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Every San Franciscan's Guide to the San Francisco International Film Festival
Adam L. Brinklow and San Francisco magazine staff | Photo: Courtesy San Francisco Film Society | April 24, 2014
The top 26 films to watch, whether you're a Sundance savant or Netflix neophyte.
Starting today, the San Francisco International Film Festival fills local theaters with over a 100 features from across the globe. Some movies are built for mass appeal, while others aim at distinct tastes. How can any filmgoer possibly figure out what they want to see? Lucky for you we did the legwork. We didn't watch every movie (despite our best efforts, we're still only human), but we covered as many as we could. (Check out the SFIFF's guide here too.) So here's our not-quite complete guide, with one film for every San Francisco taste (give or take):
If You Thought Blood Diamond was Too Tame
White Shadow, Italy/Tanzania Noaz Deshe (115 minutes)
The Low Down: Beautiful images of horrifying things.
Our Take: All right, it's a movie about witchcraft in Central Africa. The bodies of albinos are thought by some to have magical properties, so they're sometimes murdered and their remains sold on the black market. It's fiction, but this kind of thing really does happen. If you read this far without losing it then you probably have the stomach for the film.
Best Reason to See It: You've got nerves of steel and appreciate nuanced child actors.
If You Can't Wait for the Next Expendables:
Firestorm, Hong Kong, Alan Yuen (110 minutes)
The Low Down: Heat meets The Raid.
Our Take: Holy crap, did you know they did action movies at festivals like this? Awesome bank heist movies with Andy Lau and Hu Jun, no less. A great lure for testosterone-heavy types who think that a hoity-toity film fest won't have anything that appeals to them.
Best Reason to See It: Andy Lau kicks ass.
If You Like Ender's Game, but Don't Like Science Fiction:
Harmony Lessons, Kazakhstan, Emir Baigazin (114 minutes)
The Low Down: Ender's Game without the space stuff.
Our Take: A typical story about teenage misfits finding each other, except one of them might be deeply nuts. Disturbing, but admirably frank about how dangerous institutions are for sensitive kids, and there's something a little breathtaking about the earnestness of the Kazakh teen actors.
Best Reason to See It: You've never seen a Kazakh film and this is the best one that's likely to come along.
If You Actually Hated Your Morocco Vacation:
Salvation Army, Morocco, Abdellah Taia (82 minutes)
The Low Down: Immigrant confessional too raw for the Oprah crowd.
Our Take: Taia adapts his autobiography about his campaign to escape the Casablanca slums as a teenager. Surprisingly unflinching—the director paints himself as a manipulative hustler whose tool of choice is emotional blackmail rather than street crime. Scary, but honest.
Best Reason to See It: You like dramas that don't try to snow you about anything.
If You Have an Ass Made of Iron:
Norte, the End of History, Philippines, Lav Diaz (264 minutes)
The Low Down: Long. Oh God, long...
Our Take: In part it's the story of a man wrongfully convicted of murder. More importantly it's a hard, frank look at the plight of modern Filipinos through the eyes of a truly driven and brazen filmmaker. But mostly it's long.
Best Reason to See It: It really is good and if you don't see it now, you probably never will.
If You Minored in Vedic Studies:
The Seventh Walk, India, Amit Dutta (72 minutes)
The Low Down: The film version of that ancient Indian poetry class you were too intimidated to take.
Our Take: Almost completely bereft of any words, The Seventh Walk follows Indian painter Paramjit Singh as he wanders an idyllic forested valley, painting what he sees. Sharp, gorgeous cinematography and surprising fairy tale appeal reward audiences, but you've got to exercise patience.
Best Reason to See It: It will make you feel like you have awesome taste in both movies and abstract art.
If You Protested Oakland's Domain Awareness Center:
Trap Street, China, Vivian Qu (94 minutes)
The Low Down: A young surveyor in China stumbles across a street that officially doesn't exist. He doesn't care about what secrets it holds—but he does want to know more about the beautiful woman he sees walking there.
Our Take: A low-boil film noir that—on purpose—never unravels its central conspiracy, but does dramatize the omnipresence of modern surveillance—digital and otherwise.
Best Reason to See It: To take a chilling glimpse at the politics of the world just days in the future. Also, the lead actress is, um, well, extremely attractive.
If You're Just Feeling a Little Down Lately:
The Dune, France, Yossi Aviram (87 minutes)
The Low Down: Slightly dazed coming-of-age drama about people who never came of age.
Our Take: An aging cop sets out to find a missing man who seems to have run out on his entire life for no reason at all. Another quiet, soothing French character drama perfect for those who love that meditative, downbeat vibe.
Best Reason to See It: Oddly reassuring if you just went through a breakup.
If You Thought The New World Was Too Fast-Paced:
Coast of Death, Spain, Lois Patino (81 minutes)
The Low Down: Video essay of very, very long wide-shots of the Spanish coast.
Our Take: Despite the dramatic title, Patino presents one of the most Zen-like offerings on the schedule. Rural fishers and loggers go about their lives on a mysterious stretch of the Spanish coastline, mostly appearing as disembodied voices and teeny-tiny figures in Patino's montage of powerful wide shots.
Best Reason to See It: You heart Terrence Malick movies, but wish they didn't have so much plot.
If You Want to Turn Homoerotic Subtext Into Text:
Eastern Boys, France, Robin Campillo (128 minutes)
The Low Down: A same-sex romance, Luc Besson-style.
Our Take: A gang of Eastern Bloc thugs bully a middle-aged man into letting them rob and trash his apartment, but things get complicated when he and one of the hooligans fall for each other. Longer than it has to be, but Eastern Boys plays well with a lot of different genres and appeals to an American sense of drama.
Best Reason to See It: You thought Un Prophete could use some hot guy-on-guy action.
If You Want to Know What the Gross National Happiness Index Is:
Happiness, France, Thomas Balmès (75 minutes)
The Low Down: Documentary that really, really wants to be a charming SXSW movie instead.
Our Take: The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan is finally allowed access to TV and the Internet, which their king promises will instantly modernize them and therefore make them happy. You can probably see where this is going, but the natural appeal of the 9-year-old monk at the center of the film and the unreal Himalayan landscape are worth the sit.
Best Reason to See It: Seriously, have you seen the Himalayas? They look like George Lucas designed them in a computer.
If You've Been Reading Your BHL and Houellebecq:
School of Babel, France, Julie Bertuccelli (89 minutes)
The Low Down: Incredibly well-produced TV news magazine piece.
Our Take: An up-close look at a public school for recent immigrants. The kids learn French, makes friends, and debate such matters as whether you can be both Muslim and black and whether "hello" means the same thing in English as Arabic. A valuable insight into France's immigration boom, but it helps if you already care about the issue.
Best Reason to See It: You regret not seeing The Class.
If You're Trying to Relate to Your Immigrant Grandparents
Soul Food Stories, Bulgaria, Tonislav Hristov (70 minutes)
The Low Down: If Borat had been a National Geographic special.
Our Take: We're still not sure if this movie is for real. A documentary about a dizzyingly diverse Bulgarian village of only 2,000 people, Hrsitov presents such baffling and hilarious material that we can't decide whether to believe it. Two old men debate whether their respective wives died in the '40s, '60s, or '90s, for example. (They eventually settle on '90s). Another old timer earnestly explains that TV and blue jeans have spoiled Bulgaria's male-female power dynamic.
Best Reason to See It: You'll laugh.
If You Love Mid-Century Stage Dramas:
Tangarines, Estonia and Georgia, Zaza Urushadze (84 minutes)
The Low Down: A gripping, personal story of a farmer trapped between two opposing forces during the Russian-Abkhazian war in 1992.
Our Take: It's tempting to say that the recent events in the Ukraine have made this film more relevant, but that's not quite true. Something as elementally simple as this movie—two opposed soldiers who wounded each other are nursed back to health by the farmer whose land they were fighting over—is not more or less relevant as current events happen. Its power comes from its universality.
Best Reason to See It: You're in need of a good long cry.
If You Think Bates Motel Needs More Lovey-Doviness:
Tonnerre, France, Guillaume Brac (106 minutes)
The Low Down: 80 percent indie rom-com, 20 percent terrifying Thomas Harris story.
Our Take: This ostensible love story about a middle-aged musician who moves back in with his father gets creepy fast when our protagonist begins stalking a much younger woman. But it turns out she's into that, and against all odds you start to root for them... but then someone chloroforms a dog and it goes right back to Crazy Town.
Best Reason to See It: You want to see what Garden State would be like with more flagrant insanity.
If You're Still ACTing Up:
What Now? Remind Me, Portugal, Joaquim Pinto (164 minutes)
The Low Down: Well-shot, well-directed oversharing.
Our Take: Pinto, who has been living with HIV and hepatitis C for 20 years, chronicles a hellacious trial of new drug treatments that fracture his hold on reality. A cathartic journey for those who have dealt with serious health problems of their own, but maybe a bit to harrowing for the rest of us.
Best Reason to See It: You thought Dallas Buyers Club was too white-washed.
If You're Jonesing for Arrested Development's Season Five:
The Amazing Catfish, Mexico, Claudia Sainte-Luce (89 minutes)
The Low Down: Quirky family dramedy runs smack dab into treatise on mortality.
Our Take: A dying single mom unexpectedly adopts a lonely woman into her large household. Empathy ensues. A non-American variation on America's favorite recent indie film fixation: the idiosyncratic family bonding story.
Best Reason to See It: You liked Little Miss Sunshine but want something more real.
If You've Seen Every Seven Up Movie:
Boyhood, USA, Richard Linklater (164 minutes)
The Low Down: A private, intimate, smallscale epic.
Our Take: Shot over the course of 12 years, audiences watch one character and one family grow up in "real time." A movie that will mean different things to everyone, depending on what was happening in your own life during the dozen years it depicts.
Best Reason to See It: The 12-year production thing is impressive and all, but you want to know whether the movie was worth it. This is the money on the table.
If You Need Your Therapist's Permission to Leave the House:
Club Sandwich, Mexico, Fernando Eimbcke (82 minutes)
The Low Down: Like if John Updike wrote Little Darlings.
Our Take: A passive film about a single mom and her 14-year-old son whose slightly Oedipal relationship gets upended when he finds a girlfriend while on vacation. Although there's not a single line that could be termed a joke it's still somehow funny, and the sincerity keeps it from becoming unbearable. (Be prepared for masturbation scenes, though.)
Best Reason to See It: You think nothing is more funny than awkwardness.
If You've Ever Looked at the Bay Bridge:
Impossible Light, USA, Jeremy Ambers (71 minutes)
The Low Down: Laudatory portrait of people who really, really love the Bay Bridge.
Our Take: The most surprising thing about this documentary on Leo Villareal's Bay Lights project is just how many people were invested in the idea of the Bay Bridge as a great, unappreciated gem of San Francisco architecture. Good for getting your mind off the eastern span's troubles.
Best Reason to See It: You're from San Francisco.
If You Liked Lost in Translation:
Palo Alto, USA, Gia Coppola (100 minutes)
The Low Down: A glassy-eyed look at the high school years you don't remember too well.
Our Take: The first film from the latest Coppola features a kaleidoscope of characters and anecdotes from James Franco's semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age book Palo Alto Stories. Will resonate most powerfully with young audiences just growing out of these years themselves.
Best Reason to See It: You're young and disaffected.
If Bull Durham Is Still Your Favorite Movie:
Ping Pong Summer, USA, Michael Tully (92 minutes)
The Low Down: If John Hughes had directed Napoleon Dynamite.
Our Take: Intentionally tacky, absurd comedy about an '80s kid going the distance at a ping pong tournament. And, for some strange reason, Susan Sarandon coaches him. Your reaction to the fact that our protagonist is named "Rad Miracle" is a good acid test about whether this movie is for you.
Best Reason to See It: You're an obsessive Sarandon fan. Or obsessive ping pong fan?
If the Pastor Lets You Out of Service Early:
Stop the Pounding Heart, USA, Roberto Minervini (100 minutes)
The Low Down: If Werner Herzog adapted a 9th grader's diary.
Our Take: A weird combination of documentary and staged but unscripted material, Minervini's latest look at rural Texans focuses on a 14-year-old farmer's daughter's crisis of faith. Beautiful and dreamlike, but a touch manipulative in the lack of clear distinctions between what's real and what isn't. Watch with a skeptical eye.
Best Reason to See It: You want to scratch that Catfish itch again.
If You Still Celebrate May Day:
Three Letters From China, Mexico, Luc Schaedler (80 minutes)
The Low Down: A film adaptation of some brilliant long-form news story no one ever actually wrote.
Our Take: A stolid but somehow still emotional look at the lives of three Chinese families caught up in the country's industrial boom, including an aging couple who are the only remaining inhabitants of their rural farming village. Compassionate directing keeps the heavy subject matter from becoming dreary.
Best Reason to See It: You want reasons to care about the working class in other countries.
If You're a Michael Jackson Fan:
Bad Hair, Venezuela, Mariana Rondon (93 minutes)
The Low Down: A glance at childhood in an impoverished Venezuelan barrio
Our Take: Nine year-old Junior dreams of having his school picture taken with hair as slick as Michael Jackson, which in turn triggers homophobic fears in his hard-working single mother. A tender look at growing up in an already dangerous world.
Best Reason to See It: You're fascinated by cute kids and by gender conflict.
If You Haven't Given Up On Occupy Wall Street
The Militant, Argentina, Manolo Nieto (119 minutes)
The Low Down: The Graduate elopes with Taxi Driver and runs off to South America.
Our Take: The country is going to pieces, but our hero can barely get his own life in order. Sound familiar? First world problems are the same all over.
Best Reason to See It: Get some perspective on the economic crisis.