by Pam Grady
The Coen family has taken over the Bay Area in the first half of 2016. First, Frances McDormand, wife of Joel Coen, played to sold out houses with her turn as Lady Macbeth in Berkeley Rep’s production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Now, her husband and his brother Ethan are a star attraction alongside Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of Janus/Criterion when the San Francisco International Film Festival awards its Mel Novikoff Award to Janus Films and The Criterion Collection on Saturday, April 30, at the Castro Theatre. The siblings’ first feature Blood Simple, the tense, bewitching neo-noir in which McDormand made her debut as barkeep Dan Hedaya’s cheating spouse, screens as well in what is sure to be a magical afternoon.
But then there’s a lot of magic going on at the 59th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival, a year where the festival embraces change in a move to the Mission and a new logo and offers a peek at cutting-edge cinema with its April 30th VR Day. The overall program is a heady mix of narrative and documentary, classic and new, and films and special events. No list of highlights can ever be complete, but here are a handful of the very many things to look forward to:
Kanbar Award: An Evening with Tom McCarthy: The Spotlight writer/director and recent Oscar winner will pick up another prize at the Film Society Awards Night where he will be formally given the Kanbar Storytelling Award, but it’s the evening for the rest of us on Tuesday, May 26, at Berkeley’s BAMPFA that is the special one. McCarthy will be on hand for an onstage interview and screening of his enchanting 2003 debut The Station Agent. The drama that launched a new career for the actor-turned-filmmaker stars Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) as a train enthusiast and a man who just wants to be left alone in a new town who unexpectedly finds himself pulled into the social whirl.
Microbe and Gasoline: French auteur Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) returns with another irresistible fable emphasizing the power of the imagination as two young misfit teens seek escape from unhappy home and school lives by building a miniature house on wheels and driving it across France in search of adventure.
Our Kind of Traitor: Stellan Skarsgård steals the show as a Russian money launderer who expects a poetry professor (Ewan McGregor) he just met to help him and his family defect to England in Susanna White’s sleek John Le Carré adaptation that makes its international premiere at SFIFF. Hossein Amini (Drive, Two Faces of January) penned the screenplay of this tense thriller that costars Naomie Harris as McGregor’s initially skeptical wife and Damian Lewis as an MI-6 agent with his own agenda.
The Lobster: Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos makes his English-language debut with this darkly funny, sometimes chilling, and weirdly poignant sci-fi thriller starring Colin Farrell as a man caught in a society that absolutely will not abide single people. Recently dumped by his wife, he has 45 days to find a new mate at an isolated resort or face a terrible and bizarre fate.
Escapes: Michael Almereyda’s (Experimenter) latest is a terrific documentary with a terrible title that tells the fabulous story of Hampton Fancher. Best known these days as one of Blade Runner’s screenwriters, Fancher has had an adventurous life that includes running off to Spain to become a flamenco dancer when he was a teenager and romancing a bevy of beautiful woman that include Sue Lyon, Teri Garr, and Barbara Hershey. He was also a longtime journeyman actor, and as Fancher narrates his story, Almereyda fills the screen with clips from Fancher’s oeuvre adding a whole other layer of biography to the tale.
State of Cinema: Wesley Morris: In this year of #oscarsowhite, Pulitzer Prize-winner Morris, the New York Times’ Critic at Large and one time San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle critic, will draw from film history to make points about where we are today by focusing on the career of Oscar-winning movie icon Sidney Poitier.
Cast a Dark Shadow: His name may be Teddy Bare, but there’s nothing cuddly about the conniving husband at the heart of this rarely seen Brit noir, screening at SFIFF in a gorgeous new restoration. A roguish Dirk Bogarde stars as Bare, a cad whose specialty is romancing older women. Having lost out an inheritance from one rich wife, he sets his sights on snaring another—but he might have met his match in his latest bride, the quick-witted Freda (a glorious Margaret Lockwood).
Persistence of Vision Award: An Afternoon with Aardman Animations: The English stop-motion studio that no less than Pixar’s Pete Docter praises for its “incredible charm, cleverness, and humor” celebrates its 40th anniversary with co-founder Peter Lord on hand to accept the festival award on Sunday, May 1, at the Castro. But let’s face it, it’s not Lord that’s the draw this afternoon, but the greatest hits program, which includes a Shaun the Sheep short, the music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” the Wallace and Gromit classic The Wrong Trousers, and more.
Vampyr with Mercury Rev and Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins): SFIFF’s live-and-onstage component pairing contemporary musicians with classic films is always a highlight. This year is no exception as the Cocteau Twins Simon Raymonde joins American alt rock band Mercury Rev to grace Carl Theodor Dreyer’s eerie horror classic with a new, live score.
Closing Night: The Bandit: SFIFF bids farewell on Thursday, May 5, on a buoyant note with San Francisco filmmaker Jesse Moss’s exuberant documentary on the making of Hal Needham’s 1977 drive-in classic Smokey and the Bandit. Much more than a behind-the-scenes look at Needham’s transition from stuntman to writer/director, it is also the story of the tight, enduring friendship between him and his star, Burt Reynolds, as well as the tale of how a journeyman actor evolved into a superstar. The film is full of clips and funny and touching stories. Needham passed away three years ago, but Reynolds is among the expected guests at the Castro Theatre as SFIFF’s 59th edition takes a rollicking final bow.
You can check out the complete Festival schedule, fast-breaking news about added programs and how to get tickets at the Festival site.
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.