Two Weeks in the Hall Of Mirrors 

The 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, showing at twelve venues in San Francisco and the East Bay, is especially feisty and strong this year.

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Every year the San Francisco International touts its special programs, but this time the high-profile events really rate superlatives. Three noteworthy people are set to receive San Francisco Film Society awards. Fantasy-meister Guillermo del Toro gets the Irving M. Levin Directing Award for his body of work, represented by a screening of his 2001 shocker The Devil's Backbone, introduced by del Toro in person, on April 25 at the Castro. Then actor Richard Gere receives the Peter J. Owens Award on April 26, also at the Castro, accompanied by a showing of Oren (The Messenger) Moverman's Time Out of Mind, with Gere as a homeless man. Finally, screenwriter extraordinaire Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Rolling Thunder) is honored with the Kanbar Award on April 28 at the Kabuki, followed by a clips reel and Schrader's 1985 lollapalooza Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

Many film festivals have broadened out (read: watered down) their film offerings by presenting musical performances, but the SFIFF has a keener touch than the rest. On May 6, the Kronos Quartet collaborates with filmmaker Bill Morrison for Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, a 41-minute combination documentary/musical piece on the horrors of World War I, by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. The program, which includes a post-film discussion, takes place at the Kabuki. One day before that, Japanese electro-pop duo Cibo Matto provides the backing for an adventurous program of film shorts — including works by artists Yoko Ono and Oskar Schlemmer — in a rare one-off, May 5 at the Castro.

Black Panthers? At the San Francisco International Film Festival? Wake up and smell the gunpowder. On April 25 at the Kabuki, members of the Black Panther Party sit down for a Q&A after a screening of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, director Stanley Nelson's new documentary tracing the rise of the Panthers in Oakland in the 1960s. The film is shown again on April 28, sans the Q&A. In a more rarefied sphere, translator/film historian Lenny Borger and critic Scott Foundas talk about "lost" films, and how to find them, before a showing of Henri Fescourt's 1929 silent, Monte-Cristo. It happens one time only, May 3 at the Kabuki.

For its annual "State of the Cinema" address, the SF Film Society invites renowned visual effects artist Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner) to tell us what's on his mind at the Kabuki, May 3. Expect the unexpected. For sheer topicality, nothing tops "Boomtown: Remaking San Francisco," a combo of short docs and live opinion by editor Tim Redmond, plus various artists and filmmakers, on the city's number-one kvetch: What the hell has happened to San Francisco? Take $15 out of your rent money and buy a ticket. April 30 at the Kabuki.

For Bay Area residents in particular, filmmaker Jenni Olson is some sort of shaman. Her highly personal, ultimately universal documentaries, like the extraordinary 2005 tone poem The Joy of Life, cast a veil of healing mystery over even the most mundane locations, on their way to larger truths. She's the reigning queen of pregnant-with-meaning establishing shots. Olson's voiceover sets the mood for her latest, The Royal Road — part history meditation, part diary entry, part lonesome valentine to what some people still imagine to be the "California Dream." Who else could tie up Junipero Serra, Double Indemnity, Marcel Proust, and Outer Sunset dreamscapes into one achingly gorgeous package, with the express purpose of sharing her obsessions? Shot on 16mm film and miraculous to behold, The Royal Road rises before us on April 29 and 30 at the Kabuki.

There was a time when the San Francisco International Film Festival meant a steady diet of Hollywood stars in person, studio blockbusters, and jostling paparazzi. Imagine running into Rita Hayworth, Catherine Deneuve, Gregory Peck, or Dustin Hoffman in the lobby, or standing in line for popcorn with Akira Kurosawa. The fest has settled down to earth in many ways since then. It's a little more organic and process-oriented now, a tad less star-struck. But it still knows how to turn on the celebrity heat when it wants to, especially the reflected kind. Listen to Me Marlon, a revealing showbiz documentary by English director Stevan Riley, captures the essence of Marlon Brando with the actor's own voice, in a treasure trove of tapes that Brando recorded over the years as an audio diary. His whole career is there, in candid self-critique: method acting, Streetcar, Waterfront and Kazan, Tahiti, The Godfather, the Oscar snub, Apocalypse Now, and Brando's heartaches over his unfortunate offspring. It's amazing how much the young Bud Brando resembles James Franco. Listen to Me Marlon shows April 27 at BAM/PFA.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is a cinch to be one of the major crowd-pleasers at this year's SFIFF. Adapted from the coffee-table book of the same name, filmmaker Douglas Tirola's breezy, hilarious documentary profile of America's funniest magazine and its long-running comedy franchise has more talking heads than a William Castle horror flick. So how did a claque of Harvard snobs tap into the main vein of American putdown humor and shock the squares? Ask P.J. O'Rourke, Bill Murray, Henry Beard, Chevy Chase, Judd Apatow, Harold Ramis, and Matty Simmons, among many other conspirators and admirers. Major credit for the doc's overdue recognition of the late writer Doug Kenney as the guiding genius behind most of the mag-and-movie empire's biggest hits. Two screenings at the Kabuki, April 24 and 26.

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