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The 49th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival

Cinephiles will be satiated

With over 200 films being screened over the course of 15 days, even the most voracious cinephile is bound to be at least partially satiated by the gluttonous and decadent offerings included in the 49th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival.

While arguably the SFIFF may not have the same cachet of Sundance or Cannes, there is no arguing the breadth of subject matter, diversity of genre, and high quality of the vast majority of the films being screened. Given the aforementioned and the San Francisco Film Society's passionate support of the festival, it's only a matter of time before SFIFF will be mentioned in same breath as Sundance and Cannes.

Given such high quality offerings, it has been a challenge to identify a mere handful of films from all of the SFIFF categories worth seeing, but the following are definitely not to be missed:

Big Nights

Romance and Cigarettes
Veteran actor and relatively new director John Turturro has assembled a stellar cast in putting together the bizarrely entertaining musical, Romance and Cigarettes. Really, with Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Steve Buscemi, and Susan Sarandon on board, is there much of a chance this one wouldn't entertain? The story revolves around Sarandon's character discovering her husband (Gandolfini) has been having an affair. This revelation catalyzes familial chaos as Sarandon, Gandolfini, and their family bemoans their patriarch's betrayal in a most musically entertaining fashion.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Documentaries

Runners High
This powerful documentary focuses on the "Students Run Oakland" program that trains high school students to run the Los Angeles Marathon. Many of the students come from broken homes, tough neighborhoods, and an environment in which violence and death are everyday occurrences. Enter coach Alphonzo Jackson whose mantra of "No Wimps" and "If you don't mind, it don't matter" spurs these kids to tackle something considered nigh on impossible for many. If this film doesn't make you want to strap on a pair of running shoes and hit the road, nothing will.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
Few films better illustrate the fine line between genius and madness than Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Few films also illustrate just how charismatic a true sociopath can be. Jim Jones unquestionably possessed charisma, genius, and madness in leading his devout followers to Guyana, South America in a quest to create an "ideal society". What Jones' followers would instead find is an isolated village from which there was little escape save death. Tragically, 900 members died in the largest mass suicide in modern history. What is most frightening is following the trajectory of Jim Jones ascent and realizing that there is little reason why something like this couldn't happen again.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


New Directors

Brothers of the Head
Seemingly amalgamating Spinal Tap and Velvet Goldmine, Brothers of the Head follows the story of conjoined twin brothers (aka -- siamese twins) who rise from obscurity to become rock stars in the 70s. New directors Keith Fulton and Luis Pepe skillfully inject the absurd premise with darkly infectious humor. Naturally, the two brothers indulge in sex, drugs, and all the trappings of rock stardom with comical and tragic results. In the process they are confronted with their painfully symbiotic relationship that threatens to tear them asunder.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Half Nelson
A cautionary tale of sorts, Half Nelson is the story of a talented Brooklyn high school teacher, Dan Dunne, (Ryan Gosling) who is as chemically dependent as he is talented. Stuck in an uncomfortable position (hence, the title), Dan forms an unusual friendship with a young girl wise beyond her years who catches him getting his daily fix. As it turns out, both are struggling to make changes to improve their respective situations. Half Nelson offers no easy answers, but acknowledges the value friendship can provide in preventing submission to our own personal demons.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In Bed
A film that is somewhat reminiscent of Richard Linklater's stream of consciousness Waking Life, In Bed captures a few fleeting minutes during and after a passionate tryst in a hotel room between two relative strangers. Through several acts or coitus and post-coitus rapture, the two share and learn more about each other and themselves than they ever could have anticipated. Their brief affair raises questions and conundrums that neither of them necessarily wants to address.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

World Cinema

Iberia
Director Carlos Saura assembles a beautiful mélange of dance, music, and visuals in Iberia. Having made his mark with similarly structured films like Tango and Flamenco, Saura scores again with Iberia. Saura's fascination with the gypsy lifestyle of Southern Spain is explored region by region. In the process we are taken on a literal journey of the beautiful and melodic.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Art School Confidential
Terry Zwigoff (Director of Bad Santa) reunites with Ghost World screenwriter Daniel Clowes for this cynically comical look at the screwed up world that is "Art School". Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) naively signs up at Strathmore Institute, an art school rife with beatniks, bohemians, misanthropes, miscreants, and the generally untalented. Jerome quickly learns that talent means nothing in art school and his naiveté is quickly shattered in a bizarre series of hilarious misadventures. Zwigoff works his magic again and manages to marry social commentary in a darkly hysterical celluloid shell.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars