SFIFF: Opening Weekend

San Francisco has been home to some of the most iconic scenery in American movies. The city has provided a particularly strong backdrop for suspense and crime films from Vertigo to Dirty Harry to The Maltese Falcon. In its 56th year, the San Francisco International Film Festival is celebrating gangster films, which only seems appropriate. Had it been possible, I would have seen one of these featured films as soon as I got to San Francisco.

Alas, my first Friday night in San Francisco didn’t kick off with a gangster epic but with the crowd-pleasing Populaire. A lighthearted jaunt through the life of a speed-typing secretary in 1960s France, Populaire is director Régis Roinsard’s first feature-length film. It was a campy, classic Hollywood tale that wasn’t particularly surprising but was nonetheless entertaining. Roinsard deserves praise for his visual sensibilities and the integration of some gorgeous, classic lighting in the movie’s one bedroom scene.

Populaire proved a smooth introduction to the festival even if there were no scary Yakuza guys cutting off heads. As SFIFF goes into full swing over the weekend, I’m cherry picking four of my opening weekend favorites and three of the most promising festival films on my radar for the upcoming week.


7. The Daughter

Dark and startling, The Daughter is a brilliant combination of classic serial killer thriller and social commentary. Co-directed by Alexander Kasatkin and Natalia Nazarova, the film follows young Inna as she grapples with the murders of teen girls in her town and the apparent suicide of her own mother. The film is understated and composed of slow, powerful shots. Much of the film seems to revolve around the idea, as voiced by an orthodox priest, that “God is kind, but he is not sentimental.” Those in San Francisco who plan to catch the film at the festival should be aware that the subtitles are still quite rough in some places. Pay attention to the tenor and beauty of the film in these spots and you’ll enjoy the ride.


6. Chaika

Also set in Russia, Chaika is Spanish director Miguel Ángel Jiménez Colmenar’s second feature-length film. It is the story of Ahysa, a prostitute who works on a Russian ship, and her relationship with Asylbek, the sailor who agrees to raise the son that Ahysa births while aboard the ship. Chaika deserves recognition for the sheer scope of its cinematography and for the calculated way in which it tells a rather small, not-unusual story with refreshing clarity. The family dynamics at the core of the film struck me as simultaneously familiar and altogether frightening. Though the film’s ending is never intended to be a surprise, it is still striking and floated in my head long after I had left the theatre.


5. Outrage Beyond

As part of the gangster cinema spotlight at this year’s festival, Outrage Beyond promises to be yet another violent, glorious film from director Takeshi Kitano. A dirty cop investigating a murder in Tokyo attempts to trigger a yakuza war with the help of a grunt gangster (played by Kitano). There’s little doubt that a complex storyline about trust and betrayal in the underworld will be artfully matched with dark humor in a way that only gangsters films can do.


4. Museum Hours

Director Jem Cohen was given the Persistence of Vision (POV) award at a special screening of Museum Hours on Sunday, April 28. Audience members who were fortunate enough to catch this screening were treated to a pre-movie conversation with the director that served as great food for thought, especially following the film. Museum Hours works precisely because it avoids an overly straightforward story structure in favor of building a narrative that is nuanced and visually rich. In the end, the film seems to be very much about how it is during the act of gazing, and not being gazed at, that we iterate ourselves.


3. The Patience Stone

I’ll be honest, I’m anxiously anticipating The Patience Stone because I love watching Golshifteh Farhani on the big screen. Director Atiq Rahimi adapted his own award-winning book into this film, about a devout Muslim woman who struggles to take care of her comatose husband while war rages outside her home. She copes with the dire situation by expressing her deepest feeling about her marriage and life to her husband. I expect this film to have the same quite, deep sense of suspense that is typical in much of the literature and media emerging from present-day Afghanistan.


2. Leviathan

This documentary, which is about fishermen working off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, is described as an “experiment in ethnography” directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel. For me, the big draw of Leviathan is the artistic and documentary potential of a modern-day ethnography. I’m not particularly interested in high-seas fishing (yet), but I’m nonetheless interested to see how the filmmakers have managed to handle a subject that has become fodder for reality television and more than one shallow blockbuster in what promises to be a serious and thoughtful documentary.


1. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

There’s nothing quite like a film with Slavoj Žižek. Fans of the earlier The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema will delight in this latest entry from director Sophie Fiennes and the powerhouse Slovenian philosopher. True to its name, the film is about how ideology functions—and it always functions—beneath and on top of our perceptions of it. As always, Žižek is deeply entertaining and engaging even when explaining relatively nuanced psychoanalytic concepts. Film buffs will love clips from well-known and long-forgotten film classics, too.

RATING 7 / 10