The 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival wraps up this week after 14 days, and though I've seen some wonderful things, it's a real pleasure to rest my brain with a little Iron Man 2 this week. Among some of the gems I saw was the gentle Cairo Time (see my longer review), with its luminous performance by Patricia Clarkson. I also liked the new one from Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues, To Die Like a Man. Rodrigues' style is so blunt and frank that his filmmaking can be seen (and has been seen) as both clumsy and bold. He ventures into some unusual territory, like drag queens snipe hunting in a forest, but for all that, the film manages to find a steady heartbeat within its bizarre structure.

The outstanding Alamar won the New Directors Award for filmmaker Pedro González-Rubio; it's truly beautiful, almost incidental portrait of a boy spending some time with his father after his parents have split. The father is a fisherman on a huge choral reef near Mexico, and they spend nearly wordless days together learning about fish and befriending birds. This remarkable blend of fiction and non-fiction uses real people and real relationships, but creates its own story from these elements. I also loved Claire Denis' newest masterwork White Material (see my longer review), which is arguably her most plot-based, but also grimmest, movie in years.

Robert Duvall received a tribute at the festival with a screening of his new film Get Low, directed by Aaron Schneider, which is clearly a first-timer's film. It has problems balancing its shape and tones, but it is smart enough to rely on superb performances by Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek.

I attended another tribute, to critic Roger Ebert, which was a truly special, inspiring evening. Directors Terry Zwigoff, Philip Kaufman, Errol Morris and Jason Reitman all paid tribute to him, and then he "spoke" a little bit (via his computer) about the current state of movies. His pick for the evening was Erick Zonca's Julia, which I was ashamed to have missed when it opened last spring. It's a truly harrowing -- if slightly problematic -- cross between a crime film and an alcoholism drama, and with easily the best performance of 2009, in any film, by Tilda Swinton.

There was a rare festival disappointment in Air Doll, which was Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's first non-realistic film since his great After Life (1998). Unfortunately Air Doll plays more like a doodle than a finished film; it covers so many themes and subthemes that it takes forever to wrap up, and its would-be stinger of an ending comes across more like a thud.

The festival went out on a high note with a couple of outstanding genre films, both of which I will be recommending to people for months down the line. Sean Byrne's The Loved Ones, from Australia, is a brilliant gore film with a few unique and surprisingly human twists, as well as a welcome penchant for dark humor in its final act. And Vincenzo Natali's Splice is a kind of creature film with a most peculiar, appealing tone. It manages to cross several lines while maintaining a kind of sweetness. These two films sent me out into the world a happy man.
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