Foreign Films & Crime-Soaked Movies: The first film festivals of 2019

The last weeks of the year become a film festival desert in the Bay Area. 2018’s last fest, Another Hole in the Head, closed December 12.

But with the new year come new festivals. At least two will open in January.

For Your Consideration

Rafael, January 4 – 10

All sorts of rules control what films can qualify for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. One of those rules allows each country to submit a single feature to be considered for nomination.

Over the course of a week, you can see up to 15 films that have been submitted.

I’ve seen only one of these films, I Am Not a Witch, and I give it an A. In Zambia, villagers accuse a young girl of being a witch. She’s forced to live with other “witches,” all old women. They’re treated like slaves, with thick ribbons substituting as chains. A government official takes her under his wing, exploiting her alleged powers for profit. Writer/director Rungano Nyoni uses cinematic techniques that keep the audience emotionally distant, which somehow makes the protagonist’s treatment feel all the worst. A powerful film.


I Am Not a Witch

I’m disappointed at two films that ought to be in this festival but aren’t. The first is Capernaum, one of the best new films I saw in 2018. Perhaps they didn’t include it because it’s already running in Bay Area theaters (you can read my full review).

The other is Rafiki, a lesbian romance from Kenya that has received a lot of press. The horribly homophobic Kenyan government first banned the film, then allowed it to open in theaters to qualify for an Oscar. As it became an international festival favorite, the government was forced to open up a bit. With a history like that, this movie should at least be considered.


Rafiki

Since I have not seen any of the other 14 films that will screen, I won’t recommend anything else. You can make your own decisions.

Noir City

Castro, January 25 – February 3

The only film festival that regularly plays double bills, Noir City just may be the most entertaining fest of the year. This year’s theme is the 1950s – a decade where everyone was expected to conform and behave. They didn’t.

This may be the best Noir City lineup I’ve seen. Just consider some of the directors: Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Fleischer, William Wyler, William Dieterle, Otto Preminger, Robert Aldrich, Michael Curtiz, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and – three times over – Samuel Fuller.

What’s more, Janet Leigh learns twice not to visit motels.

Here are the films I’ve seen and can recommend:

A Pickup On South Street, Sunday, January 27

This Cold War noir by writer/director Samuel Fuller stars Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who lifts the wrong wallet on a crowded subway. The wallet’s owner (Jean Peters) has no idea that it contains a piece of microfilm with important government secrets; she’s merely a dupe of Communist agents. The US government, of course, is also after this valuable piece of celluloid. A hell of an exciting story that offended J. Edgar Hoover. On a double bill with City That Never Sleeps.

A Touch of Evil, Friday, February 1

Orson Welles’ film noir classic, and his last Hollywood studio feature. Welles lacked the freedom he found in Europe, but the bigger budget–and perhaps even the studio oversight–resulted in one of his best works. As a corrupt border-town sheriff, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely and effective damsel in distress. As the hero – a brilliant Mexican detective – Charlton Heston is…well, he’s miscast, but his performance isn’t bad. On a double bill with Murder By Contract.

B The Crimson Kimono, Saturday, February 2, matinee

Another Sam Fuller movie; this one a low-budget, semi-exploitation melodrama with all the subtlety of a freight train at a dinner party. But it’s also gutsy, takes on important issues (in this case, interracial romance), and is immensely entertaining. On a double bill with another race-oriented thriller, Odds Against Tomorrow.

A Breathless, Saturday, February 2, evening

Jean-Luc Godard broke all the rules and created something dazzling and exciting in his very first feature. There’s nothing special about the noirish plot: Young lovers go on a crime spree, the man murders a cop, and now they’re on the run. But the wild and energetic camerawork, the crazy editing, and the sexual energy of stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg are like nothing anyone had ever seen before. On a double bill with:

A Psycho, Saturday, February 2, evening

You may never want to take a shower again. In his last great movie, Alfred Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us several times, leaving the audience unsure who we’re supposed to be rooting for or what could constitute a happy ending. In roles that defined their careers, Janet Leigh stars as a secretary turned thief, and Anthony Perkins as a momma’s boy with a lot to hide. I’ll always regret that I knew too much about Psycho before I saw it; I wish I could erase all memory of this movie and watch it with fresh eyes.

B+ Underworld U.S.A., Sunday, February 3

Told in that sleek and unforgiving Samuel Fuller style, this hard-hitting movie presents a world where crime can become respectable, but a thug is always a thug. Cliff Robertson plays a safe cracker on a 20-year quest to avenge his father’s murder. That’s kind of tricky, since three of the father’s killers eventually became top crime bosses. So our thuggish antihero joins up with the syndicate, makes himself liked, and starts working to destroy it from within. Double-billed with Blast of Silence, which I’ve never even heard of.

And even more exciting, from my point of view, are films I know only be reputation and really want to discover (or rediscover) myself:

  • Detective Story, Saturday, January 26. I read about this William Wyler film ages ago but never saw it.
  • Kiss Me Deadly & Killer’s Kiss, Tuesday, January 28. I saw Kiss Me Deadly some twenty years ago and need to be reacquainted. Killer’s Kiss is one of only two Kubrick films I haven’t seen.
  • Odds Against Tomorrow. Yes, the double bill for The Crimson Kimono. It’s a heist film with racial tension within the group.