San Francisco's Independent Film Festival, aka IndieFest, has carved out a cozy niche in a field clogged with contenders. Now in its third year, it's become one of the better venues for new talent and new technology in non-mainstream cinema. Sometimes the talent is trumped by the technology, which this year includes 35mm, 16mm, video-projected 16mm, and that increasingly popular format for starving cinéastes, digital video. Still, there are enough worthy entries among the 21 features, docs, and innumerable shorts to keep the fest's reputation secure.
Programs play through Jan. 18 at the Lumiere, 1572 California (at Polk), and at the fest's Digital MovieHouse at Bohemia, 1624 California (at Polk), S.F. From Jan. 19-21, films continue at the Fine Arts Cinema, 2451 Shattuck (at Haste), Berkeley. Call 820-3907 or go to www.sfindie.com for program details.
This year's works cover a wide geography of genres and styles. East of A, set in a New York loft, is a mostly fine ensemble piece that distills 10 years in the lives of three unwilling roommates into a series of sharp, witty vignettes, at least until the last sequence. Director Amy Goldstein should have resisted the urge to end this well-acted, well-written dramedy with a schmaltzy paean to parenthood. New York again provides a heady backdrop for Black and Gold, Rick Rowley and Jacquie Soohen's doc about Latino gangbangers who become community activists. It's a wealth of fascinating history, but the visual pyrotechnics -- nonstop double-exposures, slow-mo, split-screen, and the obligatory migraine-inducing bass line -- may leave some viewers gasping for air. The documentary 900 Women also looks at a little-known quarter of the bruised body politic, the lives of women inmates at Louisiana's notorious Angola Prison. Director Laleh Khadiv doesn't argue for their innocence -- but rather for their humanity -- doing so simply by letting them tell their own stories. The film adds to the mounting evidence against America's mindless drug war by presenting some of its casualties.
Some of the films offer a sober reminder that not everyone should pick up a camera. John Michael Murphy's Superstarlet A.D. is an interminable homage to '50s and '60s trash-sex culture, with slutty retro-gals dressed like B-movie goddess Tura Satana or pinup Bettie Page running through a dystopia inhabited by Neanderthal males, in a world dominated by the descendants of burlesque queens. Worse than it sounds.
Less Neanderthal but still troubled males are a common motif in this year's fest. If there were a men's version of the Lifetime Channel the soapy but effective Straight Right would be at home. P. David Ebersole's film suffers from cliché overload but wins points for workmanlike acting and an unusual premise -- an unhinged boxer tries to expiate his childhood abuse by beating and murdering present-day abusers. Another bad boy is the subject of Rendezvous in Samarkand. Tim Bridwell's travelogue-with-story has plush production values and stunning European and African backgrounds. It's a grim tale of an obnoxious "ugly American" (played to the aggravating hilt by John Littlefield) trying to smuggle an SUV into Africa. More troubled men appear in Ben Berkowitz's Straightman, an Odd Couple variant that pairs a misanthropic comic (played by the director) with his closest pal, who's coming out. With its grainy location shooting, sweaty sex, and fuck-it-all attitude, Straightman represents the fest at its warts-and-all best.