Thursday, April 15, 2021
Arts + Culture Watch out -- it's SFIFF!

Watch out — it’s SFIFF!

Devils, defenders, and the Dead: our guide to the 60th annual San Francisco International Film Fest.


SCREEN GRABS This is a big year for the San Francisco International Film Festival (April 5-19). The oldest such event in the western hemisphere, it turns 60 in 2017 — if it were a person, almost old enough to qualify for the kinds of elder benefits our government is currently ensuring won’t be around by age 65. But enough about politics. SFIFF is entering its seventh decade with a latest edition that’s packed with goodies, and a few new wrinkles. The latter includes diversifying its local venues (while again spurning prior base the Kabuki), and holding official closing-night festivities three days before the programming actually ends. 

It’s a very cool closing night selection, by the way, a wholly original commissioned event: Ever-idiosyncratic Canadian director Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog, a “remake” of Hitchcock’s SF-set classic Vertigo compiled entirely from other pre-existing film sources, accompanied by a score written by Jacob Garchick and performed live by Kronos Quartet. That will take place the evening of Sunday April 16 at the Castro. That’s also where SFIFF kicks off on Wednesday the 5th with Obvious Child writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s new comedy Landline, again starring Jenny Slate.

Other big one-off events include tributes to actors Ethan Hawke and Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan; to directors James Ivory, Lynn Hershman Leeson and John Ridley; to Bay Area film institutions Canyon Cinema, Tom Luddy, Disposable Film Festival, Eleanor Coppola and the late George Gund. Evenings of live music will feature Asian Dub Foundation (accompanying George Lucas’ cult sci-fi classic THX-1138), Devotchka (Dziga Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera) and Will Oldham (for a program of experimental shorts by Jerome Hiler).

Other archival screenings encompass one of Citizen Kane with a descendant of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon who was famously furious over being the “inspiration” for its fictive protagonist; Joan Chen’s now 20-year-old drama Xiu-Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl; and Melvin Van Peebles’ seldom-revived 1967 Story of a 3-Day Pass, which anticipates Sweet Sweetback in its stylistic adventure if not its tamer content. 

Other starry folk expected to show up in person are documentary subjects Gigi Gorgeous (of Barbara Kopple’s This is Everything), Bill Nye (Bill Nye: Science Guy), and Dolores Huerta (Dolores); Pixar’s Edwin Catmull (delivering the annual “State of Cinema” address); historied thespians Ellen Burstyn (with world premiere seriocomedy House of Tomorrow) and Kevin Bacon (who appears in the new series I Love Dick); plus as usual a whole lot of directors, including esteemed Amerindie veterans James Gray (The Lost City of Z) and Michael Almereyda (Marjorie Prime). 

Features of particular local interest include Amir Bar-Lev’s Long Strange Trip, a four-hour excavation of the Grateful Dead’s history that apparently includes all the juicy dirt left out of prior, worshipful “Jerry Is God!”-minded documentaries; San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi’s Defender, about his day job; SF-based Travis Mathews’ Texas-set Discreet, an ambiguous tale that’s his most intriguing work to date; and Peter Nicks’ The Force, a verite portrait of the Oakland Police Dept. under duress that won acclaim at Sundance. 

There will be “master classes,” free screenings of three new documentaries (including Defender), two “VR Days” at Center for the Arts, and of course the usual categories of plain old new world cinema. The latter include “Masters” (featuring latest work from established greats like Brilliante Mendoza and Cristi Puiu), wide-ranging “Global Visions,” the annual slate of works competing for Golden Gate Awards, an experimental “Vanguard” section, several shorts programs, spotlights on emerging French and Argentine filmmaking, and midnight-movie bin “Dark Wave.”

Goodies in the latter include two Far Eastern martial arts spectaculars (Indonesian Headshot, Hong Kong Mrs K), plus Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration — which is pretty much exactly what you’d get if you mixed Moonlight and Let the Right One In, a combination that works better than you might expect.

Even the above fairly-exhaustive survey just scratches the surface of SFIFF 60. Want a few recommendations? Well, you can’t go wrong with the April 12 “Centerpiece” presentation of  Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, about a lower-class white New Joisey woman who improbably dreams of stardom as a rapper. It was a sensation at Sundance this January — and a deserved one, as it really is a crowdpleasing delight. One of the best gay movies in years is Francis Lee’s U.K. feature God’s Own Country, which will inevitably be compared to Brokeback Mountain (its wish-ah-could-quit-ya protagonists are likewise shepherds), but has its own different, distinctive feel. 

Nothing could stop me from checking out 88-year-old Alejandro Jodorowky’s latest surreal epic Endless Poetry, or for that matter Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52, a documentary entirely devoted to deconstructing Psycho’s immortal shower scene. But you will no doubt find your own must-sees in the expansive fifteen-day program. 

The 60th SF International Film Festival runs April 5-19 at various San Francisco locations and at the BAM/PFA in Berkeley. Go to for full program, schedule, venue and ticket info. 


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