by Pam Grady
Guillermo del Toro or Guy Maddin? That’s one of the tough questions facing moviegoers at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival. On Saturday, April 25, del Toro, the 2015 recipient of the Irving M. Levin Directing Award, appears at the Castro Theatre for an onstage interview followed by a rare opportunity to see The Devil’s Backbone , his 2001 Gothic horror masterpiece, on the big screen. Meanwhile, over at the Kabuki Sundance Cinemas, festival favorite Maddin screens his latest (co-directed by his former student Evan Johnson), The Forbidden Room , a fever dream evocation of “lost” films, followed by a Q&A. Two tantalizing films, two brilliant raconteurs. How does one choose?
Ah, the sweet torture of film festivals. Between opening night, Thursday April 23, when Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, Alex Gibney’s examination of the late king of the local technocracy, kicks off the festival, and Thursday, May 7, when Experimenter, Michael Almereyda’s Peter Sarsgaard-starring drama about psychologist Stanley Milgram and his infamous electric-shock tests, closes it down, cinemagoers face many impossible choices. Winnowing down a list of must-sees to a manageable size for this article was a painful exercise. It’s not easy playing Hamlet, but a kind of Top 10 list did eventually emerge:
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution—MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Stanley Nelson previously shed light on one Bay Area phenomenon with his award-winning documentary, 2006’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple . Now, he does it again with this fascinating history of the game-changing organization born in Oakland, CA—a documentary chock-full of intriguing archival footage, and testimony from those who were there. April 25, 3 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas; April 28, 6:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
Cibo Matto New Scene—Back after a hiatus of more than a dozen years, the hip-hop and funk-infused pop duo Cibo Matto are the latest musical outfit tapped by SFIFF to compose new scores for films and perform them live. The band accompanies a selection of clips and animated and live-action shorts, including sometime collaborator Yoko Ono’s 1970 avant-garde short Fly . May 5, 8 p.m., Castro Theatre.
City of Gold—One of the greatest valentines to Los Angeles since Randy Newman’s “I Love LA,” Laura Gabbert’s documentary subject is ostensibly LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold, but as Gold drives Gabbert from food truck to five-star restaurant and from downtown to far-off suburbs, all the while explaining how a cellist in a punk band transformed into a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, another story emerges. It’s the tale of a city of rich diversity, of intersecting cultures, of beauty and culinary wonders hidden amongst strip malls and traffic-congested sprawl. April 25, 6:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas; April 28, 9:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
Eden—Festival favorite Mia Hansen-Løve (All is Forgiven , Father of My Children ) returns with this atmospheric French drama partially inspired by her brother and co-writer Sven’s experiences as a DJ in Paris during the 1990s. An evocation of the era’s electronic dance music scene, Eden pulsates with the music of an era as it spins the tale of a young man whose early success pioneering the “French Touch” sound masks personal chaos. April 30, 9:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas; May 1, 2 p.m.; Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
Love & Mercy—Co-written by Oren Moverman, who also co-wrote Todd Haynes’ acclaimed Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There , this moving, offbeat drama stars Paul Dano and John Cusack as Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Both actors are at the top of their game in a film that charts tortured musical genius. Dano is heartbreaking as the younger Wilson, scoring some of his greatest triumphs as he works with his band and the famed Wrecking Crew group of studio musicians to produce Pet Sounds and Smile , while at the same time beginning to suffer the turmoil that would nearly destroy him. Cusack is the older, broken man whose chance meeting with a pretty Cadillac saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) signals a second chance at life. May 4, 2 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
Mel Novikoff Award: Lenny Borger: Monte-Cristo—The Brooklyn-born Parisian who is both a discoverer of lost films and a celebrated translator and subtitler of French films that include Rififi and Contempt , Lenny Borger is this year’s winner of the award named for legendary San Francisco exhibitor Mel Novikoff. After an onstage interview with Variety critic Scott Foundas, Borger screens one of his rediscoveries, a silent classic that he first stumbled on in a Czech film archive, Henri Fescourt’s epic, 1929 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ exciting tale of revenge. May 3, 1 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents—Avant-garde music meets performance art in the Bay Area collective that prizes anonymity over fame, hiding their identities behind giant eyeballs and other elaborate costumes. Don Hardy’s documentary doesn’t attempt to unmask the legendary Bay Area outfit, but instead spins its bewitching history through performance footage, video clips, and testimonials from collaborators and fans, including DEVO’s Jerry Casale and Simpsons creator Matt Groening. April 25, 8:45 p.m., Pacific Film Archive Theater; May 1, 9 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas; May 3, 6:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
The Tribe—It’s Lord of the Flies times infinity for teenagers in a deaf school in this mesmerizing Ukrainian import. With no subtitles, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s tough, uncompromising drama thrusts the hearing into the space the deaf normally inhabit in a world where in absence of hearing, they have to rely on what they can observe. And there is plenty to observe in a tale in which a boy finds himself thrust into a school that fosters criminality and delinquency. May 2, 3:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas; May 4, 9 p.m., Landmark’s Clay Theatre.
Welcome, Space Brothers: The Films of the Unarius Academy of Science with Jodi Wille—The Unarius Brotherhood was a cult phenomenon of the 1970s and ‘80s, a group that believed in reincarnation and “the interdimensional science of life,” a philosophy that it attempted to spread through a series of off-kilter videos. This presentation of Unariun history, videos and a Q&A promises a lively evening. May 2, 9:45 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
Winter Sleep – Last year’s Palme d’Or and FIPRESCI prize-winner at the Cannes Film Festival is a mesmerizing study of a grandiose man, a big fish in a small Anatolian pond, gradually cut down to size. An epic character drama, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest is also gorgeous, set against a backdrop of the steppes and panoramas of Cappadocia. This late addition to SFIFF may represent the only opportunity Bay Area audiences have to see this eye-popping film the way it was meant to be seen: on a big screen. May 5, 7:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
58TH SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
April 23—May 7. www.sffs.org/sfiff58.
Pam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.