Goodbye, Mr. Chips

The year in local film, plus the passing of a cinematic champion

The year in Bay Area film, which did not present many opportunities for jubilation, ended on a decidedly down note with the Dec. 5 passing of Robert S. Donn. A retired teacher who founded the S.F. International Film Festival's Schools at the Festival program a dozen years ago, Bob was a staunch, soft-spoken champion of cinema's ability to combat ignorance and bridge borders. (Is the White House still boycotting French films, I wonder? As if Audrey Tautou Night were a pre-Iraq staple.) He also envisioned Schools at the Festival -- which brings visiting filmmakers to classrooms and students to fest matinees -- as a way to stir future directors. To that end, Bob's family requests contributions to the San Francisco Film Society (the festival's parent) in his memory, to create an endowment to benefit young moviemakers. Not everybody leaves a legacy; Bob Donn did.

The Year My Voice BrokeThe final measure of the 2003 local scene won't be tallied until the Academy Awards get divvied up on Feb. 29. The documentaries Lost Boys of Sudan, My Flesh and Blood, and The Weather Underground are in the hunt for nominations (to be announced Jan. 27), and one of them fancy gold trophies would, all by itself, make this a memorable year for the Bay Area film community. Sean Penn of Marin County -- who famously would like to give up acting (and take over as provisional governor of Iraq, presumably) -- is assured a Best Actor nod in what's shaping up as a two-man contest with Bill Murray (whose director, The Godfather Part III alumna Sofia Coppola, has rather strong San Francisco ties). Pixar's Finding Nemo, a runaway hit, might also get named, for Animated Feature Film.

With the Big Three of Lucas, F.F. Coppola, and Philip Kaufman on the sidelines laboring on future projects, the unlikely local director with the most box-office clout in 2003 was Terry Zwigoff, whose Bad Santa has topped $43 million. (That figure was bested by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld's Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde, but the one-time San Franciscan is disqualified for having an L.A. ZIP code.) Lynn Hershman-Leeson's Teknolust and Mark Decena's Dopamine garnered national releases and some raves, but didn't sell bushels of tickets. Even more disappointing for their makers (they barely qualify as footnotes this year) were erstwhile local Nicolas Cage's directorial debut, Sonny (which never even opened in the Bay Area), and Matt Dillon's City of Ghosts (written with East Bay scribe Barry Gifford).

On the exhibition front, Frank Lee of the Four Star took over the Presidio, embarked on construction to add two screens, and plans to reopen the theater in March as a multiplex. The wrecking ball wiped out the Royal forever, while the Lumiere got a facelift and new flourishes. The Roxie Cinema opened the 49-seat Little Roxie just down the block. Developers broke ground at Fifth and Market on the Westfield San Francisco Centre, which will include a nine-screen complex -- with, we assume, stadium seating, digital projection, advanced reserved seats, gourmet concessions, and 20 minutes of commercials and trailers before the movie -- when it opens in 2006. In the East Bay, the Fine Arts Cinema closed to make way for its forthcoming (and comfy) new home, while plans for a fabulous new building for the Pacific Film Archive/Berkeley Art Museum inched forward -- linked to a hotel and conference center; we don't advise lining up for tickets before 2008.

The trend of the year in local exhibition was the launching of DVD labels by alternative venues such as the Other Cinema and Microcinema International. Bay Area filmmakers also latched onto DVDs as a way to circumvent the hurdle of theatrical distribution and get their movies seen (at least by patrons of video stores that stock self-distributed titles).

There were comings and goings in the festival world, naturally, with the SFIFF jettisoning Carl Spence as director of programming after two years and promoting Linda Blackaby to the post. (A new Golden Gate Awards coordinator is also in the mix.) Executive Director Don Adams departed the Jewish Film Festival after one soiree, and Peter L. Stein took his place. Roxie programmer Joel Bachar moved on, too, with no successor named yet.

Pending Oscar's salutations, 2003 will go into the books as a rather tepid year. What's in store for '04? I'll have a preview next week.

 
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