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A guide to the best of this year's S.F. International Film Festival 

Wednesday, Apr 22 2009

When the San Francisco International Film Fest rolls around, we at SF Weekly rejoice. Then we get overwhelmed. How are we going to cover this extravaganza? This year, for instance, there are nearly 150 films from all over the world being screened. Condensing the festival’s diverse cinema into a tidy package with a unifying theme is always a daunting task.

While preparing for SFIFF 2009, it occurred to us that readers might not want exotic themes as much as they wanted to know which movies were worth seeing. People are busy. They don’t have time to waste on a crappy film, even if it is artsy-fartsy and features lots of naked French people and/or Asia Argento. We get that. So this year we’ve put together a package pointing you to the best movies and events over the next two weeks. After screening dozens of movies, our critics have assembled a list of their favorite films showing at the fest, which we’ve organized in alphabetical order. We hope you find it useful in helping you decide how to indulge your movie habit during this once-a-year cinematic spectacle. — Ed.

(Atom Egoyan, Canada/France)
The latest brain-twister from the maniacally methodical director of The Sweet Hereafter traffics in his usual obsessions: (re)constructed families, the stories we make up about ourselves, technology as aid and impediment to meaningful human connection, and the near-impossibility of assimilation (contrasted with the ease of immigration). The unsettling Arsinée Khanjian (Egoyan's wife, edging closer to the creepy-weird domain of Isabelle Huppert) plays a high school teacher who, as a "drama exercise," encourages one of her students to expand on an essay in which he imagined his Arab father as a terrorist and his pregnant mom the unwitting bomb-carrier. Simon has issues with his parents, plainly, but he's far from the only character dealing with shuffled secrets and lies. In Egoyan's world, everybody thinks they're working out their stuff in private only to watch it blow up in someone else's face. In fact, there is an explosion, atypical for the director's oeuvre, although it's anticlimactic. Adoration tilts closer to the darkness (without the dark comedy) of his earlier films The Adjuster and Exotica, and yet, astonishingly, manages to sow empathy and reconciliation from seeds of suspicion. With more than a touch of grace, aided by his signature late-game, rug-pulling twists, Egoyan powerfully transforms his characters from agents of harm to angels of healing. Michael Fox
Saturday, April 25, 6:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Monday, April 27, 6:30 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive.

Can Go Through Skin
(Esther Rots, Netherlands)
In her harrowing debut feature, Dutch director Esther Rots skillfully evokes the psychological effects of assault. Just recovering from a breakup, thirtysomething Marieke is attacked in her bath by a pizza delivery boy. She flees her Amsterdam apartment for a frozen rural shack, which she starts to clean up in a release of pent-up fury. But a new home, new kittens, and even a new relationship with a burly villager can't subdue her intensifying anger and paranoia. She begins to plot her revenge against her attacker, encouraged by a fellow victim she meets in an online chatroom. In her fragile state of mind, Marieke feels her grip on reality slipping in this uncompromising and tough-minded work. Frako Loden
Saturday, May 2, 4:15 p.m.; Monday, May 4, 9:30 p.m.; and Wednesday, May 6, 4:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

Every Little Step
(James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, U.S.A.)
In 1974, long before the phrase "reality TV" had been coined, choreographer Michael Bennett gathered 22 Broadway dancers late one night, set a tape recorder running, and asked them to talk about their lives. They did, telling moving tales of their career struggles, troubled childhoods, and sexual awakenings. Those stories, shaped by Bennett and his collaborators, became A Chorus Line, which ran on Broadway for a then-unprecedented 15 years. James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo's documentary, Every Little Step, juxtaposes the casting process for the 2006 revival with the affecting story of A Chorus Line's creation. Following several performers as they audition for the revival, the doc's approach is presumably designed to attract a wider audience in the era of reality entertainment. For Chorus Line fans, the documentary will be a singular sensation, filled with behind-the-scenes backstory and archival clips of Bennett himself dancing, gorgeously. Then there are those original interview tapes, kept under lock and key for 35 years, with the dancers speaking the words that, up until now, you've known only as lyrics. Jesse Oxfeld
Sunday, April 26, 9:30 p.m., at the Castro.

French Girl
(Souad El-Bouhati, France/Morocco)
Little Sofia, born and raised in suburban France, has to be forced into the van that takes her back to her native Morocco. Ten years later, she is a frustrated rebel at a Moroccan college, working in her parents' olive orchard on weekends. Determined to return to France, she compulsively studies to qualify for a French university. She's constantly criticized for dressing "French," doing farmwork like a man, and wanting more than to be a proper Moroccan wife. Complicating the usual immigrant tale of the second generation returning to appreciate her roots,French Girl explores the heroine's desperate love for her overseas home. Morocco is not just an evil place that forbids Sofia from doing what she wants — it's also a part of her, as the film's beautiful landscape compositions prove. When the noose of traditional marriage and exile in Morocco begins to tighten, Sofia's resolve intensifies and she takes desperate action. Souad El-Bouhati's moving debut feature stars the dynamic Hafsia Herzi, who won awards for her performance in Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain. Frako Loden
Sunday, May 3, 5:45 p.m.; Tuesday, May 5, 6 p.m.; and Wednesday, May 6, 9:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

Good Cats
(Ying Liang, China)
Ying Liang's third feature is a comedic critique of China's economic miracle, the corruption of which he roots to Deng Xiaoping's oft-quoted pragmatic mantra about cats being good, regardless of color, as long as they catch mice. It's set in an uncomfortably urbanizing Zigong, Ying's Sichuan Province hometown, where a slacker (Luo Liang), pushing 30 and not impressing his wife (Wang Qian), gets work collecting debts for an increasingly shady land developer (Peng Deming). The developer is quite clearly the sort of corner cutter whose malfeasance compounded the devastation of the Sichuan earthquake last year. Whether from detachment or incredulity, Ying tends to take in his scenes from a distance, allowing enough space to accumulate contrasts between the actions and sounds within them (and, perhaps, skirting censure from Beijing). Western-style status anxiety collides with, say, the metaphorical possibilities of flickering light bulbs or direct, deadpan eruptions of chorus-like commentary from the Chinese goth-metalmongers Lamb's Funeral. Sample lyric: "How should I escape this world? Is corruption endemic? Or is the world just too lonely?" Ying knows these are serious questions, even if he has us laughing at them. Jonathan Kiefer
Sunday, April 26, 6:15 p.m.; Tuesday, April 28, 8:45 p.m.; Wednesday, April 29, 9:15 p.m.; and Friday, May 1, 3:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

About The Authors

Michael Fox

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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