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The 48th San Francisco International Film Festival

Spring time for movie buffs

Before the onslaught of summer blockbusters arrives, now is a great time to turn your attention away from Hollywood and focus on the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival, which runs April 21 - May 5. Showcasing a whopping 185 films from 49 countries, including 79 feature films, 71 shorts, and 35 documentaries, there's bound to be something to suit your tastes. There will be 14 world premieres, three international premieres, 22 North American premieres, and 8 U.S. premieres.

To make sense of the madness at the festival, SF Station sent our reviewers to report back on some little-hyped hits you may otherwise overlook as well as some misses with interesting titles you may want to think twice about.

Boxers and Ballerinas (USA, 2005)
This vibrant, beautiful film, directed by Brit Marling and Mike Cahill, profiles four Cuban athletes and dancers -- two in Miami and two in Havana -- who struggle to perfect their craft while weighing obligations to family, homeland, and themselves. Unlike typical documentaries that feature a succession of talking heads, Boxers and Ballerinas chooses a visual approach more reminiscent of fictional dramas; an inventive use of color palettes, sound, framing, and competent, multiple-camera editing. 4/27, 2pm; 5/1, 6:30pm; 5/3, 1pm at AMC Kabuki (5 out of 5 stars; SG).

Cinévardaphoto (France, 2004)
This engaging and poignant short film trilogy by Agnes Varda, the "Grand Mother of the French New Wave", amuses, surprises, and dazzles with every frame as it reflects on the power of still photography and how it can move and excite us in multifarious and unexpected ways. "Ydessa, the Bears, and Etc.," a captivating documentary inspired by Varda's visit to an art exhibit in Munich, focuses on the show's charismatically eccentric and articulate curator, Ydessa Hendeles, and the seemingly innocuous exhibit of some 2000 framed photographs of children and adults posing with teddy bears. The film records the contradictory impressions and emotions the exhibit evokes in visitors and the filmmaker as she explores the two rooms that contain the extraordinary photo collection and a third room that only contains "Him," a sculpture by Maurizio Cattelan that casts a diabolic shadow over the entire exhibit. The subject of Varda's second short, "Ulysse," is a photograph she took in 1954 showing a man, a boy (Ulysse), and a dead goat carefully positioned on a rock-strewn beach. This becomes the point of departure for an amusing and thoughtful meditation on reality and fiction, as Varda probes her subjects' memories about that day on the beach 28-years later. Finally, "Salut Les Cubains," the last short in this touching triptych, is a virtuoso montage of some 1,800 black-and-white photographs taken by Varda during a visit to Cuba in the early 1960s. Set to Cuban folk songs and danzons, this uplifting photo-essay celebrates a country, its music, its culture, and its people brimming with hope and energy four years after Fidel Castro came to power - and it makes Ken Burns documentaries look like stale History Channel fare. 4/22, 5pm; 4/24, 2pm at AMC Kabuki and 4/27, 7pm at Pacific Film Archive (5 out of 5 stars; MK)

Murderball (USA, 2004)
This is the dramatic account of hypercompetitive, wheelchair-bound men who are as passionate about "quad rugby" as professional athletes are about their sport. Because the filmmakers got access to the intimate spaces where these men live, heal, and play, Murderball successfully conveys the strong personalities, playful combativeness, and sincere emotions that run high during and after each game. Animation sequences illustrate the game's rules as well as the players' afflictions -- and even their dreams. Combative, humorous, educational, and inspiring, there's enough in Murderball for several feature films. Whether a rare blood disease, childhood polio, a motocross accident, or drunken driving originally maimed them, these men hold the word "handicapped" in contempt. 4/28, 7:30pm at the Jewish Community Center and 4/29, 7pm at AMC Kabuki (4 out of 5 stars; SG)

Shepherds' Journey into the Third Millennium (Switzerland, 2002)
For Swiss filmmaker Erich Langjahr, tending sheep is not just a job; it's a way of life that deals with fundamental issues of human existence, identity, and survival. Following two itinerant shepherds over the course of several years, Shepherds' Journey meticulously documents and reflects on a vanishing way of life that is in tune with the four seasons and full of mystical moments, yet also marked by extreme loneliness, privation, and worries. Why would these young men, who were not born into a shepherds' family, choose to forgo many of the conveniences of modern society and live a life that keeps them away from their loved ones for months on end? One of Langjahr's biggest accomplishments in this mesmerizing film is having his subjects share graciously and freely enough of their innermost feelings and thoughts to help us understand what motivates them to lead a simple life. Beautifully photographed, leisurely paced, and set to an original score, Shepherds' Journey paints in lush detail a moving tableau of the fragile unity between humankind and nature that resonates with viewers everywhere. 4/25, 8:30pm; 4/28, 5pm; 5/4, 7pm at AMC Kabuki (5 out of 5 stars; MK)

The White Diamond (Germany, 2004)
Renegade German filmmaker Werner Herzog reaches for new heights in this mesmerizing documentary about a boyish British aeronautic engineer, Dr. Graham Dorrington, who invented a diamond-shaped blimp to gain access to the Amazon canopy. But Dorrington's expedition to the giant Kaieteur Falls in the heart of Guyana is not without risk. As preparations are underway for the blimp's maiden flight, we learn that 12 years earlier, a similar trip to this pristine jungle region with an older prototype ended in tragedy when Dorrington's friend and nature photographer Dieter Plage fell to his death. In its reverence for enigmas, incorrigible dreamers, iconoclasts, mystics, and eloquent noble savages, The White Diamond is vintage Herzog. Set to choral chants and evocative cello music, it revels in the natural beauty of the Amazon jungle while Herzog's dry Germanic narration and keen eye for oddities injects a healthy dose of ironic wit into the mundane tasks of preparing for the blimp's takeoff. 4/30, 6:15pm at the Castro and 5/2, 12:45 at AMC Kabuki (4 out of 5 stars; MK)

Duck Season (Mexico, 2004)
Best friends Flama and Moko are stoked: with Flama's mother off to work they have everything 14-year-old boys need to survive a boring Sunday in a drab Mexico City burb: an apartment all to themselves, pornographic magazines, an Xbox console, video games, and tons of junk food. Alas, their plans for killing the day by playing violent video games are foiled by frequent power outages, a 16-year-old neighbor named Rita in need of an oven to bake a cake, and a 20-something pizza delivery guy named Ulises who arrives 11 seconds after the "On Time or It's Free" deadline and refuses to leave without payment. Gradually, as time goes by the four warm up to each other through the stories they tell, and soon adolescent ennui gives way to intimate encounters and personal confessions that culminate in one of the funniest drug sequences in film history when Rita accidentally spikes a tray of brownies with the herb superb by reaching for the wrong ingredients jar. Written and directed by Fernando Eimbcke, and shot in black and white, in a style that is reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Duck Season is a charming and delightful film that projects optimism and hope as it probes serious realities facing adolescents in their search for a meaningful existence. 4/28, 10am; 4/29, 6:30pm; and 4/30, 4:15pm at AMC Kabuki (4 out of 5 stars; MK)

Three Times Two (Cuba, 2004)
Shot in digital video on a shoestring budget, and blown up to 35mm, this critically acclaimed omnibus film projects three distinct takes on male-female relationships by three of Cuba's most talented young filmmakers. Pavel Giroud's "Flash", a haunting tale about love and death, follows a young photographer obsessed by an enigmatic woman who inexplicably appears in almost all the pictures he takes of Havana's historical districts. Lester Hamlet's "Lila", a politically-inflected musical set in rural Cuba, revolves around the memories of an elderly woman reminiscing about her adolescence and an early love affair with a young man who, one day, decides to join the rebels in pre-Castro Cuba. Esteban Insausti's "Luz roja" captures the chance encounter between an unhappy blind radio announcer and an equally unhappy psychologist that morphs into a steamy, intimate fantasy about two lonely urbanites in search of love and companionship. Smart, intriguing, and full of energy and creativity, Three Times Two, like every student project, has its imperfections, but as far as omnibus films go, it packs three unforgettable punches that will stun, touch, and excite the film buff in you. 4/22, 4:45pm; 4/24, 10pm and 4/30, 6:45pm at AMC Kabuki (4 out of 5 stars; MK)

When the Tide Comes In (France, 2004)
If you're in the mood for one-star hotels, late night beers, and the poetic nighttime glow of an oil refinery, then check out this spot-on charmer by the first-time writing-directing team Gilles Porte and Yolande Moreau (who played the concierge in Amélie) which won the coveted Prix Louis Delluc award for best French debut feature. Modest in scope and bittersweet in sentiment, the film focuses on a middle-aged traveling actress, Irene, whose one-woman show "Sex and Crime" attracts a dubious admirer in Dries, a carnival giants porter. Dries becomes thoroughly enamored with her performance and on-stage character when she picks him out of the audience as a "human prop" for her shtick. For him, it's the beginning of a love story, but in this scenario, the real-life love story that develops between this mismatched pair carries eerie overtones of the dirty story Irene recounts onstage. Coasting on melancholy charm, When the Tide Comes In… is the type of flick you will want to warm up to when you're feeling lonely and are in need of cinematic companionship. 4/23, 9:15pm and 4/25, 3:15pm at AMC Kabuki and 4/27, 9pm at Pacific Film Archive (4 out of 5 stars; MK)

Critics: Michael Koch, Stefan Gruenwedel & Matthew Forsman compiled this piece.