Festival Guide: The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival: Audience Tested

by Gary Meyer

The world comes to San Francisco for the next two weeks through the lens of the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24-May 8, 2014.

A packed house at the legendary Castro Theatre during the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24 - May 8, 2008.

A packed house at the legendary Castro Theatre during the San Francisco Int’l. Film Festival. Photo by Tommy Lau.

In 1956 San Francisco theater owner Irving “Bud” Levin and his wife Irma returned from the Venice Film Festival anxious to bring the Italian cinematic discoveries they had seen to The City.  Working with the consulate, they presented a successful Italian Film Week. The response was so enthusiastic that the following year brought the start of the San Francisco International Film Festival, the first such event in the Americas.

 The 1957 premiere edition gave the first Golden Gate Awards to Indian master Satyajit Ray, winning Best Director and his PATHER PANCHALI earning Best Picture. In the years that followed many great filmmakers of the last six decades have brought their movies to the city by the bay.

The lineup for the 57th Festival appears to be especially strong. While the program has it share of international and national premieres, the programming team headed by Rachel Rosen and enthusiastically endorsed by the new Executive Director Noah Cowan, brings us a fine selection of Northern California debuts of audience-tested winners from respected festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, SXSW, Venice and Telluride. Choosing what to see can be a challenge. Certainly go to movies that pique your curiosity but be adventurous and take some chances. If you know a film will open in local theaters, you might try an alternative choice. Be the first to discover something you can tell your friends to seek out.


Special Events

There are two very special events that you should put on your calendar now. David Thomson is one of the most readable and thought-provoking film writers around. His reviews and feature pieces regularly appear in The New Republic, London Guardian, Independent and Film Comment.  His books are legendary. No true film lover should be without The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. It topped the Sight & Sound 2010 poll of best film books of all time.  His other 20+ books on non-fiction and fiction are both fun to read and full of great stories. The newest, Moments That Made The Movies features 70 essays about scenes that are indelible to anyone who has seen them. Moments That Made the Movies Thomson Thomson will be awarded the Mel Novikoff Award on Sunday, May 4, followed by a conversation with another terrific writer, Geoff Dyer. Thomson has chosen to show Preston Sturges’ THE LADY EVE. If you have seen it, you no doubt will be coming to see it again and bringing friends. If not, I can promise it is one of the funniest and most sophisticated romantic comedies ever made, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. With a good audience, the laughter is sure to be infectious.

On Sunday, April 27, the brilliant filmmaker and installation artist Isaac Julien will receive the “Persistence of Vision” Award and engage in a wide-ranging conversation with critic B. Ruby Rich, as well as show his rarely screened TEN THOUSAND WAVES.

Thao Nguyen and her band The Get Down Stay Down will be accompanying a selection of short films  and Charlie Chaplin's THE PAWNSHOP at the SF Int'l. Film Festival.

Thao Nguyen and The Get Down Stay Down will be accompanying a selection of short films and Charlie Chaplin’s THE PAWNSHOP on Tuesday, April 29, as part of the SF Int’l. FF



SFIFF is known for presenting silent films with adventurous new musical scores and this year brings two highly anticipated choices. Thao Nguyen and her Get Down Stay Down band will accompany Chaplin’s THE PAWNSHOP and a selection of classic experimental animation and live action, newsreels and Nguyen’s own short videos. Tuesday, April 29 at 8:00 PM.

Stephen Merritt (The Magnetic Fields) returns to the Castro on Tuesday, May 6 to accompany Tod Browning’s THE UNKNOWN starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. If FREAKS creeped you out, don’t miss the director’s companion piece.

Richard Linklater, recipient of the Founder's Directing Award at the SF Int'l. FF

Richard Linklater, recipient of the Founder’s Directing Award at the SF Int’l. FF. Photo by Pamela Gentile.

Though his wonderful BOYHOOD will open theatrically this summer, if you can score tickets to the May 2 “Evening with Richard Linklater,” it will prove to be a rewarding choice. The director has a lot to say about his career, mixing truly independent works with studio projects that pay for movies like the terrific BOYHOOD, which was filmed over twelve years, taking chances that his cast would come back annually for a few weeks to recreate their characters as time passed.

You should also check out the Master Classes and Salons for intriguing sessions with film artists and industry leaders.


What’s New?

The following movies, in alphabetical order, are those that I have seen with audiences at other festivals and feel are worth your time to see over the next two weeks.

A scene from Claudia Sainte-Luce's THE AMAZING CATFISH.

A scene from Claudia Sainte-Luce’s THE AMAZING CATFISH.

THE AMAZING CATFISH finds a delicate balance between drama and comedy as a lonely young woman is accepted into an eccentric family led by a mother with a terminal illness who will not allow her situation to prevent her from embracing life with the children. I have seen it twice and am increasingly impressed with what director Claudia Sainte-Luce has accomplished.

Tizita Hagere in DIFRET

Tizita Hagere in DIFRET

DIFRET doesn’t break ground in its filmmaking but it tells such a powerful story that it engages and outrages the viewer. In a remote Ethiopian village, a 14-year old girl has turned down the repeated marriage proposals of an older neighbor. A local tradition of “telefa” allows abduction for marriage, and on her way home from school, the girl is kidnapped and raped. She escapes with a rifle and kills the man, a crime that could result in the death penalty. Based on a true story in 1996, a lawyer from the Andinet Women Lawyers Association takes on the case. The girl doesn’t know what the legal system is and must be coaxed out of her shell of fear.

John Wojtowicz as himself in THE DOG.

John Wojtowicz as himself in THE DOG.

THE DOG explores the world of the irrepressible John Wojtowicz, the gay activist who inspired the bank robber played by Al Pacino in DOG DAY AFTERNOON. The first half hour takes us through that part of the story and the balance of the movie explores the short-lived media frenzy, his years in prison, the relationship with his ex-lover Ernie Aron who became Liz Eden in a successful sex-change operation and John’s own delusions of grandeur as a free man.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender, and Dohmnall Gleeson in FRANK.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender, and Dohmnall Gleeson in FRANK.

FRANK is a true original about a minimally talented songwriter who wants to be a pop star. Invited to join a quirky punk band, he soon finds that this is not his road to success, but without another outlet, he can’t walk away. Frank demands ever more adventurous, and loud, new music. And there is something else—Frank always wears a giant papier-mache head. Will we ever see his face? Since Michael Fassbender plays Frank, it would be pretty strange if he never takes it off. You may want to lay bets on this one, changing your mind as the film progresses. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the band’s theremin player and the one person who understands that Frank’s quirky nature and vision may not be able to survive the modern world. This isn’t for everybody, but take a chance for an offbeat 96 minutes.

A scene from Stanley Nelson's FREEDOM SUMMER.

A scene from Stanley Nelson’s FREEDOM SUMMER.

FREEDOM SUMMER is the latest from documentary master Stanley Nelson, using archival footage and photos to powerfully tell the story of a key ten weeks in 1964. Hundreds of activists committed to registering African-Americans in Mississippi face the Klan, a state government committed to segregation, murders and a less-than-sympathetic LBJ. The actions of civil rights workers eventually forced the President to sign the Voting Rights Act. You may know the story, but this inspiring look fills in the gaps.

A scene from Johannes Holzhausen's THE GREAT MUSEUM.

A scene from Johannes Holzhausen’s THE GREAT MUSEUM.

THE GREAT MUSEUM takes us behind the scenes at Vienna’s massive Kunsthistorisches Museum as we eavesdrop on their work: conserving art, planning exhibitions and events, raising money, considering marketing plans and the many aspects most of us take for granted when we walk into a museum. There are memorable moments but the one that stays with me is when a curator, thinking the placement of paintings in a certain gallery is perfect, notices a detail that requires a complete change of the order. Without narration, voiceovers or even music, we become a part of the process.

HAPPINESS takes us to remote Bhutan where a village is about to get electricity. Though television and the internet were introduced to the country in 1999, villages like Laya were left behind. Nine-year-old Peyangki will miss out as his mother sends him to a fading monastery because she cannot afford to raise all six of her children. When his uncle takes him to the big city, he discovers a different world both exciting and frightening after the tranquil and beautiful surroundings he has known his entire life. The film feels like a hybrid between narrative and documentary, and may be some of each in reality.



KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER is going to be much discussed as audiences find themselves split by the sometimes contemplative but always quirky nature of this new work from Austin’s Zellner brothers as they pay tribute to another brother film-making team. Rinko Kikuchil, so memorable in BABEL, is Kumiko, a lonely “office lady” in Tokyo. She found a video of the Coen Brothers’ FARGO and is convinced that it is sending her a message to travel to the northwest and find a buried treasure. The quiet pace of her life in Japan is a striking contrast to the culture shock she experiences and provides for the people she meets when she gets to the snowy cold of Minnesota. Her final journey offers a memorable puzzle.

A scene from Mohammad Rasoulof's MANUSCRIPTS DON'T BURN.

A scene from Mohammad Rasoulof’s MANUSCRIPTS DON’T BURN.

MANUSCRIPTS DON’T BURN is Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s follow-up to the Cannes winner GOODBYE. But he did not attend with that movie because he and another Iranian filmmaker, Jafar Panahi were in jail for suspicion of making films expressing anti-government attitudes after the contested re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both filmmakers were sentenced to a 20-year ban on filmmaking but they found ways to make their art and have the films secretly delivered to film festivals. An appeal resulted in a reduced prison sentence for Rasoulof. The director’s previous works have been critical of Iranian society and politics but in quiet, almost hidden ways.

This new movie is based on a real-life story of 21 Iranian writers who survived a botched attempt on their lives while traveling on a bus, and there is no attempt to cover up the source of the thriller that ensues. Two men are sent on a mission to retrieve the three existing copies of the draft of a book written by one of the accident’s survivors who is critical of the government’s failed attempt to kill authors. The would-be assassins have their own complex stories that create both tension and absurd realties, giving us reasons to care about all of the characters, even if we don’t like some of them.

Rasoulof decided to have no cast or credits on the movie or in the Cannes program book where there was merely a vague two-line description of a thriller about two hit men. There were no press kits. This was done to protect all those who worked on the film that was made entirely clandestinely. The film will probably never be screened legally in Iran. But San Franciscans can experience its riches and discover one of the little-known masters of contemporary cinema.

A scene from Benedikt Erlingsson's OF HORSES AND MEN.

A scene from Benedikt Erlingsson’s OF HORSES AND MEN.

OF HORSES AND MEN is a strange film from rural Iceland. It is about the love of people for their horses and the extremes they will go to if they feel their animal has been abused or left impure. Human repression is played out through their relationships with horses. At times, humorous but there are moments some will turn away from the screen. Another conversation starter.

Zoe Levin in PALO ALTO, based on the short story collection by James Franco.

Zoe Levin in PALO ALTO, based on the short story collection by James Franco.

PALO ALTO is the first work of Gia Coppola and she has started in fine style with an adaptation of James Franco’s book about teens in the peninsula town. We each can reflect on our own youth as life went from being innocent to giving us challenging temptations of sex, drugs and drink only with the discovery of other adult responsibilities. A great cast brings this to life in a way that baby boomers may not want to admit has parallels to their own youth while being unsettling to imagine for their own children.

A STORY OF CHILDREN AND FILM is Mark Cousins’ follow-up to the epic A STORY OF FILM. As always, Cousins chooses scenes from classic movies, some familiar but often new images that compel us to seek the films out. His cine-essay is a personal journey for the filmmaker that we can all relate to as we see children depicted around the world as they hesitate from joining the call to an adult world.

Mia Wasikowska in TRACKS.

Mia Wasikowska in TRACKS.

TRACKS follows Robyn Davidson’s journey from Alice Springs in Australia to the Indian Ocean. Four camels and her dog accompany her with visits from National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) who has been sent to record her trip. He falls for her but she is careful in how the relationship develops because she knows that he will be called away to another assignment and she must return to her solo adventure. Mia Wasikowska is excellent though one wonders how this blonde avoided sunburn from constant exposure in the desert.

WE COME AS FRIENDS is Hubert Sauper’s newest work after the controversial DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE and this will also cause talk as he visits various villages in a plane he built to reach remote locations. The effects of the neocolonialist exploitation of South Sudan are heartbreaking—missionaries do their work in the name of establishing a “new Texas”; an American couple builds a large house with a fence around it in the middle of a village; the local water supply is poisoned as a result of a Chinese company’s oil drilling. The beautiful cinematography makes the nightmares even more powerful.

Additionally I urge you to catch a program of short films, many from the Bay Area.


Take a look and have a great festival! Check out the full film guide here.


Gary Meyer fell in love with the movies at 7 years old, opening the Above-the-Ground Theatre in Napa when he was twelve, screening silent and sound classics plus his own productions. With a Bachelor’s degree in Film Production at San Francisco State University, Gary co-founded Landmark Theatres in 1975, the first national art house chain in the U.S. focused on creative marketing strategies to build loyal audiences for non-Hollywood fare. After selling Landmark, he consulted on projects including creating business-marketing-programming plans for Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas; creating the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games; and resurrecting the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007. Now a senior curator at Telluride, Meyer also founded the online magazine, EatDrinkFilms.com in 2014, with the EatDrinkFilms Festival to tour nationally in 2015.

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