The 51st San Francisco International Film Festival opens Thursday night and runs for two weeks. It's a strong lineup this year, but just six weeks ago I was still a little uncertain.
On March 10 the Film Society announced the name of the film that would be the "centerpiece" of this year's festival and injected a little worry into the pit of my stomach, a sheep shank in my galley, you might say, especially if you're a fake seaman. In a city that prides itself on varied and voluminous film screenings all year long, the SFIFF is still the flagship. It's a large festival — the first on this continent, actually — and although it suffered a bout of acute melancholia at the turn of the century, it seems to have been set aright by festival director Graham Leggat. It's the standard bearer for the city's culture of cinema. San Franciscans who care about movies guard it jealously.
Which is all the more reason for a local cinephile to worry that the festival will somehow compromise its programming whenever the economy hits rough waters, perhaps by resorting to big, dumb Hollywood movies in a desperate need to sell tickets.
It used to be that a sizable film festival would celebrate its opening and closing films with pomp and circumstance, red carpets and spotlights, cocktail parties and natty attire, the sort of pageantry that lends the festival its event status and serves to buoy the quieter films that occupy theaters in the intervening days.
'Tis a pity that a given year's festival can only open and close once, thought a festival director somewhere on earth. Shook his head. Studied the calendar. Light bulb! By Jove, let's stick another opening in the middle! Or closing! What have you. Thus, his dream of a third buoy was born: the "film festival centerpiece," a red carpet event perched in the middle of the proceedings like a shellacked cornucopia, a construction paper pilgrim hat, a papier mâché turkey.
The New York Film Festival has one. Los Angeles. Miami. And for the last few years, San Francisco. It's a good idea, actually. It doesn't mean much to me, but I get it.
This year's centerpiece is a film that premiered at Sundance called The Wackness, a teen movie that seemed to be a crowd pleaser even though I panned it while blogging from Park City for Paste. (It's almost as if people were not heeding my every word.)
It's a hip, silly, kinda dull — I know, right? — comedy that won't experience much friction on its way to America's theaters, the sort of film that needs no red carpet, little pomp, and nary a circumstance. Sony tentatively plans to open it over the July 4 holiday weekend.
Here I cut to the chase: my worry was unfounded. The Wackness is indeed nothing to write home about, but it's one of only two films — in a festival of hundreds — that could possibly be called multiplex-bound Hollywood movies, a designation that doesn't even apply to the festival's opening and closing films. (The other somewhat high-profile film is David Mamet's goofy but provocative Redbelt, also to be distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. But even that isn't a likely blockbuster.) A number of the festival's films have secured limited distribution, but others haven't, and unlike many festivals of its kind, the San Francisco festival doesn't reserve a large segment of its calendar for premiering big films that will be opening wide in the coming weeks. This festival spends that time screening smaller, more interesting movies that you likely won't have many opportunities to see on the big screen again.
It should be a rewarding couple of weeks.
Of the festival films that I expect to see, I can only comment on about a third of them today. Here's why: I've decided not to watch any of them at home on video. When a festival is approaching, the publicity office generates buzz by screening some of the key films for press and by making many others available to journalists and critics in the form of DVD screeners.
This is convenient for people who need to see a bunch of the movies ahead of time and write about them for, say, the local paper. But DVD screeners are a lousy way to watch movies, believe me, especially movies that in a few days will be shown on big screens to packed houses.
So this year I'm shunning the screener experience (with one exception, a video I'd already watched when I made this decision).
But don't worry, my gain is your loss! It's a win-win.
Instead, here's the plan: right now I will tell you what I think of the one-third that I've already seen, and I'll highlight the others that I'm eager to catch by telling you why I want to see them in the worst way. Then, perhaps we'll watch them together. As the festival rolls on, I'll post small updates as I see more flicks. And, seriously, don't be like those Sundancers who went around talking about The Wackness and looked like absolute fools to anyone who'd been following my coverage. Read about the films below. Take heed. Take notes. Take both heed and notes if you can do so without accident.
The festival is screening several of my favorite recent discoveries, including three films from veterans, one outstanding debut, a tour de force from a filmmaker I'm just learning about, and a short experimental diary. I like these six films enough that I will probably see most of them again.
Links to my previous comments, if any, are in brackets.
• With Ballast, Lance Hammer makes one of the most striking debuts in recent years by applying the style and techniques of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne to a community in rural Mississippi. Things haven't gone smoothly for his characters — a boy, his mother, the man next door — but Hammer still believes in their ability to prevail. [podcast, blog]
• It's a nearly wordless shaggy dog story, but In the City of Sylvia is also an exhilarating verse on dreams and memories, an ode to painting and cinema, and a celebration of the city of Strasbourg and the women who walk its streets. It's being presented by J. Hoberman, ace film critic from the The Village Voice, in conversation with Kent Jones. [podcast]
• I'm generally on the fence about Catherine Breillat, but her latest film, The Last Mistress, is pretty good, not least because Asia Argento stars. (She's everywhere. In this festival alone, she's in three films.) It's a period piece in which a man tries to possess a woman, or is it the other way around? Someday in repertory world it would make a fine double feature with In the City of Sylvia, but for now the festival has given each film its own event, which sounds right to me. The Last Mistress is the festival's opening night film.
• Béla Tarr doesn't make double-feature material. His films stand alone, and, typical among them, The Man From London is mysteriously captivating for purely visual reasons. What he does is a trick of hypnosis, accomplished through deep shadows and long, quiet takes. Through sounds, too, the stillness, the lapping of water against the bows of boats. My first time through, I don't think I caught much of the plot — a case of money, some men in fedoras, a post-synched Tilda Swinton — because I was too enthralled by the hovering platforms to notice much else. I suspect that when I see it again, the story will elude me once more. [podcast]
• Robert Beavers was born in America, but he's lived and worked in Europe for the last few decades and hasn't shot a film in the US since 1966. Until now. He recently traveled to his mother's cottage in Massachusetts and filmed the stillness, observed the contrast between the house's dark interior and the bright but ever changing exterior, and considered his mother's age and his own memory. Pitcher of Colored Light is a peaceful meditation in 24 minutes, presented at the end of a program of short films.
• The massive Three Gorges Dam project in China has attracted filmmakers who are intrigued by the mass relocation of residents and others who are attracted by the spectacle. Jia Zhangke is clearly interested in both. I saw the provocatively titled Still Life a year and a half ago in Toronto and have been hoping for a chance to see this beautiful, slow film again. It's one of the most gorgeous features I've seen shot on high-definition video which bodes well for the future of cinema. See below for another film about this subject, Up the Yangtze.
I don't like these as much as the six above, but I'm glad I saw them, for different reasons. The ones I enjoyed most are at the top, and the one at the bottom, American Teen, has been gradually dropping since I saw it in January.
Every morning I inhale thrice from a vial. Here's what it tells me.
See you around.
Rob: I've been anticipating this post. It helps mollify the sting I felt at yesterday's press screening when I enthused over The Wackness and your eyes went all black and snapping. Who needs J-horror when you can just have a disagreement with Rob Davis? I had to go home and self-medicate to calm down.
This is an informed entry that I'm going to go right back through once again to compare notes. It appears we'll be seeing many of the same films so you'll have more than one opportunity to whittle me down to size for enjoying things I have no critical discernment about.
I will say this: when I sit down to write about The Wackness, you can be sure I'll be looking over my shoulder, fully expecting you come come creeping around the corner, disjointed, with dark snapping eyes.
My immediate question on the second readthrough is why will I be disappointed in Asia's rotweiller kiss? Is the rotweiller not handsome enough?
And dude, the "complete garbage in a package cute enough to make Amélie vomit into her fist" summarization made me laugh so loud that I've set off the car alarms of parked cars, gotten the neighborhood pack of dogs to start howling, and have no doubt woken the neighbors.
It's a lovely day in the neighborhood.
Wow, I got two read-throughs. Cool.
Sometimes, you know, I dislike a movie that I can't imagine someone else liking, and it just highlights a gulf between me and people who do. But I don't feel that way about The Wackness at all. I see why you and many other people like it, and actually I probably sound more harsh than I really am. My eyes didn't really go black and snapping over something so innocuous, did they? I remember that I liked it more than two or three other films at Sundance that I really did feel that way about.
I was vague about Asia's scene; you're right. As we've seen lately, she can make a movie, but she has a very small part in Go Go Tales, so my warning is that if she's your only reason to attend, the film might feel like a slog. I don't often dip into the "if you X, then you might think Y" brand of criticism, 'cause I'm not very good at it, you'll notice.
BTW, my joke about the "absolute fools" who disregarded my opinions on The Wackness was written before we talked about the film yesterday, so it wasn't aimed at you (or anyone but me, actually). Hope you didn't take it that way.
I feel much better now that I've taken my meds.
Brian Darr has a great index of links about the festival, as do Michael Guillen and Michael Hawley -- along with their own reactions to many of the films -- at The Evening Class.
Karina Longworth takes down The Wackness which is also playing at Tribeca.