by Tien-Tien L. Jong
With 168 total films, spanning 56 countries (and 40 languages), the 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (April 24-May 8, 2014) was a truly “international” and diverse event. Here is a mini summary of my experience at the festival, with a list of my personal top five favorite new films that I discovered, and which I recommend keeping an eye out for at the multiplex, arthouse, or digital screening platform of your choice.
Comedies are generally, unfortunately, in short supply at “serious” film festivals, but this year’s SFIFF included an impressively strong slate of them in the national as well as World Cinema categories. If You Don’t, I Will / Arrête ou je continue (dir. Sophie Fillières, France), starring Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric as a middle-aged couple who suspect they have fallen out of love, was—without giving anything else away—a welcome surprise at the festival for me, as well as one of the most absurdist comedies I’ve seen in recent memory. Consistently funny and engagingly surreal, If You Don’t, I Will says interesting things about the paranoia and loss of perspective that can arise from being in a long-term relationship, and was one of the more enjoyable challenges I’ve found at the movies recently.
Another unexpected surprise I found at SFIFF was the exceptional Of Horses and Men / Hross í oss (dir. Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland/Germany), which cannot be characterized strictly as a comedy, despite frequently being very funny. Told in the form of a series of pastoral parables, the film follows events in a rural Icelandic community, and in doing so reveals the complex relationship of people to horses: they depend on them, profit from them, love them and, ultimately, fear them. Of Horses and Men is the directorial debut of Benedikt Erlingsson, and it’s a staggering one—the scenes captured here are without a doubt visually the most interesting I saw throughout the two-week-long festival, from the scenes choreographed with horses to the dramatic, poetic uses of color throughout.
Out of a strong line-up of dramas at SFIFF, it was a film by a first-time director that stood out to me as an especially interesting, impressive, and subversive debut: Trap Street / Shuiyin jie (dir. Vivian Qu, China). A neo-noir set in modern China, Trap Street tells the story of Li Qiuming (Lu Yulai), a young surveyor for a map company who moonlights installing security cameras around the city. When he falls for a mysterious woman who works in a building labeled “Laboratory 203,” which fails to register on any maps or GPS devices, Qiuming becomes implicated in a larger surveillance agenda. Trap Street is a fantastic exploration of China as a society that is rapidly expanding and progressive in a number of superficial ways, but in which old-fashioned mentalities prevail in the government. Like The Conversation (1974) or The Lives of Others (2006), Trap Street is a film which analyzes the condition in which paranoia becomes a defining element of life, and implies that this could become endemic in contemporary China. In a Q&A session following the screening, director Vivian Qu said that she aspires to create a cinema that challenges the act of looking and seeing, and Trap Street does so wonderfully.
Another standout from the festival was the documentary Return to Homs (Talal Derki, Syria/Germany), which received a Special Jury Recognition in competition at SFIFF. An amazing and harrowing feat of modern war photography, the film is basically entirely comprised of footage of fighting in the city of Homs between Syrian resistance fighters and Bashar al-Assad’s army. The film focuses on Basset, a former rising soccer star who has been re-cast by history in a very different role. Return to Homs is a rare documentary which manages to obliterate the need for fictionalization—it’s hard to imagine any Hollywood movie version ever being made, since the scenes here could not be more dramatic, and it would be difficult to find a leader more charismatic or handsome than Basset. Return to Homs also functions as a powerful work of human rights, with rebels using the platform to bring their “message to the world,” in defiance of Assad. Return to Homs is almost certainly the most immediate film you are likely to see, especially given the on-going, indeterminate status of the city of Homs.
Night Moves (dir. Kelly Reichardt, USA) was the last film I saw at the SFIFF, and it was a gratifying way to end my experience at the festival (despite some unevenness in the film’s last act). Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard play three eco-terrorists who plot to blow up a dam, until they discover a weak link in their seemingly well-laid plans. Kelly Reichardt has shown an interest in playing around with the conventions of genre filmmaking throughout her career, often redefining them in the process—Old Joy (2006) was a unique take on the reunion/road-trip movie; her 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff can be imperfectly described as a feminist Western. Night Moves can be described as a political thriller with a touch of neo-noir, but like Reichardt’s other films, what makes Night Moves special and unlike any other thriller you’re likely to see are the small details in tone and feeling that Reichardt uses in her storytelling.
Instead of relying on dramatic plot points (though there are several in Night Moves), Reichardt uses small details as turning points, which are often imperceptible on a first viewing, but add immeasurable degrees of depth to the stories she tells. Night Moves takes its title from the name of a boat that plays a critical role in the plot, but it also recalls the 1975 Arthur Penn/Gene Hackman film of the same title, which seems entirely appropriate. Like the paranoia and misguided sense of heroism that becomes Harry Moseby’s downfall in that film, the environmentalists in Reichardt’s film must confront the difficulty of actually “going off the grid” in modern America, as well as the importance of recognizing meaningful activism versus self-serving theater, a significant lesson to impart in any climate. […]
One of the compliments that can be paid to a film festival is that there are many programs worth revisiting, and that was certainly true of the 57th San Francisco International. If you would like to see extended reviews of any of the films mentioned here or to request a copy of my full-length report on the festival, please let me know in the comments or by emailing me here. My review of Palo Alto, the Centerpiece film at the SFIFF, is available here.
In a former life, Tien-Tien Jong worked as the Director of the Dartmouth Film Society and as a coordinator for the shorts division of the Telluride Film Festival. She loves animation, silent film, and film noir, and has a soft spot for ballet and opera in British, French and American films from the 1940s-’60s. In her free time, she enjoys reading graphic novels and struggling with WordPress. Her favorite theaters are the beautiful Paramount in Oakland and the Castro in SF.