A light day last Sunday, only 4 films (and one party), starting with the SFFS members screening. They do this every year--play a movie just for film society members. It's not in the festival, and it's something that will be released later in the year. Another recent tradition is that Graham Leggat makes the audience play 20 questions to determine what the movie is. This year, someone got it in 2 questions--it's Iranian, and it's Majid Majidi's new film THE SONG OF SPARROWS. Graham was so shocked he dropped an epithet (calling the guesser a "fucking savant"). Awesome.
Oh, and THE SONG OF SPARROWS was awesome too. I've been notoriously lukewarm on Iranian film, never quite embracing their slice-of-life aesthetic, no matter how beautiful the cinematography is. Well, I'm slowly becoming more of a convert, and THE SONG OF SPARROWS helped me take a giant step to becoming an Iranian film fan. It's the story of Karim, a ostrich-farm hand with a loving wife and three children--a little girl, a wild boy, and an eldest daughter who is deaf. As the movie opens he's catching his son playing in a filthy water pit. Worse yet, they've lost the eldest daughter's hearing aid. Now he's got serious money troubles, because he can't fix the hearing aid so he needs to go to Tehran to buy a new one. To make matters worse, an ostrich escapes on his watch and so he's fired. He finally catches a break when he goes to Tehran and since he's riding a motorcycle someone mistakes him for a motorcycle taxi. So he goes with it. This is an fascinating, light-hearted but heartfelt film, with a lot going on. There's family life and the joy and frustration of raising children. There's contrast between the simple rural life and fast-paced and complicated (technically and ethically) city life. There's a lesson about slowing down and learning to appreciate the good things you have. And there's a fantastic performance by lead actor Reza Najie. Oh yeah, and there's an ostrich.
Next I rejoined the festival proper with a trip to Argentina for THE PARANOIDS. In the Q&A, director Gabrial Medina was asked if the main character was based on himself. The answer was comically yes (except that he's actually made his movie). Luciano is a loser and a coward. He makes a living playing a fuzzy purple alien at kids birthday parties. Outside of work, he pretends to write his screenplay, plays video games, smokes a little dope, and lives in fear of everyone and everything (including his doorman who will harass him for having "parties" if he has a couple of friends over late). His best friend Manuel is a successful TV producer, and tries to get Luciano a meeting with a producer who can get his script made. There are a few cool twists--a love triangle and the reveal that the main character of Manuel's show (LOS PARANOICOS) is based on Luciano (even named Luciano). It's a funny film about the youthful combination of energy and fear.
Then I moved from the Kabuki to the Clay theater and from Argentina to Switzerland for HOME. Director Ursula Meier has created one of the most thought provoking family dramas in a long time, and a visually and (especially) aurally rich world. Dysfunctional families are a staple of film (or art in general), so it's important to note that this family is completely functional. They're extremely close knit (even bathing together) and live peacefully in a remote home next to an abandoned stretch of highway. They play in the street, they laugh, they enjoy dinners outside. The kids (two daughters, one young son) go to school, and everyone's happy. That happiness is reflected in a lively, often jazzy soundtrack. And then the highway re-opens. The soundtrack to their life (and the music in the movie) is replaced by the constant stream of cars. And then we learn the strength and fragility of this family. For some not quite explained reason the mother (Isabell Huppert) refuses to move, even though the kids now have to dodge traffic to cross the highway and get to their school bus. As sleep deprivation takes its toll, they hunker down inside their home (except for the eldest daughter, who simply leaves), becoming closer, but transforming the home into a tomb. An absurdist drama about family, paranoia, and the intrusion of modern society. And beautifully shot, acted, and scored.
I'm so glad I enjoyed HOME, because afterwards I went to a VIP cocktail party with Swiss Consulate General, in honor of HOME in particular and the longtime friendship and partnership of the Swiss Consulate General with the Film Society, bringing lots of Swiss films to the bay ares (including NOMAD'S LAND, also in this festival). I had a little free wine, some tasty snacks, and left with a tiny Swiss flag hors d'oeuvres toothpick (which I proudly display in my "I'm Sorry" pin from LITTLE DIZZLE). Good times.
Over the course of the whole day I physically traveled from Fremont to the Kabuki theater to the Clay to the Swiss Consulate General's home to the Castro theater via public transit and walking. And through the magic of film I went from Iran to Argentina to Switzerland and finally to the moon.
MOON is the smartest, coolest sci-fi film I've seen in years (I'd guess at least since CHILDREN OF MEN). It stars Sam Rockwell and Sam Rockwell (that's not a typo). Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell, a lone astronaut on the moon serving a 3 year contract at a base that harvests helium for the earth's energy needs. He's nearing the end of his contract, and looking forward to returning home. He's been there alone with no company but the base's computer, GERTY (voice of Kevin Spacey). He's going a little crazy, starting to have visions of a young woman in the base. Out on a collection mission, he crashes his rover. Then he wakes up in the infirmary, slightly injured and with amnesia. And then it gets weird. I don't want to spoil anything else. I already said it's very smart. It's a character story first, and explores ideas like personal identity, family responsibility, and ethics through a futuristic setting, but it doesn't exist just because building moon bases is cool. Oh yeah, the moon bases are really cool. Hooray for model miniatures over CGI! It's full of references to character based sci-fi classics--SILENT RUNNING, OUTLAND, 2001, even a little BLADE RUNNER, but still keeps you surprised. Oh yeah, and Sam Rockwell is excellent carrying everything as the only person on screen for nearly all the movie (in fact, the only one save for video monitors).
I have to add that if Sony Pictures Classics doesn't give this at least a semi-wide release and promote it like crazy, I will be very disappointed. It comes out in LA and NY in June, and elsewhere in...? I don't know, but if there's a sci-fi fan in the country who isn't informed when it comes to his town, I cannot be held responsible for what I might do to Sony in a fit of rage. We need more smart sci-fi, not more effects driven action movies in space.