San Francisco International Film Festival

The good news: The San Francisco International Film Festival starts in two weeks. The bad news: So does Passover, resulting in some serious scheduling conflicts between must-see movies and my other religion. It’s a good thing my family now follows Sephardic rules for observing this eight-day festival–that means I can eat popcorn.

The festival runs from April 21 through May 5, primarily at the Kabuki Theater, with some special events at the Castro and Palace of Fine Arts. For those who don’t want to travel to San Francisco, some films will get repeat showings at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive and Palo Alto’s Aquarius Theatre. (Did you know that the Aquarius was built in 1969? Does that surprise you? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m showing my age.) The festival will show 185 films, including 14 world premieres and 22 North American premieres. Tickets are already on sale.

There’s a lot to do and see between the opening night screening of Costa-Gavras’ new comedy (yes, you read that right) The Ax, and the closing presentation of Craig Lucas’ “scathing show-biz satire” The Dying Gaul. The big events include a State of the Cinema speech by writer-director Brad Bird (The Incredibles), plus life achievement awards for director Taylor Hackford, screenwriter Paul Haggis, and actor Joan Allen. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis (Century of the Self) will receive the Persistence of Vision Award (the festival will also screen his latest work, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear). And the Mel Novikoff Award goes to Anita Monga, the long-time Castro programmer whose firing last fall so upset us all. Not surprisingly, her award ceremony (which will include a screening of Jacques Becker’s 1957 thriller Touchez Pas Au Grisbi),will not be at the Castro.

Three silent films will screen with live musical accompaniment, all at the Palace of Fine Arts. On Saturday, April 23, the American Music Club will accompany Frank Borzage’s Street Angel. Then, on Monday the 25th, the Alloy Orchestra will supply the music for the silent version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail and a newly-restored print of The Phantom of the Opera. (Like many films of 1929, Blackmail was made with separate talkie and silent versions; I’ve only seen the talkie, but many people prefer the silent.)

And what about new movies? I haven’t seen any of them, but I can still tell you what you can safely skip. A number of scheduled films are already signed up for commercial, art house theatrical release. If you don’t care about “I saw it first” bragging rights, skip these and go to movies that you might not get a chance to see again. I’ll mark these films when I post the SFIFF schedule on my web site.

The festival won’t open for another two weeks. You might want to see some of these movies while you wait:

Recommendation: The Lady Vanishes, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. The best (and almost the last) film Alfred Hitchcock made in England before jumping the pond.This is Hitchcock light–starting out as a gentle comedy and slowly building suspense, but never taking itself seriously. Unfortunately, the Stanford has it on a double-bill with Suspicion, an early American effort (although set in England) that’s one of Hitchcock’s worst.

Noteworthy: Moulin Rouge, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday night. Not the Baz Luhrmann musical, but John Huston’s 1952 Toulouse-Lautrec biopic. Shown as part of Russell Merritt’s Crying In Color series, this movie is best known for its experimental use of Technicolor, and Houston’s battle with Technicolor consultants over that experimentation.

Recommendation: Young Frankenstein, Balboa, Monday. Mel Brooks’ one great comedy does for classic Universal horror films what Blazing Saddles did for westerns, except that it never has to strain for a laugh. Nor for its warm, sweet spirit. Perhaps Gene Wilder’s contribution, as writer as well as star, makes it so special. Wilder will be there in person from 5:30 to 7:00, signing his new book. Also on the bill is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a movie whose appeal I’ve never understood (yes, I have seen it with a young child, and no, I didn’t like the book, either).

Recommendation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Parkway, Thursday evening. The biggest and the best of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” westerns was the Pulp Fiction of its day, reveling in its own amorality and bringing you along to enjoy the ride. It’s violent, beautiful, iconic, and funny, with the best performance of Eli Wallach’s career and that incredible Ennio Morricone score. Part of the Parkway’s Thrillville series, the evening will also include Frank Novicki performing “his own unique brand of spaghetti-hula guitar music,” whatever that means.