People keep asking me about movies like The Joneses and La Mission, and I have to keep saying, "sorry... it's film festival time." Almost all other considerations are sidelined for two weeks while I dive into the list of 177 films being shown at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival. (It's still the oldest festival in the Western hemisphere, apparently.) This year I went to the big opening night festivities and saw Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs, with the director in attendance. It was my second time seeing it, and it holds up; it seems less lightweight and disposable. Jeunuet was just as entertaining, with hilarious, self-effacing stories from the frontlines of filmmaking. When I last interviewed him, he spoke French and had a translator, and was not nearly as funny.
As a die-hard Jacques Rivette fan, I was a bit disappointed with Around a Small Mountain, not so much because of the content, but because of the length. It's only 84 minutes, and without Rivette's usual gargantuan running times, it just didn't feel right. The Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (6ixtynin9, Last Life in the Universe) effectively creeped me out with Nymph, the story of a cheating wife who goes on a camping trip to a weird forest with her husband. It starts off with a long, tricky tracking shot that both impressed me and gave me the willies.
From Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof (Iron Island), The White Meadows is one of my favorites so far. Filmed in and around Lake Urmia, it has some amazing visuals, with water, rocks and salt forming a kind of very specific universe where superstition reigns. I guarantee you've not heard the setup before: a man whose job is to collect human tears. He rows his boat between the islands and encounters one bizarre situation after another, all having to do with a weird conundrum: human belief in tradition and the inhuman acts we will commit in order to uphold it.
My Dog Tulip is a wonderful animated film, the feature debut of Paul Fierlinger, who will be known to generations of children for his short cartoons on "Sesame Street." (Christopher Plummer provides the voice of the film's verbose dog owner.) In Transcending Lynch, director Marcos Andrade follows David Lynch on a South American book tour and records dozens of interviews in which the famous filmmaker tries to talk about transcendental meditation and ends up evading the inevitable questions about his movies. Andrade doesn't specifically try to promote or deny any agenda, and winds up with a rather revealing and touching portrait of the artist as a strange man.
Maren Ade's Everyone Else, from Germany, has already received quite a bit of notice on the worldwide cinema grapevine, and it's indeed an uncommonly painful emotional glimpse into a relationship on the rocks; it has earned comparisons to Rossellini, Antonioni and Bergman, though it's firmly rooted in the grungy, homemade school of Cassavetes. And also from Germany, director Fatih Akin sets aside his usual cross-cultural dramas for the entertaining, energetic, old-fashioned comedy of errors Soul Kitchen (pictured above); it's the winter version of his delightful summertime romantic comedy In July (2000).
Finally, we get one of the festival's few duds, Cracks, from director Jordan Scott (Ridley's daughter and Tony's niece). More like "Cracked." Set at an English all-girls school in the 1930s, it turns into a high-pitched, hysterical power play with lots of glowering and glaring and lesbian lust. Starring Bond girl Eva Green (Casino Royale), it could actually become a kind of demented cult hit. But then again, it may not.