Saturday, December 31, 2011
As some of you may know, this blog is on hiatus while I recover from major reconstructive surgery on my left hand. I couldn't resist, however, returning to weigh in on the films that rocked my year. As I'm only just beginning to re-enter the world of two-handed typing, apologies are offered for not providing commentary along with my list choices (thank goodness for Copy and Paste). Where available, I've hyper-linked titles to any capsule reviews I've written previously.
I saw 290 "new" films this year – 230 narrative features and 60 documentary features – plus 39 repertory/revival screenings. Only 194 films were viewed in some kind of public setting, my lowest number in a decade, with the rest seen via commercial DVDs, festival screeners and on-line streaming. This is a personal trend I expect will continue as home viewing becomes increasingly attractive and the communal experience of movie-going further deteriorates. The films on the these lists were all seen by me in 2011 and make the cut regardless as to whether they first played festivals in 2010 or will be theatrically released in 2012. As in the past, I've separated documentaries onto a separate list. Not sure that's the right thing to do, but it works for me. Finally, these are my "favorite" films of the year, i.e. the ones that gave me the greatest pleasure and not necessarily those I'd choose, if forced at gun point, to anoint as 2011's "best."
2011 Ten Favorite Narrative Features
1. Heartbeats (Canada, dir. Xavier Dolan)
2. The Imperialists Are Still Alive! (USA, dir. Zeina Durra)
3. Cirkus Columbia (Bosnia/Herzegovina, dir. Danis Tanovic)
4. Tomboy (France, dir. Céline Sciamma)
5. Aurora (Romania, dir. Cristi Puiu)
6. Drive (USA, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
7. A Separation (Iran, dir. Asghar Farhadi)
8. Le quattro volte (Italy, dir. Michelangelo Frammartino)
9. Gold and Copper (Iran, dir. Homayoun Assadian)
10. Old Cats (Chile, dir. Pedro Peirano/Sebastián Silva
2011 Ten Favorite Documentary Features
1. The Tiniest Place (Mexico, dir. Tatiana Huezo)
2. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania, dir. Andrei Ujica)
3. Angel (France, dir. Sebastiano d'Ayala Valva)
4. Project Nim (UK/USA, dir. James Marsh)
5. Tabloid (USA, dir. Errol Morris)
6. Gainsbourg: The Man Who Loved Women (France, dir. Pascal Forneri)
7. I Wish I Knew (China, dir. Jia Zheng-ke)
8. Senna (UK, dir. Asif Kapadia)
9. The Red Chapel (Denmark, dir. Mads Brügger)
10. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Canada/USA/France, dir. Werner Herzog)
* (For the record, I saw David Weissman and Bill Weber's astounding We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco back in 2010)
10 Favorite Repertory/Revival Screenings
1. Deep End (1970, UK, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, Castro Theatre)
2. Battleship Potemkin (1925, USSR, dir. Sergei M. Eisenstein, Castro Theatre)
3. La Dolce Vita (1960, Italy, dir. Federico Fellini, Castro Theatre, San Francisco International Film Festival)
4. Dance Hall Racket (1953, USA, dir. Phil Tucker, Roxie Theater, "I Wake Up Dreaming" Film Noir series)
5. The Leopard (1963, Italy, dir. Luchino Visconti, Castro Theatre)
6. World on a Wire (1973, West Germany, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pacific Film Archive – San Francisco International Film Festival)
7. L'argent (1928, France, dir. Marcel L'Herbier, Castro Theater, San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event)
8. The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948, USA, dir. John Farrow, Roxie Theater, "I Wake Up Dreaming" Film Noir series)
9. Sunrise (1927, USA, dir. F.W. Murnau, Castro Theatre, San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
10. All eight films I saw in the "Southern Discomfort" series at the Pacific Film Archive and Roxie Theater: God's Little Acre (1958, dir. Anthony Mann), The Intruder (1962, dir. Roger Corman), Moonrise (1948, dir. Frank Borzage), Swamp Water (1941, dir. Jean Renoir), Hurry Sundown (1967, dir. Otto Preminger), Poor White Trash (1957, dir. Harold Daniels), The Beguiled (1971, dir. Don Siegel), Shy People (1987, dir. Andrey Konchalovskiy)
3 Dozen Honorable Mentions – Narrative Features
The Adventures of Tintin (USA, dir. Steven Spielberg)
The Artist (France, dir. Michel Hazanavicius)
Bachelor Days are Over (France, dir. Katia Lewkowicz)
Biutiful (Mexico/Spain, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Carnage (France, dir. Roman Polanski)
A Cat in Paris (France, dir. Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (China/Hong Kong, dir. Tsui Hark)
Eastern Plays (Bulgaria, dir. Kamen Kalev)
Essential Killing (Poland, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski)
Even the Rain (Spain, dir. Iciar Bollain)
Hahaha (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Hell (Mexico, dir. Luis Estrada)
Hobo with a Shotgun (Canada, dir. Jason Eisener)
Honey (Turkey, dir. Semih Kaplanoglu)
I Saw the Devil (South Korea, dir. Kim Jee-woon)
The Kid with a Bike (Belgium, dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
The Last Circus (Spain, dir. Álex de la Iglesia)
Le Havre (Finland/France, dir. Aki Kaurismäki)
Leap Year (Mexico, dir. Michael Rowe)
Life, Above All (South Africa/Germany, dir. Oliver Schmitz)
Living on Love Alone (France, dir. Isabelle Czajka)
Neds (UK, dir. Peter Mullan)
Nothing's All Bad (Denmark, dir. Mikkel Munch-Fals)
October (Peru, dir. Daniel Vega Vidal, Diego Vega Vidal)
Poetry (South Korea, dir. Lee Chang-dong)
Puzzle (Argentina, dir. Natalia Smirnoff)
A Screaming Man (Chad/France, dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
The Sleeping Beauty (France, dir. Catherine Breillat)
Submarino (Denmark, dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
Take Shelter (USA, dir. Jeff Nichols)
The Tree of Life (USA, dir. Terrence Malick)
The Trip (UK, dir. Michael Winterbottom)
Tuesday, After Christmas (Romania, dir. Radu Muntean)
Ulysses (Chile, dir. Oscar Godoy)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
We Are What We Are (Mexico, dir. Jorge Michel Grau)
A Dozen Honorable Mentions – Documentary Features
Bill Cunningham New York (USA, dir. Richard Press)
Buck (USA, dir. Cindy Meehl)
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (UK, dir. Craig McCall)
Cinema Komunisto (Serbia, dir. Mila Turajlic)
The Desert of Forbidden Art (Russia/USA/Uzbekistan, dir. Tchavdar Georgiev, Amanda Pope)
The Green Wave (Germany, dir. Ali Samadi Ahadi)
The Interrupters (USA, dir. Steve James)
The Mouth of the Wolf (Italy, dir. Pietro Marcello)
Nostalgia for the Light (France, dir. Patricio Guzmán)
Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune (USA, dir. Kenneth Bowser)
Pina (Germany, dir. Wim Wenders)
Summer Pasture (China/USA, dir. Lynne True, Nelson Walker III)
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Showcasing a mix of auteur blockbusters and auspicious upstarters – including three North American premieres – the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now (FCN) launches its fourth annual edition on Thursday, October 27. The majority of this year's 11 films were nowhere on my radar, an exciting prospect given that past FCN treasures like Stella, The Wolberg Family and Love Like Poison were similarly unknown entities.
By my estimation, most of this year's FCN selections won't return to the Bay Area or see a Region 1 DVD release – rendering the week-long festival even more of an imperative for local Francophilic cinemaniacs. Note that all but Opening Night takes place at the SF Film Society/New People Cinema, a smaller venue than those employed in past years. This might result in sell-outs, so advance tickets are duly advised. I'm also happy to report that while festivals increasingly lean towards digital exhibition, eight of this year's FCN entries will be screened in 35mm (see the Film on Film Foundation calendar for specifics). What follows are observations and gleaned tidbits on this year's films, from someone who has yet to see any of them.
The two standout FCN titles are undoubtedly Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) and Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre. Both were in competition at Cannes, with the Dardennes brothers taking a second-place Grand Prix (and thereby losing an unprecedented third Palme d'or to The Tree of Life). Compared to 2008's somewhat disappointing Lorna's Silence, reviews for The Kid with a Bike have been stellar. It's the first time the Belgian neo-realists have employed a bona fide movie star (Cécile de France) and it's their fourth outing with actor Jérémie Renier, who began his career 15 years ago with the Dardenne's La Promesse. Perhaps an equally bright future awaits newcomer Thomas Doret, who's said to give an astounding performance as a boy coming to terms with his deadbeat father's rejection. The Kid with a Bike has distribution through IFC, so I'd expect it to be in local theaters soon.
A different kid is at the center of Finnish director Kaurismaki's Le Havre. He's an illegal African refugee who's being sheltered from police by sympathetic working-class denizens in the titular port city. Le Havre is said to represent a kinder, gentler Kaurismaki, almost fairytale-like in its shortage of trademarked deadpan glumness. Though entirely in French, the film is Finland's 2011 Oscar® submission and Kaurismaki has promised to attend the ceremony should it land him a Best Foreign Language Film nomination. The director famously withdrew 2006's Lights in the Dusk (the only Kaurismaki film I've really liked) from Oscar® consideration, due to his opposition to the Iraq War. Le Havre is scheduled to open in Bay Area Landmark Theaters on November 11 and is being distributed by iconic Janus Films. Nice to know they're still around. Keep your eyes peeled for a cameo by Jean-Pierre Léaud.
A third high-profile film at FCN is Mia Hansen-Løve's Goodbye First Love. I wasn't taken with Hansen-Løve's 2007
debut All is Forgiven, but I sure came around after seeing the exceptional Father of My Children at this year's SF International Film Festival (SFIFF). Goodbye First Love had its international premiere this summer at Locarno, garnering rave reviews and a Special Mention from the jury. Repeating the bifurcated structure of Father of My Children, the film details the obsession of a girl's first love and the repercussions it causes later in life. Actress Lola Créton (the sister who went to live with Catherine Breillat's Blue Beard) plays the lead character at ages 15 and 24. Goodbye First Love is being distributed by IFC Sundance Selects, which guarantees it a VOD and DVD release, but not necessarily a local theatrical run.
Amongst the remaining FCN films, I'm most excited about The Long Falling (Où va la nuit), the latest collaboration between director Martin Provost and actress Yolande Moreau. Their last partnership was Séraphine, the portrait of a naïve 20th century artist which resulted in seven César Awards including Best Picture and Best Actress. Here Moreau plays a farmwife who murders her brutish husband. She flees first to the Brussels apartment of her estranged gay son and then to a boarding house run by a sympathetic widow (Edith Scob) – at which point this understated, noir-ish thriller is intriguingly said to take on Thelma and Louise overtones. Provost adapted the story from Keith Ridgway's best-selling novel and cinematography is by the incomparable Agnès Godard. Reviews are great.
Another one loved by critics is Angèle and Tony (Angèle et Toni), which premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival and won Best Debut Film at Deauville for its writer/director Alix Delaport. Friends who caught it at this summer's Sacramento French Film Festival also came back raving. Clothilde Hesme (Mysteries of Lisbon, Regular Lovers) plays an attractive, resolute single mother with a past who hooks up with a coarse Normandy fisherman (Comédie Française actor Grégory Gadebois.) In Variety, Boyd Van Hoeij describes the film as "a work of subtle intimacy about the need for a human connection, with the bulk of heavy lifting done by pitch-perfect, wholly naturalistic performances."
One of my favorite contemporary French actors is Emmanuelle Devos, so it's nice to see her represented twice at FCN. First up is Opening Night film Bachelor Days are Over (Pourquoi tu pleures?), a comedy of manners in which a groom-to-be encounters untold doubts and roadblocks en route to the "happy" day. The film closed out Cannes' Critics Week sidebar and is a first directorial effort by actress Katia Lewcowicz. Singer/songwriter/producer Benjamin Biolay stars (last seen at FCN as the father in Stella), with support from Devos as his prickly sister and Valérie Donzelli as the fiancé. Donzelli, incidentally, directs and stars in France's 2011 Oscar® submission, Declaration of War, which would have been a swell addition to this year's FCN line-up.
Devos turns up again in Delphine Gleize's The Moon Child (La permission de minuit). It stars Vincent Lindon (Mademoiselle Chambon, Welcome) as the life-long doctor of a boy who's unable to endure sunlight. Conflict arises when the doctor leaves for a position in Geneva working for W.H.O. and Devos arrives as his replacement. There's virtually nothing about this film to be found on-line, at least in English. I notice that Gleize also directed 2002's Carnage, a highly stylized film about the aftermath of a bullfight. While I had reservations about that one, the combination of Lindon and Devos makes The Moon Child a priority.
Another actor I never tire of seeing is Olivier Gourmet. He plays a small role in The Kid with a Bike (his sixth Dardenne brothers' film) and also stars in Pierre Schoeller's The Minister (L'exercice de l'état), which won the FIPRESCI prize in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. In this film we'll see Gourmet in an atypical white-collar role, playing a conflicted Minister of Transportation who's given the task of implementing privatization of the French railway system. The Minister is said to be a detached, yet absorbing observation of the behind-the-scenes machinations of French politicos. The always welcome Michel Blanc plays his secretary. Schoeller's last film was the Guillaume Depardieu-starring Versailles, which played the SFIFF in 2009.
The phenomenon of actors becoming film directors seems more prevalent in France than in any other national cinema. This year's SFIFF closed with Mathieu Amalric's On Tour and now FCN brings us his latest work, The Screen Illusion (L'illusion comique). This reworking of Pierre Corneille's 17th century play is the third in a series of TV films commissioned by the Comédie Française and chosen from their repertoire. In his rave review for Variety, Jay Weissberg reveals that three rules were imposed on the director. "No additional words, use only thesps who've played the parts onstage, and film in locations away from the theater in no more than 12 days." (That sounds like four rules, but never mind). Having found Amalric's largely improvised On Tour a bit ragged and only occasionally inspired, I think a set of rules could serve him well. His script retains the original's Alexandrine couplets (mercifully not made to rhyme in the English subtitles), while relocating the story to Paris' 5-star Hôtel du Louvre. And though the cast might be well known to French theater-goers, I failed to recognize a single name.
Finally, two very different films in this year's FCN have received almost unvaryingly bad reviews. Their common factor is that each stars one of my favorite French-Arab actors, namely Sami Bouajila and Roschdy Zem. Bouajila finds himself being romantically pursued by a mother and daughter (Nathalie Baye and Audrey Tautou) in Pierre Salvadori's shrill-sounding farce, Beautiful Lies (De vrai mensonges). Salvadori also wrote and directed 2003's painful Après vous (the film which convinced me Daniel Auteuil is French cinema's biggest jambon.) Writing in Variety, Jordan Mintzer complains about "the script's vaudeville-like scenarios" and how the film's "long-winded assembly of quid pro quos and borderline sexist banter goes only to the most predictable places." He does, however, have praise for Bouajila, "the film's one redeeming character," so I might want to check this one out after all.
As for Roschdy Zem, he plays one-quarter of an upper-class bohemian wife-swapping quartet in Anthony Cordier's Four Lovers (Aimez qui vous voulez). Originally titled Happy Few when it premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival, it co-stars Marina Foïs, Élodie Bouchez (Wild Reeds, The Imperialists are Still Alive!) and Nicolas Duvauchelle (Isabelle Huppert's crazy son in White Material). SBS Film's Simon Foster declares it "the sort of film that people who never watch French films think all French films are like." And over at Variety, Boyd Van Hoeij finds Four Lovers "essentially an exercise in bourgeois navel (and further downwards) gazing that doesn't add anything new to the genre. Lovers of middlebrow French relationship dramas and subtitled smut might be happy." On the plus side, he notes how the film "neatly showcases the thesps' no-problemo attitude towards nudity," with only Zem forgoing going full frontal. As a connoisseur of subtitled smut, I wouldn't dream of missing this.
Cross published on The Evening Class.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Last year's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival (B&B) was deemed festival non grata by a number of Bay Area cinephiles. Troubled by the Goethe Institut's forced retirement of B&B founder Ingrid Eggers and annoyed at B&B's shift from January to an already festival-stuffed October, they lent support to an unofficial boycott. The weak-willed amongst us, however, couldn't resist skulking into the Castro Theatre for at least a taste of new German language cinema, which included the outstanding duo of The Robber and The Silence, plus Germany's Oscar® submission When We Leave (which, in a decidedly minority opinion, I ended up really, really hating).
Fast forward one year and it looks like the fences have been mended. At the press conference announcing this year's line-up, both Festival President Sabine Erlenwein and Director Sophoan Sorn made a point of mentioning that Eggers was in the audience. Now everyone is free to enjoy a guiltless 16th annual Berlin & Beyond, which runs from October 20 to 26 in San Francisco, with a San Jose Encore Day on October 29. As for Ingrid Eggers' 3-year-old counter-fest, German Gems, it's slated for a full-day Castro takeover on January 14, 2012. Several important new German language films are missing from this year's B&B, so let's hope Ingrid has gotten her hands on them.
There are 23 narrative and documentary features in this year's fest, of which I've seen seven (via DVD screener except where noted). The strongest is The Day I Was Not Born, an intense, noteworthy debut from director Florian Cossen. While waiting for a connecting flight in Buenos Aires, a young German woman mysteriously recognizes a Spanish lullaby. She learns that not only is she the child of parents "disappeared" by Argentina's military dictatorship, but the circumstance of her adoption by German parents is reprehensible at best. Cossen ups the ante by giving us a somewhat unsympathetic heroine who is aided in her search by a suspicious, German-speaking cop (effectively played by Rafael Ferro, the long-distance swimmer in Veronica Chen's Agua). Equally memorable is Beatriz Spelzini as an aunt who demands justice. Her scenes are heartbreaking.
A newish trend at Bay Area festivals has been the screening of genre films in Late Show time slots, with 3rd i South Asian and SF Jewish Film Festivals being recent examples. B&B gets into the act with Michael Steiner's Sennentuntschi, an atmospheric Swiss creep-fest. It's a film I'm certain many non-genre fans like myself will be happy they stayed up late for. The Sennentuntschi is a woman of Alpine folklore, created to service men's "needs" and constructed from straw, rag and a broom. She's given life by Satan and her revenge is a bitch. In a wordless performance, French actress Roxane Mesquida (Catherine Breillat's Sex is Comedy and Fat Girl) perfectly embodies the creature's ferity and vulnerability. While never less than engaging as a solid genre piece, the film isn't immune to goofing around. Serge Gainsbourg and T. Rex pop up on the soundtrack and the plot embraces absinthe consumption, psychotic priests, stillborn babies and worse.
There's also a macabre element at play in Chris Kraus' (Four Minutes) The Poll Diaries, a historic epic set on the shores of the Baltic Sea. In the days leading up to WWI, a spirited teenage girl hides a wounded Estonian anarchist not only from the Russian and German armies, but also from her disciplinarian father, a disgraced scientist with a penchant for human dissection. The film ultimately becomes a bit silly and laborious, but the real attraction here is the setting – an enormous mansion built on stilts overlooking the sea. I caught The Poll Diaries at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and can only imagine how great it will look on the Castro's big screen in 35mm. It's the most sumptuously photographed film I've seen this year. And speaking of 35mm, B&B deserves big kudos for once again making its audience privy to every film's screening format.
This year's opening night film is Yasemin Samdereli's Almanya – Welcome to Germany, a big-hearted family dramedy about three generations of Turkish Germans road-tripping to Anatolia whilst flashbacking upon family history. It'll provide crowd-pleasing entertainment on opening night, but those looking for a thoughtful depiction of immigration, cultural identity and assimilation are advised to look elsewhere. The festival closes a week later with Andres Veiel's If Not Us, Who, which was screened at the B&B press conference. It follows the path of 60s/70s revolutionary Gudrun Ensslin (an intensely watchable Lena Lauzemis) – from her complicated relationship with radical writer/publisher Bernward Vesper, right up to her infamous association with militant RAF leader Andreas Baader. The telling is rather flat, however, lacking the urgency and dynamism that made The Baader Meinhof Complex a compelling watch.
If Not Us, Who co-stars Alexander Fehling as Andreas Baader. The popular actor reappears in the title role of Young Goethe in Love, which is the main event of B&B's Encore Day in San Jose. The festival desperately wanted to show this new Philipp Stölzl (Northface) film at the Castro, but distributor Music Box Films nixed screening it in any theater with more than 500 seats (the film opens at Landmark's Clay Theater on November 18 and recently played the Mill Valley Film Festival). According to Festival Director Sorn, the Castro's size is also the reason why Tom Tykwer's 3 got relegated to San Jose. This is rather weird considering the film's June Frameline showing at the Castro, as well as a recent theatrical run at the Sundance Kabuki. (My Frameline review of 3 is here). Filling out the San Jose line-up are the aforementioned The Poll Diaries and Peter Luisi's The Sandman, an absurdist tale about a priggish stamp dealer whose body starts excreting mountains of sand. While reasonably entertaining and well acted, The Sandman's titular metaphor is overburdened and would probably work best as a short.
Of all the films I hope to see during the festival proper, Andreas Dresen's Stopped On Track sits at the top. Dresen is no stranger to B&B. His film Cloud 9 (aka "the geriatric sex movie") played here in 2009 and I believe one or two others have been featured at the fest. Stopped on Track employs a mix of actors and non-professionals – all speaking improvised dialogue – to tell the story of a postal worker's last months before dying of a brain tumor. The film was co-winner (with Kim Ki-duk's Arirang) of the top prize in Cannes 2011's Un Certain Regard sidebar. Of possible related interest is Michael Schaerer's Bold Heroes, B&B's 2011 Centerpiece Film about five teenage boys with terminal diseases all living together in a Swiss clinic.
Documentaries are generally a good bet at B&B and this year's festival offers seven. All five German docs are personal profiles of sorts: urban guerilla turned Foreign Minister Joseph Fischer (Joschka & Mr. Fischer), Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle (100 Years of Hollywood: The Carl Laemmle Story), wildlife conservationist Jane Goodall (Jane's Journey), championship boxing brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko (Klitschko) and five former East German citizens incarcerated for attempting to flee to the West (Face the Wall). From Austria there's a look at teenage immigrants who've left crisis regions for a home in Europe (Little Alien) and a story of extreme mountain skiing (Mount St. Elias). Finally, six German language shorts will be screened before select features, in lieu of being grouped into one program. This is a welcome format for folks like me who (regrettably) rarely attend shorts programs.
Cross published on The Evening Class.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
The 34th Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) gets underway this Thursday, October 6 with Glenn Close's gender-bending turn as a 19th century Irish butler in Albert Nobbs. Close will attend the screening with director Rodrigo Garcia, and then reappear the following night for her own festival tribute and reception. Sharing opening night duties at a separate venue will be Jay and Mark Duplass' Jeff Who Lives at Home (see review below), starring Jason Segel and Susan Sarandon. The film is scheduled for a March, 2012 release, making it an unusual choice for a MVFF opener. Both Duplass brothers are confirmed guests. Closing out the fest on Sunday, October 16 will be the film I'm most anticipating this autumn, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist. This silent, B&W French homage to 1927 Hollywood won a Best Actor prize at Cannes for Jean Dujardin, best known in these parts for his lead performances in Hazanavicius' OSS117 spy spoofs. It's recently been confirmed that Dujardin, along with co-star Berenice Berjo (who is also the director's wife), will be joining Hazanavicius for the evening's festivities. It kills me that I'll have to miss it.
In addition to Glenn Close, MFFF34 hosts a tribute to Burkina Faso's director Gaston Kaboré, one of the greats of African cinema. His debut film, 1982's Wend Kuuni (God's Gift) will screen at the tribute, and 1997's Buud Yam will be shown two days later. Three actors get the MVFF Spotlight treatment this year, most notably Hong Kong actress Michelle Yeoh. She'll be here along with French action director Luc Besson, both promoting The Lady, which examines the life of Burmese prodemocracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. The remaining Spotlights are for young actors Ezra Miller (Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin co-starring Tilda Swinton) and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene). MVFF34's Centerpiece Film will be Simon Curtis' My Week with Marilyn (starring Michelle Williams as Monroe) and for the fest's Special Premiere they'll be screening Stephan Elliott's (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) latest, A Few Best Men. Both directors are confirmed to attend their respective screenings.
Regrettably, I'll be out of town for most of this year's festival. Were I around, here are some films I'd be making an effort to see (none were available to preview on DVD screener). At the top is Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala, which eyes Mexico's drug wars from the perspective of a kidnapped beauty pageant contestant. The film was highly praised when it premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar and it's just been chosen as Mexico's 2011 Oscar® submission. Also from Cannes, but from the main competition, is The Conquest (La conquête), a thinly veiled look at the political machinations of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Making its U.S. premiere at MVFF34 is actor Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut Coriolanus, which resets Shakespeare's play in war-torn Bosnia. Shame, director Steve McQueen's acclaimed follow-up to 2008's Hunger, once again stars Michael Fassbender, this time as a Manhattan sex addict. Albania-set The Forgiveness of Blood comes from the same American director as 2004's Maria, Full of Grace. This tale of a Balkan blood feud has, with some controversy, been submitted as Albania's 2011 Oscar® submission. Speaking of Oscar®, Germany has entered Pina into the race, Wim Wenders' 3-D look at legendary choreographer Pina Bausch. This is one of more than two dozen feature documentaries contained in MVFF34's Valley of the Docs sidebar.
Below are capsule reviews of ten MVFF34 films I have had the chance to preview, all on DVD screener except where noted.
Circus Columbia (Cirkus Columbia) (Bosnia/Herzegovina, dir Danis Tanovic)
Nearly 10 years after snatching the Golden Globe and Oscar® right out of Amélie's hands with No Man's Land, Danis Tanovic returns with this near-perfect yarn about one town's drift toward civil war. After earning his fortune abroad, prodigal husband and father Divko returns to his Bosnian birthplace with new mistress in tow, promptly evicting his wife and teenage son from the family domicile. Divko's redemption drives this bittersweet, rollicking film. But in the background, hints of a dark future intensify, culminating in Tanovic's unforgettable final shot which announces the start of war. Reviews from last year's Venice Film Festival were very mixed, but the director's impeccable pacing, balance of conflicting tones and direction of actors, all convinced me I was in the hands of a master filmmaker. Certain to be one of my Ten Favorite Films of 2011. As seen at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Hello! How Are You? (Buna! Se faci?) (Romania, dir Alexandru Maftei)
We've had almost five years of admiring Romania's prodigious output of dour, bleakly funny human dramas. What we haven't seen is a Romanian rom-com, which is what we get with this genial comedy of errors. Gabi and Gabi are husband and wife in a loving, but lackluster marriage. One day they spring to life after simultaneously engaging in clandestine correspondence with an online admirer (and you can certainly guess who those admirers will turn out to be). While the film initially struggles to make this tired premise fresh, the director gradually steps up his game and scores some original moves. It doesn't hurt that the main subplot follows their hunky son as he auditions for porn and constantly updates an audio diary of his sexploits. The fun, tropicalia-flavored music score is a revelation. As seen at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Silence of Love (Tous les soleils) (France, dir Philippe Claudel)
Director Claudel follows his 2008 psychological shocker I've Loved You So Long with something completely different – a gently humorous portrait of a single Italian-French father opening himself to the possibilities of love. Stefano Accorsi (Ferzan Ozpetek's Saturn in Opposition and His Secret Life) stars as a Strasbourg music professor who lives with a smart, rebellious teenage daughter he overprotects, and an agoraphobic, anarchist brother. While it gets a bit corny in places and the screaming, emotive Italian stereotypes can wear thin, the film is overall quite winning. Anouk Aimée shows up in a memorable supporting role and Strasbourg looks even lovelier than it did in José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia. For what it's worth, I doubt the distributor could have come up with a lousier English title than Silence of Love.
The Mosque (A Jamaâ) (Morocco, dir Daoud Aoulad-Syad)
In 2007's Waiting for Pasolini (which opened our 2008 Arab Film Festival), giddy chaos overtook a Moroccan village with the arrival of an Italian film crew. Now Pasolini's director has made a sequel of sorts, whereby a poor farmer is forbidden from dismantling the film's fake mosque, which sits on his land and has been appropriated as a real place of worship. Unable to support his family, he's told by the mosque's fake imam that his rewards lie in the next life. While initially a tad plodding and one-note, The Mosque improves as complex layers are added to the farmer's predicament. The result is a worthy allegory assailing religious hypocrisy, corruption and authoritarianism.
Busong (Palawan Fate) (Palawan Destin) (Philippines, dir Auraeus Solito)
Director Solito, best known for his LGBT-themed films like The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros and Boy, returns to his southern Philippines roots. In this dreamy meditation steeped in Palawan island culture, indigenous folklore and healing arts are revealed to us through a half dozen loosely connected storylines. In the costumes and art direction, Busong maintains a timelessness into which modernity only occasionally intrudes – the distant sound of a chainsaw, a wisp of poisonous smoke from a nickel mine, and a somewhat heavy-handed story of a fisherman's humiliating encounter with a white landowner. All of this – the pristine beaches, jungles, unending skies and underwater life – is sumptuously photographed. Solito's now familiar homoerotic gaze is also in full evidence.
Beyond the Road (Por el camino) (Brazil/Uruguay, dir Charly Braun)
A youngish, Argentine ex-investment banker arrives in Montevideo, Uruguay and sets off to see some rural property left by his deceased parents. Along for the ride is a Belgian tourist, with whom he begins an uneasy fling. Considerably more interesting than their oscillating relationship are the stops they make en route; from a chic Punta del Este art gallery to a country horse fair, and from a rich uncle's estancia to a hippie commune in the boonies. First-time director Braun's talent lies in conveying a rich sense of place and populating his film with compellingly watchable "real" types. Even Naomi Campbell has a wistful cameo that's not out of place in this charmingly meandering, melancholy journey. Director Braun will attend both MVFF screenings.
The Prize (El premio) (Mexico, dir Paula Markovitch)
At the height of Argentina's Dirty War, a mother and 7-year-old daughter hide from authorities in a remote, ramshackle beach hut. Their tenuously safe existence is threatened when the girl starts school and enters an essay contest meant to extol the virtues of the country's military. Markovich is best known as co-screenwriter of Fernando Eimbcke's Duck Season and Lake Tahoe, but her feature directorial debut contains none of the absurdist humor of those remarkable films. Her subject matter is certainly vital (and from what I've read, closely autobiographical), but the film is sabotaged by extremely slow pacing. Scenes of wind-whipped beach wandering alternate with long stretches of mother and daughter cooped up in their shack (where oddly enough, we never once observe them cooking or eating), to the point of grossly overstating the characters' anxiety, boredom and isolation. This dampens the potency of an otherwise absorbing work containing superb performances and distinctive mise-en-scène. Director Markovitch will attend the October 16 MVFF screening.
Jeff Who Lives at Home (USA, dir Jay and Mark Duplass)
The Duplass brothers deliver their most mainstream film to date, which could put off fans of edgier works like Baghead and Cyrus. Jason Segel plays Jeff, a stoner whose begrudging errand for Mom (Susan Sarandon) sets off a day-long, follow-your-bliss-y search for signs of life in the universe. A cleverly crafted story rubs uncomfortably against too much strained poignancy. Still, highly recommended for those who think Segel is the most adorable schlub in the universe. As seen at a MVFF34 press screening.
Pegasus (Pégase) (Morocco, dir Mohamed Mouftakir)
Somewhere in a vague dystopia, a crazy woman raves about "The Lord of the Horse" who's coming to get her. It's up to comely mental institution psychologist Zineb to get to the bottom of it all. I won't elaborate further on the plot, which rolls insanity, rape, transexualism, incest and creepy folklore into one big convoluted and culturally abstruse psycho-thriller. Still, the film is extremely well made, with arresting imagery and shifting color palettes matching the temperament of any given scene. Amazingly, Pegasus was the top prize winner at this year's FESPACO, Africa's most important film festival. Popular Moroccan actor Anas El Baz (Casanegra) will attend both MVFF screenings.
Holidays by the Sea (Ni à vendre ni à louer) (France, dir Pascal Rabaté)
Graphic novelist turned film director Rabaté updates Jacques Tati with this homage to 1953's beloved comedy, Mr. Hulot's Holiday. Once again we're at a seaside resort, observing the droll antics of tourists and year-round denizens alike. But this isn't your grandfather's Tati, with subplots involving BDSM and a nudist camp. Rabaté conjures a few interesting visual ideas, but overall the film lacks cohesion and punch. And while comic mileage will always vary, this not painfully-unfunny frolic failed to elicit a single laugh out me. Points are given for top-notch production design, a cast of recognizable French character actors (including Jean-Pierre Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon) and an effectively whimsical, Theremin-heavy score (the film contains no dialogue to speak of).
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Being passionate about Latin American cinema in the Bay Area can be frustrating. Despite our favorable demographics and purported status as America's second-ranked center for film culture, scads of new Latin American films – from established auteurs to promising newcomers – make noise on the festival circuit each year yet ultimately fail to reach our screens. The most egregious example is probably Claudia Llosa's The Milk of Sorrow (La teta asustada), a 2009 Peruvian film which affirmatively answered the question, "Can a movie win the Berlin Film Festival's top prize and get an Oscar® nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and still go unseen by Bay Area audiences?" As Ricky Ricardo might say, I think our local programmers have some 'splaining to do.
And so it was I checked out the line-up for this year's Cine + Mas' San Francisco Latino Film Festival (SFLFF) and came up with a total blank. Not one of the 19 narrative and documentary features rang any bells, necessitating a lot of research to ferret out the potentially worthwhile. Below is my resultant take on the program, along with details on upcoming Bay Area cinema events of Latin American interest.
But first, the basic info. This is Cine + Mas' third year producing the festival, filling the void left by 2008's adios of Sylvia Perel's 12-year-old Latino Film Festival. It runs September 16 to 25, with the bulk happening at Landmark Theater's Opera Plaza Cinema on Saturday and Sunday, September 17 and 18. (Surprisingly, the festival didn't re- engage the Mission District's Roxie Theater, which seemed to work well as principal venue last year.) Additional screenings are booked into other Bay Area locations including Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema (opening night), the Mission Cultural Center, the Brava Theater, Pacific Film Archive and College of Marin.
A closer look at the 2011 SFLFF line-up revealed at least one familiar name – that of acclaimed Mexican director Luis Estrada (Herod's Law). His latest film Hell (Infierno) is a pitch black satire about a man deported from the U.S. to Mexico, and his re-acclimation to a homeland more corrupt and violent than the one he left behind 20 years ago. In spite of being denounced by the Mexican government, Hell received a staggering 14 Ariel Award (Mexico's Oscar®) nominations. It won nine, including Best Picture, Director and Actor, making this my Top Pick for the festival. You might want to secure advance tickets for this, as there's only one screening and the Opera Plaza theaters are small. I've got mine.
Far down Hell's cast list you'll find the name Gabino Rodríguez, a young character actor who plays small roles in big films (Rudo y Cursi, Sin Nombre) and leading roles in small Mexican indies (Perpetuum Mobile and The Cinema Hold Up, the latter a recent Sundance hit that would have been great in this festival). For A Stone's Throw Away (A tiro de piedra), Rodríguez co-wrote the screenplay with director/cinematographer Sebastián Hiriart and plays a goatherd whose omens and visions lead him on a quest to Oregon. This laconic road movie has played several significant festivals like San Sebastian, Morelia, Dubai and Miami. While Variety's Jay Weissberg gave it a mixed review, Howard Feinstein at indieWire praised Rodríguez' "masterful performance" and Hiriart's "outstanding cinematography. His feeling for natural, urban and small-town landscapes is unique, as if the steady eye of divinity were observing the world." San Francisco's Chinatown makes an appearance in the film.
I've liked every Peruvian movie I've seen recently, which is why I plan on catching Rosario Garcia-Montero's directorial debut The Bad Intentions (Las malas intenciones). Against the backdrop of Peru's civil war – 1982 to be exact – a morose rich girl acts out in weird ways when her mother gets pregnant. In a rave review from the L.A. Film Festival, indieWire's The Playlist names Garcia-Montero "a great new voice in the world of cinema" and calls The Bad Intentions "one of the best films of the year." Alyssa Simon's more measured Variety review detects the influence of Argentina's Lucrecia Martel. This might a good place to mention that the San Francisco Film Society will be bringing the Peruvian film Octubre, to its recently launched SFFS/New People Cinema later this autumn. Co-directed by brothers Daniel and Diego Vega Vidal, this excellent deadpan social comedy won Cannes' Un Certain Regard jury prize in 2010. Highly recommended. Watch the SFFS website for dates.
Another notable director in this year's fest is Venezuela's Fina Torres, who won Cannes' Camera d'or in 1985 for her first film, Oriana. I seem to remember liking her Celestial Clockwork at the 1996 SF International Film Festival, but I steered clear of 2000's Penelope Cruz vehicle, Woman on Top. Her latest is Habana Eva, a feisty romantic farce about a young seamstress torn between two men – her layabout architect fiancé and a foreigner who's on a real estate buying spree. What's a Habanera to do? Everyone is the trailer is ridiculously attractive and reviews I've read run good to mixed (with some ridiculing Torres' injection of magic realism.) But all agree there's enough going on – including some sly political commentary – to elevate the film above genre norms.
We find a wide range amongst the remaining SFLFF narrative features. Nicolas Lopez' love-in-the-time-of-Facebook comedy F*** My Life (Que pena tu vida) was Chile's biggest box office hit of 2010, and has already produced a sequel, F*** My Wedding. Todd Brown at Twitch calls it "a remarkably authentic rom-com for twenty-somethings" and "a fun little ride for what it is." Iris Disse's drama Following the Stars (Siguiendo las estrellas) looks like it could provide an insightful look at Panama's indigenous islanders, the Kuna. In Veronica Reidel's melodrama Capsules (Capsulas), a rich Guatemalan boy is forced to transport heroine capsules by his mother's drug kingpin boyfriend. Be forewarned – Robert Koehler in Variety calls this one "risible," with "crude staging, rickety pacing and telenovela-quality acting." Finally, there are two U.S. indies in the festival. MLK Jr. Way is a local slice of docu-fiction mumblecore about two Oakland Mexican-American slackers. Recently rendered jobless and homeless, they hatch a plan to secure rich white girlfriends to solve their problems. Then in Felix Martiz' low-budget thriller Santiago, an actor doing research tags long with a notorious pimp/dealer for one day.
Documentaries make up half the SFLFF line-up, starting with the opening night film, Café Takvba (Seguir Siendo: Café Takvba). It's a portrait of Mexico's most venerated rock band, whose personality and eclecticism have assured their popularity for over 20 years. The remaining docs are all of a more serious nature. Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice examines the remarkable life of the first Latino appointed to the California Supreme Court. It was shown at last year's Mill Valley Film Festival and will screen on KQED later this month. Other U.S. documentaries focus on a controversial Arizona Latino studies program (Precious Knowledge) and the murder of a Colorado transsexual teen Photos of Angie (Fotos de Angie). In contrast, Blattangelus steps inside a LGBT-friendly church in Mexico City.
The legacy of brutal Latin American dictatorships is the subject of three more documentaries. Open Sky (Cielo abierto) remembers rebelious Salvadoran archbishop Óscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 by U.S.-backed government thugs. In his review for Variety, Jay Weissberg calls this film an "absorbing portrait" and "moving tribute to a major late 20th century figure." Then in La Isla: Archives of a Tragedy, a 2005 Guatemala City explosion leads to evidence of a secret government prison where thousands were tortured and murdered. Finally, in The Chilean Building (El edificio de los Chilenos, we learn about children who remained in Europe while exiled parents clandestinely returned to fight Pinochet's regime.
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In a fine example of the "when it rains, it pours" approach used to schedule Bay Area film festivals, the 3rd Annual Maya Indie Film Series runs concurrent with SFLFF – sharing not only dates, but venues as well. Maya Entertainment is a leading distributor of Latino-themed U.S. indies, and this year's "seven city tour with seven films in seven days" kicks off on Friday, September 16. SF Latino Film Festival shares its opening night at the Embarcadero Cinema by spotlighting Maya's All She Can as the evening's co-feature. This directorial debut by Amy Wendel tells the story of Luz, a small-town Texas high school student determined to win a state power lifting championship. Incidentally, the Maya series doesn't quite add up to "seven films" here in San Francisco. For some reason we don't get to see Sympathy for Delicious, actor Mark Ruffalo's directorial debut co-starring Orlando Bloom, Laura Linney and Juliette Lewis, which is part of the series in other cities.
In addition to co-opening the SFLFF on Friday evening, the Maya Indie Film Series begins at the Opera Plaza Cinema that same afternoon and remains there through Thursday, September 22. (On Saturday and Sunday, SFLFF and Maya will occupy three of the venue's four screens). All She Can and William Wedig's Forged will be screened daily, with the remaining four films filling out the schedule on a rotating basis. One possible highlight is the Peter Coyote-starring Di Di Hollywood, the latest from Spanish director Bigas Luna (Jamon, Jamon, The Chambermaid on the Titanic). The trailer looks like it could be trashy fun.
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Earlier up I mentioned actor Gabino Rodríguez, who among other things is the acteur fétiche of prolific, 27-year-old Mexican indie filmmaker Nicolás Pereda. Fortunately for us, the adventurous and indispensable Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presents a full career retrospective of Pereda's works next month, in a program titled Mexico Rising: The Films of Nicolás Pereda. It consists of one short and five features, four of which star Rodrígues. I was moved by 2009's Perpetuum Mobile when I saw it at last year's travelling Hola México Film Festival (a festival so poorly attended here, its producers are bypassing San Francisco in 2011). At YBCA, I'm eager to catch Summer of Goliath, Pereda's most recent work which garnered some good reviews during its brief New York theatrical release this summer. From the YBCA website:
"Very much of his moment, Pereda combines aspects of some of the most notable trends in contemporary world cinema, including elements of deadpan minimalism, slacker cinema, the documentary/fiction hybrid and long-take formalism. Pereda's films are among the chief testaments to the incredible vitality and creativity of Mexican cinema today."