SFIFF 2015 Festival Recap

The 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival ended nearly two weeks ago. All in all, it was a great festival for San Franciscan moviegoers, this blog, and (I hope) you. I was able to catch an unprecedented 44 feature-length films this year. Is it possible that I’m a little burnt out on movies? … Nah. (Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.)



Lei Hao in a scene from Peter Chan's DEAREST, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7, 2015.

As I mentioned in my festival preview, SFIFF has always excelled at showcasing captivating cinema from all around the world. In fact, two of the three narratives that have bubbled to the top as my festival favorites are from abroad: Dearest, a Chinese-language film, and The Second Mother, from Brazil. (The End of the Tour, the festival Centerpiece, is my other favorite.) Much as I decry formulaic Hollywood filmmaking, I do have a soft spot for conventionally told stories with strong characters and heartfelt performances. All three of my favorites fit this description. Though these films might not push any envelopes, they serve as a reminder of what I love about movies: their ability to put me into other people’s lives, and the way they continually offer fresh insight into the human condition.

Other festival narratives got playful with time (Hill of Freedom), reality (Jauja), structure (H., Stations of the Cross, Court), and storytelling (Magical Girl; Black Coal, Thin Ice; Red Amnesia). Though the results were mixed, the attempts were always interesting. And even the conventionally told tales were set in unusual locales–on a freighter ship (Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey), in post-earthquake Haiti (Murder in Pacot), in Russia’s rural north (The Postman’s White Nights). Though perhaps not as successful as my favorites, all were thoughtful, worthwhile pieces.

A pleasant surprise were the two American comedies I watched: The Overnight and Results. I don’t know why it should have been surprising to me that I liked them, though I typically find indie comedies to be hit or miss–not necessarily because of their quality but because humor is so personal. But I felt these two films were nearly universally likable. The Overnight, especially, had me (and, by the sounds of it, the rest of the audience as well) in stitches.

Sometimes when I watch many movies in a short period of time, certain (albeit unintentional) themes appear from the collection. One year, for example, every other movie we watched at Sundance featured some form of sexual violence against women. But this year’s SFIFF betrayed no obvious trends or tendencies. Perhaps the only noteworthy commonality was the absence of extremely dark films (with a few exceptions, e.g., The Tribe). Even dark films such as Magical Girl or Black Coal, Thin Ice were always leavened by a touch of humor and never felt bleak. Does this perhaps indicate a general, global optimism? Or at least a readiness to slough off previous years’ weightiness?




Photo by Jimmy Chin, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Twelve of the 44 films I watched this year were documentaries. Again, no overarching themes, but I did notice a trend toward more observational films. What I mean by “observational” is that these films subsume any notion of creating a narrative from their recordings; the filmmaker appears to absent herself while the camera works with quiet independence, like a roving eye. This eye captures what is present but does not try to interpret, explain, or create meaning. This tendency was most obvious in the films The Iron Ministry (which takes place on China’s trains) and Sunday Ball (which captures a soccer game in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro).

But I’m old school enough to like my documentaries with a story or at least a personality, something on which I can hang an emotional hat. For that reason, The Wolfpack, Meru, Democrats, and The Diplomat were my favorites, with T-Rex and Dreamcatcher not far behind. All of the aforementioned films focus on a single subject or small group of subjects and expose riveting personal journeys. The more incredible the journey, the more remarkable the person, the better the film. It’s a simple formula, I suppose, but it’s one that works. Maybe that diminishes the filmmaker’s role to one primarily of storyhunter–someone who is in the right place at the right time. Or maybe it elevates the filmmaker into someone who must have a keen enough eye to pick the story out of the otherwise bland plain of living. As a viewer, I’m not experienced enough to say–I just know a good film when I see one.




It’s hard to believe that with all the films I did see there could still be more that I feel I missed out on–but, it’s true, there are. The Dark Horse is one of those films. I actually caught the first half hour of it but had to leave because of a family emergency. From the bit I saw I could already tell it would be just the type of funny, moving, quirky film I’d like, so it came as no surprise that it ended up winning the festival’s Audience Award for Narratives. I’m also sorry to have missed Tangerine, which one reviewer told me had been his favorite film at Sundance. And then there was the much-touted What Happened, Miss Simone? as well as a handful of others whose descriptions struck my fancy. Alas, there’s only so much time. Maybe next festival I’ll be even more ambitious. Until then, keep tuning in as I catch up on my reviews!