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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Romanian films have been a cause célèbre for several years in art-film circles, but few have been as easy to digest as Aurora, a 2010 drama by writer-director Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu). From the moment he awakens one morning until he comes to a halt on a particularly turbulent day, we observe the comings and goings of a preoccupied man named Viorel (played unforgettably by the filmmaker), who seems ready to snap at the slightest provocation. Creators of the new Romanian cinema are inordinately fond of filling their films with the minutiae of human existence, but Aurora holds us spellbound as Viorel nervously skulks around Bucharest neighborhoods on an endless succession of apparently innocuous errands — all too many of them involving shotguns. Highly recommended. Aurora is at the PFA on May 5.

Two documentaries deserve special mention. In Better This World, filmmakers Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway take us step by step with David McKay and Bradley Crowder, a pair of young left-wing political activists from Midland, Texas (no, that's not a typo) who let their enthusiasm and lack of basic street smarts get the better of them on the streets of Minneapolis-St. Paul during the 2008 Republican National Convention. De la Vega and Galloway produced the thought-provoking doc as part of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley. It shows at the PFA, April 26. The Bay Area is the setting for Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine's Something Ventured, a nifty capsule history of the business of venture capitalism — essentially the folks who brought us Apple, Genentech, Power Point, Cisco, Tandem Computers, and what would become the entire home video game industry. Who knew capitalism could be so beneficial? See it at the PFA on May 1.

A healthy percentage of feature films in the festival have already acquired theatrical distribution deals and are designated "Hold Review," so as not to steal the thunder from their eventual commercial release. Among the Hold Review films are four we'll undoubtedly want to talk about at length, later on when they open. Werner Herzog's new documentary, the Herzog-ishly titled Cave of Forgotten Dreams, ventures into Chauvet Cave in the South of France, where wall paintings (mostly depicting animals) dating back 35,000 years have been found — the oldest art works in the world. Its first US engagement begins April 29 in New York, with eventual stops in the Bay Area.

Also in the Hold Review category: the art western Meek's Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt and starring Michelle Williams as a headstrong pioneer woman, circa 1845 on the Oregon Trail (opening May 6 in the Bay Area); Norwegian helmer André Øvredal's Blair Witch-like horror pic The Troll Hunter, probably the gooey-est monster movie of the year (June 24); and Page One: Inside The New York Times, an informative documentary overview of the state of print media which benefits greatly from the participation of Times media critic David Carr (July 1). You can brag to your friends you saw them first at the SFIFF.

Also recommended: Position Among the Stars, a Dutch-produced documentary about one family's everyday life in Jakarta, Indonesia, directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich; The High Life, director Zhao Dayong's light-hearted narrative look at a group of former factory workers living the post-industrial life in China; Koji Fukada's quirky Japanese comedy Hospitalité, about a print shop owner who simply cannot say no to uninvited guests; Cinema Komunisto, a documentary history of the former Yugoslavia's movie industry, with footage compiled by filmmaker Mila Turajlic; The Redemption of General Butt Naked, a documentary postscript to the bloody 1990s civil war in Liberia, directed by Americans Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss; and one of those films you'd think you would only see at a film festival (but which opens in theaters here June 10), Michelangelo Frammartino's doctored doc about an Italian village whose main occupations seem to be herding goats and making charcoal, Le quattro volte.

The festival opens Thursday, April 21, at San Francisco's Castro Theatre with Mike Mills' Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer. For tickets and up-to-date festival info, visit Fest11.sffs.org and BAMPFA.berkeley.edu By the way, Leggat and his staff managed to fill most of those special-guest holes. Filmmaker Oliver Stone receives the Founder's Directing Award, and actors Zoe Saldana and Clifton Collins Jr. share the Midnight Award. As of press time there's still no word on whom they dug up for the Peter J. Owens acting prize.

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