"Finally!" was my first thought when I heard that this year's San Francisco International Film Festival would include a special emphasis on comedies. The fest is known for being wildly varied, immensely thought-provoking, a tad self-important, and exhausting in an exhilarating sort of way; what it ain't enough of is funny. (The press conference alone -- at which it's rare to see even an excited programmer crack a smile -- makes a root canal look like a laugh riot.) A slate of witty films sounded like just the ticket, and I promptly asked my writers to seek those pictures out.
Unfortunately, several turned out to be duds (see "The Big Joke," Page 44). And the Asian films aren't as strong this time around, either (see "A Strange New World," Page 44). The French movies, because there are so many of them (more than from any other single country, save the United States), are always a mixed bag, and this year is no different (see "Stylish Savagery," Page 47). In fact, I've heard here and there that this SFIFF is the weakest in a while. I'm not sure if it's the firing of longtime Artistic Director Peter Scarlet in 2001 and short-lived Director of Programming Carl Spence (the only youngish programmer) last year, or the changing economics of moviemaking and distributing, or the sheer quantity of film festivals in S.F., or simply the fact that we like to suck in this town and pretend we're good. But the weakening is distinct, and it's unfortunate.
That said, there are plenty of worthwhile movies to see at this festival, and the pages that follow aim to point you in the right direction. Among the Asian worthies are Manhole, a slick Chinese crime caper/romance with excellent acting; the Japanese black comedy Doppelganger; the transporting Goodbye, Dragon Inn, from Taiwan; and the unexpectedly deep Vibrator, which despite its title is not a paean to the delights of the Hitachi Magic Wand. Some great French flicks include the absurdist fairy tale Mon Idole; a meditation on morality and responsibility called In the Company of Menyet not by Neil LaBute; and the pitch-black comedy That Day. Others worth watching are Control Room, which tells the behind-the-scenes story of the Al Jazeera Arab news channel; Dame le Mano, about musical Cuban exiles in New Jersey; the near-wordless Suite Habana; and a crowd-pleasing German entry called The Miracle of Bern, in which a young boy charmingly rehabilitates his long-imprisoned father through his love of soccer.
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