The 54th annual San Francisco International Film Festival presents a bewildering variety of movies in its lineup of nearly 200 selections, exemplifying both the beauty and drawback of film festivals. The assortment is amazing, but sometimes the brief capsule summaries in program guides aren’t helpful, steering patrons in wrong directions, and not necessarily to the best offerings. Here is a short list of recommended films:
Mike Mills, USA, 2011
The opening night film is somewhat misadvertised as “the story of man coming out at age 75.” He’s played by the great Christopher Plummer, who is one component of an excellent, if overlong, movie.
The focus of the story is Plummer’s character’s son (Ewan McGregor) and his struggle with childhood memories, the loss of his father, depression and an attempt at romance. McGregor is terrific, supported by the cutest Jack Russell terrier in film history, as well as Goran Visnjic as Plummer’s character’s lover and Mary Page Keller as the enigmatic wife who married knowing her husband’s repressed gender preference.
The movie’s only flaw is the length. Some 30 minutes are repetitive in what could have been a truly outstanding 90-minute film.
[7 p.m. Thursday, Castro Theatre]
The Mill and the Cross
Lech Majewski, Poland, 2011
Based on Michael Francis Gibson’s book of the same title, the film traces the lives of people in and around Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting, “The Way to Calvary,” which was created during the brutal Spanish occupation of Flanders as Philip II’s army wreaked havoc on the population, executing “heretics” by crucifying them.
In thrilling visuals, the cast of characters becomes the painting in this fascinating depiction — both realistic and painterly — of 16th-century lives against the scenery of what later will be the painting. Michael York plays the artist’s patron and Charlotte Rampling portrays his wife, who becomes the Virgin Mary in the painting.
[12:30 p.m. Saturday, S.F. MoMA; 9 p.m., April 27, Kabuki]
Koji Fukada, Japan, 2010
Economic problems of working-class Tokyo residents are the topic of this comedy and thriller, which is realistic and phantasmagorical at the same time. Among the strange happenings: unexpected secrets, the presence of a foreign blonde who speaks accentless English and surrealistic couplings.
Yet the movie also feels like an authentic, slice-of-life story set in a formerly exotic society. Relationships take time to figure out, then they change. The entertaining and engrossing movie plays like a chess game between director and viewers.
[9 p.m. Saturday and 6:30 p.m. April 28, New People]
Aamir Bashir, India, 2010
The movie — set in Kashmir, a bloody center of two decades of fighting between Indians and Pakistanis — was filmed on location in the beautiful Kashmir Valley and features nonprofessional or first-time Kashmiri actors.
The story follows the lives of a family in which one son has been lost in the conflict, and the younger son faces peril in everyday life, while his parents fight trauma and depression. In spite of the environment and difficult, dangerous lives, family members struggle to maintain their dignity and humanity.
[6:45 p.m. April 25, 9:15 p.m. April 30, Kabuki]
Oscar Godoy, Chile, Argentina, 2011
Odyssey-like wanderings of a Peruvian emigrant in Chile comprise the film, in which the main character finds himself with a head wound on the pavement of a city and, feeling dazed, confused and disconnected, begins a journey back home.
On the way, he faces challenges on a somewhat smaller scale than those of Homer’s Ulysses. Instead of mythical monsters, he deals with sleeplessness, a job search and immigration regulations.
Reflecting a sense of global and economic displacement, the film is a microcosm, illustrating one man’s attempt to find a place in the world.
[4 p.m. April 26, 6:45 p.m. May 2, Kabuki]
Here’s a quick look at select programs complementing the film lineup:
State of Cinema: Christine Vachon: The producer of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Happiness” and HBO’s “Mildred Pierce” discusses her career in the context of contemporary cinema. [9 p.m. Sunday, Kabuki, $20]
Jean-Michel Frodon: The Critic’s Response and Responsibility: The role of the contemporary film critic is examined by the former editor in chief of Cahiers du Cinema and film critic for Le Monde. [7:30 p.m. April 28, Kabuki, $15]
Oliver Stone events: Oliver Stone will receive the Founder’s Directing Award at the Film Society Awards Night on April 28 at Bimbo’s 365 Club. Call (415) 561-5049 for details. The day before, he will be the subject of “An Evening with Oliver Stone,” an onstage tribute featuring an interview and a selection of clips from his extensive career. [7 p.m. April 27, Kabuki, $25]
Puppets in Film: An interactive puppeteering workshop for children ages 7 to 11 is directed by award-winning puppeteer and director Yvette Edery. [10:30 a.m. April 30, Festival Lounge, 1493 Webster St., $20]
An Afternoon with Frank Pierson: The presentation of the Kanbar Award to the legendary screenwriter is followed by an interview and a screening of “Dog Day Afternoon.” [12:30 p.m. April 30, Kabuki, $20]
An Afternoon with Matthew Barney: The groundbreaking multimedia artist and filmmaker receives the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision award, followed by a talk and screening of the latest addition to his “Drawing Restraint” film series. [5 p.m. April 30, Kabuki, $25]
Mel Novikoff Award: Serge Bromberg will be honored for his work as a collector, preservationist, exhibitor and programmer. The presentation is followed by a rare and restored film in 3-D. [5 p.m. May 1, Castro Theatre, $20]
Tindersticks: The British band performs soundtrack compositions accompanying the screening of a montage of work by French filmmaker Claire Denis. [8:30 p.m. May 2, Castro Theatre, $30]
IF YOU GO
54th San Francisco International Film Festival
- When: Thursday through May 5
- Featured theaters in The City:
- Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St.
- Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St.
- New People, 1746 Post St.
- San Franicsco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St.
- Tickets: $8 to $13 most screenings, more for special events
- Contact: (925) 866-9559, www.sffs.org/tickets
Behind the scenes
Some numbers from the San Francisco International Film Festival:
- 54: Years festival has been running
- 250: Filmmakers and industry guests expected
- 48: Countries represented
- 64: Narrative features
- 31: Documentary features
- 96: Shorts
- 3: World premieres
- 1: International premiere
- 7: North American premieres
- 5: U.S. premieres
- 51: Women directors
- 33: Languages
- 11: Awards and prizes
- 10: Screening and event venues
Source: San Francisco International Film Festival