Catholicity is the chief virtue of the 43rd annual San Francisco International Film Festival's selections -- about 190 films in 112 different programs. There's no sneering at commercial Hollywood, as at Sundance. (Last year, an early print of Drop Dead Gorgeous gave the festival a bracing jolt of subversive American humor.) Genre movies are celebrated. (South Korean Lee Myung-Se's stylish action flick Nowhere to Hide is more adept than most American blockbusters and lacks the overwrought pretension of John Woo's films.) The avant-garde commingles with all the rest. (Chris Marker's latest, One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, looks at Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkofsky.) And last year, three of the festival's documentaries went on to be nominated for the Academy Award. (Gary Morris covers this year's docs in more detail.)
The SFIFF also understands the importance of star power. The aforementioned Winona Ryder receives this year's Peter J. Owens Award for excellence in acting, and she'll be on hand to receive it. Esther Williams will attend a tribute in her honor and a showing of the 1952 Million Dollar Mermaid. Other actors scheduled to attend include Dermot Mulroney and Nick Nolte (from Alan Rudolph's Trixie), Kirsten Dunst (lead actress in Sofia Coppola's opening night premiere, The Virgin Suicides -- a melodramatic, blame-the-parents view of tortured adolescence), and Ethan Hawke (the title character in the festival's closer, Hamlet).
Still, you can be driven mad by the preponderance of prettily photographed, pseudo-neo-realist pictures that lack any narrative drive. These deadly slices of life generally arise from obscure corners of the globe (or at least, they'll feel obscure after you've seen the films). Yet they do have a following. This year, look no further than Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, winner of the festival's Akira Kurosawa Award for lifetime achievement. (Not everyone responds to him as I do. Kurosawa himself felt Kiarostami was on a par with the great Satyajit Ray.) Next week, Frako Loden offers her defense of Kiarostami as part of our coverage.
Gary Morris also contributes a piece on animator Faith Hubley, winner of the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award. Sura Wood provides a compendium of the fest's French films (including Claire Denis' latest, Beau Travail, a gorgeous, malevolent take on Melville's Billy Budd). And Matthew Stafford celebrates the film preservation work of Donald Krim and David Shepard, the Mel Novikoff Award winners.
The fellowship of gushing film devotees may be a lure, but it's the yet-to-be-found new treasures and beloved old jewels that call us back to the festival each year. Our coverage next week will feature Gabriele Muccino's generous, lyrical portrait of adolescence, But Forever in My Mind, along with Rita Moreno's choice for the Indelible Images series, Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu, which offers another chance to see what may be the greatest movie ever created. (For the Indelible Images series, individual local filmmakers select a favorite film previously shown at the festival.) Films like these make any number of indistinguishable duds worth our while. They're why we love movies. And why we go to festivals.