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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.

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