It wasn’t until I was actually heading to San Francisco yesterday night, riding BART deep under the bay, that I finally felt endorphins kicking in about the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival. Intellectually I knew the reason I hadn’t been looking forward to the annual two-week roundelay of screenings, parties, tributes, lectures, and live music with film. It was the almost unbelievable confluence of the untimely deaths of Graham Leggat, the executive director of the parent organization, who had succumbed to colon cancer in August of last year, followed with unsettling speed by that of his successor, Bingham Ray, who joined the Society in November, and died of a series of strokes while attending the Sundance Film Festival this January.
The annual press conference to announce the schedule had served as a sort of de facto wake. The program, too, felt colorless on this grey overcast day, as the programmers quickly scrolled through their presentations. Even Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, who can make anything sound like a party, sounded rueful as she mentioned that a favorite discovery of the staff had just made a splash at the SXSW festival.
There were a few films I’d seen elsewhere that I could recommend without cavill: the delightful documentary “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” about the compulsively quotable and influential fashion editor; the highly-colored, melodramatic “Chicken with Plums,” by “Persepolis” directors Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi; Todd McCarthy’s labor of love, “Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema,” about the famed Parisian producer’s rep who will receive the SFIFF’s Mel Novikoff award this year.
But others had left me cold: the German crime drama trilogy “Dreileben” had seemed less than the sum of its parts, Johnie To’s “Life Without Principle” a minor effort, muddled in storytelling and lacking in his trademark action; Francis Ford Coppola’s “Twixt” seemed to waver in tone, with a strange assortment of acting styles; “Policeman,” from Israel, was uneven and unengaging; and “Trishna,” from Michael Winterbottom, based on Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” one of his minor efforts.
I was only able to catch two movies at SFIFF press screenings, with mixed results: “Bonsai,” set in Santiango, Chile, was a charming and literary delight, not just because it was adapted from a novella but because its young characters existed in a world of reading and bookstores and writing in lined notebooks. But Lawrence Kasdan’s “Darling Companion” wasted his considerable talents and that of an impressive list of collaborators (Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepherd, Elisabeth Moss, cinematographer Michael McDonough) on a predictable and minor shaggy-dog story. (Which, incidentally, due to the vagaries of film distribution, opens commercially in LA and NY the week before it shows at the Festival.)
But hope springs eternal. As I traveled toward the Castro Theatre and the opening night film, Benoit Jacquot’s “Farewell, My Queen,” I leafed through the program guide with rising expectations. I reminded myself that every year I’m surprised and beguiled by films that might sound less than engaging on first reading a festival blurb. Such phrases as “deceptively detached,” “unerring sense of humanity,” “crushing pressures,” and “restrained tone,” (now there’s one to make the heart leap) might not initially grab you, but there’s nothing better than having your expectations exceeded.