Must-See Narratives at SFIFF 2015

If you thought it would be hard to decide between 30+ documentaries at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year, try figuring out what narrative features to watch from the roughly 60 options. Though difficult, I managed to come up with a list of eight that I consider must-sees and another six that I thought were noteworthy. Finally, if you just want to see a familiar face, I’ve also got a list of films with big-name actors (well, big-name for the indie world, at least). A few of them will even be in attendance!

Descriptions excerpted from the San Francisco Film Society website. Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.



El Cordero

Still from the movie El CorderoJuan Francisco Olea’s stunning debut feature is a darkly funny, nail-biting drama with a wickedly placid surface—manifest in the superbly understated purity of lead Daniel Muñoz’s gentle, Bible-reading serial criminal. Domingo (Muñoz) is a devout Catholic and a devoted family man seemingly content to glide through life as a weekend missionary and dutiful employee of a small family business. In Domingo’s regular confessions with the chummy local priest, nothing much emerges that might be called sin. Things change when a fatal accident leaves him, disturbingly, without a sense of remorse. A careless remark from the priest sets him on a path to summon up guilt at any cost—a path marked by two unexpected and unwelcome allies with strong antisocial streaks of their own, and consequences that are violent, bloody and strange.

Note: I already mentioned in my review why I admire this film, and the thriller aspect gives it wide appeal. Altogether a well-done, entertaining film with a superb performance by Daniel Muñoz.



Still from the movie DearestPeter Chan’s complex and gripping melodrama, based on a child abduction that happened in Shenzhen, China, in July of 2009, takes a marvelously empathetic look at all sides of the case. The boy, Peng Peng, is abducted from a busy city street after an argument between his divorced parents. When the usual pleas and searches come up empty, mother Lu (Hao Lei) and father Tian (Huang Bo in his first dramatic role) attempt to find other outlets for their grief, including a support group for similarly bereaved parents whose stories also become part of the film’s framework. When Lu and Tian’s search leads to a surprising discovery at just about the midpoint of the film, the new twist adds yet another illuminating layer to the tale.

Note: Chan’s previous film, American Dreams in China, was my favorite movie at CAAMFest San Jose 2014 (it also showed at SFIFF last year, but I missed its run there), so it’s not surprising that I ended up liking Dearest just as much. Chan has a talent for pulling on heartstrings without being overly sentimental. If you go, make sure to bring a box of tissues.


The End of the Tour

Still from the movie The End of the TourThe year was 1996, and David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) was the toast of the literary world, thanks to his monolithic postmodern masterpiece Infinite Jest. Driven by personal admiration—and more than a little professional jealousy—Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) pitches his editors on a long-form piece on the hot young author of the moment. The reporter flies out to Bloomington, Indiana, to meet up with Wallace and accompany him on the last leg of a long book tour. Over the next five days, the two writers hit the road, subsisting on junk food, an endless supply of cigarettes and even more endless supply of argumentative philosophical conversation. By the end of the trip, both men seem unsure of whether a tentative friendship has formed or not—and both men know that their lives have been changed forever. Part dual character study and part passive-aggressive buddy comedy, James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Lipsky’s 2008 book on the experience details the duo’s time together with wit, insight and a profound sense of ambivalence about the price of fame. 

Note: Maybe you’re a David Foster Wallace fan. Maybe you like Jason Segal or Jesse Eisenberg. Maybe you’re just into nostalgia films. At any rate, there are plenty of reasons to be interested in this movie. Fortunately or not, this is the festival’s Centerpiece feature, meaning that there’s only one showing, and tickets come at a much heftier $45. On the other hand, you’ll get to hear filmmaker James Ponsoldt (director of Sundance favorites The Spectacular Now and Smashed) and actor Jason Segal speak. If you buy tickets to the party, you can rub shoulders with them as well.



Still from the movie ExperimenterThis inventive and playful biography of social psychologist Stanley Milgram revisits his famous obedience experiments, in which people were made to believe they were administering electric shocks to others in order to test why people will cede to authority, no matter how brutal the request. The film explores a big question, especially relevant in today’s social media scramble: how far is too far when we want to collect useful data on human behavior? Although the specter of the Holocaust and the insistence of Nazi concentration camp guards that they were “just following orders” shadows the film’s central theme, iconoclastic genius Michael Almereyda (Hamlet) keeps things lively and formally interesting throughout, with much wry direct-to-camera address, a tender if fraught portrait of the scientist’s home life (featuring a riveting Winona Ryder) and a palpable sense of 1960s period values and design. The Experimenter is anchored by Peter Sarsgaard’s magnificent performance, on screen virtually every moment of the film, as Milgram.

Note: Most people have heard of these experiments, even if they’ve never heard of Milgram. I’m excited to see how a unique director and experienced cast will handle this story. Experimenter is another one of those “big night” films, meaning, again, that ticket prices are higher ($50). Director Michael Almereyda, however, will be attending. (Photo by Jason Robinette, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.)


Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Still from the movie Me and Earl and the Dying GIrlHave you heard the one about the teenage guy who befriends a dying girl and has his life changed forever? Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) has—and he’s not falling for it. A movie-obsessed misfit whose primary preoccupations are hanging out with his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler) and putting his own DIY twist on cinematic classics (A Sockwork Orange, Ver’d He Go?), Greg is just trying to waltz his way through his senior year of high school. Why would he be interested in his mom’s insistence on keeping the terminally ill daughter of a family friend company? Then Greg meets Rachel (Olivia Cooke), the leukemia patient in question, and finds a kindred spirit in this irreverent young woman. The toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won both Grand Jury and Audience Awards, first-time director Alejandro Gomez-Rejon’s take on boy-meets-sick-girl romance totally upends the subgenre while potently delivering the goods. (Bring tissues. Lots of them.) It’s also a funny, emotionally resonant valentine to cinephilia run amuck, blending Greg and Earl’s goofy parodies with a reminder that there’s more to the world than working one’s way through the Criterion Collection.

Note: All right, it sounds a little bit like an indie The Fault in Our Stars, but I give this film credit for being a little more self-aware/ironic than that popular teenie bopper drama (which I liked, by the way). Plus, Sundance audiences and jury can’t both be wrong, can they? Anyway, there’s nothing I love more than a good ol’ tragicomedy that’ll have me laughing through my tears. But make sure you get your tickets soon–director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon will field questions at the sole showing (Wednesday, April 29, at 6 pm). (Photo by Chung-Hoon Chung, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.)



Still from the movie QuittersSly San Francisco teen Clark Rayman (Ben Konigsberg) is navigating life pretty well between an aloof dad and a pill-addled mom until she checks in for rehab and his father tries on the role of disciplinarian. A smirking teenager who thinks he has life figured out and who can typically outsmart everyone around him, Clark is not happy with this change of circumstance. So he decides to find a new place to live and a new family in the process. As Clark, Konigsberg successfully rides a fine line between arch self-awareness and aggravatingly adolescent entitlement. The sprawling (and excellent) supporting cast includes the underrated Kieran Culkin (in a nod to his role as another, sharp, alienated teenager in Burr Steers’ Igby Goes Down (2002)), Jim Breuer, Saffron Burrows and Greg Germann. Noah Pritzker’s auspicious debut is a razor-sharp comedic drama that echoes the precise wit and knowing whimsy of Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman, but with a specific and charming Bay Area sensibility.

Note: Did someone say Whit Stillman (Damsels in Distress) and Noah Baumbach (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, Fantastic Mr. Fox)? And Kieran Culkin? And San Francisco? I’m there. I’m totally there. Especially for the screening where the new Whit Baumbach, I mean Noah Stillman, I mean director Noah Pritzker is attending (May 1).


The Tribe

Still from the movie The TribeThere are “silent” movies, and then there’s Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s spellbinding, one-of-a-kind drama in which not a single syllable is spoken or a single line of dialogue is subtitled. From the moment that the film’s hero—a troubled teenager named Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko)—enters a school for the deaf, viewers find themselves immersed in a world where sign language is the only form of communication. And as this new student quickly discovers, words aren’t necessary when quick wits and quicker fists are the only things that the institution’s insular criminal hierarchy respects. Once Sergey literally fights his way into the inner circle that rules the school, he’s awash in cash, drugs, sex and power. He also finds himself forming an attachment to the comely Anna (Yana Novikova), a female pupil who prostitutes herself to fund the group’s illegal activities—a relationship that seems destined to push Sergey to the edge of violence. A tour de force of expressive, explosive cinema, The Tribe has generated talk on the festival circuit since its prize-winning premiere at Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique last year, and with good reason. Slaboshpytskiy’s feature debut immediately bypasses any suggestion of gimmickry and goes straight for the jugular, presenting a Lord of the Flies-like world of social Darwinism that’s as brutal as it is strangely beautiful.

Note: Even if you put aside the Cannes premiere, The Tribe promises to be at worst a unique and at best a mind-blowing cinematic experience. Visceral, singular, strange. I’m prepared to love this film.


Winter Sleep

Still from the movie Winter SleepA man’s grandiosity proves to be his unraveling in this observant drama that is as epic as it is intimate. An actor who has returned home to a small village in Central Anatolia’s Cappadocia region, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) runs his family’s tourist hotel and manages its landholdings. He also holds himself up as the area’s moral authority, not just in the hectoring columns he writes for the local newspaper, but in his relations with his sister Necla (Demet Akbag); his beautiful, much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen); and especially with a local imam, Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç). A rock thrown by Hamdi’s young nephew at Aydin’s truck incites a war with his tenants, but also serves as the first of several blows to Aydin’s enormous self-regard. This winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or and its FIPRESCI Prize plays out in long conversations and fevered arguments that expose Aydin’s pomposity and his utter ignorance of the world outside the confines of his richly appointed study. Cappadocia’s gorgeous vistas, its steppes, snowy panoramas and singular architecture, stunningly photographed by cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki, provide the perfect backdrop for Ceylan’s rich, character-driven drama.

Note: I’ll fully admit that Winter Sleep is on my list because of the Cannes Palme d’Or mention and because its description reminds me of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. Furthermore, in my book, you can’t go wrong with “character-driven.”


Other Noteworthy Films

Bota – In an Albanian town, down-to-earth Juli, entrepreneurial Ben, and free spirit Nora run a quirky café/bar called Bota (literally “the world” in Albanian). Bota is the center of social life for a community crouched on the edge of a swamp notorious for hiding the bones of rebels disappeared during the communist regime. Co-director Iris Elezi was making a documentary in her homeland when she began collecting stories of Albanians whose families had been sent to labor camps during the dictatorship. Note: Natural performances, a stark backdrop, and understated drama make this film a worthwhile watch. Directors Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci are expected to attend one or more of the screenings.

Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey – This striking directorial debut by Lucie Borleteau brings us a powerful female protagonist in a typically male world. Alice is an experienced naval engineer, accustomed to the macho boys’ club of her chosen workplace. On shore, she’s happily paired with her artistic boyfriend, Felix. She misses Felix intensely, but the ship’s captain is a former lover from when Alice was a cadet. Now, her intention to remain faithful may be overshadowed by the temptations of the Fidelio’s confined world. Note: The film’s depiction of life aboard a freighter ship feels gratifyingly authentic, as do all the performances, down to those of the ship hands. Though Alice is in many ways like her male counterparts, many of the problems she faces are uniquely female. A refreshing and complicated revisiting of familiar feminist questions.

Hill of Freedom – In Hill of Freedom’s prologue, Kwon returns to Seoul after an extended trip away to find a stack of undated letters left at her office by a former lover. They drop to the floor on the way out, leaving an uncertain chronology of events for Kwon to sort out. The film proceeds, perhaps, through the order she then reads the letters. They begin with Mori, her Japanese ex-lover from a previous trip abroad, recently arrived in Seoul and looking to reunite with her. He is unaware that she is abroad and instead finds himself awaiting her return in a boardinghouse, passing the time with a series of awkward and farcical interactions magnified by cultural barriers and humorously clumsy English. Note: I’ve long been a fan of South Korean cinema (more the Kim Ki-duk variety than the exploitation cinema of Park Chan-wook), and director Hong Sang-soo promises to be a valuable new discovery. Not to mention that I love the humor of misunderstandings (remember the prostitute scene in Lost in Translation?).

Luna – Beguilingly melding the messy drama of interpersonal relations with vividly rendered flights of fantasy and imagination, multi-hyphenate filmmaker Dave McKean’s Luna is a bracingly original work of art. It begins familiarly enough—married couple Grant and Kristina travel to the craggy seashore abode of their art school friend Dean and his younger girlfriend Freya for a weekend visit. Though the reunion begins with waves of bonhomie, a tide of darker emotions (envy, jealousy, grief) swirls underneath. And it’s here that Luna takes a leap into the wondrous. Rather than unfold the increasingly fraught proceedings through dialogic exposition, McKean unleashes a panoply of animated images, nightmarish visions and striking drawings to convey the characters’ emotional and psychological states. Note: I’m intrigued by McKean’s use of multiple forms of media and have always enjoyed the possibilities that animation opens up for more poetic forms of expression (a la My Dog Tulip). I anticipate a highly creative work and a gratifying visual experience.

Red Amnesia – Recently widowed Mrs. Deng (Lü Zhong) stubbornly insists on making daily rounds to care for her family, but familial bliss seems out of reach. Then she starts to receive silent, anonymous calls at her home. Although her children try to mitigate her concerns, Deng becomes increasingly perturbed as the calls continue and seem to be linked to a series of strange events—including the mysterious appearance of a young man (Shi Liu). Is all of this a prank, or a sign of her fraying mind? Deng begins to suspect that something altogether more disturbing is behind it, rooted in her (and China’s) long ago past. Renowned director Wang Xiaoshuai deftly constructs a surprising thriller about people who have been deeply affected by both the Cultural Revolution and the country’s subsequent development. Note: I’m utterly taken in by the mystery of this thriller’s premise. Plus, any film that sheds light on this rising world power in a unique and entertaining way is a welcome one.

The Wonders – How to keep restless kids focused on daily farm toil when their friends in town have no such responsibilities, and living off the land seems not just burdensome but anachronistic? That’s the essence of the push-pull dynamic at work in the family that Alice Rohrwacher’s second feature observes. Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) and Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) have chosen a back-to-the-land lifestyle in the central Italian countryside. But as this driven, beekeeping patriarch becomes an ever-more-humorless taskmaster, his wife grows less and less convinced that nonstop labor, financial worry and deprivation is what she wants for herself—let alone for their four young daughters. When their eldest, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) becomes fixated on entering a glitzy reality-show contest, that conflict escalates. Note: Lungu is excellent as the heroine of this unusual coming-of-age drama. Though the beekeeping backdrop is incidental to the plot, it lends a surprisingly resonant element to the film’s emotional tone.


For Star-Gazers

54: The Director’s Cut – The cut of the film released in theaters in 1998 removed more than 30 minutes of beautifully acted, Cabaret-like licentiousness in the form of amibisexual polyamory and rampant drug use at the Studio 54 nightclub and replaced it with 40 minutes of cloying romance and “aw shucks” dialogue in a bid to make the film palatable for mainstream audiences. With the original footage restored, the film now is a gritty masterpiece, a classic of bored excess and existential longing, framed by sweaty abs, jeroboams of quaaludes and the pulsing beat and recreated performances of music’s most celebrated and reviled era. Stars: Ryan Phillippe (expected to attend!), Salma Hayek, Neve Campbell, Mike Myers.

7 Chinese Brothers – Larry (Jason Schwartzman) drifts through life, from one menial position to the next, without much thought for the future. Often drunk, solitary and unmoored, his closest companion is his French bulldog. Despite playing a character who is self-absorbed and sometimes obnoxious, Schwartzman imbues Larry with amiability and charm. Particularly affecting are the scenes he shares with his actual pet, Arrow, amusing vignettes that underscore both Larry’s warm heart and the essential isolation of a man more comfortable in the company of a dog than with other humans. Stars: Jason Schwartzman (expected to attend May 2 screening), Olympia Dukakis.

The End of the Tour – See above for description. Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel (expected to attend), Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack.

Experimenter – See above for description. Stars: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, John Leguizamo.

Far From Men – Far From Men is a potent neo-Western that sets notions of personal morality and cultural identity against the backdrop of Algeria’s War of Independence. Viggo Mortensen (adding French and Arabic to the notches on his linguistic belt) stars as Daru, an Algerian-born descendant of Spaniards who teaches a handful of village children in the country’s northwestern High Plateau region. Daru’s hand is forced when he’s ordered to take an Arab farmer charged with murder to local authorities who will almost certainly execute the man. As the two men find themselves pitted against rebels and soldiers from both sides of the conflict, both are faced with decisions that will change their lives. Star: Viggo Mortensen.

Jauja – A sublime fantasy standing at the intersection of fairy tale and land art, Jauja expands upon the minimalism of Lisandro Alonso’s “Lonely Man Trilogy” (La Libertad, Los Muertos, Liverpool) to arrive at a radical re-imagining of the period piece. The story, co-scripted by the Argentine poet and novelist Fabián Casas, concerns a Danish military engineer (Viggo Mortensen) enlisted to pacify native Patagonia in 19th-century Argentina. As he sets out on his own to find his missing 14-year-old daughter, watching over his shoulder for an insane army deserter, time slows and the period trappings and echoes of ostensibly similar forays into terra incognito (John Ford’s The Searchers, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) melt away to reveal a most peculiar vision quest. Star: Viggo Mortensen (again!).

Love & Mercy – In Love & Mercy, there are plenty of disputes, among Brian Wilson’s fellow Beach Boys and between Brian and his abusive, dismissive father. Love & Mercy tells Wilson’s story in—to use ancient recording jargon—two tracks. We see the band in the early to mid-‘60s, riding surf music onto the charts until a creatively restless Wilson (a convincing Paul Dano), pushed by perceived rivals, including the Beatles, and abetted by drugs, turns to session players and engineers to soar beyond pop music, upsetting displaced bandmates. That story crisscrosses neatly with Wilson in the ‘80s. Portrayed by John Cusack, he’s a shocked shell of a man, self-described as “lonely scared frightened,” and living under the supervision of a tyrannical therapist (Paul Giamatti). He meets Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac dealer—and a grown-up California girl—who helps put him on the road back, to what Brian’s song from 1988 wishes everyone: love and mercy. Stars: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti.

Mr. Holmes – The magisterial Sir Ian McKellen reunites with Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon for this wistful look at the famous sleuth in his sunset years. Though he’s in his 90s, Sherlock Holmes is not going gently into that good night; he’s exasperated with how Dr. Watson has characterized him; generally cantankerous with everyone around him, including housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney, wonderfully understated); and worried about his own advancing senility which he tries to remedy with special herbs. Deciding to set the story—and his mind—straight, he decides to work on his version of a 30-year-old case involving a missing woman, a strange musical instrument and the mistake that leads him to retirement. Stars: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney.

The Overnight – Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) just moved to LA with their young son RJ. Between relocation and job stress, their love life has been a little lackluster lately. At the park one afternoon, RJ hits it off with another kid named Max. Max’s dad, Kurt (Jason Schwartzman)—resplendent in an all-white suit and impeccable sunglasses—introduces himself to Alex and Emily, and asks them home to dinner. Desperate for other adults to hang out with and awed by Kurt’s ineffable cool, they eagerly accept his invitation. After a lovely meal with Kurt and his extremely attractive French wife Charlotte (Judith Godrèche), the kids fall asleep, and Alex and Emily start to pick up on the fact that Kurt and Charlotte may have an adult play date in mind. Stars: Jason Schwartzman, Taylor Schilling, Adam Scott, Judith Godrèche.

Quitters – See description above. Stars: Mira Sorvino, Kieran Culkin.

ResultsAndrew Bujalski’s unconventional comedy circles around various characters associated with a Texas gym called Power 4 Life. Trevor (Guy Pearce), the owner and founder, has a very particular philosophy that undergirds his gym and his passion for healthful living and is hoping to expand his business to match his holistic outlook. The trouble is that this worldview hasn’t helped him in the romance department with one of his trainers, the hardcore and high-strung Kat (Cobie Smulders, also in Unexpected), who is always ready for a quick run when trouble arises. Matters are complicated further when a wealthy, recently divorced and overweight new client named Danny (Kevin Corrigan in one of his best performances) approaches Trevor for some at-home workout assistance from Kat. Stars: Guy Pearce, Giovanni Ribisi.

Ride – In her sophomore directorial effort, Academy Award-winner Helen Hunt plays Jackie, a high-strung New Yorker editor who must learn to let go, and in the process, learn to surf. In this film that oscillates between taut drama and screwball comedy, Jackie follows her son Angelo (Thwaites, The Giver) to Venice Beach after he drops out of college to find his own path in the waves of Southern California. Accompanied by her hired driver Ramon (Zayas, Dexter), Jackie stalks her son day and night to figure out what could be more appealing than being close to her in New York City. Jackie’s mission to reclaim Angelo has unexpected ramifications not the least of which are romance with surf instructor Ian (Wilson) and the realization that she must come to terms with her painful past in order to do right by her son. Stars: Helen Hunt, Luke Wilson.

Welcome to Me Living in Palm Desert in an apartment where the television has been on for 11 years straight, Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) is ready for her moment. In fact, as someone who suffers from borderline personality disorder and believes the world revolves around her and her needs, she’s been rehearsing for it all her life. So when she wins an $86 million lottery prize, Alice finagles her way into a cable network chief’s office and offers to write a check if she can have her own show. When one of her outrageous show requests leads to a confrontation with some higher-ups, Alice is forced to reckon with her illness, some mistakes in her past and just what her new wealth should be used for. Stars:  Kristen Wiig, James Marsden, Wes Bentley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Joan Cusack.