Looking Ahead: SFIFF 2016


The 59th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival is just around the corner! Opening Night, on Thursday, April 21st (just two short days from now), launches two weeks of Bay Area movie heaven.

There are so many films I’m looking forward to seeing at SFIFF 59. As usual, however, the thought of vetting over a hundred movies is more than intimidating. To make the task more manageable, this year I focused on films that also showed at Sundance and screenings with expected guests.

(In the lists below, an * indicates that guests are expected to attend. Descriptions are from the SFIFF film guide. Click on the links in the movie titles to visit the festival website, read longer film descriptions, and purchase tickets.)

Also, stay tuned for sneak previews of more of this festival’s films!


Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Sundance at SFIFF

The San Francisco Film Society typically does an outstanding job of bringing some of the Sundance Film Festival’s most talked about films to the Bay Area, and this year is no exception. I recognize 30 titles from Park City at SFIFF 59, 16 of which will feature Q&As from expected guests. Though perhaps the two most buzzed-about titles (The Birth of a Nation and Manchester by the Sea) are missing, there are more than enough gems to make up for their absence.

See below for the full list of Sundance films that are showing at SFIFF this year:

All These Sleepless Nights (Documentary)

“After a breakup with his girlfriend, Kris sets off with his friend Michal in search of new experiences. Stylishly capturing the romantic yearning, drunken debating, aimless wandering and philosophizing of youth, Michal Marczak’s highly constructed documentary/fiction hybrid is a moody collage of a year’s journey through house parties, parks and clubs of Warsaw.”

Audrie & Daisy (documentary)*

“Academy Award-nominated San Francisco filmmakers Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen explore two harrowing cases that demonstrate the potential for tragic repercussions when teens, sex, alcohol and social media mix–and how rarely perpetrators are punished for these kinds of crimes.” A friend who saw this at Sundance said the audience gave the film a standing ovation. (That said, standing ovations are notoriously common at Sundance.)

Author: The JT Leroy Story (documentary)*

“Perhaps the most notorious literary scandal of recent years blew up when it was revealed that acclaimed trans writer J.T. Leroy was actually the fictional creation of San Francisco-based artist Laura Albert. Jeff Feuerzeig’s all-encompassing documentary skillfully fuses excellent footage of the celebrity craze around Leroy with a lengthy interview where Albert herself memorably reflects on the events and circumstances she set into motion.” Both the director and Laura Albert will attend the sole screening.

The Fits (narrative)*

“As the punches and shuffles of a boxing gym and the spirited gyrations of group dance practice evolve into the mysterious affliction that gives the film its name, one girl struggles with friendship, family and growing up.”

Frank & Lola (narrative)*

“In this moody evocation of a troubled relationship, Frank (Michael Shannon), a gifted chef who hasn’t gotten his due, seduces Lola (Imogen Poots), a budding young designer…but fear, jealousy and dark secrets from the past soon threaten their burgeoning closeness.”

The Free World (narrative)*

“A recently released felon becomes embroiled with an abused woman in this hard-hitting dramatic thriller set in Louisiana.” See my review.

Goat (narrative)*

“A damning indictment on today’s free-for-all fraternity system and society’s winner-take-all notions of masculinity, writer-director Andrew Neel’s adaptation of Brad Land’s memoir is a harrowing trip through a beer-soaked, broken-spirited hell.” The acting credit of pop star Nick Jonas (of the Jonas Brothers) pretty much guaranteed that we wouldn’t get in via waitlist at this year’s Sundance. But now’s my chance!

The Greasy Strangler (narrative)

“A man runs a walking disco tour with his browbeaten son. Meanwhile, a slimy, inhuman maniac stalks the streets of their town.” Horror films aren’t my thing, but if they’re yours, you should go–I’ve heard good things

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (narrative)

“A farmer and rugged outdoorsman, Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) is unenthused about becoming foster dad to trouble-prone, chatterbox Ricky (Julian Dennison), but tragic circumstances force him to take greater responsibility for the boy. …a freewheeling, energetic adventure that blends humor with pathos and teems with film references.” Fans of What We Do in the Shadows are sure to love Taika Waititi’s latest film. See my review.

Indignation* (narrative)

“Acclaimed screenwriter/producer (and longtime Ang Lee collaborator) James Schamus makes his directorial debut with this insightful and beautifully acted adaptation of Philip Roth’s admired 2008 novel, a look at a young Jewish man from New Jersey who heads to a small, and much more Anglo, Midwest town.” They had me at “Ang Lee.” Since Indignation is the festival’s Centerpiece film, be prepared to pony up a bit more to see it. You’ll be rewarded by an extra-long, in-depth Q&A with Schamus.

The Innocents (aka Agnus Dei) (narrative)

“Mathilde, a young doctor for the French Red Cross, is summoned by a desperate and frightened nun to attend to an emergency. They arrive at the abbey as pained cries echo through the stony walls to find a young sister in labor. Mathilde delivers the baby and is drawn into the private world of the nuns as they confide the indescribable nightmare that led to their predicament.” Based on actual events. Directed by Anne Fontaine, who also directed Adore.

Life, Animated (documentary)*

Life, Animated offers the astonishing and deeply moving true-life story of a young boy with autism who takes refuge—and even learns to communicate—through the animated films of Walt Disney.” The documentary won Sundance’s Directing Award for U.S. Documentaries.

Little Men (narrative)*

“Quiet teenager Theo moves with his family from Manhattan to Brooklyn where they inherit their grandfather’s brownstone. Then he forms a fast and thick bond with the charismatic son of the Chilean woman who rents the building’s storefront space, but an ensuing dispute between their parents about the shop lease threatens the budding friendship. A major talent in American indie filmmaking, Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange) returns with a gentle, elegiac look at the collateral damage of gentrification.”

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (documentary)

“Jumping off from the invention of the Internet and a curious cast of characters from 1960s and 1970s computer science, Herzog quickly expands his gaze to dreams of the future and especially the consequences of intelligent robots.”

The Lobster (narrative)

“In a society that doesn’t just frown on single people, but in fact repudiates them, David (Colin Farrell) is in a pickle. Dumped by his wife for another man, he has 45 days to find a new mate at an isolated English resort or else face harsh consequences. Either way, the effrontery of his solo status will be redressed in Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut, a heady mix of black comedy, sci-fi, romance and thriller.” I normally avoid movies starring Colin Farrell, but this surrealist comedy, a Cannes Jury Prize winner, is too tempting. It’s probably the film I’m most excited to see this festival.

Love & Friendship (narrative)*

“Writer-director Whit Stillman brings a unique sense and sensibility to Love & Friendship, a laugh-out-loud comedy starring Kate Beckinsale as a sassy social climber.” Stillman’s first film in five years is based on one of Jane Austen’s less famous works, the novella Lady Susan. I’ve been intrigued by Stillman ever since I caught his uniquely toned Damsels in Distress on an international flight. As Love & Friendship is the Opening Night film, again, expect higher prices. But the Q&A has about as much star power as an independent film festival can hope for: both Whit Stillman and Kate Beckinsdale will be in attendance.

Maggie’s Plan (narrative)*

“That fate keeps throwing Maggie (Greta Gerwig) curveballs matters not to a woman determined to control her own destiny in Rebecca Miller’s low-key screwball romantic comedy.” Rounding out the cast are stars Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, and Maya Rudolph. Every festival movie list is in need of some lighter fare, and Maggie’s Plan fits the bill.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (narrative)*

“A self-taught Indian prodigy from Madras arrives in Cambridge to revolutionize the field of mathematics in this biopic starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons, which follows such films as A Beautiful Mind and The Theory of Everything in its inspirational look at the struggles—and triumphs—of genius.”

Morris from America (narrative)*

“Thirteen-year-old African American teen Morris Gentry loves hip-hop, dislikes school and is starting to develop a keen interest in girls. He’s also been reluctantly uprooted from the US to live in Heidelberg, Germany, and this charming coming-of-age drama (winner of the Waldo Scott Screenwriting Award at Sundance) charts his journey with wit, wisdom and disarming wistfulness.” See my review.

Notes on Blindness (documentary)*

“A taped journal that theologian John Hull kept after the onset of blindness in 1980 forms the basis of this elegant and moving depiction of struggle and transcendence.” This film is accompanied by a separate virtual reality experience “using binaural audio and real time 3D animations to create a fully immersive experience in a world beyond sight.”

NUTS! (documentary)

“What starts as a simple story of a goat testicle-grafting cure for impotence blooms into a kaleidoscopic almanac of early 20th-century quackery—and a cracking courtroom thriller in Penny Lane’s mind-blowing new documentary NUTS!.” The film garnered a Special Jury Prize for Editing at Sundance.

Sonita (documentary)*

“Sonita Alizadeh is like many teenagers–she loves hip-hop, argues with her mother and gossips with her friends. She is also an Afghan refugee living under the tenuous protection of a Tehran homeless shelter, where she contends with the imminent risk of being sold into marriage under the Afghan system of ‘bride price.’ In this inspiring documentary, she calls up on her greatest passion–rap music–in a fight for freedom and self-determination, rhyming all the way.” My friend who watched this at Sundance called Sonita the most compelling documentary he saw all festival. Apparently he wasn’t alone: the film won both the Audience Award and the Jury Award for World Cinema Documentaries.

Southside with You (narrative)

“In 1989, Barack Obama is a summer associate at a Chicago law firm. On a lovely summer’s day, he invites his colleague Michelle Robinson to a community meeting. Writer/director Richard Tanne charts the course of this couple’s first date with nuance and charm, accompanied by the underlying frisson that comes from knowing that these two people will go on to change history.” Opinions were divided among friends who saw this at Sundance. One declared it cheesy, the other sweet.

Tickled (documentary)

“Out-and-proud gay New Zealand journalist David Farrier stumbles upon a mysterious online fetish empire while researching a story about the sport of man-on-man competitive tickling. A simple click pulls him—and the viewer—into a cyber-informational wormhole, revealing a universe of litigious threats and homophobic slurs in this gripping and often bizarre nail-biter of a detective story.” See my review.

Under the Gun (documentary)*

“Katie Couric narrates this devastating documentary covering the current political battle over gun control and gun violence from the team that impressively tackled child obesity in Fed Up. With a balanced eye that presents the history of the NRA alongside grief-stricken citizens of Newtown and Chicago, the film nevertheless advocates for change amid a political climate that seems resolutely opposed to it.”

Under the Shadow (narrative)

“Babak Anvari’s debut feature is a shiveringly good ghost story set in a Tehran apartment building in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq War. Focusing on a woman forbidden by the government to pursue her medical career and her daughter who is perhaps pursued by a djinn, it’s a rare and refreshing example of a horror film and political allegory that doesn’t need to spill blood to be truly scary.”

Unlocking the Cage (documentary)

Attorney Steven Wise’s clients “are animals and he and his team of advocates are fighting to establish basic rights for specific living creatures. That struggle and the question of whether animals should be granted ‘personhood,’ as corporations have been, are among the fascinating issues directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus address in their thought-provoking documentary.”

Weiner (documentary)

“Two years after a sexting scandal derails New York Congressman Anthony Weiner’s once promising career, he attempts a comeback with a run for New York mayor with a documentary crew in tow. The filmmakers are on the spot when controversy erupts over new inappropriate texts.” Weiner won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Wiener-Dog (narrative)

“True to his unique, discomfiting vision, Solondz once again shocks and awes in this drama that strings together vignettes anchored around the misadventures of an adorable dachshund.” Solondz’s Happiness was one of the first independent films I ever watched. I was blown away by its unsentimental and yet sympathetic perspective on perpetrators of what are usually considered heinous acts. From what I’ve read and heard, Solondz fans won’t be disappointed by the master director’s latest work.

Wild (narrative)

“Part feminist fairy tale, part surreal cross-species romance and part case study of one person’s descent into madness, the new film from German actress Nicolette Krebitz takes no prisoners when it comes to its man vs. nature scenario–yet this extraordinary parable never treats its boundary-crossing amour fou story with knee jerk sensationalism.”

Other Noteworthy Films with Expected Guests

The more festivals I attend, the more I appreciate the rare opportunity to listen to the filmmakers, cast, and crew discuss their vision, intent, and, in the case of documentaries, the host of fascinating ancillary information that never made it into the film. No other Bay Area film festival brings as many guests to screenings as the San Francisco International Film Festival.

In addition to those mentioned above, I’m excited to catch the following films and their Q&A sessions:

The Bandit (documentary)*

“An exuberant, surprisingly moving romp through 1970s pop culture, The Bandit celebrates the friendship between superstar actor Burt Reynolds and stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, as together they create the Southern-fried classic Smokey and the Bandit.” This type of subject matter wouldn’t normally excite my interest, but I was intrigued when I saw that Jesse Moss is The Bandit‘s director. Moss directed The Overnighters, one of my favorite Sundance documentaries of all time. Both Moss and Burt Reynolds will attend this Closing Night screening ($).

The Demons (narrative)*

“Documentary filmmaker Philippe Lesage’s narrative debut is an exquisitely observed portrait of a delicate ten-year-old Quebec boy grappling with the insecurities and confusion of impending adolescence. Infused with an unsettling air of ambiguity and dread that portends terrible crimes to follow, this restrained and coolly beautiful film is an unforgettable portrait of a child forced to confront the dangers of growing up.” One reviewer called it a “difficult but frequently dazzling film.” Sounds like it’s worth watching.

Five Nights in Maine (narrative)*

“Thrown into a shocked daze of mourning by his wife’s death, a new widower (David Oyelowo) attempts to snap himself out of his inertia with a visit to his hostile, cancer-stricken mother-in-law (Dianne Wiest). Terrific performances by the two leads and Rosie Perez, as Wiest’s caregiver, make the film a master class in mood and tension.” Though a review has called the film unsatisfyingly enigmatic, viewers who value good acting might still find much to enjoy in a film that promises to be subtle and nuanced. Moreover, fans of David Oyelowo (star of Oscar-nominated civil rights drama Selma) will be interested to hear that the actor is expected to participate in an extended conversation with the director after the Saturday, April 23, screening.

Home Care (narrative)*

“Dedicated home-care nurse Vlasta traipses around the south Moravia countryside on bus and food tending to (and bantering with) patients too infirm or elderly to travel. When she herself is diagnosed with a serious illness, she turns to alternative therapies and the company of women healers. The Czech Republic’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film is a rueful, touching mix of realism, absurdity, irony and daring gallows humor.” Who doesn’t like funny and touching? Home Care sounds like this year’s The Second Mother. Count me in.

The Fixer (narrative)*

“After fleeing his home in Afghanistan, military interpreter and budding reporter Osman finds himself amidst the bohemian spirit-seekers and low-rent criminals of rural Sonoma County (including a long-haired James Franco).” Besides the local backdrop, other draws include the very long expected guest list (though not big names James Franco or Melissa Leo) and unpredictable plot.

Peter and the Farm (documentary)*

“Despite the picturesque cows and dogs in the fields of Vermont’s Mile Hill Farm, a botched culling of an unlucky sheep is an early hint that Tony Stone’s sympathetic and beautifully crafted portrait of farmer Peter Dunning will be something more complex. Charismatic but isolated by his own demons, Dunning is a hard-drinking artist with a penchant for colorful stories and self-destructive behavior, a compellingly contradictory and heartbreakingly memorable anti-hero.” I find the most evocative documentaries to be the ones that take a close, unflinching look at a person or a relationship. Peter and the Farm promises to be just that type of film.