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In Features, Issues

FEST CIRCUIT
Cannes International Film Festival, IFP/West Los Angeles Film Festival, South by Southwest Conference and Film Festival, San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival.

Cannes International Film Festival

Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Distance.
It felt like a Cannes burdened by history. A plethora of famous directors, spanning the past 40-plus years of cinema, dominated the show. Good first films were nowhere in sight. Such a balance can only lead to disappointment – you expect the top-notch work from the big guys and are disgusted when they turn in mediocre efforts. The mistakes of first-time filmmakers are also unfairly put into relief against the subtleties of the wise old men.

Nowhere was this truer than in Competition, the festival’s main section, which has always elevated the auteur above all else. This year saw Cannes rehabilitating a couple of them, quite successfully, and also trying to create some new ones, which proved a total failure.

The old masters really came out in force. My favorite was the new film from Shohei Imamura, Warm Water under a Red Bridge, which harks back to his great masterpieces of the 1960s, such as Pigs and Battleships and The Pornographers. In Warm Water, the hero, an unemployed man, seeks a lost treasure in a provincial town only to discover a woman with, um, explosive sexual powers. Both political and perverse, Imamura, now well into his 70s, has lost none of his ability to provoke us. Only slightly younger, Jean-Luc Godard returned to Cannes with a somewhat accessible, dare we say romantic, new film, éloge de l’Amour. Featuring three couples of different ages, the film demonstrates a unique take on the four "key moments" of love.

Jacques Rivette has been in a less radical, more romantic frame of mind for a while now (Same Old Song, etc.), but audiences were charmed by Va savoir! ("Who Knows?"), his charming though overlong portrait of a theater actress living a Pirandello play. Although I remain unconvinced by his fixed cameras and in-your-face formalism, there was also much support for Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home, a portrait of the theater against a backdrop of personal loss featuring a knockout performance from Michel Piccoli.

Another master, mostly forgotten these days, turned in perhaps the most brilliant but also the most hated film of the festival. Ermanno Olmi won plenty of prizes around the world for earlier features such as The Tree of Wooden Clogs and Legend of the Holy Drinker. His newest film, The Profession of Arms, is a stunningly filmed look at an obscure bit of Italian history – the papal defense against Charles V’s fierce German armies – featuring a charismatic cast of Bulgarian actors. The film seeks to define the moment in which modernity began and a new class of weapons transformed Renais-sance Italy from bickering states into a bloody battleground. Machiavelli’s The Prince, had an equally profound effect on the craft of statehood, and it is used as a reference throughout the film. Olmi shows us the birth of the modern state in all its treacherous, bloody, ennui-laden horror. How sad that the assembled critics at Cannes feared to look in the mirror.

The American masters – at least as Cannes has defined them – turned in top-quality stuff as well. David Lynch (has he missed a Cannes?) added a surreal hour to his Mulholland Drive pilot. The result feels like a reworking of Twin Peaks territory but with a deliciously wry Los Angeles spin. Its goofy ending divided audiences, but this is Lynch in territory he has ploughed successfully before; the film has the feel of a director elegantly in control of his bizarre material. One can never underestimate the strict internal logic that Lynch’s better films ultimately follow, and Mulholland Drive is certainly one of those.

The Coen brothers (another example of a place reserved at Cannes) brought their take on film noir to the Croisette. The Man Who Wasn’t There features gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and a growling, intense performance from Billy Bob Thornton. It’s all dames and double-crosses but again shows the brothers’ mastery at reviving tired genres and the overwhelming sense of fun they have with cinema. But do either of these films matter in the end? Not really.

Ultimately the most praised film by an old master was not even new. Francis Ford Coppola premiered Apocalypse Now Redux in grand style, its new scenes universally worshipped and its continuing power acknowledged. Presented Out of Competition, it dwarfed the day’s official selections. I am not sure if he counts as a master yet, but Nanni Moretti won the Palme d’Or for his affecting The Son’s Room about a family’s loss of a son in a freak accident. Several serious film critics found the film to be false and manipulative in a disgusting sort of way. I see their point but think it’s overstated. Moretti’s sense of humor, though at times blackboard-scratch grating, allows him to take some emotional risks normally disallowed in contemporary melodrama. So as long as you buy into his brand of light-heartedness, Moretti provides a strangely liberating road map for confronting unexpected and inexplicable loss. And that deserves a Palme.

Death was also the subject of Tsai Ming-Liang’s very funny, charming What Time Is It There? A young man’s father dies, and his mother is obsessed with the father’s reincarnation. She drives her son crazy with new rules in the house to encourage dad’s return. Meanwhile a woman tries to buy the young man’s watch as she leaves for Paris. Tsai has a wry, minimalist style that is not everyone’s bag, but this is his best, and perhaps most accessible, film since Vive l’Amour.

The Cannes crowd has been pushing several filmmakers for a few years now, and this year saw the intellectual nudity of many of their favorites, especially set against all this strong work from the old guys. (And guys they were – one throwaway French entry and half of the Shrek team made up the female contingent in Competition this year. Remember festival president Gilles Jacob prattling on about the Year of the Woman two years ago? How sad that at his famed press conference at the Paris Opera, he did not muse this year about the Year of the Old White Man. A truly wasted opportunity.)

At the top of my list of art shmucks is Michael Haneke. I think we were all a little bit fooled by the earnest but coldly intense 1989 antiviolence film The Seventh Continent. Since then he has been making work that is expressly intended to shock us out of our lethargy of bourgeois existence. At best, the results have been boring, like last year’s Code Inconnu; at worst, condescending, offensive and pandering, like Funny Games, his pastoral slasher film. The new film, The Piano Teacher, manages to top even that art gore shlock; we merely yawn while Isabelle Huppert slashes at her naughty bits with a razor blade. Ostensibly the story of an isolated woman’s sexual misadventures, the film won both the acting prizes and the Grand Jury Prize in one of the most idiotic jury awards in recent memory. Liv Ullmann was the Jury President, replacing late dropout Jodie Foster. So was this award a complex joke about The Silence of the Lambs, or does Liv want to see Sweden spiced up again? The prizes were noted and ridiculed by all thinking journalists.

The French are desperate to find the Young Turks to take over from their old, distinguished filmmakers. But it’s tough. Every year another promising filmmaker or two makes a shocking piece of garbage, which is then duly put into Competition. (Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Khan from last year and Jacques Maillot’s Our Happy Lives from the year before spring to mind.) This year’s biggest French faux pas was La Répétition from Catherine Corsini. (They love her in France – this is her fourth movie at Cannes, and they will keep putting them in until somebody cares.) La Répétition is the story of a dental hygienist who stalks her old college friend, an experimental theater actress. Turk number two, Cédric Khan, has actually made one very good film, Trop de Bonheur, but seems now to have lost his way. His latest, Roberto Succo, is the straightforward tale of an Italian serial killer, told without humor or dramatic intensity. The French loved its realism. Fine – they can have it.

The French have also become quite enthusiastic about Asia lately, and in this they are right. The most interesting stuff being made is coming from across the Pacific. But they went way over the top this year, with nine Japanese films alone in various sections. The two in Competition (other than the Imamura) should not have been there, but for different reasons.

Shinji Aoyama had a relatively undistinguished career full of arty genre movies until last year’s quite astonishing nearly-four-hour exploration of human frailty, Eureka. But he returned to form this year with a boring hustler hitman tale full of astonishingly pretentious Europeanisms. The film is called Desert Moon. (Wasn’t that an Eagles song?)

I am a big fan of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Distance. But following his pitch-perfect global hit After Life, which seemed to single-handedly resurrect the metaphysical art film, expectations were running way too high to put this very small, fragile film under the heat of Competition. Its story of five people on a pilgrimage to the site of a cult’s mass suicide is so ambiguous and unresolved that it allows small yields only after much work. But I can think of no filmmaker with the courage to try such an austere approach with such an open wound of a subject, especially in Japan. Rumor had it that it was elevated to compete at the last minute – how foolish.

Another good filmmaker making a difficult transition film was Mohsen Makhmalbaf. His Kandahar, about a woman’s attempt to travel through the Taliban’s Afghanistan, contains some of the most gorgeous shots I have ever seen: a planeload of artificial limbs floating down on little parachutes; a mosque full of fervent boys cacophonously praying yet not understanding a word they are saying. But Makhmalbaf tries too hard to make the film relevant for Americans, with an unlikely African-American doctor turning up halfway through, and the constant note-to-self tape recordings of the Canadian-Afghani woman protagonist adding an off-sounding English language component to the film.

The festival’s two smaller sections, Un Certain Regard (run by the Competition folks) and Directors Fortnight (run by competitors), seesaw from year to year in the quality of films they present. Neither section had a banner year, but both contained excellent work. Chiefly of interest in Un Certain Regard were Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (also known as Kairo) and Lisandro Alonso’s La Libertad from Argentina.

Kurosawa has been making impressive work, with films such as Cure, Charisma and Séance, for some time now. He loves playing and twisting with genre to unsettling and innovative ends. Pulse is probably his most ambitious work yet, despite being set firmly within the teenage horror genre. In fact, the first half hour could be lifted straight from I Know What You Did Last Summer but with a kind of Internet-nerd spin. As the film progresses, however, Kurosawa’s obvious uses of genre convention matched up with baffling ambiguities and gradually lead to a Tokyo emptied of all people following the invasion of the city by ghosts of the dead via the Internet. Wow.

La Libertad confirms – along with La Ciénaga, the impressive debut of Lucrecia Martel in Berlin – that there is something very interesting going on in Argentina right now. Their tired old directors (Fernando Solanas, Eliseo Subeila) have been put out to pasture; a new, very young crowd is making rigorously formal, uncompromising cinema, and this is the boldest yet. It is a practically silent witness to a man’s life during a day in the jungle, as he chops down trees, shits, eats and all the rest. And it’s riveting.

Disappointing entries in Un Certain Regard sadly included new films from Todd Solondz (Storytelling) and Hal Hartley (No Such Thing), both of which felt like echoes of interesting earlier work. Solondz’s movie juxtaposes two Happiness-like tales, perverse and narratively complex, set in high school and college. Hartley’s film is a heavy-handed fable about a monster disgusted with human evolution who falls in love with an innocent young girl sent to rescue a film crew.

Some people have nice things to say about Abel Ferrara’s postcard to David Dinkins’s New York, R-Xmas. In this reviewer’s opinion, though, its drug-dealer-trying-to-make-good story is merely passable, making it a significant improvement over his past few films but still not that interesting.

The Directors Fortnight also had its share of American turkeys. Ethan Hawke’s rambling and pointless Chelsea Walls is dated and naive. Its portrait of the legendary New York hotel’s denizens was meant to be one of the Festival highlights. Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love, despite the welcome return of his wife, Debra Winger, to the screen, is very much like a cable television movie about a drunk Southern writer. These two films occupied the Friday and Saturday night slots, so I assume that section programmer Marie-Pierre Macia was perhaps playing to the crowd a bit. The other films were nowhere near as bad.

The Fortnight’s opening film, in fact, was one of the best. Martha… Martha is the abject, painful story of a young woman who does everything she can to undermine her relationships with her husband, her daughter and her sister; the film allows that her behavior comes from a murky parental history but does not let her off the hook because of this. It is a tough, fascinating film from one of France’s most interesting filmmakers, Sandrine Veysset (Will It Snow for Christmas?).

Equally tough is Wang Chao’s simple, direct The Orphan of Anyang. It features a beautifully stretched time structure that captures the crushing boredom of a Chinese industrial town, making the characters – a hooker who has to give up her child, an unemployed man who needs to take the child in, and the small-time gangster who wants to claim it as his heir – and their aspirations all the more poignant.

Two other, much lighter films from Asia were also a pleasure. Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s Hush! was probably the audience favorite from any section. It is a rollicking but quietly intelligent comedy about two gay guys – one a closeted scientist, one a pet-store clerk – facing the possibility of having a child with a psychologically unbalanced woman. Hsiao Ya-Chuan’s Mirror Image sees a pawn shop clerk fall in with a mysterious woman who proves to be the finest saleswoman who ever lived – but only on the Taipei subway.

The Critics Week – the smallest and most ignored of the official Cannes sections – always pops out one fabulous movie a year, surrounded by forgettable, pretentious crap. This year’s winner was Bertrand Bonello’s The Pornographer, an achingly beautiful commentary on fatherhood and filmmaking. Jean-Pierre Léaud is the painfully mannered lead, his performance absolutely matching the film’s tone. The film falls precipitously between campy satire and intense melodrama. One wonders whether this, a first film, was not that Young Turk French film missing from the Competition. – Noah Cowan


IFP/West Los Angeles Film Festival

Los Angeles’s premiere independent film festival opened April 20 at the Directors Guild of America Theatre for the sixth year, this time under new management and with a new banner: "The IFP/West Los Angeles Film Festival." Acquired by the Independent Feature Project/West, the formerly titled Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, or LAIFF, was also expanded this year to nine days, with 51 feature films and 48 shorts being screened at four Hollywood locations. And though the setting and many of the faces were identical to the 2000 edition, this year’s event seemed quite different. The film lineup was generally strong, and the organization was efficient and friendly, but a large number of attendees commented that the festival was surprisingly quiet, with little going on besides the screenings.

Two years ago I attended the L.A. fest as a filmmaker with a short film in the lineup, and there seemed to be more people, more parties and more general excitement around the DGA building. To make sure my memory was not coloring things pink, I re-watched an early issue of Film-Fest DV, which included coverage of the 1999 festival, and my feelings were confirmed: it was a more exciting event, with more character and more parties. In a sad coincidence, though, I ran into one of the people behind the excellent Film-Fest DVs, John Bernstein, at this year’s event, who told me that the company had recently gone into liquidation and that he was looking for a new job. Perhaps the depressed economic climate, the then impending WGA strike deadline, and a general sense of dot-com doom was to blame for the low-key atmosphere, but even the free-cocktail bar on the DGA terrace (a popular networking point in years past) was opened only several days into the festival, seemingly as an afterthought.

Reactions to the fest by attending filmmakers were mixed as well. Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle, who made the powerful Ever Since the World Ended – a low-budget postapocalyptic pseudo-documentary admittedly influenced by The Blair Witch Project – claimed that they hadn’t heard much about the L.A. festival in the past but, after reading a positive review in Chris Gore’s Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide, decided to go for it. "We were treated so well by the festival, and the film got a wonderful kickoff. We’re glad we premiered here." But one previously award-winning documentary filmmaker whom I spoke to had a different experience: the night before the first show, only seven tickets had been sold. The filmmakers quickly rallied, copying flyers and spending the rest of the evening and next day canvassing their film, and eventually managed to fill half the auditorium for a well-received screening.

The opening night film, Sidewalks of New York, written and directed by and starring Edward Burns, confirmed the actor/filmmaker’s determination to become a new, Catholic Woody Allen for nonintellectuals. Other premieres included Michael Radford’s ensemble improv piece, Dancing at the Blue Iguana, set in an L.A. strip club, Jesse Peretz’s Americans-in-France comedy The Chàteau, acquired for theatrical distribution by IFC Films at the festival, and Dan Mintz’s extraordinarily spare and utterly compelling drugs-and-ghost story, Cookers.

Of a handful of Sundance films selected for the L.A. screenings, Ilya Chaiken’s Margarita Happy Hour and Denis Villeneuve’s beautiful Maelström stood out as two of the fest’s strongest films. Some notable documentaries were Amato: A Love Affair with Opera by Stephen Ives, Who is Bernard Tapie? by Marina Zenovich, Scratch by Doug Pray, and the exceptional Life and Debt by Stephanie Black.

The short films included some gems, such as Mollie Jones’s haunting antidrug film, Invisible, Ari Gold’s wrenching, autobiographical Helicopter, and Leanna Creel’s Offside. But the lineup also brought a few expensively made lemons, including Kandeyce Jorden’s Undone, in which production values and sex/crime/violence clichés seem to have completely conquered story and character development, and Jason Reitman’s ridiculous Gulp, essentially a long and oblique car commercial with lots of pointless special effects and very few ideas.

About a third of this year’s feature films were shot on DV – so many that it is no longer noteworthy to name them. In fact, chuckles were heard from industry members of the audience before each of the festival screenings, when Kodak’s sponsor-trailer seemed to try very hard to argue for the value of celluloid. At one digital master class seminar, filmmakers Allison Anders (Things behind the Sun) and Kristian Levring (The King Is Alive) discussed their experiences making digital features. Whereas Levring’s technical experiences were extremely informative and empowering, Anders’s personal comments revolved more around the human aspects of her experiences. When asked what kind of camera she used on the film, she wasn’t sure. "I don’t know," she said. "I think it might have been a something-500?"

Incomprehensibly, one of the festival’s weaker films won the Critics Jury Award, Kaaterskill Falls by Josh Apter and Peter Olsen, a movie with stereotypically flat characters, heavy-handed directing and self-consciously choppy editing. The festival’s biggest winner was Kissing Jessica Stein, a harmless and sometimes charming romantic comedy about lesbian self-discovery, directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, which won both the Audience Award and a Special Jury Award for Writing and Acting for its two scribes and stars, Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt. It was picked up by Fox Searchlight shortly after the festival. Honorable Mention of the Critics Jury went to Stephanie Black for her political documentary feature Life and Debt, which explores the negative effects of International Monetary Fund loans to developing countries, using Jamaica as her example. Not the sexiest of subjects, but Black’s film is still brilliant, both cinematically and for the important message it brings home.

Despite a few half-empty screenings, this year’s festival did manage to attract audiences of more than 30,000 people. If only it had been a bit more "festive." – Rolf Gibbs


South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival

You know you’re at South by Southwest when they start giving away free software at parties," someone said, standing next to me as we looked out over the crowd. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, a former dot-commer squeezing out the final months of his job like a drunk at last call. He downed the remainder of his drink, mumbled, "I’m going to get another one" and shuffled into the crowd. And so it was at this year’s South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SxSW), where this same scene replayed every night, screening after screening, party after party, and although the people were different, the looks on their faces were not.

What a change from years past, when this Austin, Texas, festival seemed to be literally exploding with energy – or, as the festival’s organizers would have put it then, synergy. But with the tech world’s recent economic collapse, it seems as if a black cloud has settled over the festival. Maybe it’s the drying up of private equity money, but the indie scene, like the Nasdaq, is adjusting to a bear market.

Yet there could be a silver lining to the darkest of dot-com clouds: the playing field has been leveled, and it is now time for the films themselves to shine. This year, as has been the case in the past, documentaries scored with audiences hoping to discover another Dark Days or The Target Shoots First. What they got this past spring was a solid bill of diverse films encompassing a slew of musically oriented docs (popular with those in town for the music part of SxSW) coupled with a healthy dose of quirky, "personal journey" pieces.

Stephen Ives’s Amato: A Love Affair with Opera, which chronicles a couple’s dedication to their cramped Opera House in the heart of New York City’s Bowery, was a crowd favorite as well as a Competition runner-up, tying for second place with Bradley Beesley’s short film Okie Noodling. Okie Noodling, about – what else? – catching fish with your hands, was probably the biggest surprise of all the docs, as it also was awarded an audience award. Sarah Price’s Caesar’s Park explores the filmmaker’s neighborhood, unraveling delicate parallels of race, class and ageism in subtle and endearing ways. Chronicling urban sprawl in a small Virginia town, Micha X. Peled’s Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town was a shocking exposé of the business practices of Wal-Mart stores and one town’s fight to stop their expansion. The film, funded by ITVS, was aired on PBS in June. Heather Courtney’s Los Trabajadores (The Workers), which highlights the plight of Austin’s illegal aliens trying to find work in the shadow of Austin’s construction boom, won the Documentary First-Film Prize.

One of the strangest entries in the nonfiction competition, Hybrid, directed by Monteith McCollum, was also the jury’s favorite, picking up this year’s Best Documentary Award. The festival guide synopsis describes it as a "film that poetically describes the sexuality of corn." All joking aside, the black-and-white film is a visual and emotional achievement. Pulling a resonant tale from a seemingly banal subject, McCollum captures the heart of Milford Beeghly, a man who spent 70 years developing hybrid corn only to have alienated his family in the process.

There weren’t as many bright spots in this year’s dramatic lineup. The Zeros, written, directed and produced by John Ryman picked up a nod as runner-up in narrative competition and a best-feature award in the audience competition. Set in the future, The Zeros is an entertaining road movie that comes off as a poignant yet dark comedy with good bite. Local filmmaker and former location scout James Crowley took home the award for Best First Feature with The Journeyman, his socially conscious yet violently bitter homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Eric Schaeffer’s latest film, Never Again, though not in competition, premiered at the festival with little hype, but was soon a "must-see" after it received a standing ovation at the Paramount Theater. Jill Clayburgh and Jeffrey Tambor turn in amazing performances as two older singles trying to cope with their fear of relationships.

While this year’s SxSW may have failed at providing stress-free networking parties, the festival, on the whole, succeeded at what must be considered its main mission: showing good films. Documentary filmmaker Sarah Price, a festival veteran with partner Chris Smith with their films American Job and American Movie, feels that SxSW’s size facilitates successful screenings: "I think my film could have gotten swallowed up at a larger festival, but this festival is just large enough and small enough for every film to have its moment." – Josh Zeman


San Francisco Documentary Film Festival

Every big American city has at least a few churches built on the lots of failed neighborhood movie theaters, but it’s not every day that you see a church being converted back into a cinema. Okay, so San Francisco’s First Congregational Church isn’t really a church anymore – the Academy of Art College owns it now – but over Memorial Day weekend, the faithful came out anyway. The occasion: the first San Francisco Documentary Film Festival.

"I hadn’t set foot in a church myself since I was about eight," says Tod Booth, the Doc Fest’s co-programmer (with cohort Allen White), who handpicked the 21 shorts and features for the four-day event. Had an innocent seeker of God’s word accidentally wandered into one of the screenings that weekend, what prayer might he or she have said for the various sights and sounds onscreen? Included among the black mass of delights were the hardcore sex of Maggie Carey and Elena Carr’s Ladyporn, the gloriously sacrilegious iconography of André Barcinski’s and Ivan Finotti’s portrait of Brazilian horror director José Mojica Marins, Coffin Joe, and an earful of death metal from Brad Vanderberg’s Bloodhag: The Faster You Go Deaf the More Time You Have to Read – a film promoting literacy among teens, believe it or not. "I have no doubt that the words ‘penis,’ ‘blowjob’ and their many variants have never been spoken so many times in the whole history of that building," Booth says. "Of course, Plaster Caster [Jessica Villines’s film about rock stars’ immortalized members] would probably capture that record wherever it plays."

A spinoff of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, the brainchild of budding impresario Jeff Ross, a niche event like the Doc Fest (not to be confused with New York’s DocFest) is a tricky proposition in a seemingly over-festivaled town like San Francisco. But, according to Booth, "the numbers tell the tale: we had 12 programs and about 1,500 ticket buyers. I suspect a lot of our patrons are filmmakers themselves who liked meeting the out-of-town filmmakers who attended. And I think the idea of seeing movies in places other than the multiplexes, which are growing like mushrooms around here, is almost a relief for a lot of people. It makes for a fun event. The Oscars really cast a pall over the whole documentary genre," he argues. "The nominees are all so sober. I like a good Holocaust documentary as much as the next guy, but we wanted to celebrate the more lighthearted and strange side of docs."

The Doc Fest offers congenial competition as well, with the audience picking the winners. This year Arthur Borman and Steve Danielson’s Karaoke Fever took favorite feature, and Vanderberg’s Bloodhag, favorite short. Each received a trophy modeled on the Golden Boy given out to Academy Award winners, colorfully custom-painted by a local artist. "We thought about giving out a glow-in-the-dark Jesus statue or something," Booth quipped, "but we didn’t want to push this church thing too far." – Justin Lowe

San Francisco International Film Festival

With the departure of Peter Scarlet after 19 years as its artistic director, the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), North America’s oldest, enters a new era. Moving on to accept what he called a "terrifying challenge" as director of the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, Scarlet leaves behind a fest well known for its Francophilia as well as its long-standing dedication to independent voices, international directors and Bay Area filmmakers. These traditional propensities were all on display at the 44th edition of the festival (April 19 through May 3), where French films and indies accounted for 50% of the SFIFF’s 100-plus feature-length programs.

This year the festival recognized Stockard Channing’s career accomplishments in acting with the Peter J. Owens Award and a screening of Patrick Stettner’s drama The Business of Strangers, starring Channing as a scheming business executive. The film also won Stettner the SFIFF’s Skyy Prize, a $10,000 first-feature award.

Among the SFIFF’s coups was the international premiere of a digitally restored version of Fritz Lang’s magnificent silent-classic Metropolis. Juggling English-language narration from three different translations, Scarlet managed to keep pace with the live organ accompaniment, thoroughly entertaining a sold-out crowd at the historic Castro Theater. Another SRO event, The Sounds of Science, featured Hoboken, N.J., indie popsters Yo La Tengo performing an imaginative original live score for a program of short films on the natural history of marine life by avant-garde underwater filmmaker Jean Painlevé.

American underground cinema was exemplified by one of the originals: experimental auteur Kenneth Anger, on hand to receive the SFIFF’s Persistence of Vision Award and present Magick Lantern Cycle, a nine-film program of his complete collected shorts. Taking up the Beat banner, Joseph Castelo’s American Saint, a largely improvised DV road movie inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, captured an energy and spontaneity widely lacking in many of the fest’s larger-budget independent selections. Shooting on location from New York to L.A. with only a scenario-based script, Castelo elicits refreshingly unmannered performances from leads Kevin Corrigan and Vincent Schiavelli.

Junji Sakamoto’s Face features renowned Japanese stage actress Naomi Fujiyama’s transformative performance as the tortured Masako, an awkward, spinsterish seamstress who discovers the liberating power of justifiable homicide. Jia Ke Zhang returned to the festival with Platform (after winning the Skyy Prize for Xiao Wu in 1998), and even with 45 minutes excised from its original three-plus hour running time, Jia’s sophomore offering moves at a fascinatingly deliberate pace as it chronicles the confusion and ennui of a troupe of theatrical performers struggling through China’s economic upheavals of the 1980s.

Though outnumbered by narratives, documentary selections also made strong showings. Jan Harlan’s exhaustive (141 mins.) Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures wisely avoids the cradle-to-grave biopic approach. Gaea Girls by Jano Williams and Kim Longinotto adopts a stripped-down vérité approach to depict the punishing training and fanatic determination of would-be women wrestlers at the Gaea Japan training camp.

John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch won the audience prize for Best Narrative Feature in a tie with Stranger Inside from Cheryl Dunye. Kate Davis’s Southern Comfort received the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary. Promises by Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado, took both the Bay Area Golden Gate and audience awards for Best Documentary Feature with its touching and insightful portrayal of seven West Bank Palestinian and Israeli kids struggling to understand the religious strife that surrounds them.

An 18% jump in attendance at this year’s fest bodes well for Scarlet’s successor, still unnamed at press time. Scarlet, meanwhile, has expressed interest in continuing to assist the SFIFF in an advisory capacity. "I don’t look at this as good-bye [so much] as evolving to a different role," he says. – Chuck Stephens

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