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The 51st Annual San Francisco International Film Festival

Cinema for the Masses

San Franciscoís premier film festival is upon us and couldnít be better timed. The period from the beginning of the year through April is often a challenging time at the multiplex. Films released during this period are often those that didnít quite make the cut from the previous year. Not too surprisingly, you donít see a lot of stellar films (P.S. I Love You, anyone?).

While not EVERY film in the festival can be considered a "classic", there are more than a handful of films that are absolutely worth your time and this may very well be your only chance to see some of these films in the theater.

Whatís always refreshing about SFIFF is the selection of films truly runs the gamut. You can always expect eclectic and provocative subject matter, fascinating narratives, and complex characters. In short, itís much of what you CANíT find at most multiplexes.

What you can expect is 177 films, some exceptional "big night" films, Q&A sessions from the director (for most films), and a plethora of other creative and interesting programming. While there are a number of festivals that take place in SF (and the Bay Area), SFIFF is one you canít afford to miss if youíre a lover of the medium.

New Directors

SFIFF has always done a wonderful job of showcasing work from new and promising directors. This year is no exception as there are a multitude of great films falling under the "New Directors" category; however, if I have to choose one of these films it would have to be Ballast.

Ballast won the directing and cinematography awards at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival for good reasons. Taking place in the Mississippi Delta, the visual style of the film is muted, gray, and often bleak which is all too appropriate given the subject matter of the film.

In Ballast, you have the powerful and poignant story of a single mother, her troubled son, and a man (whose relationship to the aforementioned is initially unclear), who are trying to cope with and move on from the suicide of someone close to them.

Hammerís subtle hand forces you to read between the lines and the relationship between the three gradually becomes a bit clearer and the initial bleakness of the film gives way to a few brief glimmers of hope.

(NOTE -- The darkly comedic Norwegian film, The Art of Negative Thinking, is also a solid choice in this category)

World Cinema

Historically, SFIFF has done exceptional job in the "World Cinema" department getting high quality films from virtually ever corner of the globe. Once again, this yearís crop provides plenty of quality offerings. Lady Jane is a tense film noir taking place in Marseille that revolves around the kidnapping of a womanís son. However, the real standout from the "World Cinema" category is the whimsical dramedy from the Czech Republic, I Served the King of England.

Helmed by Jiri Menzel (master filmmaker of the Czech New Wave), I Served The King of England revolves around the comical and fascinating journey of Jan Dite as he climbs from the ranks of frankfurter peddler, to waiter, to maitre dí in pursuit of wealth and status.

Along the way, Dite receives a medal from the Emperor of Ethiopia, works at a Lebensborn breeding resort designed to spawn the Aryan master race, and screws a reasonable number of attractive women along the way.

Naturally, Diteís ascent encounters more than a few bumps in the road, all of which are treated with levity and hilarity.


Some excellent documentaries have shown up at SFIFF in previous years. Metal: A Headbangerís Journey and Morgan Spurlockís Supersize Me are but a few of note. This year, there are yet again a handful of docs well worth your time. Dust is an intriguing look at the war we wage against microscopic particles that we can never really win. Flow: For Love of Water is a powerful look at the nascent water crisis and raises the question of whether or not oil is in fact the scarcest natural resource.

However, the most powerful and thought provoking documentary I encountered was Secrecy. The US government spends more time and energy than ever before trying to keep certain information under wraps. But, how feasible is this given the advent of the Internet and perhaps more importantly, how necessary is this secrecy?

Directors Peter Galison and Robb Moss present a strikingly balanced argument that enables one to see the benefit in keeping certain information out of the public eye and the perils associated with keeping certain information secret. Compelling arguments for both sides are bolstered by journalists, government officials, and lawyers who spend most of their hours managing information and intelligence.

Given the events that have transpired in the past seven years and the fact that weíre in an election year, Secrecy could not be timelier.

(NOTE -- While I did not see American Teen, this documentary has received almost universally positive reviews)

Big Nights

Unfortunately, most of the films being shown as part of the "Big Nights" at SFIFF were not available to critics, but one excellent film, The Wackness, was available.

Director Jonathan Levine made a splash with his debut feature All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (due for release later this year) and his sophomore effort, The Wackness is likely to garner a lot of attention (and acclaim) as well.

Luke Shapiro lives on the upper East side of Manhattan and spends the waning days of his high school tuning out to hip hop and smoking (or dealing) weed. Disconnected and at least vaguely depressed, Luke can only really talk to his weed obsessed shrink, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley). A dime bag usually buys him about 30 minutes with Squires.

The Wackness is one of the most original coming of age stories seen in quite some time. Shapiro embodies the awkwardness that virtually all teens feel and the desire to escape their current existence (if not their own skin). While Shapiro yearns for adulthood, Squires craves the youth and freedom Shapiro largely takes for granted. In a sense, both Luke and Squires come of age in The Wackness.

(NOTE -- Because The Wackness is one of the "Big Night" films, thereís only ONE screening on Saturday, May 3rd @ 7pm at the Kabuki).