The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival runs through May 8; all the details are here. Guardian correspondent and confirmed film fest addict Jesse Hawthorne Ficks checks in with his mid-SFIFF picks and reactions.
Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love (screens tomorrow; ticket info here) showcases exceptional performances by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss and should be a multiple Independent Spirit Award nominee come next statuette season. This unique genre fluster-cluck digs much deeper into marital problems than you would ever expect (audiences seemed quite flipped upside down after the film’s world premiere at Sundance). Similar to films like Darren Araonfsky’s Pi (1998), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), and Shane Caruth’s Primer (2004), this will be a film that’ll spark conversations and inspire repeat viewings.
Mexican auteur Fernando Eimbcke, who directed Duck Season (2004) and Lake Tahoe (2008) is back with another coming-of-age stunner: Club Sandwich. The director’s slow-burning method of sticking two people in a room and allowing life’s natural moments to unfold is as precise as the tiny moustache on the protagonist’s upper lip. Rewarding to those who are patient, Club Sandwich is the perfect reminder of that pre-adolescent summer that changed just about everything.
Agnes Varda’s latest opus, From Here to There, is a 225 minute, five-part miniseries originally made for French television. It casually chronicles her guest appearances at film festivals and cinematheques around the world with numerous asides and melancholic moments that have made Varda one of the most likable icons of cinema. In fact, the episodes work similarly to her earliest films Cleo From 5-7 (1962) and La Pointe Courte (1955), gracefully moving the viewer through moments that seem minor at first, but are in fact profound. (Listening to an 85-year-old Varda get distracted and start talking about the history of chairs brought me to tears.) Like her 2008 film The Beaches of Agnes (2008), this is a must see.
Swedish auteur Lukas Moodysson is back and he may have just created one of the most riotous punk rock extravaganzas ever. We Are the Best! (Sweden/Denmark), which takes place in the early 1980s and is based on wife Coco Moodysson’s graphic novel, allows the all-grrrl band to blossom into real-life punk rockers. Evoking passionate punk portrayals like 1980’s Times Square and 1981’s Ladies & Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains (fun fact: Moodysson was unaware of the latter film until I interviewed him!), this drama seems to capture Stockholm circa 1982 in perfect detail. The soundtrack was a major part of discussion during the Q&A, becoming the perfect entry point for those of us desiring an history lesson on the Swedish punk scene. But what I found most exciting about We Are the Best! is its approach to gender roles, as its young female characters attempt to cast aside pressures to look pretty. Either way, Moodysson has created a film just as enjoyable as his debut feature, 1998’s Show Me Love. It has the potential to become a worldwide hit in the same vein as Trainspotting (1996) and Run Lola Run (1999). (Info on screenings today and May 7 here!)
In the 1990s, Tsai Ming-liang’s films were often mentioned alongside works by Hirokazu Kore-eda and Hou Hsiao-hsien. But two decades later, only Tsai has stayed the determined course of creating endurance-driven, contemplative cinema. Presenting his tenth feature (and showcasing yet again his alter ego, actor Lee Kang-sheng), Stray Dogs (Taiwan) is a breathtaking meditation on a homeless Taiwanese family, who are quietly doing what they can to get by. With this film, Tsai has almost abandoned story completely, instead favoring long, drawn-out, surreal, one-shot sequences — next-level abstractness that will either send you running for the hills or leave you unblinkingly glued to the screen.
The film is made to be watched more than once and upon multiple viewings you gain not only patience for Tsai’s masterful aesthetic but an appreciation for how futuristically meditative it is. Someone should program Stray Dogs with his 2012 short Sleepwalk, which follows a monk as he walks, and his follow-up film Journey to the West (2014) which stars Lee and Denis Lavant(!) Whether that would equal absolute transcendence or absolute boredom depends on the viewer, of course. I can’t think of a more emotionally implosive filmmaker working today.
Rewatching Hong Sang-soo’s Our Sunhi (South Korea) is in fact as monumentally enjoyable as viewing his previous film, In Another Country (2012). This new film represents another solid entry for the director. The succinct ways in which his male characters are emotionally self-destructive with one another can and should be compared to best of Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen’s films. And this time out, he has created a female protagonist (played by hilariously by Jung Yoo-mi) that adds a complexity to his alcoholic-ridden world. If you were a fan of Hong’s films and stopped watching them, it’s time to come back and enjoy one of the funniest films of the festival circuit.
The surprise documentary hit at this year’s SFIFF most definitely has to be Julie Bertuccelli’s School of Babel (France). Simple catalogue description: “The film details a year in the life of a Parisian class of immigrant youth from countries around the globe — boys and girls ages 11 to 15 — who have come to France to seek asylum, escape hardship or simply better their lives.” What is so overwhelming about this personal journey is how the film not only showcases the student-teacher relationships, but the parent-student dynamics. It culminates in a devastating filmmaker-audience relationship.
Exploring pedagogy as a whole caught me off guard so intensely that I, like many in the theater, felt we were back in school trying to figure out all of life’s problems in between breaks for recess. The film ties in perfectly to the San Francisco Film Society’s Education program, which serves more than 11,000 students and teachers every year, from kindergarten through college, to develop media literacy, cultural awareness, global understanding, as well as a lifelong appreciation of cinema. Do whatever it takes to see this film yourself, and if you’re a teacher, share it with your own students.