I’m not going to publish my take on every film I saw at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival; that would be boring as Carol and I saw 18 films between us in addition to the Tributes. But I do want to share the four Tributes we attended; I thought all were brilliant.

Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award – The POV Award honors the lifetime achievement of a filmmaker whose work is crafting documentaries, short films, animation or work for television. This year’s recipient is Don Hertzfeldt.

An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt
Friday, April 23
7:30 PM pm Sundance Kabuki Cinemas

From the Program Guide:
The 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival is proud to present the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award to Academy Award–nominated short filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt for his unique contributions to animation. Over a long career, Hertzfeldt has remained fiercely independent by sticking to short format and challenging the boundaries of his craft. The popularity of his work is unprecedented in the world of short animation and his films are frequently referenced in pop culture. Hertzfeldt will be presented with the award and participate in an onstage interview at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. The shorts program Life, Death and Very Large Utensils, a collection of short films, past and present, is set to follow.

In her introduction, Rachael Rosen, the program director, said that most films – thus most awards – are centered on narrative, feature length films. The POV Award is about the others.

MY TAKEAccepting the award, Hertzfeldt said, “I’m kind of nervous, getting this award at my age (he’s 32); what if I screw up later… do I have to give it back?”

The great thing about film festivals is that you can see things here you can’t see anywhere else. Don Hertzfeldt is a brilliant storyteller, both in person and in his films. His film stories are, for the most part, told with hand drawn stick figures. Some very funny, some poignant, some slice of life, some one joke stretched out and embellished. Brilliant. One can see his work on DVD and on the internet, but it ain’t the same as being in a packed theater – with him.

WALTER SALLES                               FOUNDER’S DIRECTING AWARD
Founder’s Directing Award – This award is given each year to a master of world cinema. The 2010 award will go to Walter Salles.

An Evening with Francis Walter Salles
Wednesday, April 28 6:45 pm Sundance Kabuki Cinemas

Walter Salles will receive the Founder’s Directing Award at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival. The onstage tribute at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas will include a clip reel of career highlights, an onstage interview and a special screening of In Search of On the Road (a Work in Progress), an hour-long edit prepared specifically for the Festival of a documentary about Salles’s effort to make a documentary about Jack Kerouac, the seminal novel On the Road and the Beat Generation.

From the Program Guide:
Since its publication in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road has been a Holy Grail for several filmmakers heroically seeking to bring it to the screen. Of these, none has labored more ardently, or with such Arthurian purity of heart, than Brazilian director Walter Salles. Salles has lived and breathed the project since 2005, at times in the certain belief he was about to realize it, while at other times fearing it will never come to be. Unable to put it from his mind even as he was making other films, he crafted not one but two unseen feature-length documentaries. The first, fashioned in hopeful seasons, is an optimistic paean to the book, the Beats and the road movie; the second, drawn from darker hours, is an elegy to a seemingly unrealizable project and to the road-movie genre itself. (“There is nowhere to go, anymore, nothing more to discover, no point in being on the road,” is his lament.) For this special onstage tribute, celebrating his receipt of this year’s Founder’s Directing Award, Salles has fashioned a third cut from his trove of rich material, and will present an hour-long impressionistic essay featuring screen tests, road movie clips, candid personal reflections, period music, archival footage and interviews with key cultural figures. Never seen before and perhaps never to be screened again, the intimate work poignantly reveals not only the workings of one filmmaker’s mind but also the longings of his heart as he pursues an elusive object of cinematic desire.
—Graham Leggat

MY TAKE: Walter Salles was interviewed by the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros), a treat in itself. It is a remarkably uplifting and humbling experience to be in the presence of these intelligent and passionate masters and eavesdrop on their conversation.

Following the interview, a very special short film was shown: For the 60th Anniversary of Cannes Film Festival, 12 filmmakers were asked to make a three-minute film on the future of cinema. Salles screened his film, the first since Cannes. In it, he “interviews” his six-months old son, telling him about the films and filmmakers that influenced him. It’s a remarkable glimpse into a very personal history and indeed an invitation to learn from current cinema in finding a path to the future. He will not show it publicly again, for fear of it finding its way to the Internet. He wants his son to experience it fresh at the appropriate time.

It was an extraordinary evening and it was my privilege to be present.

ROBERT DUVALL                                 PETER J. OWENS AWARD
Peter J. Owens Award – Named for the longtime San Francisco benefactor of arts and charitable organizations Peter J. Owens (1936–91), this award honors an actor whose work exemplifies brilliance, independence and integrity. Robert Duvall is this year’s recipient.

An Evening with Robert Duvall
Friday, April 30 7:30 PM Castro Theatre

From the Program Guide:
The Film Society honors the incomparable Robert Duvall with this year’s Peter J. Owens Award. Hailed by the New York Times as “the American Laurence Olivier,” Duvall’s nearly 50 years on the screen has made him one of cinema’s most respected and beloved actors. From his screen debut as the mysterious and misunderstood Boo Radley in the classic film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) to his indelible Academy Award–nominated performances in The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Great Santini, The Apostle and A Civil Action, Duvall has demonstrated an astonishing range and a capaciousness of spirit that have kept him in demand throughout his remarkable career. Duvall won the Best Actor Oscar for his nuanced performance in the 1983 film Tender Mercies. An onstage interview will be followed by a screening of Duvall’s most recent film Get Low.

MY TAKE: Robert Duvall, more than any other first rate actor, lends his body to his character, becomes the character. On this evening, he was Robert Duvall, recounting his life as an actor in an interview by David Dyson. His favorite role – actually a TV film – Lonesome Dove.

Tributes USA, 2009, 102 minutes
Fri, Apr 30 / 7:30 / Castro director Aaron Schneider

From the Program Guide: Three legendary Hollywood iconoclasts—Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek—anchor this Depression-era Southern-flavored tale of a Tennessee backwoods outcast who decides to throw his own funeral—while still alive. For over four decades the wily, much-feared hermit Felix Bush (Duvall) has been living alone in the wilds guarding his privacy with a few well-placed “No Damn Trespassing” signs and, when those don’t work, a few better-placed shotgun blasts. One day, however, he hops on his mule and heads back into town, looking for a preacher to help him “get low,” or down to the business of getting buried. The catch? He’d like to be alive, so he can hear what people have to say. A well-oiled funeral director (Murray) sees an opportunity to help an old man out (or to make money), even going so far as to sell raffle tickets to the “big event,” with the winner getting the hermit’s land—once, of course, he’s really dead. Between funerals and other parties, Felix also must attend to some matters of his past, specifically his relationship to an old flame (Spacek). Shot in Georgia and rich with Southern myths and culture, Get Low combines gorgeous lensing and impeccable attention to period detail with a witty script by C. Gaby Mitchell and Mad Men’s Chris Provenzano. Sly, warm and comfortable in taking its own sweet time, the film benefits most of all from its fabulous cast, with Duvall shining spectacularly.

MY TAKE: A complex, poignant and funny story, brilliantly acted and directed. A quintessential American Independent film, questions are asked, and ultimately answered.

ROGER EBERT                                      MEL NOVIKOFF AWARD
Named in honor of legendary San Francisco film exhibitor Mel Novikoff (1922–87), this award is given to an individual or organization notable for making significant contributions to the Bay Area’s richly diverse film community. This year’s recipient is Roger Ebert.

An Evening with Roger Ebert & Friends
Saturday, May 1 5:30 PM Castro Theatre

From the Program Guide:
The distinguished recipient of this year’s Mel Novikoff Award—Roger Ebert—is the man whose infectious passion for cinema has enhanced the public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema for more than 40 years through voluminous writing, several television shows, his Web site and film festival. Ebert will be joined by prominent colleagues including filmmakers Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Henry and June), Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno) and Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Crumb) for a celebration of his long career, followed by a screening of his chosen film for SFIFF53, Erick Zonca’s uncompromising 2008 genre-buster Julia starring Festival favorite Tilda Swinton.

From Scoop du Jour:
A Night of Upturned Eyes and Thumbs_Cancer has deprived Roger Ebert of the ability to speak aloud, but his eloquence resounded throughout a warm, laugh-filled presentation Saturday night at the Castro Theatre, where the esteemed film critic received the Festival’s Mel Novikoff Award for outstanding contributions to film appreciation. Flanked by wife Chaz, Ebert sat onstage and variously gestured his gratitude, elation and good humor as a series of distinguished filmmaker guests including directors Terry Zwigoff, Errol Morris, Jason Reitman and Philip Kaufman paid homage to his unmatched status as a stalwart of cinema, and especially as a defender of underdog films. Indeed, all testified to Ebert’s instrumental support in the development of their careers. Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Henry and June) presented the award on behalf of the Novikoff committee. Ebert addressed the audience last, using a voice application on his laptop computer. “My little man is standing on his chair and applauding,” he began, in jocular reference to the Chronicle review-rating icon. Speaking of Mel Novikoff and the changing world of film exhibition, Ebert lauded the persistence of theaters like the Castro in the age of the iPhone. “For you to give me this award . . . onstage at the legendary Castro Theatre creates a beautiful synchronicity,” he said, alluding to Novikoff’s role in transforming it into a world-class repertory house. Ebert then quoted Truffaut’s remark that the most beautiful sight to behold in a cinema comes from the front, when you turn “to gaze at all those eyes lifted up to the screen. They are sharing the vision of the movie, and they are the audience.” Ebert ended by saying, “Now here’s what I suggest. We are gathered here at the Castro Theatre. We are an audience. Let’s forget about all the problems and turn our eyes up to the screen, to make François Truffaut happy, and simply enjoy one hell of a great movie.” —RA

Roger Ebert with wife Chaz, "speaking" to the audience

MY TAKE: This was the best evening, without question, as great as Walter Sellas and Robert Duvall were. Roger Ebert had to have his larynax removed, so he cannot speak – he speaks through a voice synthesizer by typing into an Apple laptop. His “friends” paid him tribute by telling stories of their friendship and illustrating what a force he has been in the film industry – going far beyond brilliant writing and reviewing. Philip Kaufman noted that when he made Henry and June, the Motion Picture ratings board rated it “X,” death to distribution. Ebert went to bat for him with the board, causing them to create “NC17.” Ebert listened intently and made animated oversize gestures to illustrate his reaction, carrying on the “conversation.” He made – through his laptop, concluding remarks including the most appropriate Truffaut quote above. It’s amazing how his voice comes through the computer with enthusiasm and expression. And it is his voice, modeled from a videotape of an interview with Philip Kaufman. One of the “friends” noted that he may not be able to speak, but “he twitters more than a roomful of teenage girls.” What a night!.

JULIA was as good on our second viewing as it was the first.

My Take 2009 when I saw it on the SFFS screen at Sundance Kabuki.
Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic
Friday, July 10, 2009

Tilda Swinton is the title character in “Julia,” which
Drama. Starring Tilda Swinton. Directed by Eric Zonca. (R. 144 minutes. At the Kabuki.)

Tilda Swinton is a raving, out-of-control, promiscuous, pathetic, blackout drunk in “Julia,” the story of an alcoholic about 2 inches away from hitting bottom. For most movies, that simple setup would have been enough: Create a wild character, cast a top actress in the lead role and let her chew up every bit of scenery that’s not nailed down.

Swinton, certainly, has the appetite for the task. Her performance in the title role is theatrical and meticulously observed. She changes her talk, her walk, her whole manner of dealing with people, to make herself look and act like a whacked-out, aging party girl who thinks she’s brilliant, but isn’t, and who thinks she’s still sexy, but she’s dreaming. All that intelligence-wattage that we normally see in Swinton’s face? She brings it down about 20 IQ points.

But “Julia” is not content simply to provide a desperate protagonist and pace her through a series of humiliations on the way to the gutter. No, that would have been too easy. Instead, it weds this dramatic, over-the-top character and performance to a dramatic thriller plot, in which the alcoholic woman gets involved in a demented, get-rich-quick scheme. And the nature of the scheme? It involves packing a gun and kidnapping a child.

Thus, a movie that could have been about the midnight of a soul becomes a nightmare involving gangs and ransoms and the drama of a woman, of limited intelligence and diminished faculties, trying to stay ahead of the game. The beauty of it is that “Julia,” for all its splendid plot machinations, never loses sight of Julia’s personal journey. In a sense, it goes to all the places a sensitive character study might have gone, but more dramatically, convincingly and vividly.

The film was co-written and directed by Eric Zonca, a name that might not ring a bell in these parts, though his debut film, “The Dreamlife of Angels” (1998), made a considerable splash on the art house circuit. This French director didn’t make a feature until he was in 42, and his previous film was in 1999. Zonca doesn’t rush out work, but everything he does is quality, and “Julia” is no exception.

This article appeared on page E – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

MY TAKEMick LaSalle pretty much nailed it. SFFS promo said “Swindon devoured the role of Julia” is oh so accurate. Could have been about 20 minutes shorter, but the length was not a distraction. Loved it. Best movie? Close. Best actress? Fer sure. With C and Sarah at Sundance Kabuki SFFS Screen. Ironically, there was a preview for Julie and Julia – Julia Child in France and Julie cooking all recipes from “Mastering the Art…” Folks next to us thought they were seeing that. Confused when the preview came on, they left.


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