SFIFF53: Dispatch #2, Top Films to See

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Coverage of the San Francisco International Film Festival by Rumpus Film editor Jeremy Hatch.

At the press conference for the festival given a few weeks ago, programming director Rachel Rosen characterized the selections as, overall, showing a return to basics and beauty — there is much less shaky cam work and jagged editing than there has been in recent years, and more of a return to classical presentation. She also discerned a number of genre-crossing films — films that blur the line between documentary and fiction, or between one genre and another — as well as an interest in the creative process itself.

What we’ve seen so far definitely bears this out. As I mentioned the day before yesterday, we’ve been watching selected films and listening to buzz over here for the past two weeks, and so we hereby present our initial picks, just a day later than promised, after the jump.


TOP PICKS
First, here’s the list of the six we’ve seen that we can definitely vouch for:


LiTTLEROCK
Both Assistant Film Editor Anisse Gross and I really loved this film, more than anything else in the festival we’ve seen so far. The second feature from Mike Ott, LiTTLEROCK is about a Japanese brother and sister who are stranded in a small California town, somewhere south of San Francisco and north of LA. The catalog description doesn’t really do it justice, so I’ll just quote Anisse on the topic: “It’s like the inverse of Lost in Translation.” My feeling is that this one is a sleeper classic.


Cold Weather
I haven’t personally seen this one, but friend of the Rumpus and filmmaker Barry Jenkins says that word of mouth after the premiere is probably going to make the other three screenings sell out: “It’s a thriller, it’s a drama, it’s regional realist, it’s a comedy. Basically a dope ass movie. See it!” Okay, I’m there.


14-18: The Noise and the Fury
This is perhaps not the sexiest film in the whole program, but it’s definitely worth seeing. People think the First World War was so long ago that it’s irrelevant, but this film will bring to life the full horror and continuing significance of that catastrophe. Made up of archival footage and selections from films made about the war, the story is narrated by a (fictional) French soldier who somehow managed to survive the entire four years, and it’s a powerful reminder that that war probably still counts as the most pointless and destructive war in history.


The Oath
This film is mostly a portrait of one man who was once close to Osama bin Laden — Abu Jandal, who was bin Laden’s bodyguard and an Al Qaeda insider from 1996-2000, and who personally knew all of the 9/11 hijackers. Along the way, we also learn the story of his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, who knew much less than Jandal did; essentially, it seems, he was little more than a hired driver and mechanic. One of these two men has ended up driving cab in Yemen, while the other ended up imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for almost eight years. Can you guess which was which? (Hint word: scapegoat.) As the catalog puts it, “through this personal story slowly unfolds an indictment of the ‘War on Terror.’ ” And much more. It’s a really fascinating film and I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Pianomania
A much lighter but really fun film, at least if you’re into concert piano music, is this portrait of Stefan Knupfer, the Steinway & Sons master piano technician, who spends as much time attending to the demands of the concert virtuosos as he does to the needs of the instruments themselves. It’s super-music-geeky, and a great watch.


The Practice of the Wild
This portrait of Gary Snyder’s work and life is also a portrait of his long friendship with the catankerous Jim Harrison, and I personally really enjoyed it; look out for a fuller piece on the film to appear next week. But definitely note that Gary Snyder plans to be present at the May 3rd screening.

NOT SEEN YET, BUT A SAFE BET
The following 15 films we haven’t seen, but we’ve heard especially positive, intriguing talk about them, and are planning to see ourselves:
Air Doll
Alamar
Between Two Worlds
Bill Cunningham New York
Bodyguards and Assassins
A Brand New Life
Cargo
Garbo the Spy
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno
Last Train Home
My Dog Tulip
The Peddler
Restrepo
White Material
You Think You’re the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiest

So, Rumpus readers: what are your picks? What are you looking forward to in the festival, and why? Let us know in the comments.

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Read SFIFF53: Dispatch #2


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →