Hangover Cure 

Less is more at the 51st annual San Francisco International Film Festival.

The big party came and went, and now comes the morning after. Except that for the San Francisco International Film Festival, the hangover is painless and the future looks sunny. The only headaches are those of how to handle success.

Last year the SF International, the oldest film festival in the Americas, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary amidst much pageantry — tributes to George Lucas, Spike Lee, Robin Williams, and the festival's founders; guest appearances by everyone from Saul Zaentz to Steve Buscemi; plus a whopping two hundred films from 54 countries. The movies themselves have always been the draw in San Francisco.

Unlike most of the world's other "name brand" fests, SF doesn't exist primarily as a marketplace for films to be picked up for subsequent commercial release and largely eschews the urge to stock the pond with box-office-champ Hollywood celebrities flown in for the occasion. As much as possible in the hurly-burly arena of cultural marketing, San Francisco is for the audiences, people who would show up to watch the latest Lebanese political drama or a first feature by a California film student even if they were screened on the side of a building. The Bay Area is renowned for its sophisticated, well-traveled film audiences, and the SF International wisely plays to its home base.

The 51st edition is the perfect hangover cure: a relatively modest 177 films from 49 countries, including 67 narrative features and 27 feature documentaries, screening at fewer venues (seven locations instead of eleven, including UC Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive). Thus slimmed down, this year's leaner fest does its best to throw a lifeline to festival-goers faced with the usual baffling array of choices. Some years are better than others for the quality of film releases around the world — if anything, the 2008 lineup does more with fewer films than last year. It certainly stretches the boundaries of the traditional festival. But how to choose? Some people rely on word of mouth, some on advertising and publicity. Others open the festival's miniguide, close their eyes, and point to a film. Below is a smattering of tips, an informal guide to fifteen days when everything takes a back seat to sitting in a dark room full of strangers and transporting yourself to another place, another time.

It's a pleasure to see genre at a film festival. It thickens the blood after the steady diet of art. Robert Guédiguian's superior French crime pic Lady Jane achieves a Jean-Pierre Melville-style tone of cool, calm, collected impending violence in its tale of a trio of middle-aged crooks from director Guédiguian's funky hometown of Marseille — played by hard-edged veterans Jean-Pierre (Le Poulpe) Darroussin, Ariane Ascaride, and Gérard Meylan — reuniting to avenge the kidnapping-murder of the Ascaride character's son. Any actioner that can combine Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" on the soundtrack with Canned Heat's "Fried Hockey Boogie" earns maximum bonus points. April 25, 27, and 29 at the Kabuki.

If Lady Jane represents neo-noir, the Preservation Screening Program showing of John M. Stahl's newly restored Leave Her to Heaven (1945) is the real thing, a gorgeous film noir bursting with Technicolor, as if to contrast with the dark heart of Gene Tierney's Ellen Berent. Ellen meets and marries novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) in a hurry, and when she feels edged out of her husband's attentions, even by someone as innocent as Richard's disabled younger brother (Darryl Hickman), she doesn't hesitate to take twisted revenge. Ms. Tierney's combination of glamour and potential menace was never captured more succinctly than by Jo Swerling's screenplay and Stahl's direction. Leave Her to Heaven plays Saturday, April 26 at the Castro, and Sunday, April 27 at the Pacific Film Archive.

While we're in Genreville, let's not overlook La Zona, a thriller with a social point by filmmaker Rodrigo Plá. The title refers to a gated development of McMansions in Mexico where the residents fear the crime outside the walls so much they've taken the law into their own hands — it's vigilante death to anyone who trespasses. When some poor kids climb through a hole in the wall one night to rob a rich household, the ensuing retribution poses moral problems for the son of one of the most militant property owners. It's the first feature release for the Uruguayan native Plá, now working in Mexico. May 3 at the Clay; May 5 and May 7 at the Kabuki.

All Is Forgiven (Tout est pardonné) is the type of serendipitous wonder we go to film festivals for. Seemingly nothing much happens. A fragile man named Victor (Paul Blain) alienates his wife Annette (Marie-Christine Friedrich) by his increasing heroin use and his general unreliability, they split up, and twelve years later Victor reunites with his teenage daughter, Pamela (Constance Rousseau), for an awkward but hopeful rapprochement. Blain's performance is a heartbreaker, especially set against Rousseau's. A fine addition to the literature of tender-souled junkies (there are more such movies than you might think), All Is Forgiven is the directorial debut of Mia Hansen Løve, a former actress and critic. Ms. Hansen Løve is expected to attend at least one of its four screenings. May 2 and 4 at the Clay; May 6 and 8 at the Kabuki.


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