “Casablanca” has always been Humphrey Bogart. Now, possibly, I might think of actual Moroccans.

Of the 74 fictional features at the festival, here are 13 I saw in advance that I can recommend. You can see more about the films or buy tickets by clicking on the film titles.

Gay Youth

Bad Hair is a heartbreaking film about a Venezuelan boy and his mother, an unemployed security guard who is appalled by his emerging homosexuality. They live in a massive and decrepit housing complex where things start to unravel when poverty and homophobia impinge on their lives. There is also an ever-present concern with violence in this rare glimpse into Venezuelan society at the end of the Hugo Chavez era.

Look for: In just two lines of dialogue, one of the most quietly searing exchanges between a child and parent you’ll ever see on-screen.

Directed by Mariana Rondón. 93 min, Venezuela/Peru
Thu, May 1, 9:15am Kabuki
Sun May 4, 6:15pm. New People
Wed, May 7, 6:30pm BAM/PFA

Salvation Army
Salvation Army

Salvation Army is a lovely, honest film about a gay youth in Morocco. Abdellah is a teenager in love with his older brother, stealing moments alone in his sibling’s bed just to bathe in his aura. He also has anonymous sex with men on the streets. But the film does not convey overt oppression or shame, rather a sense of longing and, when it fast forwards 10 years, an unspecified regret and bitterness. The anonymous sexual encounters all have a different feel, sometimes seamy, sometimes not. The characters frequently treat one another tenderly, and there is a touching dignity to many of their interactions.

Look for: The ending, which left me in tears, though I don’t know why.

Directed by Abdellah Taia, from his book.  82 min, Morocco
Fri May 2 9:00pm Kabuki
Sun May 4 8:30pm BAM/PFA
Tue May 6 6:30pm Kabuki

Societal Critiques

Trap Street
Trap Street

Trap Street is a diverting tale with all the elements of a young adult mystery novel. A teenage boy, working as a surveyor for a digital mapping firm, stumbles onto a secret government lab. There’s a mysterious, attractive young girl who is prone to taking a powder, menacing government agents, and burgeoning paranoia as reprisals mount for pursuing what you clearly shouldn’t. But beneath the familiar genre construction lies a deep disquiet with China’s surveillance state, and an illustration of the limits the country places on capitalist enterprise when it comes into conflict with entrenched power.

Look for: A scene in which the hero’s father is interrogated about his son. In an American film, he’d grow increasingly outraged and demand his rights; here, the man quietly complies and tries to distance himself from his kid.

Directed by Vivian Qu. 94 min, China
Sat April 26 8:00pm BAM/PFA
Sun May 4 9:45pm Kabuki
Tue May 6 6:45pm Kabuki

Harmony Lessons
Harmony Lessons

In Harmony Lessons,  student members of a sort of Mafia-in-training at a Kazakhstani school shake down their weaker peers. One of the victims has been singled out for ostracism, and he reacts by frequently vomiting and obsessive-compulsive cleaning. A new boy arrives who stands up to the head bully, but not without severe consequences. The film has a Lord of the Flies feel–clueless or cruel teachers leave any supervision of the boys meaningless. And when the police get involved, they turn out to be the worst thugs of all. Chillingly, it all seems a rehearsal for the same roles everyone will play in adult society. The violence is belied and thus made more shocking by director Emir Baigazin’s quiet approach; he moves his camera sparingly, adds almost no music, and creates gorgeous, almost painterly compositions.

Look for: Chilling performances by menacing twin brothers in the senior class, at the top of the criminal chain.

Directed by Emir Baigazin. 114 min, Kazakhstan/Germany/France
Fri April 25 3:30pm, Kabuki
Sun May 4 12:45pm, Kabuki
Mon May 5 6:15pm, Kabuki

White Shadow
White Shadow

White Shadow is a gruesome yet compelling story based on a real-life horrific cultural phenomenon. Alias is an albino boy living in a Tanzanian village. The body parts of those with his disorder are prized by witch doctors, and his father is killed in order to harvest them. Afterwards, his mother sends Alias to live in the city with his uncle. There he hustles goods to motorists, scavenges in toxic waste dumps, and grows up extremely fast. The film depicts a country in which magical thinking and a belief in the occult overwhelm civil society, and where superstition and greed join to make life very cheap. And yet, the resiliency of the ostracized Alias shines through.

Look for: Several visual references to Obama, an icon in Africa.

Directed by Noaz Deshe. 115 min, Italy/Germany/Tanzania
Sun May 4 6:30pm Kabuki
Tue May 6 6:15pm Kabuki
Thu May 8 8:00pm Kabuki

The Militant
The Militant

In The Militant, a young man in Uruguay named Ariel Cruz tries to find himself during the country’s 2002 economic crisis, participating in hapless school occupations in which the students prioritize getting stoned. Cruz both typifies and chafes against the aimlessness, but whatever he tries, he never moves past bemusement. The newcomer Felipe Dieste showcases the kind of offbeat performance Dustin Hoffman used to be known for: His hand trembles, he walks with a limp, and he whines like Ratso Rizzo. Or perhaps he’s the Latin American-leftist Benjamin Braddock, thrust into an ill-suiting role and thoroughly lost.

Look for: On the occupying students’ agenda: “First motion — create a committee to throw a party.” And before joining a meat packers’ hunger strike, Cruz asks, “Is smoking allowed?”

Directed by Manolo Nieto. 121 min, Uruguay/Argentina
Sat Apr 26 9:00pm New People
Sun Apr 27 3:15pm Kabuki
Thu May 1 8:50pm BAM/PFA

Films About Film Directors

When Evening Falls on Bucharest
When Evening Falls on Bucharest

In When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, a director and leading lady participate in dialogues about the movie they’re making, how dining utensils influence cuisine, and more. But really every conversation alludes to cinema. At one point the two spend five on-screen minutes discussing the most truthful way to dress in a particular scene. Despite their passion for cinematic verisimilitude, they both engage in real-life duplicity. The dichotomy between the intense conversations and the emotional detachment in which they state their positions is compelling. We never really get a closeup of the actors; they’re shot frequently in profile or from behind, yet we’re paradoxically drawn in.

Look for: The opinion that the penis is “a mistake from an aesthetic point of view.”

Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. 93 min, Romania/France
Fri April 25 3:45pm New People Cinema
Sat April 26 6:30pm Kabuki
Mon April 28 8:30pm BAM/PFA

Abuse of Weakness
Abuse of Weakness

Abuse of Weakness is Catherine Breillat’s autobiographical film about a director who suffers a paralyzing stroke then gets fleeced by a known swindler. This is no Mametesque delving into the subtleties of the big con — the man’s lies are completely transparent, yet his victim gives him large sums seemingly without a thought. Both the director and her character struggle to explain going bankrupt at the hands of an obvious sociopath. But no one does perversity like Isabelle Huppert, who may have found the answer in a filmmaker’s predilection for experiencing life anthropologically: He’s a “caveman,” she says, before gleefully calling him “fascinating.” Amidst the power games, the film asks: If someone must cut your meat, who is really in control, you or him?

Look for: Huppert’s line: “You took me to the cleaners,” delivered almost giddily and with a smile, before admitting she doesn’t have enough money for food. Only she could so skillfully convey the fine line between a lark and a tragedy.

Directed by Catherine Breillat. 104 min, France/Belgium/Germany
Thu May 1 9:00pm Kabuki

Freud Wasn’t Wrong About Everything

Club Sandwich
Club Sandwich

Club Sandwich is the compact story of a single mother and her teenage son on a resort vacation. Simpatico, they have their routines and games, and at times act like an old married couple. But straining just beneath the surface is a mutual sexualizing, which leaves the boy in a terrible confusion about how to exercise his inflamed adolescent libido. When a partner in horniness his own age arrives, the bond between mother and son frays, and intensely uncomfortable situations develop. What could have been perversely grim is actually wry and charming, and while some may feel hatred for the mom, it’s easy to see how such a situation can develop. Great performances, especially by the kids, who perfectly capture the awkwardness of fumbling teenage lust.

Look for: Cool cover version of the Pixies “Where is My Mind” over the opening credits; and a scene in which the mom cannonballs into the water from off-screen, disturbing the two kids tranquilly holding each others’ hands in the pool.

Directed by Fernando Eimbcke. 82 min, Mexico
Sat April 26, 4:15pm Kabuki
Mon April 28, 9:15pm New People Cinema
Sun May 4, 1:30pm Kabuki

Argentinian Alienation

The Reconstruction
The Reconstruction

In The Reconstruction, a doleful middle-aged man completely disengaged from life finds himself in the middle of a crisis concerning the family of an old friend. The spectacle of a man who answers an invitation to dinner with “what for?” having to suddenly attend a parent-teacher conference for someone else’s kid is very good. While the film’s director, Juan Taraturo, and his star, Diego Peretti, could have played it for laughs, as in their previous pairings, any comedy here grows out of the rueful absurdity of a misanthrope attempting an altruistic intervention. The film loses steam about two-thirds through, when it turns from an existential character study into a conventional weepie. But well worth a look for Peretti as the sullen, long-faced Eduardo.

Look for: One of the more concisely effective — if shocking — delineations of character in the very first moments of the film.

Directed by Juan Taratuto. 93 min, Argentina
Fri April 25 9:00pm New People Cinema
Mon April 28 2:00pm Kabuki
Wed April 30 4:00pm New People Cinema

Hooray For Hollywood

All That Jazz
All That Jazz

Return, if you will, to a time when jazz hands could be unironically employed on-stage. Even when the culture was more tolerant of artists pouring out their self-involvement on-screen, All That Jazz, an 8 1/2 derivative, was considered an over-the-top indulgence. Roy Scheider stars as “Joe Gideon,” a talented, self-destructive choreographer juggling multiple projects and women. While Fosse alternates between self-hatred and egomania, the man does know how to shoot a song and dance, and you’ll enjoy several show-stoppers, especially the opening, a cattle-call audition process that whittles hundreds of dancers down to a chosen few. Ending one’s film with a 15-minute hallucinogenic fantasy must break some dramatic rule somewhere, but at its best, this is an exuberant look at dyed-in-the-wool show folk plying their trade while contending with venal producers and their own neuroses.

Look for: Leland Palmer as a Gwen Verdon doppelganger, rehearsing a dance number in front of the Fosse character while simultaneously picking at their mutual emotional scabs. Then there’s Ann Reinking as the tallest drink-of-water triple threat in decades. Plus the line: “Now Sinatra will never record it.”

Restored by Twentieth Century Fox in collaboration with The Film Foundation.
Directed by Bob Fosse. 123 min, USA
Sun April 27, 12:30pm Kabuki
Fri May 2, 8:30pm BAM/PFA

The Lady Eve
The Lady Eve

You hate to resort to they-don’t-make-em-like-that-anymore sentiment, but in the midst of a festival brimming over with grim realism, the celebration of The Lady Eve, one of those perfect specimens from the great Hollywood Dream Machine, is much welcome. Director Preston Sturges had a great run between 1940-44, enjoying a good deal of creative independence at Paramount before flaming out in battles with the money boys. A leading practitioner of screwball comedy, an American auteur, and a keen satirist, Sturges was never more winning than in breathing life into this swindler/swindled romance. With Henry Fonda as the world’s most eligible bachelor and Barbara Stanwyck in the title role, taking her place alongside Rosalind Russell, Katherine Hepburn and Irene Dunne as female screwball royalty.

Look for: You get the impression Stanwyck’s character is a lot more taken with Fonda than is Sturges, who destroys his leading man in gag after uproarious gag.

Directed by Preston Sturges. 94 min, USA
Sun May 4 3:00pm Kabuki

Film essayist David Thomson has chosen this movie to screen when he receives the Mel Novikoff Award for enhancing the film-going public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema.

And in the Department of Uncategorizable…

Stray Dogs
Stray Dogs

Those with cinematic stamina will want to try acclaimed director Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs , one of the most aesthetically provocative works you’ll ever sit through. The opening shot of a woman brushing her hair in front of two sleeping children lasts four minutes. But that’s a Michael Bay film compared to the penultimate image of a man and woman staring at a wall for 13 minutes straight. In between, a disjointed story of sorts develops, about a destitute Taipei family, but anything more specific you’ll have to bring to the work yourself. With such a dearth of narrative markers, you either fall into a kind of image fetishism, scrutinizing every inch of the screen, or your mind feverishly works to comprehend what’s being communicated. It’s a unique strategy for engaging an audience, and many will find themselves contemplating the next Game of Thrones. During the lulls, I imagined Tsai’s producer arguing with him over whether that shot should go the full 13 minutes or if he could maybe get his point across in 11. Yet, when the film was done, I had the urge to watch it again.

Look for: The agony of dull labor — or is it the agony of all  existence? — represented in a series of lengthy shots of people holding real estate advertising signs on the street.

Directed by Tsai Ming-liang. 138 min, Taiwan/France
Mon April 28 6:00pm Kabuki
Tue April 29 3:15pm New People Cinema
Wed April 30 6:30pm BAM/PFA

Also of Note:


Founder’s Directing Award recipient, Richard Linklater, will be on hand to screen his film Boyhood.  “Filming over the course of 12 years, Linklater and his cast depict a young man’s journey from a 6-year-old boy to 19-year-old college freshman.” (May 2, 7:00pm Castro Theatre)

Justin Simien’s camp comedy Dear White People is a satire about race and identity at a fictional Ivy league school. The film earned a Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the Sundance Film Festival. (April 26, 6:45pm Kabuki; April 29 8:45 p.m. New People Cinema)

Filmmaker Gia Coppola makes an appearance for the screening of her adaptation of James Franco’s book Palo Alto, about teenagers shifting from childhood innocence to adult responsibility.  (May 3, 7:30pm Kabuki)

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return in The Trip to Italy, a sequel to their very funny The Trip. Once again, Michael Winterbottom directs. (April 29 6:30pm Kabuki; May 2 1:30pm Kabuki)

Young & Beautiful. The step from a teenage girl’s “first time” to her adoption of the world’s oldest profession proves a very short one in the latest from director François Ozon (Swimming Pool,  8 Women) (April 28 9:30pm, Kabuki; May 1 3:45pm, Kabuki)

Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska star in the “Kafkaesque” film The Double, about a “white-collar drone stuck in a waking nightmare of perpetual humiliation.” Directed by Richard Ayoade. (April 26 1:00pm Kabuki; April 29 9:15pm Kabuki)

As with all of his films, Iranian dissident filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn remains unreleased in his home country. Raoulof was arrested and sent to prison in 2010 for filming without a permit. (April 25 8:40pm BAM/PFA; April 27 4:00pm Kabuki; April 29 9:00pm Kabuki)

In Night Moves, writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy) tries her hand at the political thriller genre. With Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard. (May 7, 9:00pm Kabuki; May 8 7:30pm Kabuki)

Queen Margot: The Director’s Cut, from director Patrice Chéreau, was the 1994 Cannes Jury Prize Winner. (April 26 12:45pm Kabuki; May 1 9:00pm New People Cinema)

Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins stars SNL alumni Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as  long-estranged twins. (May 1 6:30pm Kabuki; May 2 3:30pm Kabuki)

Plus: Lots of shorts.

The San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 24 through May 8, 2104 at various Bay Area locations. For tickets and information, visit sffs.org.

12 Must-See Films and One We Defy You to Sit Through at the SFIFF 13 August,2015Jon Brooks

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