52nd San Francisco International Film Festival

USA, April 23 - May 7 2009

The jury

Mihai Chirilov (Romania), Charles-Stéphane Roy (Canada), Rob Nelson (US)

Awarded films

When, amidst global economic depression, a half-century old film festival posts bigger box-office numbers than ever, one can suppose that movies, give or take popcorn, have become a poor(er) man’s night at the opera — or that programmers of the fest in question are doing something right.

Or maybe both can be true? The San Francisco International Film Festival — as old as Vertigo (1958), if my impoverished math skills serve — brought a sense of hometown romance to the downward spiral by opening with Peter Bratt’s bittersweet La Mission: “an ardent love letter to the vibrancy of San Francisco’s Mission District,” per the SFIFF’s executive director Graham Leggat, “and an urgent corrective to the violence that plays out in its streets.” Yea, let the cinema heal our wounds.

Even as the fest-threatening Netflix sat among the SFIFF’s healthy array of sponsors, an honorary award to New York programmer Bruce Goldstein — who literally shocked Film Forum into action against VHS with a seat-wired revival of The Tingler in ’89 — served to reiterate that home delivery of a disc has nothing on the reel deal. Ditto the Castro’s sold-out screening of Harry Hoyt’s dino-mite stop-motion epic The Lost World (1925), animated anew by the global hipster boogie of Dengue Fever’s live score.

In the event that such jumbo-size screenings prove insufficient to sustain a nonprofit in hard times, the SFIFF’s parent organization, the San Francisco Film Society, has recently doubled its efforts, adding classes and workshops, filmmaker services, a year-round exhibition program, and publications both print (Picture Talk) and online (SF360.org). And then there’s the Godfather, the Outsider, and the Sundance Kid. That is, besides Goldstein, other showmen given honorary prizes this year included Francis Ford Coppola, James Toback, and Robert Redford, whose Sundance Cinemas devoted its entire Kabuki multiplex to festival screenings.

Speaking of awards: In addition to the fest’s Cinema by the Bay selection Everything Strange and New, which bested 10 other films by emerging directors to take our three-member jury’s FIPRESCI Prize (and is reviewed below), feted films included Burma VJ (screened in the Documentaries section), Snow (New Directors), and Nomad’s Land (Documentaries).

Not competing as a group were films of the World Cinema program, which included restored prints of Antonioni’s Le Amiche, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, along with newer titles such as He Jianjun’s River People and Celina Murga’s A Week Alone, both reviewed below. (Rob Nelson)