The Binge Guide to the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival

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San Francisco’s biggest film festival is back with another impressive roster of films and special events guaranteed to dominate your free time between April 25 and May 9. This year, the San Francisco Film Society has been especially successful at programming some of the biggest favorites from the major film fests that have already transpired in 2013, such as Sundance and SXSW, in addition to the usual crop of world and national premieres. This is your chance to get an early glimpse at some likely 2013 best-of contenders and even possible Oscar candidates (before she was an Oscar-winning superstar, Jennifer Lawrence was just an unknown actress hanging around the Sundance Kabuki when Winter’s Bone came to the festival three months after debuting at Sundance). Dozens of actors and filmmakers will be attending the fest to promote their films, in addition to special events featuring such luminaries as Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, William Friedkin, Eric Roth, and Philip Kaufman.

What films should you check out this year? Check out The Binge’s twenty most anticipated SFIFF selections below. All synopses courtesy of the SFFS.

Afternoon Delight [tickets]

Attractive, privileged Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) lives a seemingly idyllic life with her handsome and successful husband, Jeff (Josh Radnor), and preschool-aged son. A forty-ish stay-at-home mom, she divides her time between volunteering at the local Jewish Community Center, sipping wine in her impeccably modern home in LA’s Silver Lake, and avoiding confessing too much to her quinoa-munching, over-sharing shrink (Jane Lynch). When Rachel and Jeff decide to visit a strip club in order to resuscitate their near-DOA love life, she gets a lap dance from the glittery, lion-maned McKenna (Juno Temple). Peculiarly drawn to the young woman, the soccer mom strikes up a friendship with the stripper, and soon welcomes her into her home to “save” her from a life as a sex worker. Naturally, McKenna causes a sensation among the JCC’s bored housewives and frustrated husbands. A sort of belle de jour by proxy, she also shakes up Rachel’s views of her own staid existence. Anchored by a layered and truthful central performance from the underrated Hahn (Girls) and featuring a coquette-ish turn from beguiling It Girl Temple (Killer Joe), Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight offers a funny and moving portrayal of something we don’t often see onscreen: the female mid-life crisis and its attendant fallout.
-Michelle Devereaux

Before Midnight [tickets]

They’re still the same romantic, articulate and gorgeous couple that met on a train in Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), but now, nearly 20 years on, Jesse and Céline (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) are approaching middle age and facing questions of commitment, family and, as ever, the staying power of love. Before Midnight, with a funny and touching screenplay cowritten by Linklater and his two lead actors, is that rare sequel (rarer still: a sequel to a sequel) that not only delivers the charm and energy of its antecedents but adds layers of poignancy, standing firmly on its own as a mature observation of love’s pleasures and discontents.
-Peter Stein

Big Sur [tickets]

Jean-Marc Barr is a middle-aged, alcoholic Jack Kerouac trying to outrun his demons in Michael Polish’s deft adaptation of the writer’s 1962 novel. Five years after On the Road transformed the literary landscape and made Kerouac the reluctant face of the Beat Generation, he returns to San Francisco to reunite with old friends like Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards), Michael McClure (Balthazar Getty) and Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas) and to attempt to get sober in an isolated Big Sur cabin. Polish extracts poetry from the writer’s sad late novel that tracks the start of his physical decline and the fraying of once-tight friendships. Barr is terrific both in performance and in voice over as he narrates directly from Kerouac’s book and he is surrounded by exceptionally well-cast support, including Patrick Fischler as Lew Welch, Henry Thomas as Philip Whalen, Radha Mitchell as Neal’s wife Carolyn and Kate Bosworth as Billie, the woman both Jack and Neal love. Lucas’ Cassady in particular is a revelation, perfectly embodying the physicality, speed-rapping charm and sexual charisma Kerouac describes. Polish’s seventh collaboration with cinematographer M. David Mullen yields spectacular results both in the paradise on earth that is Big Sur and in San Francisco where locations include Tenderloin tenements, City Lights Bookstore and Tosca in only the third screen adaptation of one of Kerouac’s books and one that proves that the writer’s dense, language-driven novels can, indeed, be gloriously cinematic.
-Pam Grady

Byzantium [tickets]

Emphasizing the gothic sensibility that has been missing from recent vampire fare, Neil Jordan’s latest film follows the adventures of two women as they attempt to keep their blood-sucking identities under wraps. Having been discovered at their former flat, 16-year-old Eleanor (Hanna’s Saoirse Ronan) and her volatile older companion, Clara (Gemma Arterton, who can also be seen in Unfinished Song), move on to a seaside town where the latter seduces a hapless guy named Noel and wriggles out of him a place for them to stay (and to lure their prey). Meanwhile, Eleanor forms a bond with a sickly boy named Frank and begins to tell him her story. As her tale unfolds visually (and in voiceover), Jordan ratchets up the atmosphere with flashbacks to the 18th century where Eleanor resides in a dank orphanage and Clara turns tricks to survive. As the reasons behind Eleanor and Clara’s transformation and subsequent outlaw status are revealed, a different kind of mythology—one that shuns females from the blood-sucking “brotherhood”—is established. Augmenting the baroque story with striking visuals, including waterfalls gushing blood and razor-sharp thumbnails doing the work of fangs, Jordan brings a remarkable panache to this rich addition to the genre, 18 years after his classic Interview with a Vampire.

-Rod Armstrong

Crystal Fairy [tickets]

Michael Cera turns in a career re-making performance as an Ugly American in Chile in this carefree, partially improvised road movie, directed by the acclaimed young Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva (The Maid, 2009 Sundance Jury Prize). Spaced out and sarcastic, the young American Jamie (Cera) finds himself in Santiago, Chile, guzzling through various reservoirs of cocaine and pot like a junior Charlie Sheen. He’s on a quest to sample the psychedelic San Pedro cactus, and soon drafts a trio of Chilean brothers to accompany him to the vast Atacama desert plains to find it. Their masculine reverie is quickly broken, however, by the introduction of Crystal (Gaby Hoffmann), a New Age American hippie chick as blissed out as Jamie is wound up. Twirling about haphazardly at parties and unselfconsciously placing her very nude self amidst the boys, Crystal serves as the uninhibited id to Jamie’s verbose, white-shorted, dark-socked ego, a contrast that could turn to conflict—depending on when they find that cactus. Conceived while Cera and Silva were waiting on another project (Magic Magic), Crystal Fairy boasts a casual air that conceals a biting satire on doped-up dopes abroad, fueled by a remarkable Cera performance that’s unafraid to give his distinctive, hyper-aware personality a far darker tone.

The East [tickets]

A corporate spy infiltrates a group of anarchists—and finds herself drawn to their charismatic leader—in this thought-provoking espionage thriller from Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, the duo behind 2011’s indie hit Sound of My Voice. The former FBI agent Sarah (Marling) now works at a “private investigation firm” used by powerful corporations to protect their interests. When an underground anarchist collective begins violently targeting corporate heads whose companies are polluting the environment, Sarah is assigned to head undercover with the organization, and “neutralize” it. The closer she gets to the group’s committed members, though, the further she finds herself from the corporate ideals she has been hired to protect, especially as the group’s charismatic, cult-like leader (Alexander Skarsgård) begins to take center stage. Scaling down the macro-level sweep of globetrotting espionage thrillers like the Mission: Impossible epics to a more relatable, human scale, The East delivers a taut investigation of what “espionage” means in today’s corporatized world. “It’s not connected to a democratic process at all, so you know there’s no oversight,” notes Marling (who co-wrote the script). Boasting a talented cast that also includes Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson and Julia Ormond, this ideological thriller is a thinking-person’s Bourne Identity, as pointed in its questions as it is slick in its thrills.

Frances Ha [tickets]

Noah Baumbach deliberately invokes comparisons to Woody Allen with his latest, Brooklyn-set comedy Frances Ha, a sweet and funny tale of female friends, Frances (Greta Gerwig), a dancer, and Sophie (Mickey Sumner), a book editor, striving to succeed in a city too expensive for artists without trust funds. Certainly cameraman Sam Levy’s lush, black-and-white photography recalls Gordon Willis’ exquisite lens work on Allen’s Manhattan (1979) but the bigger connection may be titular star Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the film with Baumbach after they worked together on the L.A. comedy Greenberg (2010). Baumbach is an expert storyteller when it comes to smart, likable, but neurotic urbanists and Gerwig inhabits Frances with a hand-in-glove performance that suggests that should she could become something of a Diane Keaton-like muse to Baumbach. She’s certainly at ease throughout Frances Ha, extending the quirky, carefree character type that has earned her a cult following in smaller films like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Baghead (2008). Frances Ha, which also gives a stylistic nod to the French New Wave, winningly portrays a delicate romance between two close friends, a story as heartwarming as the relationship between its two female characters and as rich as the synchronized performances by Gerwig and Mickey Sumner.
-Steve Ramos

The Kings of Summer [tickets]

High school freshman Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) and his sarcastic, widowed father Frank (Nick Offerman) do nothing but fight, while his lifelong best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) has had it up to here with his well-meaning but insanely chipper mom and dad (Megan Mulally and Marc Evan Jackson). Unwilling to spend one more day with such frustrating parents, the boys and eccentric tag-along Biaggio (Moises Arias) retreat to the woods for their summer vacation and build a ramshackle cabin as a declaration of independence, oblivious to the panic their disappearance creates. For three kids used to the creature comforts and instant gratification of suburbia, living off the land poses challenges, but in their determination to create their own Eden, the trio is nothing if not game—at least for a while. Biaggio, with his pitch-perfect timing, deadpan delivery and arsenal of absurd one-liners, is the movie’s comic soul, while Joe Toy is its heart, his impulse to flee the nest early leading to some harsh life lessons as the summer wears on. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta make a memorable joint feature-film debut with this smart, deliriously quirky teen comedy that gets a further boost from its sparkling ensemble, one in which veteran comics like Offerman and Mulally take a backseat to talented newcomers Robinson, Arias and Basso.
-Pam Grady

Much Ado About Nothing [tickets]

On a brief hiatus from production on last year’s superhero blockbuster The Avengers, Joss Whedon (Buffy: The Vampire SlayerAngelFirefly and Dollhouse) gathered some of his closest friends and collaborators from his decade-and-a-half run on network television at his spacious Santa Monica home for 12 days to shoot a retro-cool black and white, modern-day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy of manners. Much Ado About Nothing maps the romantic entanglements of Italian aristocrats and their servants over the course of several eventful days. Rife with comic misunderstandings, miscommunications and manipulations, the Bard’s timeless tale has, contrary to the title, much to say about romantic love then and now. Whedon’s troupe makes Shakespeare’s verse feel modern, fresh and more importantly, alive. As one-time lovers turned antagonists, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof turn their respective characters’ “merry war” of words into moments filled with emotional longing and prideful arrogance. As the young lovers at the center of Much Ado About Nothing, Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese give Shakespeare’s words expressive resonance and contemporary relevance. Nathan Fillion (Firefly) plays the well-meaning, malaprop-prone constable whose unwitting actions help to ensure Much Ado About Nothing ends not as a tragedy, but as delightful comedy.
-Mel Valentin

Peaches Does Herself [tickets]

You came here for a rock show; a big, gigantic cock show. And that’s just what you’re going to get, plus what we’ll call “added value.” This performance documentary/opera directed by and featuring internationally renowned pop anti-star Peaches is a spectacle of choreography, music and sexual exuberance. It would be disingenuous to say that Peaches merely confronts the supposed rules governing music, sexuality, age and femininity. In truth, she obliterates these edifices and more. Featuring many of Peaches best-known anthems, such as “Diddle my Skittle,” “The Tent’s So Big in Your Pants” and “Fuck the Pain Away,” and a dance troupe called the Father Fuckers, this staging celebrates Peaches’ artistic arc. And, before anyone can say “transvaginal ultrasound,” viewers will question where the boundaries are or should be, all the while dancing to the confusion. This program features nudity, transvestites, transsexuals, trans in general, labia, penises, dildos, bicycles, confused bystanders, fake and real tattoos, power chords, a performance artist called the Naked Cowgirl of Times Square, simulated sex and some stuff I am not sure has a name. In case the description so far hasn’t made it apparent, if you are afraid of unusual feelings, this program may not be for you. For the rest of San Francisco, see you there.
-Sean Uyehara

In addition to the screening of her film in SFIFF, Peaches will perform live at Mezzanine on Wednesday, May 1.

Prince Avalanche [tickets]

Filmmaker David Gordon Green returns to his independent roots with Prince Avalanche, a buddy movie/road comedy that is also his most contemplative film in years. In this adaptation of the 2011 Icelandic movie Either Way, Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch play highway workers, complete opposites, whose job it is to paint centerlines on a rural Texas road circa summer 1988. Excepting the occasional visitor, such as elderly trucker Lance LeGault, it is a season spent in near isolation during which the two disparate souls build an unlikely friendship. The actors deliver subtle performances and some welcome laughs, and as Green steps back into the atmospheric storytelling of earlier work like George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003), his film’s additional star is its central Texas setting of Bastrop State Park, ravaged by a devastating wildfire in 2011. Green’s longtime collaborator, cameraman Tim Orr transforms the scorched landscape into a leading character and makes Prince Avalanche the most beautiful buddy movie in recent memory.
-Steve Ramos

Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle [tickets]

The music world lost one of its most beloved artists in 2010 when Canadian folk singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle passed away. Matriarch of the ridiculously talented McGarrigle/Wainwright clan—including onetime husband Loudon, son Rufus, daughter Martha and sisters Jane and Anna, her longtime writing and performing partners—Kate charmed discerning listeners with her singular mélange of Québécois folk music, overlooked gems from decades past and idiosyncratic originals such as “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Talk to Me of Mendocino,” all rich in lyrical honesty, naked emotion and heavenly harmonizing. Devastated by their loss, a gaggle of McGarrigle’s musical family and friends gathered at New York’s Town Hall in May 2011 for an evening of song, reminiscence and celebration. Rufus and Martha serve as endearing, if frequently teary-eyed, emcees, welcoming kindred spirits Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Antony Hegarty and Teddy Thompson to the stage along with writer Michael Ondaatje and, in a sweet bit, Jimmy Fallon. Highlights are numerous, but it’s tough to top Rufus eulogizing his mother with his tremulous vibrato on the specially penned “Candles.” Filmmaker Lian Lunson, whose 2005 documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man revealed her flair for intimacy and immediacy, once again favors uninterrupted performances, and alternates between subdued color, luminous black-and-white and family home movies. “My love has no reason, has no rhyme,” Kate sang, yet here the outpouring of unconditional affection for her makes perfect poetic sense.
-Steven Jenkins

Something in the Air [tickets]

With his latest film, Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas returns to an era he explored in his early masterpiece Cold Water (1994), namely a politically ripe France in the early part of the 1970s. The riotous events of the historic May 1968 protests in Paris still hover over the country as a new generation comes of age and attempts to continue the revolutionary fight; the French title literally translates into English as After May. The film begins on February 9, 1971, as a demonstration to support the release of political prisoners is met with violence by the police. Amid the chaos, two of the film’s central figures emerge: Gilles (Clément Métayer, in his film debut), a pensive young artist who dreams of becoming a filmmaker, and Christine (Lola Créton, from Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard, SFIFF 2009), a vibrant, risk-taking activist dedicated to the cause. Something in the Air, which won the Best Screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival, captures the confusion, idealism, hope, devotion, anger and disappointment of a youth culture, one that has often been romanticized in cinema, but is rarely shown with the delicate complexity that Assayas brings to this film.
-Joseph Bowman

The Spectacular Now [tickets]

Winner of the Special Jury Award for Acting at this year’s Sundance, James Ponsoldt’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed Smashed is that rarest of teen films: one told with truth, humor and compassion. Handsome and witty, the hard-drinking Sutter Kelly (Miles Teller) seems like the life of his (many) high-school parties, but he’s also finding it harder to put down the bottle afterwards. Passing out is one thing, but waking up on someone else’s lawn is another, especially when that lawn is owned by resident school “good girl” Annie (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants). An unexpected friendship soon begins, though, one that may lead to Sutter facing up to his own demons. Unexpectedly nuanced in its portrait of teenage friendship and young-adult life, The Spectacular Now offers up the usual school dances, late-night recriminations and college-application moments, but takes just as much pleasure in framing the world around its characters; here, a walk in a forest, and the way sunlight streams through the trees, holds as much joy as an upcoming prom. “Young adulthood is rarely portrayed with such conviction,” wrote The Guardian, and such conviction can be traced directly to the star-making performances of its two leads, wonderfully supported by Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mary Elizabeth Wnistead.

Stories We Tell [tickets]

A vivacious force of nature, actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley’s mother Diane died when her daughter was just 11. Only recently Polley discovered that her mother took to her grave a secret that alters her family’s dynamic and causes a seismic shift in her own life. In the wake of this startling revelation, Polley embarks on an investigation into her mother’s life and her family’s history, pulling into it her many brothers and sisters; her dad, actor Michael Polley; her mother’s friends and others who knew Diane in ways that Sarah could not. Polley intersperses these observations with Super 8 footage of Diane alone and amidst the large, blended Polley clan, images at once nostalgic and bittersweet that tell one kind of tale while the secrets that Diane kept to herself suggest a different narrative altogether. The dictum goes that there are three sides to every story; yours, mine and the truth. Polley demonstrates the veracity of that in her first documentary as she confronts the past and manages to articulate wider ideas of how people confront their personal histories while telling the very particular story of her own.
-Pam Grady

Twenty Feet from Stardom [tickets]

Background singers form an indispensable part of a song’s sound, yet they toil in anonymity; who they are and the role they play in the formation of a hit known only to a few. Focusing largely on African American women, whose passionate singing and gospel-inspired sound influenced both popular culture and enhanced British and American rock music from the 1950s to the present day, Twenty Feet from Stardom highlights the lives, aspirations and challenges of some of history’s most talented and gifted background artists. The soulful sound (frequently credited to other artists) of gifted vocalists like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Tata Vega coincided with the Civil Rights movement, lending an electrifyingly expressive freedom of style and subtext to their back-up work, resulting in a precisely-right ‘blend’ that would complement the lead singer. With observations from Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bette Midler and Mick Jagger, and performances by Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson, Twenty Feet from Stardom not only makes an invaluable contribution to music history, but also a profound and moving statement about the meaning of fame, ego, art and singing as spiritual self-expression.
-Tim Sika

Unfinished Song [tickets]

Two icons of British cinema, Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp, star in this heartwarming British tale about an elderly couple and a spirited seniors’ choir whose tastes run more to Motörhead than muzak. The radiant Redgrave plays Marion, a terminally ill woman whose main comforts in life come from her involvement with a local senior’s singing group, whose surprising repertoire shuns the golden oldies in favor of speed metal and Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.” Her husband, the ever-grumpy Arthur (Stamp), despises every tune, preferring instead to be down at the pub or (even better) entirely alone, but as Marion’s illness grows worse he may suddenly find himself forced to sing along—and in public, at that. Director Paul Andrew Williams came to attention through the gritty, hyper-realist crime drama London to Brighton; he brings a similar attention to realism here, anchoring this uplifting tale with particular local flavor and an attunement to his character’s working-class, well-lived lives. Fitting firmly in the proud underdog tradition of British classics like Brassed Off and The Full MontyUnfinished Song dedicates itself at the end “to family.” With Redgrave and Stamp at the helm, this uplifting work shows that it’s not just the song that matters, but also the feelings of those who sing it.

The Way, Way Back [tickets]

When setting out on vacation with his mother Pam (Toni Collete) and her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), 14- year old Duncan is put into the way, way back of Trent’s station wagon, thus beginning a trying, pivotal summer in which the youngster struggles to assert himself. Seemingly forgotten amidst the clumsy and sometimes selfish world of adults, Duncan disengages by exploring the beach community where he has landed. When he stumbles upon a local water park, the manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), sensing a kindred outsider, takes a quick liking to him and the two form a fast bond. Owen’s quick wit and nonsensical, hilarious one-liners loosen Duncan up, making it easier for the boy to get comfortable and to establish his own identity. The water park becomes a refuge and a place of camaraderie, fun and solace. Still, as the summer rolls on, Duncan must eventually face the new situation his mother has entered into with Trent. However, it remains to be determined whether the newfound confidence he has developed through the support and friendship he has found with Owen and the others at the water park will be enough to guide him through. Co-writers/directors Nat Faxon (Ben and Kate) and Jim Rash (Community), winners of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (with Alexander Payne) for The Descendants, have crafted a poignant, funny and heartfelt film that speaks to the misfit in all of us.
-Sean Uyehara

What Maisie Knew [tickets]

Having previously examined fracturing families in The Deep End (SFIFF 2001) and Bee Season (2005), directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel are on familiar footing with the dysfunctional clan in What Maisie Knew. This time the focus is on a marriage’s unraveling as viewed through the eyes of the couple’s six-year-old daughter. Loosely adapted from Henry James’s 1897 novel of the same name, the contemporary saga follows the young title character as she navigates waves of uncertainty set in motion by bickering, self-obsessed parents, fading rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore) and distracted art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan), whose contentious split relegates their daughter to the role of afterthought. Set in New York, it’s an old story made vibrantly new by cast members who radiate authenticity under compassionate direction. Onata Aprile is perfect as a vulnerable every-child caught in a maelstrom between two people who profess their love one moment and put her in the hands of virtual strangers the next. Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham, as the new romantic companions of Maisie’s mother and father, respectively, radiate a compelling mixture of bemusement and compassion as parental stand-ins for the young girl. And Moore and Coogan capture the essence of narcissistic adults convinced that they are being loving parents. Shuttling between these four flawed people with remarkable adaptability and a wisdom beyond her years, young Maisie comes face to face with the mercurial world of grown-ups who are anything but.
-Barry Caine

You’re Next [tickets]

Paul and Aubrey Davison are celebrating 35 years of marriage and all four of their children, despite severe sibling rivalry, are attending with their respective significant others. At the first night’s dinner familial tensions don’t take long to rise, but it’s the mysterious stranger lurking outside with a crossbow who really sets things off in Adam Wingard’s terrific horror thriller. The question of who’s next, implied by the chilling title, deepens further when one of the Davison guests proves surprisingly resourceful at combatting the various villains (who wear creepy animal masks). With a cast lifted from a who’s who of current indie filmmaking, including Joe Swanberg as Drake and Ti West as Aimee’s boyfriend Tariq; a thread of wicked black humor skewering the nouveau riche and a knowing sense of where the camera should be to provide optimal scares, You’re Next takes the notion of home invasion to the next level.
-Rod Armstrong

For complete festival information, go to the official website.

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