Spinning Platters Guide to the San Francisco International Film Festival 2011

by Jason LeRoy on April 18, 2011

The 54th annual San Francisco International Film Festival kicks off this Thursday, April 21, bringing with it two weeks of jam-packed film programming until its conclusion on May 5. Special guests and honorees this year include Oliver Stone, Matthew Barney, Zoe Saldana, Clifton Collins Jr., and Christine Vachon. The festival will also feature a live performance of the film scores of Claire Denis by Tindersticks.

For full information, check out the official festival website. But first, look after the jump for our top 15 movies to see this year at the SFIFF.

Another Earth

USA, 2011, 92 min

This accomplished near-future sci-fi drama marks another impressive collaboration between willowy actress Brit Marling and resourceful director Mike Cahill (Boxers and Ballerinas, SFIFF 2005), who collaborated on the spare, evocative script and together have created a haunting story of loss and redemption. On the night of the appearance of a duplicate Earth in the solar system, a promising young MIT astrophysics student (Marling) and an accomplished classical-music composer (William Mapother) cross paths in a tragic accident. The taut narrative picks up a few years later as the two broken and now-isolated survivors begin a halting relationship that slowly returns them to a semblance of their former selves. Some things may be beyond the power of love to redeem, however, and the couple’s journey is fraught with emotion and full of difficulty. Meanwhile, there’s that mysterious other Earth hanging over everything—another limpid blue planet, just off the shoulder of the Moon, that seemingly mirrors our own in every way, with people just like us, whose lives are intimately connected to our own. In the poignant final chapter, one of our lovers has the opportunity to travel to this nearby world and embrace a second life and a newfound, long-lost sense of home.

—Graham Leggat

 

Beginners

USA, 2010, 104 min

Seventy-five-year-old Hal has found love with a man half his age, and is overjoyed to be dancing to house music at the club. Oliver, his 38-year-old graphic artist son, is not so lucky. He’s the permanently brokenhearted veteran of short-lived affairs who is afraid to be happy even when he’s met the woman of his dreams. Thumbsucker director Mike Mills charms with this autobiographical tale inspired by his own father’s decision to come out late in life. Ewan McGregor is the son confused by, but supportive of, his father’s new lifestyle. Christopher Plummer, giving one of his finest performances, is a man determined to finally be true to himself and live life to the fullest, even in the wake of a cancer diagnosis. The story jumps nimbly back and forth through time as Oliver navigates a promising new relationship, recalls his parents’ passionless marriage and wonders at Hal’s later life as a bon vivant senior citizen refusing to give in to illness. Excellent supporting turns from Goran Visnjic and Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent (as father and son’s respective love interests) and a “talking” Jack Russell terrier make up the lively ensemble. Stylish direction and Mills’ witty, intelligent script add to the film’s delights. This is a moving and layered work with lots of laughs and all the poignancy of a son’s love letter to his father.

—Pam Grady

 

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

USA, 2010, 95 min

The surprise resurgence of 3-D has prompted everything from blanket claims that it’s the future of cinema to dismissals that it will again exhaust public patience through indiscriminate application to inappropriate films. But this process too often associated with routine genre films and cheesy FX can be surprisingly apt for some auteurs. Who better to adopt the form than Werner Herzog, our veteran guide to landscapes and mindscapes dislocative yet immersive? Eternally attracted to the spectacular, mystic and strange, he’s forever plunging head-first into exotica his bemused point-of-view renders gently inviting. There’s scarcely a Herzog feature—from Even Dwarves Started Small (1970) to recent Antarctica documentary Encounters at the End of the World—whose outré content, personalities and imagery wouldn’t make perfect sense in the stereoscopic form. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about southern France’s Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caverns, discovered in 1994. An Ice Age landslide had hidden (and preserved) prehistoric art dating back as far as 32,000 years ago, the oldest such expressions known today. Herzog was given exclusive access to this publicly sealed-off site of human prehistory. Its spectacular wall drawings from a near-unimaginable distant past are no less photogenic than the deep-focus vistas of limestone-stalagmite caverns à la Carlsbad. As ever, Herzog proves a wry, philosophically inclined, idiosyncratically personal guide to the extraordinary. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is like no 3-D movie you’ve seen: It thrusts out not to show off but to ponder more deeply the “humanness” of human life over millennia.

—Dennis Harvey

 

The Dish & The Spoon

USA, 2011, 92 min

Emotionally unhinged after leaving her cheating husband, Rose runs off to drink away her sorrow in an abandoned lighthouse, where she stumbles on a similarly jilted and listless English boy. The two wounded souls fall in with each other, taking shelter in a deserted beach house. There they revert to childlike states in an effort to escape their adult anguish. The two shirk responsibilities in favor of binge-drinking, aimless wandering and playacting while conspiring to find and take revenge upon the woman who slept with Rose’s husband. In the process, they play a game in which they act out the roles of a happy couple. But the game may mean different things to Rose and her new friend. Under the moody gray skies of off-season coastal Delaware, indie star Greta Gerwig (Greenberg, 2010) delivers a fearlessly unrestrained performance, with an endearing vulnerability that matches her paroxysms of grief. In contrast, newcomer Olly Alexander—looking like a Don’t Look Back–era Bob Dylan—bears his character’s suffering more quietly, hinting at his torment through ironic distance. Together, the unlikely pair creates a stirring portrayal of young adults still learning to cope with the heartbreak that stems from being betrayed by the ones you love the most. Alison Bagnall, who most recently acted in two films by Joe Swanberg, employs a similarly low-key directing style while taking an emotionally direct approach that’s all her own. The Dish & the Spoon is a quirky and potent story of the unavoidable perils of emotional dependency.

—Jesse Dubus

 

The Future

Germany/USA, 2011, 91 min

Miranda July’s (Me and You and Everyone We Know, SFIFF 2005) highly anticipated, darkly humorous second feature burrows its way into the lives of a couple (July and Hamish Linklater) contemplating cat adoption. As the rudderless protagonists face the impending responsibility of pet ownership, they see it as a deadline for living their lives fully. Their new outlook exposes foreign desires and unforeseen opportunities as they each face a pair of basic, ultimately terrifying questions: What do you want your life to be? And how does one get there? Using a number of disparate elements—voiceover narration by a cat, an ambulatory shirt, varying degrees of dance instruction, gold chains, ecology, time travel and poetry—the film’s myriad approaches bely a singular concern with our relationship to time. July investigates the metaphysics of decisionmaking and what it means to be stuck. In this world, making decisions too lightly or too gravely can have dire consequences not only for our loved ones but also for cats awaiting adoption. The Future confirms her status as a master—in film, performance and writing—of the revealing detail, ever capable of making audiences surprised by their everyday worlds. With great originality in narrative form and visual design, The Future unfolds in unexpected and satisfying ways.

—Sean Uyehara

 

Meek’s Cutoff

USA, 2010, 104 min

Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) stars in this eagerly anticipated new feature from Kelly Reichardt (River of Grass, SFIFF 1994; Old Joy, 2006), characterized by the filmmaker’s innate ability to locate emotional truth in the smallest of gestures and rituals. If tackling a period Western might seem like a departure, Reichardt approaches the subject matter with masterful ease, elegantly exposing the desperation, hard struggles and simple desires of her working-class protagonists. In 1845, during the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, three families undertake a perilous journey to begin life anew. Boastful rogue Stephen Meek, whom they have employed to guide them safely through uncharted danger, seems to have led them astray. They are running out of water and uncertain of survival. When they capture an Indian scout who has been tracking them, the group must wrestle with where to place its trust. Led by the adroit Williams (Wendy and Lucy), Reichardt’s powerhouse ensemble vanishes effortlessly into their respective roles, contributing to a dissection of compassion, instinct and human dignity amid literal life-or-death stakes. With a finely tuned attention to detail, Meek’s Cutoff courageously and resonantly strips away the grandeur of the Old West.

—Landon Zakheim

 

Miss Representation

USA, 2011, 85 min

Today’s female teenagers consume more media than anyone ever. Each week, they devour more than 31 hours of television and 17 hours of music: programming pervaded by the message that their value lies more in their fleeting physical attraction than in lasting intellectual or leadership capacities. Miss Representation measures the magnitude of that phenomenon, including the way objectification gets internalized—in a symbolic devaluing of self-worth—inhibiting girls and women from realizing their full potential. Actress, filmmaker and former first lady of San Francisco, Jennifer Siebel Newsom marshals astonishing facts and statistics, supported by provocative stories from teenage girls as well as candid interviews with actors, politicians, journalists, academics and activists (a roll call that includes Jane Fonda, Geena Davis, Margaret Cho, Condoleeza Rice, Nancy Pelosi and Gloria Steinem). Siebel Newsom critically examines recent and stark episodes of sexism and prejudice in the public sphere, including the media’s unbalanced treatment of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin and Hollywood’s ongoing exploitation of actresses and women directors. The accumulation of startling details will leave viewers shaken but armed with a new perspective. A personal narrative woven throughout, reflecting on the recent birth of her daughter Montana, affirms Siebel Newsom’s genuine desire to ignite national enthusiasm for helping to advance the next generation. This is powerful advocacy on behalf of a more balanced portrayal of women and girls across the full spectrum of media we and they so voraciously consume.

—Kim Bender

 

On Tour

France/Germany, 2010, 112 min

Acclaimed French actor Mathieu Amalric directs and stars in this unsentimental homage to the burlesque show and outsized female personalities barely contained by the proscenium stage. This chatty, bawdy entertainment reminds us that women have real bodies—and they want to run the show. All the women in On Tour—winner of last year’s jury award for Best Director and FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival—are authentic American performers of what is dubbed the New Burlesque. Their acts are not only comic, theatric and erotic but also hypnotic, draped knowingly in feather boas, in a wink to audiences who think they’re watching just a striptease. Keeping the acts and the narrative flowing is the troupe’s manager, Joachim (played by Amalric, in a performance that recalls his lovable alienated misfits in Arnaud Desplechin’s films). A former French TV producer who left France for the United States after some untold disgraces, Joachim has found renewed purpose with a bevy of burlesque queens. He accompanies them to France for a tour of the countryside that will be either a journey of redemption or an utter failure. For the sassy brassy ladies, it’s a different story. They’ve been promised Paris, but they are willing to give their all in the seedy theaters Joachim books for them in backwater towns along France’s west coast. They are pros after all and, in the end, the show must go on.

—Beverly Berning

 

Outrage

Japan, 2010, 109 min

Takeshi Kitano makes a long-awaited return to the gangster genre with this embittered look at the formal hierarchies and manipulative “honor” of the Japanese yakuza, and what happens to those on the losing end of the power struggle. A crisis is triggered within a powerful syndicate by, of all things, too much friendship between enemies. One boss is too chummy with a rival, which demands the sending of a message—though with a certain restraint. Unfortunately, the low-level boss picked for the job is Otomo (Kitano), who doesn’t know the meaning of restraint (a particular dentist-chair scene makes this point perfectly clear). Suddenly a war is on, as rivals become allies and allies rivals. For the ever-scheming opportunists of the yakuza, however, allies are just those people you vow loyalty to before eventually killing. Leaving behind the cheerful eccentricities of his more recent work and the playful experimentation of earlier gangster masterpieces like Sonatine (SFIFF 1995), Kitano moves into far bleaker, almost existential terrain. To borrow the title of a seminal 1973 Kinji Fukasaku film, the battles here are truly without honor or humanity, and seemingly destined to play on a continuous loop for eternity.

 

The Sleeping Beauty

France, 2010, 82 min

On the heels of the mesmeric Bluebeard (SFIFF 2009), French auteur Catherine Breillat again delves into the piquant fairy tales of Charles Perrault for this singular, sparkling film, a reverie and rumination over slumbering lives and awakening sexual and mortal consciousness. Opening on some half-dreamed late-modern world, The Sleeping Beauty playfully sets up the story of young princess Anastasia (a delightfully quick and valiant Carla Besnaïnou), cursed at birth by a wicked fairy/crone to die in her sixth year. Fortunately for Anastasia, three beautiful young fairies counter the spell, at least a bit, sending the six-year-old instead into a 100-year slumber, from which she will wake into contemporary French society a ripe 16-year-old. First, though, our heroine, a defiant tomboy, will wander long in a dream world. There she finds and loses an adoptive brother, Peter, who lives with his mother in a country house set evocatively beside a train track. Going in search of the roving Peter—her brother, prince and first love—she meets a series of young princes and princesses (“Blue bloods stick together,” she explains) in strange faraway lands before a real-life prince, grandson of Peter, wakes her into her 16-year-old self. From there, another awakening begins, or perhaps one spell is broken and another cast. Breillat’s aesthetic fashions a world at once palpable and ethereal, itself a waking dream, with a ludic insouciance that delights in combining allusive, painterly detail with makeshift and anachronistic improvisations. As much a tonic to the intellect as the senses, The Sleeping Beauty will keep you up all night.

—Robert Avila

 

Submarine

England, 2010, 94 min

Oliver Tate is an incredibly astute 15-year-old. Keenly observational and wildly imaginative, he carries a briefcase and muses on the relevance of Nietzsche’s philosophy. His conversation is worldly and he’s quick to assess situations. All he has left to discover are his parents, friends, girls, himself and the world and everything in it. Director Richard Ayoade’s funny and touching first feature is an offbeat comedy that shrewdly adapts Joe Dunthorne’s dryly humorous novel about adolescent growing pains. Like a detective in training, Oliver attempts to decipher his parent’s marital problems. His phlegmatic father (played winningly by cult hero Noah Taylor of Flirting fame) appears blind to the danger represented by his mother’s old flame, a New Age self-help guru sporting a mullet haircut with nary a drop of self-consciousness. Oliver determines to expose his mother’s “nefarious” relationship. Meanwhile, he falls for the seemingly impervious tough girl Jordana Bevan. He makes it his mission to be the best boyfriend in the history of boyfriends but in his enthusiasm sidesteps any sense of selflessness. Indeed, his intuition and empathy prove sorely lacking. Oliver thinks he has it all figured out, but his inklings lead him down paths strange, charmed and heartbreaking. Ayoade (already a respected comedian and actor in England before turning to directing) invites us along with a knowing wink. As clueless as Oliver is, he’s well-intentioned and likeable, and one can’t help but be pulling for him.

—Sean Uyehara

 

Tabloid

USA, 2010, 87 min

“You could tell a lie long enough that you believe it,” suggests Joyce McKinney, the fabulously eccentric subject of Errol Morris’s new documentary covering tabloid journalism, bondage, Mormonism and love. A former Miss Wyoming who boasts an IQ of 168, McKinney became infamous in the UK in 1976 as the mastermind of the “Manacled Mormon Kidnapping” after she abducted a former lover who had abandoned her for the Mormon Church. Charged with kidnapping and rape, she held him hostage in a cottage in Devon for several days, where she chained him to a bed (with mink-trimmed handcuffs) in order to erase all elements of “Mormon brainwashing” from his mind. “I would have skied down Mt. Everest nude with a carnation in my nose for him,” noted the ever-quotable McKinney during her trial, which became one of England’s biggest media stories of the 1970s thanks to its combination of kinky sex and a buxom all-American girl gone wild. Now living relatively anonymously, McKinney “reveals all” to Morris’s camera as do various British tabloid hacks still busy putting their own spin on the tale. A welcome return to the eccentric Americana of Gates of Heaven (1980) and Vernon, Florida (1982), Tabloid never uncovers what is the truth and what is a lie—Morris writes that even he doesn’t know. “And that’s what I like about it.”

 

Terri

USA, 2011, 101 min

With wit and affection, director Azazel Jacobs’ follow-up to his lauded film Momma’s Man (2008) surveys the myriad ways one might find oneself a struggling misfit. Terri is a heavy, shambling, pajama-wearing junior-high student, the physical incarnation of all the insecurity and awkwardness that accompany adolescence. We get to know the taciturn Terri as he cares for his ailing uncle (a man at turns gentle and derisive), conducts solitary experiments in zoology and pines for a girl just out of reach. When vice principal Fitzgerald (played with superb clarity and humor by John C. Reilly) tags Terri as an at-risk student, Terri joins the ranks of “official” oddballs and fears his school days are numbered. Instead, a charmingly disjointed friendship forms between two outcasts, one young and one old. Awakened by Mr. Fitzgerald’s openness about his own past and his oddly direct, often corny conversations, Terri begins to empathize with the plight of those around him. Patrick deWitt’s screenplay depicts with precision and compassion a hilariously touching, deeply humane tale of youth in transition. What is especially remarkable about Terri is that it manages to bridge a potentially vast gulf between its deeply awkward outcasts and the audience. We end up walking with them every shambling step of the way.

—Sean Uyehara

 

The Trip

England, 2010, 100 min

Prolific British director Michael Winterbottom never ceases . . . to amaze. A restless whiz, he’s frequently wandered from the predictable path with such mercurial marvels as Wonderland, 24 Hour Party People and The Killer Inside Me. But nothing has stymied expectation more than the miasmic masterpiece Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, in which Winterbottom succumbs to the bottomless buffoonery of Laurence Sterne’s proto-postmodern novel. That film’s stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, slip out of their costumed roles to play themselves in a riotously amusing rivalry for center stage. The Trip finds them reunited in an ecstatic extension of their spar-filled friendship. Now Coogan (as himself) is sent to the Lake Country on assignment as culinary critic for The Observer. When Coogan’s girlfriend Misha (Margo Stilley) can’t accompany him, he rings up rollicking Rob (accurately portrayed by Rob Brydon), and off they go to the great country inns of England. They have only a map in hand and their wits about them. Visiting a string of chichi restaurants, the duo practically ignore the ornamental concoctions they’ve been served in favor of slipping into celebrity impersonations of Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine and Al Pacino, to name a few. One stirring bout has them trading impressions of Sean Connery ordering martinis until you can’t hold your own cocktail steady. Steve and Rob’s Brit bromance is seasoned sweet and sour in its ribbing rivalries. But like a foodie version of Sideways, The Trip trades dry vintage for a full belly laugh.

—Steve Seid

 

The Whistleblower

Canada/Germany, 2010, 118 min

The brutal world of sex trafficking may seem an unlikely basis for a well-oiled international thriller, yet first-time director Larysa Kondracki, with the help of a stellar cast led by Academy Award–winner Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener), has accomplished just that, using the slick format of a police procedural to treat a dire social issue. Kathryn Bolkovac is a single mom in the mid-1990s seeking a transfer from her police department in Nebraska to be closer to her children, who are moving away with their father. Unable to secure anything nearby, she decides to accept a well-paid six-month posting in Sarajevo with a private peacekeeping contractor. Despite her unlikely background for such a position, she takes to the job immediately, quickly learning to maneuver around the organization’s boy’s-club atmosphere and the cultural complexities of overseeing a corrupt local police force rife with sexism and still-simmering ethnic feuds. But she soon finds herself embroiled in a far-reaching United Nations cover-up of a sex-trafficking scandal. Undeterred by attempts from higher-ups to thwart her investigation, and faced with threats on her life, she fights to uncover the truth. Weisz’s portrayal of the real-life Bolkovac deftly balances her steely determination with sensitivity and vulnerability. Her equally impressive supporting cast includes Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Bellucci and David Strathairn, while director Kondracki tempers the unflinching treatment of her harrowing subject with a propulsive forward momentum. The Whistleblower is a stirring tale of courage in the face of the most depraved corruption.

—Jesse Dubus

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