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San Francisco International Film Festival

For People Who Love Movies

The longest running film festival in the Americas is back for its 52nd iteration. Truly, the San Francisco International Film Festival is a festival programmed by those who love film for people who love film. Once again, the crack team at the San Francisco Film Society has assembled a stellar mix of films, tributes, ‘big nights’, musical performances, and just about everything in between.

Before I delve into the films I saw, I thought I would mention a few films that piqued my curiosity, but I was unable to view. Tyson by James Toback is a documentary examining the life of arguably one of the most fascinating, disturbing, and misunderstood athletes of our time, Mike Tyson.

La Mission is a film that undoubtedly will attract many San Franciscans given the local angle of the film. Taking place in the Mission District, La Mission stars Benjamin Bratt as an ex-con attempting to turn his life around. Starring Benjamin Bratt and directed by his brother, Peter Bratt, La Mission could be a film worth checking out.

One last film I didn’t catch, but may be worth a view is 500 Days of Summer. Starring Zoey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 500 Days of Summer is a romantic comedy of sorts told out of chronological sequence married with music from the Smiths, Belle and Sebastian, and the Black Lips.

Setting aside the films I didn’t manage to catch, there were a plethora of excellent films I managed to catch that I would recommend unilaterally. Below are a handful of said films:

My Suicide
Suicide may be no laughing matter, but director David Lee Miller does something pretty remarkable in creating a dark comedy about a young man who plans to film his own suicide as part of a school project. Miller manages to vividly capture the internal angst felt by virtually all teens to one degree or another in a way few films in the past have. Our hero Archie Williams (Gabriel Sunday) is overwhelmed by parents he can’t connect with, peers he largely feels distanced from, and a media saturated world bombarding him with a glut of incomprehensible messages. Frenetically constructed and edited, My Suicide manages to disturb and entertain deftly.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O’Neill) are two kids struggling to survive in an Irish suburban housing estate. Sharing the bond of being abused by their respective families, the two make a break for it one day during the Christmas holiday and escape to Dublin hoping for a better life. What unfolds is a frightening, exhilarating, and inspiring journey the two will never forget. Both Curry and O’Neill manage performances that are mature, believable and poignant as they try to find an escape from their painful existences at home. In Kisses, Irish director Lance Daly constructs a powerful coming of age story that never fails to resonate.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Beast Stalker
For those seeking a tense, action infused thriller, Dante Lam’s The Beast Stalker is undoubtedly one of the best at the festival. The film starts out in dramatic fashion with a blown stakeout followed up with a riveting car chase. The chase concludes with tough police sergeant Tong (Nicholas Tse) witnessing the innocent death of a woman’s daughter and the revocation of his police badge. Tong gets an opportunity for redemption when the same woman has her other daughter kidnapped. But, will Tong’s desire for redemption save the young girl’s life or result in her death? This taut thriller out of Hong Kong provides more than enough action and tension for fans of the thriller genre.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It’s Not Me, I Swear
Straight out of Canada comes the darkly comical coming of age story about Leon Dore (Antoine L’Ecuyer), a young boy who is at the nucleus of a dysfunctional family and makes suicide attempts as cavalierly as most kids play Nintendo Wii. Complicating matters is Leon’s enabling mother who promptly abandons the family due to the stifling suburban milieu that has come to suffocate her (this takes place in 1968, by the way). Leon’s already bad behavior spirals out of control in the wake of his mother’s departure and the only saving grace is his relationship with his neighbor Lea who is dealing with some pretty unpleasant challenges at home. If you’re looking for a solid coming of age double feature, pair this one with Kisses to get your fix.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

For The Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism
As someone who pens film reviews, this documentary from Gerald Peary was a must see. This fascinating film charts the origins, history, and evolution of film criticism. Peary also examines the often confusing (and at times contentious) relationship between critics and those working in the film industry. The release of For The Love of Movies is particularly timely given the increasing number of newspapers that are shutting down, the advent of bloggers, and ascent of "lay critics". It’s no overstatement to say film criticism is a profession that is to some extent "under siege".
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A Sea Change
As a man who grew up in Norway and Alaska, Sven Husby has a passion for any/all things related to the ocean. A lifelong educator who is now retired, Sven finds himself fixated on ocean acidification and global warming. Framed by Sven’s concern for his grandson, Elias and the world he is inheriting, Sven goes on a journey to learn all he can about ocean acidification while reporting back to Elias periodically about what he’s learned. While admittedly Sven’s journey highlights the dire nature of the problem, glimmers of hope emerge in the latter stages of the film. A Sea Change is ultimately a very sweet story of a grandfather’s love for his grandson with a decidedly environmental angle.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

D Tour
Rounding things out is D Tour, a powerfully moving documentary about Pat Spurgeon, an afro’d drummer who is just one of the most genuinely likable people you’ll ever meet. Pat is nearly 40 years old and all he’s ever wanted is to play music for a living. Just as his long dream appears to be coming to fruition, Spurgeon’s lone kidney starts to fail. Despite having to perform dialysis multiple times a day, Spurgeon is bound and determined to not let his failing health prevent him from chasing his dream. During the course of following Spurgeon’s tour with his band (Rogue Wave), we learn that Spurgeon has struggled with kidney issues his entire life and has been on a waiting list for six years for a transplant. What unfolds is a poignant and powerful documentary that never fails to inspire one to hold on tight to your dreams.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

For SFIFF details and showtimes: