Sixty years doesn’t seem a great length of time, but as the San Francisco International Film Festival is turning 60, it’s holding a unique distinction of being the oldest such event in the Americas. (The world record is held by Moscow, where the festive started in 1935, followed by Cannes 11 years later.)
The festival’s parent organization, formerly known as the San Francisco Film Society, now has the convenient handle of SFFILM.
When the festival began in 1957, it immediately started championing foreign films, presenting works by Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray (then unknown to American audiences) at the very first festival. Once a rarity in the industry, women directors have long been participating here with festival films – there are 57 this year.
The festival’s diamond jubilee (sffilm.org/festival) will present 181 films in venues through San Francisco and Berkeley, April 5-19. Narrative features, documentaries, and shorts come from 51 countries, and they include six world premieres and seven North American premieres.
Opening night, in the Castro Theater, presents Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline,” with Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, John Turturro, and Jay Duplass. The film is about a Manhattan teenager discovering that her father is having an affair. After its Sundance screening, “Landline” was called “a pleasingly spiky and confident feature” – raising a question about its prominent placement in San Francisco.
The closing selection is both intriguing and somewhat mysterious as no description gives a clear picture of it: “The Green Fog” is called “a San Francisco fantasia,” a commission in celebration of the anniversary, “a visual collage by cultural iconoclast Guy Maddin and codirectors Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson.” It is described as a remake “Vertigo,” but without using footage from the Hitchcock classic. Instead, the film is to create a “parallel-universe version.” It will include footage from “studio classics, ‘50s noir, experimental films, and ‘70s prime-time TV.” The city’s world-famous Kronos Quartet provides the score, composed by Jacob Garchik.
Special events include awards to be presented to Eleanor Coppola, Tom Luddy, and Lynn Hershman Leeson. Tributes will be presented to Ethan Hawke (including a screening of his new film “Maudie”), James Ivory (with a 30th anniversary screening of “Maurice”), John Ridley (with an early look at his new SHOWTIME series “Guerilla”), and Gordon Gund (profiled in the short documentary “The Illumination”).
A screening of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” on April 6 will be followed by an onstage conversation with William Randolph Hearst III (whose grandfather inspired the title character) and film historian David Thomson about the film’s legacy. Just a few promising offerings:
* THE PARIS OPERA, 2017 documentary from France, directed by Jean-Stéphane Bron. Backstage and front office bustle revealed from the old Palais Garnier and the new Opéra Bastille, where the great Opéra National de Paris continues a heritage, which includes being the birthplace of classical ballet. (April 7, 8, 9)
* THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES, 2017 U.S. film, written and directed by Jim Strouse. Jessica James plays the title role, a young, aspiring playwright in New York City, whose struggle to make it in the world of theater and getting over a relationship that just ended provides both drama and comedy. (April 8)
* THE JOURNEY, 2016 film from the UK, directed by Nick Hamm. Timothy Spall plays Protestant leader Ian Paisley and Colm Meaney, of IRA and Sinn Féin, as the two mortal enemies help to bring a truce in the long and bloody Irish civil war. John Hurt, in one of his final roles, plays the had of MI5. (April 9)
* THE FUTURE PERFECT, 2016 film from Argentina, directed by Nele Wohlatz. A young girl from China moves to Buenos Aires to join her conservative family who immigrated years earlier. Her parents, who refuse even to learn Spanish, want her to fit in with the Chinese immigrant community and “marry a nice Chinese boy,” but the teenager has a mind of her own. (April 12, 14, and 19)