This Year’s San Francisco International Film Festival Announced

It feels like winter has finally arrived, but according to the calendar, it’s aready spring. And that means this years’ San Francisco International Film Festival is only weeks away. The Film Society has been releasing bits of news for weeks, but Tuesday morning, they held the big press conference, and then the entire schedule went live on the Internet.

The festival opens Thursday, April 24, and closes Friday, May 9. Over those 16 days, the Festival will screen 168 films, including 103 features (74 narratives, 29 documentaries). The films will be in 40 languages. There will be five US premieres, five North American premieres, and three world premieres (and yes, that’s a total of 13, not five).

The festival opens with The Two Faces of January, which new Executive Director Noah Cowan described at the press conference as a “rip-roaring thriller.” Since it’s based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley), it could very likely be that.

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Awards are always a big part of the festival. Richard Linklater, who made big splashes at SFIFF the last two years with Bernie and Before Midnight, wins this year’s Founder’s Directing Award. Since I’ve yet to see a film of his I didn’t like, I can’t complain. The ceremony honoring him will include a screening of his new film, Boyhood, a narrative feature that he made on-and-off over a 12-year period, allowing his protagonist to age from six to 18.

The Kanbar Award for screenwriting this year goes to Stephen Gaghan. I’ve only seen two of his films–Traffic and Syriana (which he also directed)–and was disappointed with both of them. The event honoring Gaghan will include a screening of Syriana.

By the way, both Linklater and Gaghan are now writer-directors. At the press conference, I asked how the programmers decided which one to honor as a writer and which as a director. Director of Programming Rachel Rosen admitted that that decision can be tricky, but pointed out that Gaghan made a reputation for himself as a screenwriter and then started directing, while Linklater burst into the film scene as an independent writer-director. (For what it’s worth, the first director to receive that award, Akira Kurosawa, was an established screenwriter before he became a director.)

This year’s Mel Novikoff Award, given to those who have "enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema," goes to writer and critic David Thomson. In addition to talking and answering questions, Thomson will screen my all-time favorite screwball comedy, The Lady Eve.

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Speaking of classics, the festival has two silent film nights, both with unusual musical accompaniment. The first of these, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, has Thao Nguyen and her band, the Get Down Stay Down, accompanying various silent shorts, including Chaplin’s wonderful "The Pawnshop," Slavko Vorkapich’s "Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra," newsreels, and I’m not sure what else.

However, I’ll probably skip the second silent film night, Stephin Merritt with The Unknown. I like The Unknown, one of  Tod Browning’s best Lon Chaney vehicles. Unfortunately, I heard Merritt’s horrible accompaniment for  the silent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 2010. I have no desire to see him massacre another silent film.

By the way, when the usual film-vs.-digital question came up at the press conference, Cowan guessed that The Unknown and "The Pawnshop" will be the only programs in the festival projected in 35mm. (Another program, whose name I didn’t catch, will be in 16mm, with two projectors running simultaneously at different speeds.) Rosen told us that they had a choice of screening The Lady Eve on film or digitally, but the digital version looked better. "It’s a digital restoration." I’m fine with that, although I know that many are not.

Here’s something promising among the documentaries: Agnès Varda: From Here To There. I’ve only recently come to appreciate Varda–the queen of the French New Wave. I’m sure she’d be as famous as Godard and Truffaut if she’d been born with a penis. In this French TV miniseries, she travels the world and interviews interesting people. But at 225 minutes, it’s a major time commitment. 

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The festival will close with the family drama Alex of Venice, about an environmental lawyer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) struggling after her husband leaves her. According to the website and the press conference, Don Johnson gives an excellent performance as her aging actor father (possibly not a major stretch).