When you’re running a film festival, you’re obliged to put on a show each and every year, whether the selection of available films is any good or not. In a rich year for movies, the rising tide lifts all film fests; in a poor year, even the most prestigious fests run the risk of dabbling in mediocrity. Festivalizing requires one or two absolutes — such as tributes to outstanding filmmakers, actors, or writers — that don’t rely on the vagaries of world cinema production. In that sense, it could be argued that a film festival is only as good as its invited guests.
Visit the San Francisco Film Society’s Levin Archive history site. Under the “Guests” rubric you can watch interviews with such honorees as Robert Altman, Ed Harris, and Werner Herzog, and search for the names of attendees. The search function is still pretty much a work in progress. There’s no list of celebs — you’ll have to know whom to search for. But the SF International has hosted some amazing talent in its 51 years, everyone from moguls like Jack L. Warner to such actors as Kirk Douglas, Catherine Deneuve, Fred Astaire, Jackie Chan, Bette Davis, and Jack Nicholson. But the royalty of this particular festival have always been the filmmakers who have attended: Jean Renoir, Michelangelo Antonioni, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, John Huston, cinematographer Néstor Almendros, Spike Lee, Abbas Kiarostami, Ousmane Sembène, Joan Chen (as both actor and director), David Lean, Bernardo Bertolucci, Claire Denis, Pedro Almodóvar …. The list goes on.
This year’s group of honorees is particularly strong. Two directors, a screenwriter, an actor, and a film critic are being awarded prizes, and many more will appear at various screenings of their work. How many festivals would dare to praise a critic? J. “Jim” Hoberman, longtime head film reviewer at the Village Voice, takes the stage this Sunday, April 27, at the Kabuki to receive the Mel Novikoff Award and to show one of his personal favorites, José Luis Guerín’s elliptical, rather formalist In the City of Sylvia. The film, in which an obsessed yet taciturn young artist quietly follows a woman through the streets of Strasbourg, is a taste that may take more than 84 minutes to acquire, but Hoberman will no doubt explain why he admires it.
The other writer honoree is a genuine Hollywood legend. Kanbar Award recipient Robert Towne is responsible for some of the most unforgettable screen moments of the last forty years, from his uncredited work on Bonnie and Clyde to The Last Detail, Chinatown, Personal Best, and Mission Impossible. On Saturday, May 3, Towne will be at the Kabuki for a showing of Shampoo (1975), one of the very best American satires as well as one of three films he made with director Hal Ashby.
Documentarian Errol Morris, who started his career on the UC Berkeley campus, receives the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award on Tuesday, April 29, at the Kabuki. Morris is renowned for his skeptical docs on esoteric subjects. He won an Oscar for The Fog of War in 2003, and will screen his latest, an examination of the Abu Ghraib prison brouhaha called Standard Procedure. On May 2 at the Castro, the Peter J. Owens Award goes to Maria Bello, the intelligent blond presence in such films as The Cooler, A History of Violence (her stairway sex scene with Viggo Mortensen caused wet theater seats all over the country), and Thank You for Smoking. She is accompanied by a showing of The Yellow Handkerchief, a Lousiana tale costarring William Hurt.
The SF International was one of the first festivals to champion English master Mike Leigh, the very model of a modern writer-director of actors. Former SFIFF artistic director Peter Scarlet screened no less than six of Leigh’s early films in the 1980s, and now it’s time for the maker of High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Naked, Secrets & Lies, and Vera Drake to revisit San Francisco for the Founder’s Directing Award (previously known as the Akira Kurosawa Award for its first recipient). He’ll be at the Castro on April 30, along with a print of his rousing Gilbert & Sullivan tribute, Topsy-Turvy.