Spinning Platters wraps up its coverage of the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, which ended last Thursday, May 5th, after showcasing nearly 200 films from over 40 countries. The Fest may be over, but many of its offerings will be released throughout the year, so be sure to use our eight spotlight posts as a guide for potential future viewing.
We conclude our coverage by looking at three final films and two special events.
(USA, 2016, 82 min, Closing Night Film)
Local filmmaker Jesse Moss, who found success two years ago with his intense, stunning, but somber documentary The Overnighters, told us at the Q&A after the closing night screening of his new film that after that emotionally wrenching experience, he wanted to go in an opposite direction and make a “fun car comedy” like the films he loved while growing up – films like the ’70s Burt Reynolds-helmed, car chase classic Smokey and the Bandit. Still a documentarian, though, Moss has thus made what he terms the first “action-comedy” documentary. Indeed, as a look at ’70s heartthrob action and comedy star Burt Reynolds and his lifelong friendship with Hal Needham, the Hollywood stuntman turned writer/director who made the iconic Smokey, Moss’s new film succeeds brilliantly at echoing the good ol’ boy charm of the best of Needham and Reynolds’s pictures. Featuring historical interviews with Needham (who passed away in 2013), as well as interviews with former Smokey co-stars, country music stars, friends, colleagues, family, and Reynolds himself, The Bandit is chock full of juicy behind-the-scenes insider stories and enough old TV and movie clips to please the most ardent pop culture fans. As a portrait of both a bygone era of movie-making and, more importantly, of a singular friendship that could shift between respect and rivalry, Moss’s picture mirrors the good natured southern charm of the Reynolds-Needham collaborations, while also examining more serious issues of fame, competition, and deep, enduring friendship. The Bandit took home the Audience Award at SXSW this year, and deservedly so; a genuine crowd pleaser, the picture is a must-see for students of ’70s cinema, and anyone who values engrossing, well-made documentary stories.
- Currently playing the film festival circuit.
(USA, 2015, 90 min, Added Programs)
A warning right now: if you’re not a fan of Todd Solondz and his particularly twisted brand of very dark humor (see Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse), you won’t enjoy his newest offering, which maintains that sensibility to an almost uncomfortable extreme. I overheard a teenager exclaiming to his friend after the film ended, “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” But if you’re familiar with Solondz’s oeuvre and have a taste for films that push boundaries and make you think – and laugh – then don’t be scared away by a naïve teen boy’s assessment. Here, the titular wiener dog is the common element in three loosely connected stories (one of which features Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Dawn Wiener herself, all grown up and now played by Greta Gerwig, channeling Heather Matarazzo’s awkwardness) about characters struggling against the indifference of the universe. Some are bleaker than others, but all touch on themes of futility, loneliness, and the need for connection. Stellar performances from Gerwig, Danny DeVito as a sad sack, deluded film professor, and especially Ellen Burstyn as a caustic grandmother to Zosia Mamet’s self-absorbed, pretentious granddaughter, bring enough laughs to lighten Solondz’s prevailing pessimism. And the exceptionally cute dog helps, too, though be prepared: even cute dogs aren’t spared Solondz’s proverbial sharp knife.
- Will open in the Bay Area on July 1st.
(France, 2015, 148 min, Global Visions. In English and French with English subtitles)
An atmospheric character study that looks at the ways our past can define us, French writer/director Pascale Breton’s story centers on an art history professor who leaves behind a long-term boyfriend in Paris to teach at her alma mater in the small town of Rennes. Slightly reminiscent of The Big Chill in terms of its exploration of nostalgia and memories, Breton’s picture follows Françoise (Valérie Dréville) as she reconnects with old college chums and discovers how the past has affected the present. With its dreamlike quality, shifting viewpoints, and touches of magic realism, Breton’s film will appeal to those who appreciate subtle, nuanced storytelling and psychologically rich characters. French actor Kaou Langoët, as a troubled student who realizes a special connection with Françoise, is especially affecting, delivering a layered, sensitive performance that calls to mind the young Leonardo diCaprio.
- Currently playing the film festival circuit.
Mel Novikoff Award: An Afternoon with Janus Films, the Criterion Collection, and the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple)
(USA, 1984, 99 min)
Given to an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema, the Mel Novikoff award this year was bestowed on Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. Preserving and presenting cinema classics via both theatrical releases and home viewing media, Janus Films and Criterion work tirelessly to make sure high quality international pictures are available to cinephiles everywhere. Special guests Joel and Ethan Coen joined Turell and Becker on stage at the award presentation at the Castro Theater for a lively discussion preceding a screening of the Coen Brothers’ very first film, Blood Simple, newly restored and recently added to the Criterion Collection. The Coens regaled us with amusing anecdotes about their first foray into filmmaking (total novices, they once pressed on asking a potential investor for money even after they accidentally hit his car in his driveway). Seeing the Coens’ first effort on the big screen also was a treat, as the restoration looked terrific, and we were all reminded what a searing, tense noir the picture is (originally, the Coens told us, they had envisioned it as an exploitation/slasher film; they were heavily influenced by horror movies). Luckily for us, though, what they ended up turning out instead became one of the best pulp thrillers ever made. With its sultry southern gothic feel, wryly sparse dialogue, and star-making performance by a very young Frances McDormand, the movie more than holds up, and is definitely worth revisiting.
Kanbar Storytelling Award: An Evening with Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent)
(USA, 2003, 89 min)
Named for San Francisco Film Society board member Maurice Kanbar, the Film Festival’s Kanbar Award is given annually to honor exceptional storytelling and the screenwriters who bring such stories to life. This year’s recipient, Tom McCarthy, is an especially fitting choice, as he just won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Spotlight, which he also directed, and which also garnered the Best Picture statue. A proficient actor as well (he may be best known for his work in The Wire), McCarthy also penned Million Dollar Arm, Win Win, The Visitor, and Pixar’s Up. His feature film writing and directing debut remains a perennial favorite of many, though: 2003’s The Station Agent. Festival-goers this year were treated to both a wide-ranging discussion and Q&A with the legendary screenwriter (his story of first meeting Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage was especially well received), and a screening of his 2003 classic, in which McCarthy’s powerful and eloquent talents are on full display. Standout performances by Dinklage as a reserved railroad buff who inherits an old station agent house in rural New Jersey, Patricia Clarkson as an artist suffering through personal loss and marital strife, Bobby Cannavale as an outgoing, chipper food truck purveyor, and Michelle Williams as the young town library clerk elevate McCarthy’s absolutely lovely screenplay about love, acceptance, and connection to transcendent heights. If you haven’t seen this picture in a while – or have never seen it – do yourself a favor and watch it on your next rainy day movie night. You’ll be transformed, and you’ll understand why Tom McCarthy is one of the best screenwriters working in film today.