Monday, May 11, 2015

SF Festie-Besties: 5 Top Films at the International Festival

The just-concluded 58th annual San Francisco International Film Festival was a more than the usual terrific programming from around the globe and across genres, so much so I've created my own awards to honor what were the five best flicks for this queer cineaste.

The SF Festie-Besties are prizes for achievement in some aspect of cinema and works I think you should check out, whether you're looking for a humorous time or a dramatic challenge. Let's announce the winners.

1. "All of Me" ("Llevate Mis Amores"), is awarded the top honor winner of the SF Festie-Bestie Cinema Equals Life Prize. This Mexican documentary had me in tears during several key scenes when poor women and girls stand inches from a speeding train carrying hundreds of even more destitute men and boys heading to the U.S., holding plastic bags of food and water jugs on strings that the hungry migrants grab.

Humanity, stripped to a basic survival level of simple nutrition and desire for a better life, shines through as food is purchased, cooked and stuffed into large plastic bags and plastic soda bottles cleaned and filled with water, and people open up about their motivations.

Director Arturo González Villaseñor wisely lets the women of Las Patronas of Veracruz, Mexico, and the men who fall off the trains tell their life stories, without any pesky nonprofit executive or government executive giving a larger sociological analysis. Best line from one of the mothers: "God didn't create barriers. We did."

Told without the slickness and musical manipulation of an HBO style doc, it grabbed me by the throat and heart and didn't let go. "Llevate Mis Amores" hopefully will have a run at the Roxie, where it would certainly find an audience. "All of Me" captures despair and hope in ways Hollywood can only dream about.

Go out of your way to see this film. It's being distributed here by Todo Cine Latino.

2. "The Tribe" receives the SF Festie-Bestie Pure Cinema Prize. From Ukraine, this immersive story set at a state school for deaf and mute teenage thugs has not one word of dialogue, but speaks creates a taut and frightening narrative from the wildly expressive faces, hand gestures and body movements of the young cast.

Prominent display early on the Ukrainian flag and posters of the NATO and European Union flags in a classroom, adds an unmistakable political element to the story.

Just when you think there's been enough nasty fisticuffs, criminality and raw sexuality, including cock shots, and no more limits are left to break, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy throws a new depredation in your face. Not for the squeamish, with foreboding slowly building in every long-take scene for a brutal conclusion that was repulsive and appropriate, with a smattering of blood.

An abortion-inducing scene set in a decrepit tenement bathroom, with excruciating moans from the young woman with her vagina spread wide with her legs elevated with a dirty rope as the abortifacient is indifferently inserted, was so tough and challenging I had to cover my eyes with my pad. That was followed by her boyfriend raping her in a drunken stupor.

"The Tribe" is cinema without words and outstanding camerawork and gritty production design values so real, I could smell the grime as oppressed youths oppressed other teenagers. Drafthouse Films is the American distributor.

3. "Tangerine", without question, is the recipient of the SF Festie-Bestie Queer as Fuck Prize. Director Sean Baker and writer Chris Bergoch, two forty-ish creative talents, identify as straight and deliver the goods with this film set over one Christmas Eve day and night, as a black trans sex worker hunts down her protector boyfriend after learning he cheated on her while she was in jail.

Completely shot on a few iPhones, with some sound recorded with a mic taped to a long painter's stick purchased at a hardware store, this film has a hyper-colorful saturated look and terrific camerawork especially considering the low-tech shooting conditions. This gay senior didn't relate to the music track much, but I bet young folks will love it.

At times, I missed bits of dialogue or a rapid-fire joke because my laughter was too loud or the audience was in hysterics. Signs of a honest crowd-pleaser with sass to spare. A sub-plot involving a closeted Armenian bisexual male cabbie showcases acting superstars from Armenia, adds to the outrageous entertainment.

Of all the cock shots I saw during the festival, the longest one belonged to a white skinny dude in a make-shift sex group sex space scene set at a tawdry motel.

This prize isn't so much for the transgender characters or sexual liaisons they engage in, but is given for the queer and politically incorrect approach to the production and fun as all-getout sensibility of the terrific actors in front of the iPhone cameras. Catch "Tangerine" with an audience when it hits theaters in July, thanks to Magnolia Pictures.


4. "Winter Sleep" gets the SF Festie-Bestie Tarkovsky Visionary Prize, as writer and director Nuri Bilge Ceylan delivers a three-hour-and-twenty-minutes contemplative and sometimes mordantly funny epic with a a small number of people navigating religious and cultural traditions and contemporary life in Turkey.

A wealthy arrogant landowner, writer and former actor contends with his divorced sister moving in with him and his younger naive wife living under the same roof, while a poor Muslim tenant farmer and his family scrape money together to avoid eviction from his property.

Set in the eye-pleasing Anatolia region of Turkey, the struggles of all the characters carry tremendous weight and at the end, the landowner has been humbled and his hard edges softened, making for an emotionally rich masterpiece. Every shot of the ravishing steady camera work is worth the time it occupies on the screen. Judicious editing from start to finish.

Special thanks to the festival programmers to bringing us this 2014 Cannes Palme D'Or winner, after the distributor couldn't any local theater to show "Winter Sleep" before the DVD's release from Adopt Films. Another example of the crucial need for the San Francisco Film Society's service to movie-lovers.

Not only was it shown, but "Winter Sleep" played in the largest Sundance Kabuki auditorium with a 60-foot screen. Arthouse cinema heaven!

5. "Black Coal, Thin Ice", hails from China and I bestow the SF Festie-Bestie Global Prize upon it. A grandly satisfying, twisty neon-noir concerns a mildly corrupt cop with drinking and women problems, his wife divorces him at the start, who spends years solving a murders of men whose body parts are dumped in coal factories or sold as meat to a cafe.

The female prime suspect objects to being under his surveillance and orders him to stop following her. Too late; he's in love with her regardless of the crimes he believes she committed without remorse.

One beautifully choreographed scene stands out. After a gunfight with a suspect they believe dead, set in a garishly lighted beauty salon, the cop and his partners don't notice his feet jerking, which seem to be a flub unnoticed by the director Diao Yinan, for a few seconds before he grabs a nearby gun killing a partner before taking a bullet to the chest.

Lead actor Liao Fan creates a complex man in a superb and electrifying performance, that keeps your eyes glued to him. His dance hall scene reveals his basic decency. Kudos to the cameraman and production designers, for the fine cinematography and handsome pictorial compositions. Unfortunately, "Black Coal, Thin Ice" lacks U.S. distribution.

Congratulations to all SF Festie-Bestie winners!

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