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San Francisco International Film Festival: What to See 

Wednesday, Apr 20 2011

Once again, it's time to gorge. Over the next two weeks, the 54th annual San Francisco International Film Festival invites local movie buffs to have their way with 150 films from around the world. This year's fest promises inventive features, award-winning docs, wrenching epics, and more fresh shorts than a Cub Scout camp's clothesline. There are also unique live events: On Sunday, April 24, film producer Christine Vachon (Happiness, Boys Don't Cry) discusses the state of today's cinema (9 p.m., Sundance Kabuki) and on Saturday, April 30, the festival presents its POV award to Matthew Barney, the master of high-art ick (5 p.m., also at the Kabuki). As for the films — well, we've done some gorging already to help you. Here are some of our favorites.

For a complete listing of films and special events, visit

The Arbor
(Clio Bernard, England)
For her feature film debut, the British artist Clio Barnard has staged an experimental biographical documentary on playwright Andrea Dunbar, whose rough, short life ended with a brain hemorrhage in 1990. Emerging all too briefly from a grim working-class West Yorkshire pit of domestic violence and desperate self-medication, Dunbar left a many-tiered legacy, including her gritty autobiographical dramaturgy and a handful of tragically haunted children. Along with scenes from Dunbar's play, The Arbor, performed on an open lawn in her old neighborhood for an audience of local onlookers, Barnard makes enterprising use of intimate audio interviews with the playwright's family, getting actors to lip-synch the recordings on camera with mesmerizing precision. The technique isn't new — it's like Nick Park's Creature Comforts series, except with actual humans instead of animated zoo animals, and so a lot less cute — but in Barnard's hands it is especially powerful, at once inherently protective and singularly revealing. This is an eerie and mysterious film, more than merely a portrait of the artist as a young casualty of disadvantage. Jonathan Kiefer
Sunday, April 24, 8:45 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive; Sunday, May 1, 7:15 p.m., and Wednesday, May 4, 7:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

Asleep in the Sun
(Alejandro Chomski, Argentina)
Buenos Aires in the embalmed 1950s "lives" again in this enigmatic, impeccably designed fable set "in a circular neighborhood without corners, lost in time." A watchmaker (a pointless occupation in a place where time stands still) and his devoted wife go through the motions of their quiet routine with neither humor nor passion. Diana has taken to visiting a veterinary clinic each morning to commune with the dogs, and she accepts the vet's recommendation to check herself into a "phrenopathic institute" to cure some latent nervousness. When she's finally released, she is a good deal more amorous, and that and other differences provoke her husband's suspicion. Pitch perfect though vaguely out of reach, the movie creates an airless, tamped-down world of sleepwalkers (or body snatchers) where obeisance to authority figures is the norm and a raised voice — or bark — is startling. Michael Fox
Sunday, April 24, 8:45 p.m., and Thursday, April 28, 3:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Saturday, April 30, at 6:15 p.m. at New People.

Cinema Komunisto
(Mila Turajlic, Serbia)
From 1948 to 1980, Josef Broz Tito was an anomaly: the U.S.-friendly Communist dictator of the key (and long-gone) nation of Yugoslavia. He used his power and his fascination with film to closely supervise the nation's movies, which as seen here seem to be endless war movies about the partisan struggles against the Nazis. He also encouraged international coproductions: endless war movies about the partisan struggles against the Nazis, now featuring international stars. It's bizarre to see Richard Burton kissing up to the stubby Tito as he prepares to play him in a forgotten epic; it's disconcerting to hear Orson Welles praise Tito's greatness. Director Mila Turajlic filters all of this through the recollections of a director, star, producer, and so on of the period, filming them amid decaying studios and theaters. Her key witness is Tito's aged projectionist, who showed the absolute ruler and his wife a new movie virtually every night for 32 years. As old men pose pensively in the rubble of dreams, it becomes clear what this film is really about: the relentless passing of time and the inevitability of age and decay. Gregg Rickman
Saturday, April 30, 3:15 p.m., and Wednesday, May 4, 3.15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Tuesday, May 3, 6:30 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive.

Foreign Parts
(Véréna Paravel, USA/France)
No more than a stone's throw away from the New York Mets' new, heavily commercialized Citi Field stands Willets Point, a muddy strip of junkyards and garages where immigrant hucksters and hustlers eke out a living by hook or crook. Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki's documentary captures this Queens locale (also the subject of Ramin Bahrani's 2007 Chop Shop) in 2008–09, while on the precipice of foreclosure to pave the way for the Mayor Michael Bloomberg–sponsored business and residential redevelopment. The impending obsolescence feels natural in an area defined by both automotive scrap and residents who, like the dogs and cats that roam its streets in search of sustenance, are societal strays. Gentrification, economic inequality, class conflict, and the rusty reality of the American Dream — here epitomized by the opening, symbolic sight of an impaled Chevy van bleeding fluid — are omnipresent concerns, given profound weight by the directors' patient, attentive approach. As with Sweetgrass, another recent sterling New York Film Festival selection produced under the auspices of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, Foreign Parts engages in sociological inquiry without narration or contextual handholding, using incisive, striking aesthetics (a panorama of hanging side mirrors, worn shoes trudging through grimy puddles) to elicit potent subcultural immersion. Nick Schager
Saturday, April 23, 2:15 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive; Thursday, April 28, 9 p.m., at the New People; Friday, April 29, 1:15 p.m., and Sunday, May 1, 6:45 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

The Good Life
(Eva Mulvad, Denmark)
This up-close yet curiously superficial documentary considers the limited prospects and bottomless bitterness of the formerly parasitical rich. An elderly Dane and her fiftysomething daughter, ensconced in a seaside Portuguese town where they once lived high on the porco, pass the days budgeting, bickering, and bargaining to scrape by on mom's meager monthly pension. A dog supplies companionship, while old home movies provide undying fuel for the world-wise mother's resignation and the once-spoiled daughter's resentment. Alas, the women's dynamic doesn't approach the harrowing complexity and funny/horrifying weirdness of Big Edie and Little Edie's relationship in the timeless Grey Gardens. In this instance, the fact that the Danes have been downsized from jet-set, ultraposh lifestyles doesn't exactly register as a great human tragedy; what's more compelling about their plight — yet underexplored — is the trick of surviving on an insufficient fixed income. M.F.
Friday, April 22, 3:45 p.m.; Thursday, April 28, 6:45 p.m.; and Sunday, May 1, 9:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo's Cannes prizewinner is a humane and subtle rebuke to the presumed banality of ordinary life. Just before leaving Korea for a new try in another country, an impoverished would-be director (Kim Sang-kyung) meets his old friend, a depressed movie critic (Yu Jun-sang), for cocktails and conversation. As the two young men knock back round after round of drinks and swap stories of their recent adventures in a small seaside town, each evidently is too self-involved to realize that they were in the same places with some of the same people at almost the same time. Their ostensible present tense is conveyed in black-and-white stills, overlaid with voiceover conversation and a regular "Cheers!" refrain, while the long takes of their remembered anecdotes have motion and color and occasional punctuating zooms. Hong gently suggests that even the most ineloquent emotional foibles can make for affecting memories — best when shared, but ultimately, poignantly, private. J.K.
Friday, April 22, 6:15 p.m.; Monday, April 25, 9 p.m.; and Tuesday, April 26, 3:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

Meek's Cutoff
(Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Tenacious indie Kelly Reichardt has specialized in quirky, minimalist quasi–road movies in which loners come unmoored in some great American space. Meek's Cutoff is that and more — one great leap into the 19th-century unknown. Directed from Jon Raymond's fact-based script, this suggestively allegorical, discreetly trippy Oregon-set 1845 Western recalls Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man in its evocation of frontier surrealism and manifest-destiny madness; the Reichardt approach is, however, more stringent and pointed in its weirdness. Chris Blauvelt's camera lingers on three settler women (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, and Zoe Kazan) dutifully trudging behind their husbands' covered wagons. Meek's Cutoff has a few beautifully understated images of cooperation as the settlers drag their wagons across the scrub brush, but the movie's major concern is the problem of bad leadership. Having split off from a larger wagon train, the party elected to follow Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), an extravagantly hirsute, self-regardingly loquacious guide who, in his most obvious misjudgment, brings them not to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains but the shores of a great saline lake. Events come to a head when the settlers stumble upon and are compelled to take captive an unarmed Indian scout. They regard this irredeemable Other with suspicion bordering on panic; at the same time, he's the material projection of the unforgiving wilderness in which they find themselves. Who will lead them out of the desert — the boastful blowhard Meek or this enigmatic native? Meek's Cutoff has a tranced-out quality, but the political implications, regarding trust given and abused, are hard to miss. J. Hoberman
Friday April 22, 9 p.m., and Monday, April 25, 4:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

Nostalgia for the Light
(Patricio Guzmán, France/Chile/Germany)
Chile's self-appointed one-man Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Patricio Guzmán, has devoted four decades to chronicling the short-lived Allende administration and the Pinochet dark ages that followed, long after his countrymen wanted him to stop. At first blush, though, his new documentary detours toward astronomy, landing rather Herzog-ishly in the Atacama Desert, the elevation and absolute dryness of which make it one of the globe's optimal observatory locations. Guzmán uses the stars' distance to ruminate on the nature of time — as in, everything, even light, even this, is in the past. He eventually winds his way around to how time has treated the ghost town turned concentration camp of Chacabuco, its ex-prisoners, the dumped bones of disappeared Pinochet victims, and the tough, striking old women who still scour the desert plateau on foot hunting for remains. Guzmán fugue-weaves all over the place, montage-cutting from the lunar surface to giant close-ups of calcified bone, and the film's philosophical musings slowly funnel down into a silent yowl of rage and a desperate plea for remembrance. (If he is to be believed, Chileans have an even stronger urge to forget than Americans do.) Often stark and ravishing, Nostalgia for the Light is most moving as a manifestation of the filmmaker's stubborn righteousness. Michael Atkinson
Tuesday, April 26, 6:30 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Thursday, April 28, 6. 15 p.m. at the Clay.

Page One
(Andrew Rossi, USA)
In rooms decorated with Pulitzers of the past and a giant poster of Orson Welles as Citizen Kane, harassed and anxious New York Times reporters struggle to get a handle on a rapidly changing media ecology. Filmmaker Andrew Rossi uses his all-access pass not to probe the Times' agenda-setting handling of key issues, but rather pursue the story-about-the-story of the paper's future. That material will date, but scenes of an embattled elite suddenly insecure about their future will always have relevance. A sarcastic stringbean, media reporter David Carr emerges as the film's star as he defends his paper's right to exist against a series of new media presences who, one after the other, he verbally defenestrates. G.R.
Friday, April 29, 6:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Sunday, May 1, 5:30 p.m., at the New People.

The Pipe
(Risteard Ó Domhnaill, Ireland)
It's impossible to remain unmoved by this alternately scenic and raw portrait of an Irish fishing and farming burg bulldozed by Shell's construction of an offshore gas pipeline. The tough-minded locals can't agree on an organized, united campaign that leverages their property rights and moral authority, though it gradually becomes clear that they're overmatched in any event against the multinational fossil-fuels purveyor and the complicit government. The film achieves its extended, heart-pounding climax thanks to heroically defiant, chain-smoking crab fisherman Pat "The Chief" O'Donnell, who makes his solo stand in the open sea tilting at Shell's gargantuan pipe-laying ship. The Pipe provides but a few fleeting moments of inspiration and absolutely no catharsis; it's the end of the world as we know it, yet again. M.F.
Saturday, April 23, 6 p.m., at New People; Saturday, April 30, 12:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki; Monday, May 2, 6:30 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive.

Le Quattro Volte
(Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy/Germany/Switzerland)
Grave, beautiful, austerely comic, and casually metempsychotic, Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte is one of the wiggiest nature documentaries — or almost-documentaries —ever made. His second movie is virtually without dialogue, yet filled with the sounds of the world and intensely communicative. The movie's title translates to The Four Times but, not simply seasonal, it projects four states of being: human, animal, vegetable, and mineral. It begins with a wheezing old man and his herd of goats emerging out of the smoke rising from a charcoal kiln; it ends with the charcoal haze of what was once a mighty fir drifting across the screen. In between, the goatherd gathers up dust from the floor of the village church, which he mixes in water and drinks each night as a medicinal elixir. It evidently works — the morning after he misplaces his daily packet of church sweepings, he dies. The moment is stunningly casual. Le Quattro Volte is a movie in which animals have at least as much presence as humans. The goatherd's persistent cough merges with the clamor of his herds' conversational baas and tinkling bells. Man has been displaced from the center of the world but, if one follows the filmmaker's logic, his soul migrates first into a newborn kid and then, once the kid is separated from the herd and lost in the snowy forest, into the sheltering tree that becomes the movie's ultimate protagonist. J.H.
Saturday, April 23, 6:45 p.m., and Wednesday, April 27, 6:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

A Useful Life
(Federico Veiroj, Uruguay)
Jorge, a dumpy film buff (played by a dumpy film critic, Jorge Jellinek), lives the life we all dream of, managing a Uruguayan film archive very much like our own beloved Pacific Film Archive. We follow the schlub as he books movies, introduces directors, and does live Spanish translation of the titles of Erich von Stroheim's Greed. Alas, the archive runs out of money halfway through this short (hour-long) movie, and we then follow Jorge as he tries to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Anyone who has been downsized will sympathize with Federico Veiroj's film, which, for all that, stays away from what must be Jorge's vertiginous despair, emphasizing instead the sudden giddiness of no expectations. G.R.
Sunday, April 24, noon, at the New People; Monday, April 25, 7 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive; Saturday, April 30, 3:45 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

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