SFIFF 2016 Festival Recap – Part 1, Narrative Features
The 59th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival is now over, and what a festival it was! With 60 narrative features, 37 documentary features, and 74 short films shown over a span of two weeks, it was impossible for me to attend every film, but what I lacked in quantity I made up for in quality. With few exceptions, the films I watched inspired and provoked, moved and delighted me.
I count Indignation and The Lobster, my favorite narratives of the festival, as two of the most engaging, well-made, and entertaining films I’ve seen in recent memory. Vastly different in tone, style, and content, Indignation is a serious, introspective, and melancholy tale, while The Lobster–the Jury Prize winner at Cannes–is a wildly playful, irreverent, and trenchant observation of romance and society.
“Wicked” and “diabolical” are apt descriptors for Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan and Chloë Sevigny’s Alicia Johnson, a pair of outsider insiders whose intrigues wreak havoc upon a small circle of upper class English families in Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. Stillman’s turn to an English nineteenth century comedy of manners in some ways feels like a homecoming, in other ways like a camouflage. What makes a Stillman work like Damsels in Distress memorable is its anachronistic placement of Victorian manners in a relatively modern setting; what, then, distinguishes his style here?
My long-standing fascination with Greta Gerwig meant that I had to watch Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, in which Gerwig stars as a competent, hyper-organized young woman who plans to get pregnant via sperm donation. A uniquely plotted rom-com with intelligent overtones, this star-studded film (Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Maya Rudolph, and Bill Hader support) nonetheless lacks a certain something—depth? Only one scene got to me—an argument between Hawke and Gerwig that is the only truly felt moment of the movie. Also, I still can’t tell if Gerwig is a good or bad actress.
A software engineer married to an aspiring actress puts his wife’s voice in the interactive voice response system his company is developing. Slowly, he falls in love with his creation while his marriage simultaneously crumbles. Screenwriter Sharon Greene calls the picture a “reverse rom-com,” which descends from a place of perfect happiness to one of fraught uncertainty. The data visualizations are pretty, the amateur theater scenes engaging, but the rest often feels emotionally contrived and unevenly acted. A competent debut feature by director Logan Kibens but with considerable room to grow.
Ian Olds’s The Fixer turns the familiar Western-journalist-encounters-a-strange-culture trope on its head, choosing to magnify one of America’s more independent-minded subcultures. Afghan fixer Osman leaves his home country in search of safety and opportunity in Sonoma County, California. Osman is warmly acted by Dominic Rains, who elevates an otherwise problematic film with his winning earnestness and intensity. The problems? A plot that stretches credulity. A moral driven home with a sledgehammer. And also, I suppose, Osman’s eternal earnestness and intensity. The film might benefit from more comedic moments but is, like its lead, winsome and enjoyable, despite its flaws.
A close friendship between young teens—the son of a shop owner and the son of the shop’s landlord—is threatened when their families feud over increasing rent. But gentrification is just a backdrop for the real story, which is about the boys’ friendship. It is in this story about friendship, however, that the film falters. While newcomers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri deliver mostly natural performances as the two adolescents, the film is beset by sometimes over-engineered dialogue between the two boys and a plot that feels more imagined than true. Still, a few moments sparkle.
Long-time Ang Lee collaborator James Schamus makes his directing debut with Indignation, an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel. Already a commanding storyteller, Schamus proves that he is equally adept at bringing his stories alive onscreen. By far my favorite film of the festival, Indignation takes a deep look at a young man whose romantic entanglement with a troubled co-ed alters the course of his life. With taut dialogue and superb narrative tension, Schamus, who manages to preserve the distinctive cadence of Roth’s prose, constructs an incredibly moving, at times humorous, and always compelling tale of lost potential.
I’ve never seen a fatter Colin Farrell. In a departure from his typical action roles, the Irish actor, who gained 40 pounds for the job, enters the off-kilter world of writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos where newly single people are given 45 days at a seaside resort to find another mate or else be turned into an animal of their choosing. The film is supremely entertaining in its bizarreness, cynicism, and, at times, twisted and unflinching violence. A Wes Anderson gone darkly awry, Lanthrimos beguiles us with his wickedly funny tale of desperation and romance. Rachel Weisz is excellent as Farrell’s love interest.
Venezuelan writer/director Lorenzo Vigas’s debut feature is a captivating drama about an unusual romance between a middle-class, middle-aged dentures maker and a young, working class firecracker of a car mechanic. Their complicated and unequal love results in a tumultuous, surprising, and, at times, explosive 90 minutes of cinematic viewing. Though not prudish by any means, Vigas wisely keeps his film’s violence mostly off-screen, choosing to focus instead on his deftly drawn, marvelously human characters. The result is a thriller that feels refreshingly thoughtful rather than nervous. Some plot elements are predictable or familiar, but overall an impressive first film.
From the “South Korean Woody Allen” comes a new film imagining two ways a budding romance might play out, one in which the male protagonist is false and boasting and one where he is sincere and humble. Though the movie’s moral may be straightforward, its execution is nonetheless both sweet and amusing. The act of watching Right Now, Wrong Then is a little like solving a find-the-difference picture puzzle, or like taking a memory test. But more than merely fun, seeing the two versions side by side provides a thought-provoking exploration of individual choices, consequences, and fates.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the SFIFF Recap, which will cover the festival’s documentary features.