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SFIFF Spotlight: Three Heartwarming Picks

Photo: Tommy Lau, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society. Closing Night of San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre.

Film festivals are usually synonymous with tough, challenging films and avant garde works. Yet even the most serious film festival can offer lighthearted picks that provide viewers an escape from the worries of our troubled world.


San Francisco International Film Festival

City: San Francisco
Venue: Various

'Sweet' and 'heartwarming' aren't descriptions that are often bandied about in film festival coverage. After all, festivals allow critics and audiences to see challenging work that won't likely make it into theatres outside of major metropolitan centers. As a festival attendee, it's easy to avoid seeing optimistic, touching films that I wouldn't be embarrassed to watch with my mom. Laying in a hotel room bed at night grappling with the tough questions that a film has raised feels sort of par for the course as far as attending a festival goes. It seems like the thing that one does while at a festival.

Thankfully, this year's San Francisco International Film Festival offers audiences a break from such weighty and serious concerns with three films that are absolutely delightful. Ernest & Celestine, Unfinished Song, and Populaire hold their own in a festival that has offered many deep and challenging independent movies. Sweet and touching in their own ways, these films are perfect for parents who look forward to catching festival picks as they come out in their own theatres and are eager to instill a love of cinema in their kids.

 
Ernest & Celestine

This animated gem from directors Benjamin Renner, Stéphane Aubier, and Vincent Patar is an adaptation of the Ernest & Celestine book series by Gabrielle Vincent. Both kids and adults can fall in love with tiny mouse Celestine and her misunderstood friend Ernest, who just happens to be a really big bear. The pair challenge the prejudices of their separate societies while forming an endearing friendship. The moral lesson in Ernest & Celestine is clear and powerful, with enough complexity to engage adults but still be readily identifiable to kids. Beautiful 2D animation and hand-painted watercolor backgrounds make the film as stunning visually as it is emotionally.

 
Unfinished Song

Paul Andrew Williams' latest film is one of those glorious British movies that features a group of unconventional folks (senior citizens in this instance) singing their hearts out in public. The fabulous Vanessa Redgrave plays Marion, a woman suffering from cancer who finds relief in her senior citizen's singing group. She negotiates life's new challenges while her husband Arthur (played by the delightful Terence Stamp) watches warily from the sidelines. Entertaining musical numbers and some real emotional highs are the highlights of this film. Gemma Arterton and Christopher Eccleston round out the talented cast.

 
Populaire

This sweet little French film from director Regis Roinsard offers plenty of laughs as it follows aspiring secretary Rose and her sleek-but-stern boss Louis. While the film uses plot points similar to those found in many romantic comedies, it is sufficiently pleasant and uplifting to make it well worth the time spent in the theatre. Some of the best hijinks in the film ensue as young Rose trains to compete in a very important speed typing competition. Watch for Roinsard's visual odes to classic Hollywood glamour cinema and the lighter side of Hitchcock.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr


17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

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There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

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