For a variety of reasons: I'm out of the orbit of Los Angeles' generous press screenings, I haven't quite figured out how to use the alternative exhibition houses, and then there's that irritating sentence printed at the bottom of all-too-many movie ads in the New York Times every day: "Now Playing in New York and Los Angeles" -- foreign films, independent films, even some studio films that platform their releases. Some of these movies will work their way to San Francisco eventually. And some will not. In the meantime, the prospect of more than 200 films from 46 countries unspooling in a densely packed couple of weeks is terrifically appealing.
There are a couple of ways to approach a big festival. I always favor the total-immersion theory, happily staggering bleary-eyed from movie to movie, a strategy inspired by a film professor who announced nonchalantly that he had spent the first years after he graduated from Yale "going to movies every day in order to escape life." Instead of hearing this as a cautionary tale, I took it as a life lesson, and I began following his example almost immediately. For years I chose my friends largely on the basis of whether they were willing to go from movie to movie without pausing for sustenance (they were easy to find, usually sitting around me in the museums, art houses, festivals, and multiplexes, recognizably pale from minimal exposure to daylight).
Then there's the more epicurean approach, choosing just a few movies from the vast array, based on your own taste: French movies, say, or Hong Kong action pictures, or documentaries, all of which are well-represented in this year's festival. You could also have your choice dictated by convenience: Go out on Friday evening after work, choose among the four or five movies that start around 6 or 7, and dine afterward.
Nowadays, I do find sustenance essential, and something more nourishing than what's generally available at snack bars (I like popcorn movies, but I'm not nuts about movie popcorn). One of the selling points of the AMC Kabuki (aka "Home of the Festival") is its location in the Japan Center, a somewhat confusingly laid out collection of malls (Kinokuniya, Kintetsu, and Miyako) that houses more than two dozen restaurants, snack shops, and coffeehouses. You could eat in a different one every day of the two-week festival and still have days of exploration ahead of you. Trying to eat your way completely through even a single menu, as I just read that a nicely obsessive San Franciscan has been doing with a favorite Chinese restaurant for the last seven months, boggles the mind.
Appropriate to their setting, most of the restaurants in the Japan Center are Japanese (there's a fairly swanky Korean place, Seoul Gardens, in the Miyako Mall, at the easternmost edge of the Center). At first glance, many of the eateries seem to serve much of the same food, often displayed in plastic equivalents as a visual aid and come-on, but eventually the specialties emerge. One is a ramen house, another does wonders with tempura, a third dishes out some of the city's best soba and udon. There are a couple of inexpensive Hong Kong-style coffee shops (the Yo-Sho-Ku-Ya Curry House On the Bridge and May's Coffee Shop) where you can find Asian interpretations of spaghetti, hamburgers, and the like, and several pastry shops (Tan Tan, Marie Antoinette, and Murata's Cafe Hana), where you can have a cup of coffee or tea and a pretty pastry or a light bite. There's a stylish Yakiniku house, Juban, where you cook your own food on a grill; an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, Umeko; and a tiny, quite chic place, Maki, where you need reservations, that serves wappa-meshi (special, pricey rice dishes served in wooden bowls). And more sushi than there is in heaven (one of our favorites, for the kitsch factor alone, is Isobune, where you sit at a counter and the sushi floats past you in little boats).
But best for fest purposes may be the smaller spots that serve food fast without being fast-food places. In the Kinokuniya building, closest to the Kabuki, I love the big bowls of ramen offered in nearly a dozen different ways at the wooden tables, some overlooking Post, of Sapporo-Ya. I especially enjoyed the soothing butter ramen topped with cha-su (barbecued pork) and the spicy kimchi ramen, also topped with cha-su, both under $10. In addition, Sapporo-Ya has a specialty in teppan yaki soba, homemade noodles fried in a salty sauce with vegetables, pork, or beef, served here on iron plates, and okonomiyaki, a frittatalike pancake topped with pork, beef, and shrimp (also both under $10). (It's easy to eat well and cheaply in most of the Japan Center restaurants, nicely offsetting the price of a movie ticket -- or a $600 festival pass.)
A few steps away is Izumiya, where a deft hand is displayed in deep-frying. In addition to excellent crisp shrimp and vegetable tempura, the kitchen does lovely tonkatsu (deep-fried pork), potato and beef croquettes, fried oysters, and fried scallops.
At the base of the pedestrian bridge over Webster that connects Kinokuniya to the Kintetsu Mall is the entrance to the Kintetsu Food Mall, where you'll find a branch of the Benihana steakhouse, as well as Mifune, whose name is peculiarly appropriate in a festival context, being not only the surname of Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, but also the title of one of the early movies of Dogme 95, whose filmmaking rules, called the Vow of Chastity (location shooting, sync sound, available lighting, etc.), seem designed with film festivals in mind. Minimalism reigns at Mifune, too, where you can eat soba (thin, gray buckwheat noodles) or udon (fat, white flour noodles), hot or cold, in about 40 different ways. Our last meal here featured cold zaru soba, served with chopped green onions, grated daikon, hot mustard, and a soy-based dipping sauce, and hot sansai soba in broth, topped with "Japanese mountain vegetables" (leafy greens, crunchy slender beans, and carrots) and sliced beef. The place also does donburi, rice bowls with a variety of toppings. (In fact, Mifune has a tiny branch in the Miyako Mall called Mifune Don.)
For the festivalgoer who exits a movie yearning for a specific cuisine (Italian after seeing Mimmo Capresti's Rome- and Turin-set Happiness for Free or the Oscar-nominated, sun-and-sea-drenched Respiro, say), the blocks of Fillmore just north offer another smorgasbord of ethnic eateries. For a quick Italian bite, there's a Pasta Pomodoro (1865 Post, 674-1826) conveniently located right next to the Kabuki, but more adventurous appetites might wander to Vivande Porta Via (2125 Fillmore, 346-4430) for more elaborate pastas, risottos, and main courses such as a pork chop topped with mustard fruits and penne with hedgehog mushrooms. The rocky setting of Respiro or the Cretan setting of Jules Dassin's He Who Must Die might be happily followed by a spread of warm marinated olives, feta-and-leek-filled boreks, grilled calamari salad, or Moroccan chicken pie at Chez Nous (1911 Fillmore, 441-8044), a Mediterranean spot. There are no Patagonian (the charming Historias Mínimas), Brazilian (the well-acted, relentless The Man of the Year), or Cuban (Comandante, Oliver Stone's controversial interview with Fidel Castro) restaurants in the immediate vicinity, but Fresca (2114 Fillmore, 447-1794), which bills itself as "more than just Peruvian," might just complete the evening.
Thanks in part to guest programmer Michel Ciment, who chose 10 new French films from directors young and old, male and female, there are more than two dozen Gallic movies on offer (including Friday Night by the brilliant Claire Denis), and the adorable bistro Florio (1915 Fillmore, 775-4300) is ready to greet Francophile filmgoers with open arms, double kisses, steak frites, and two festival-inspired treats: a special roast chicken salad plate for $12.50 and extended hours -- they'll be serving dinner until 11 p.m. every night during the SFIFF.
The two best movies I've seen of the lineup are Abbas Kiarostami's Ten, a minimalist masterpiece comprised of 10 intense conversations between a woman driver and her passengers during car rides around Tehran, and Aki Kaurismäki's charming, quirky, optimistic, Oscar-nominated The Man Without a Past. I know of no self-identified Iranian restaurants almost anywhere in the United States, these days, but the Middle Eastern mezze at the tiny La Mediterranée (2210 Fillmore, 921-2956) would fill the bill (and you). And I know of no Finnish restaurants anywhere outside of Finland, so after The Man Without a Past, you're on your own.