Last-Minute Delights at the San Francisco International Film Festival 

The long-running film fest is 54 years old and still spontaneous.

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The "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" movies are not uniformly depressing. Residents of the small Quebec town in The Salesman are doing their best to put a positive spin on tough times, especially avuncular Marcel Lévesque (played by Gilbert Sicotte), who sells cars and trucks at a dealership in snowy Lac Saint-Jean. Business is slow but Marcel maintains the upbeat patter, even when tragedy strikes. He's disconcertingly cornball, but writer-director Sébastien Pilote follows Marcel through the eye of the needle and makes us care. The Salesman screens at the PFA, May 3.

Meanwhile, in the Willets Point corner of Queens, New York, just across the way from the new Citi Field home of the New York Mets, the last of the auto-parts junkmen are playing out the string. Their muddy car-parts row is scheduled to be torn down for redevelopment, and documentarians J.P. Sniadecki and Véréna Paravel are on hand to introduce us to the local characters. Foreign Parts, a relaxing rainy-day character study of real-life lovable losers, plays the PFA on April 23.

Of course, not every film in the festival is a Recession Special. There are monsters, lovers, and monster lovers. Those three types of characters interact gratifyingly in Christopher Munch's Letters from the Big Man, the outdoorsy story of an environmentalist named Sarah (Lily Rabe) and an unnamed sasquatch (Isaac C. Singleton Jr.) who relate to each other — in their way — in the Oregon forest. It would make a terrific horror movie, mainly because writer-producer-director Munch abandons the most annoying clichés of the genre (rumbling bass soundtrack, etc.) while retaining the hushed dread of the unknown, lurking just outside the window wherever Sarah goes. The bigfoot is shy and Sarah is complicated. Possibly the most entertaining film in this festival. Catch it at the Kabuki April 29 and May 3, or at New People, May 5.

Black Bread, a narrative feature by writer-director Agustí Villaronga, is the sort of well-written, carefully cast, unobtrusively political European drama that has been the staple of film festivals ever since film festivals began — not to say that it's hackneyed or predictable, just reassuringly familiar. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, a Catalan boy named Andreu (Francesc Colomer) learns about class strife, sex, politics, and ghosts — not necessarily in that order — while the ubiquitous Sergi López once again, as in Pan's Labyrinth, portrays a sadistic Fascist with "Reds to purge." Worth a look at the Kabuki, April 29, May 2, and May 4.

Most of the titles discussed above fit into well-established categories common to film festivals around the world. But in our heart of hearts, we know that the films we take home with us and cherish in our memory aren't always the safe, comfortable ones. The unexpected, the unfamiliar, that's where the flavor is — and we're not talking about zombie flicks, the most horrendous cliché of programmers eager to latch onto the elusive "yoot" demographic.

Documentaries don't come any more unexpected than The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, a glorious mishmash of American history and pop-cultural riffology from Swedish television. What do Swedes like director Göran Hugo Olsson know about African-American life in the age of the Black Panthers? How much time have you got? After a disclaimer that Olsson's nine-chapter collage of footage shot in the US by Swedish reporters "does not presume to tell the whole story of the Black Power Movement, but how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers," the doc blasts off for Backthensville: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, the Vietnam War, CIA drugs in the ghetto, Oakland, Harlem, etc., with vivid after-the-fact commentary by Erykah Badu, Melvin Van Peebles, Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver, Harry Belafonte, and Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets. To see that convulsive era — and the enigma that is America — through the global perspective of Swedish film crews is remarkable. Don't miss this one when it screens at the Kabuki, April 30, or at New People, May 3.

As long as we're aboard the time machine: A "lost film" by Rainer Werner Fassbinder is always a find, especially when it's as dynamic as World on a Wire, the late German auteur's purple analysis of high technology and the crazy people who sell it, made for German TV in 1973 and seldom shown in this country. The satiric action revolves around scientist Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), who takes it on himself to investigate the murder of a colleague at a large corporation. Stiller is aided in his detective work by a gadget called the Simulacron, a virtual reality prototype that looks like a wired automotive crash helmet — the user sees into the future, and bystanders are simultaneously treated to the same vision on connected video screens. The Fassbinder stock company — Barbara Valentin, Ivan Desny, Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Ingrid Caven, El Hedi ben Salem, et al — turns out in force, and the music score is a typical Fassbinder helter-skelter grab bag of needle drops, plus electronic sounds. Three hours long and full of laughs and spy gunplay. Showing at the PFA, April 30.

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