The Sonoma International Film Festival turns 20 this year: the line-up celebrates wine, food and art and so do the parties—Wednesday, March 29 through Sunday, April 2, 2017
If you love great cinema, sampling world class food, wine and spirits from local artisan chefs, makers and vintners, it doesn’t get any better than the Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF) which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This beloved five-day festival has always the best parties of any film festival around, but, this year, a bottle runs through SIFF’s programming as well as its famed Backlot tent. Eleven of the festival’s 130 films are tales of wine and gastronomy and the celebrities, criminals and unsung heroes from these universes. The festival is dedicated to supporting independent filmmakers from around the world, and inspiring film lovers while plying them with food and wine. There’s also Student Showcases, the wonderful program of shorts from local high school film students which the festival supports enthusiastically. All films are shown at seven intimate venues within walking distance of Sonoma’s historic plaza so there’s no driving, just meandering charming streets where roses, lilacs and irises are in glorious spring bloom.
ARThound’s top film and event picks:
The Turkish Way
On the heels of the immensely popular Cooking Up a Tribute (2015), which had last year’s SIFF attendees queuing excitedly in enormous lines, director Luis González again teams with the Roca brothers—Joan, Josep and Jordi, owners of Catalonia’s Celler de Can Roca, Restaurant Magazine‘s Best Restaurant in the World honoree—to take a five-week tour across Turkey. Their mission: to plunge into the diverse culinary cultures merging at this cradle of civilization. Hot on the trail of new ideas for their own restaurant as well, the brothers engage with sommeliers, chefs and farmers from bustling Istanbul to the bucolic vineyards of Cappadocia and share a meal and chat with the innovators of New Anatolian cuisine. They discover an ancient nation on the cusp of a food revolution. (2016, 86 min) (Screens: Thurs, March 30, 11:45 am, Celebrity Cruises Mobile Cinema, and Fri, March 31, 9:15 am, Sonoma Veterans Hall Two)
Celebrity Cruises Mobile Cinema—the venue designation “CCMC” indicates Celebrity Cruises brand new mobile pop-up movie theater featuring a high definition projection and sound system, where guests can enjoy beverages, wine, truffle popcorn and enter to win great prizes, such as a luxurious cruise to the Caribbean for two.
The Distinguished Citizen (El ciudadano ilustre)
A favorite at last December’s International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana, Cuba, Argentinian directing partners Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s latest comedy, El ciudadano ilustre, stars Oscar Martinez (Paulina) as a Noble Prize-winning Argentinean author who returns to the village of his birth for the first time in 40 years. Divided into five chapters, the film follows Daniel Mantovani (Martinez) from his spacious Barcelona villa to the modest hotel room booked for him in backwater Salas, Argentina, where he is to be honored with a medal and a full slate of cultural activities. The scenes are played to maximum comedic effect with outstanding performances all around. What makes the story work so well is that we can all relate to the long suppressed memories and emotions a visit back home can evoke. It turns out that while Mantovani has been living a cosmopolitan life in Europe, he’s taken all of his literary inspiration from Salas and the citizens of Salas have strong feelings about his depictions. Mantovani shines as he explores his complex relationship with his roots and his past. (2016, 117 min) (Screens: Thursday March 30, 1 pm, Sebastiani, and Sat, April 1, 12:30 pm, Sonoma Veterans Hall One.
Franca: Chaos and Creation
Fashion films have become a documentary genre unto themselves. When the subject at hand is Franca Sozzani, the fearless editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia and the director is her son, Francesco Carrozzini, expect nothing short of art and an iconic framing of fashion history. The groundbreaking shoots and themed issues that she engineered over the last quarter century in collaboration with photographer Steven Meisel transcended fashion. Domestic violence, plastic surgery, substance abuse, racism and environmental catastrophes are just some of the issues that Sozzani tackled in her work, often leading to criticism that social commentary had no place in the pages of a publication such as Vogue. Sozzani believed in the power of the image – some Vogue Italias featured 50-page-long fashion shoots where the clothes were barely visible and subordinate to the overall composition of the photographs. And Franca Sozani, well, there are moments when she reveals herself to her son in this intimate portrait, that only a son could have captured. Sozzani passed in December 2016 at the age of 66. (2016, 80 min) (Screens: Thursday, March 30, 3 pm, Sonoma Veterans Hall One and Friday, March 31, 2:30 pm, Sonoma Veterans Hall Two)
Sadly, the Polish master, Andrzej Wajda (A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds) died at age 90, in 2016, just after completing Afterimage. This biopic of the Polish avant-garde painter, Wladyslaw Strzeminski, Poland’s foreign language Oscar submission for 2016, is a story from Wajda’s own past, battling passionately for artistic expression in the vice-grip of state ideology and censorship. Set in the dark years of Soviet rule, 1948 to 1952, the film tracks the highly-principled painter and handicapped (double amputee) professor Strzeminski, played by the masterful Boguslaw Linda (Blind Chance, Pan Tadeusz), as he battles the Socialist Realism movement in an attempt to advance his progressive art and inspire his students. His activity as a solo artist and his participation in groups that he organized in the 1920s and 1930s (together with his wife, Katarzyna Kobro, and painter Henryk Stazewski) played a fundamental role in the history of 20th-century Polish art. A man of great integrity and energy, Strzeminski was persecuted but refused to compromise. The film’s title is borrowed directly from the painter’s famous series of paintings from 1948–1949. It refers to persistent images, those optical illusions that continue to appear under one’s eyelids after staring at a reflective object. (2016, 98 min) (Screens: Thurs, March 30, 9:15 am, Celebrity Cruises Mobile Cinema and Sat, April 1, 9:30 am, Sonoma Veterans Hall One)
I wouldn’t be ARThound if I didn’t point out the festival’s dog-related flicks. What if your pets turned into full-grown men? I couldn’t resist the wacky premise behind Finn Taylor’s Unleashed, which has a thirty-something software app designer Emma (Kate Micucci) settling into her life in San Francisco when her cat, Ajax, and her dog, Summit, disappear only to reappear in her life as full-grown men (Steve Howet and Justin Chatwin). All their four-legged memories are fully intact and they vie for her affection in their very specific cat and dog styles. This delightful film picked the 39th Mill Valley Film Festival’s Audience Favorite Award /US Cinema Indie. (2016, 93 min) (Screens: Thurs, March 30 at 12 noon, Sonoma Veterans Hall One and Sat, April 1, 12 noon, Sebastiani)
Don’t forget the student films!: One of the festival highlights is the annual Student Showcases, films from Peter Hansen’s Media Arts Program students at Sonoma Valley High School (SVHS), screening twice this year. Since 2002, SIFF and its members have donated nearly $500,000 to SVHS’s Media Arts Program which opens doorways to creativity in the digital arts through filmmaking classes, animation, scriptwriting, film theory, and, most of all, storytelling. The festival also supports media programs in the Valley’s two middle schools. (Student Showcase Screenings: Thursday, March 30, 10am to 12:30 pm, Sebastiani and Sunday, April 2, 3 to 5:30 pm, Sonoma Vets Hall One
Peter Hansen has selected SVHS senior Owen Summers’ stop action 6 min claymation film Magic Beans to be accepted into the Sonoma International Film Festival. In 15 years, only three student films from SVHS have been chosen as official SIFF selections. Owen is a senior at Sonoma Valley High School. (Screens: Thurs, March 30 in Shorts Films Program, Vintage House, and Sunday, April 2, 9 am at the Taiwan Tourism Bureau Theatre (Andrews Hall).
SIFF Emerging Artist Award: This year, 18 year-old student filmmaker Kiara Ramirez will be honored with the festival’s first SIFF Emerging Artist Award. Her six minute short, the first she has produced and directed, is the mini-doc, Detrás del Muro (Behind the Wall), a thoughtful and sharply edited human portrait of immigration issues was inspired by the rhetoric of last year’s primaries
New this year: you can attend parties without a pass for $50.
Emerald Party: A big bash on Thursday, March 30 celebrates several 20th anniversaries—SIFF’s, Sondra Bernstein’s the girl & the fig, and Tito’s Vodka. Sondra’s celebrating by creating superb food for the party. Cake by Crisp Bake Shop and other birthday surprises will be in store. An after-party continues at The Starling for signature craft cocktails and music with Ten Foot Tone. Purchase $50 ticket here.
Taiwanese Night: On Friday, March 31, the Back Lot Tent is transformed into a lively Taiwanese Night Market, courtesy of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. Purchase $50 ticket here.
Festival Awards & Celebration Party: Saturday, April 1, Walk the carpet and celebrate SIFF’s finest films at the Award Ceremony. Following the awards, toast the winners with wine, cocktails, Lagunitas, food from the girl & the fig and live music with Loosely Covered. Purchase $50 ticket here.
SIFF 20 Details:
The 20th Sonoma International Film Festival starts Wednesday, March 29 and runs through Sunday, April 2, 2016. PASSES: SIFF can be enjoyed at different levels and passes provide access to films, parties in SIFF Village’s Backlot Tent, after parties, receptions, and industry events and panels. Currently, Cinema Passes are $275 for and Soiree Passes are $725. All Cinema pass holders will have day access to the Backlot Tent in SIFF Village and all films. Soiree pass holders will have day VIP area and evening party access and all films. New this year: exciting options for attending several screenings and individual parties without buying all-inclusive passes. For information about festival passes, prices, and benefits visit sonomafilmfest.org. SINGLE TICKETS: A limited number of $15 tickets are available for each film screening. These sell out rapidly, so purchase these in advance online at sonomafilmfest.org.
With the onset of fall, Bay Area moviegoing options start to multiply like crazy. The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), October 6-16 2016, is hard to beat. The 39th edition offers a line-up of 200 films—winners from Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto as well as an eclectic mix of features, documentaries, shorts, world cinema and films with a Bay Area stamp—all selected for our discriminating Bay Area audience by programmer Zoe Elton and her seasoned team. The legendary festival kicks off on Thursday evening, October 6, with two of Hollywood’s hottest fall films—La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash MVFF 2014) love letter to dreamers, artists, and Hollywood with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone and Denis Vileneuve’s (Sicario) riveting and thoughtful drama, Arrival, starring five time Oscar-nominee Amy Adams as a linguistics professor who communicates with aliens in a bid to save the planet. Actually, in a move to satisfy everyone’s tastes, there are four films screening on Thursday evening, so add Mick Jackson’s Denial starring Rachael Weiss and Rob Nilsson’s Love Twice to the mix but they are not being billed as opening nighters. Special Tributes will honor Academy Award winning actress Nicole Kidman in a program that includes a screening of her new film with Dev Patel, Lion, and acclaimed filmmaker and author Julie Dash, who will appear in conversation following a screening of her recently restored Daughters of the Dust (1991). The festival closes with Jeff Nichols’ Loving, which tells the real life story of the struggle, imprisonment and 1960’s Supreme Court battle Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving experienced in one of America’s early interracial marriages.
The festival unfolds in San Rafael, Corte Madera, Larkspur and Mill Valley. For North Bay residents, getting there and parking is considerably more time efficient and cheaper than it is in San Francisco. If you want to go, pre-purchase your tickets now as this popular festival tends to sell out before it starts. There is ample choice right now but not for long. I recommend seeing films where the filmmaker or actors will be in attendance. Also, check the new program guide for Smith Rafael Film Center. Several of the festival films are screening there within the next two months and it doesn’t make sense to pay a premium to see them at the festival and wait in long lines unless there are special guests attending that make it worthwhile.
ARThound’s top picks:
Neruda/Spotlight Gael Garcia Bernal—Mon, Oct 10
The foreign film line-up is especially strong this year. Chilean Director Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, Chile’s foreign language Oscar nominee, takes center stage in a special Spotlight presentation honoring Mexican actor-director-producer Gael Garcia Bernal. The drama is set in 1948 and Bernal plays a police inspector who is charged with finding the fugitive Communist politician and poet, Pablo Neruda, when he goes underground. In Larrain’s capable hands, the film morphs into a soulful exploration of Chile’s historical dance with heroes and villains and Bernal as the inspector becomes a key figure, obsessed with finding Neruda who has managed to make him his pawn. Bernal will appear in an onstage conversation covering his extensive career.
The Salesman—Fri, Oct 7 and Wed, Oct 12
I can’t remember when the festival last hosted an Iranian filmmaker but, over the year’s, we’ve reveled in their creativity, courage and unparalleled story-telling. This year, acclaimed Academy Award and Golden Globe winning writer-director Ashgar Farhadi (A Separation) will appear in person to answer questions after the two screenings of his new Tehran-set drama The Salesman. The film picked up Best Screenplay and Best Actor awards at Cannes and was selected as the Iranian nominee for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The Salesman is the suspenceful story of a young Persian couple who are part-time actors in Tehran in the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman. Their relationship is strained after they move into a new flat and the wife is attacked while she is taking a shower. The flat’s previous occupant, a woman who was allegedly involved in prostitution, is never seen but her presence grows as the film progresses. At Cannes, Shahab Hosseini, the husband, won the award for Best Actor.
Lamb—Sat, Oct 8 and Tues, Oct 11
A rarity for MVFF is an Ethiopian film, in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. Writer-director Yared Zeleke’s first feature, Lamb, was the first Ethiopian film ever named an official Cannes selection. The 37 year-old director made Variety magazine’s “10 Screenwriters to Watch” list for 2015. The story revolves around an Ethiopian boy who loses his mother and moves in with relatives and becomes attached to a pet lamb, Chuni, as a way of dealing with loss and grief. He also takes up cooking which is unacceptable to his uncle who considers it girl’s work. The story hits close to home for the director. When he was just 10, Zeleke’s own father was imprisoned by the Derg regme (the ruling military Communist regime that was in power in Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987) and his mother remarried and he went to live with his grandmother. Ultimately, Zeleke was reunited with his father and they lived together in the US but the happy days he had with both loving parents together were long gone. Filmmaker in attendance for both screenings.
Frantz—Fri, Oct 7 and Fri, Oct 14
French director François Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women, Under the Sand) always stirs me with subtle demonstrations of his artistry and deep understanding of human nature. His latest film, Frantz, a romantic drama set in the aftermath of WWI in the small German town of Quedlingburg, is a layered portrait of grief. The story evolves from a strange graveside encounter between a young German woman (Paula Beer) grieving her fiancé and a Frenchman, Adrian (Pierre Niney), who also visits the fiancé’s grave to leave flowers. He claims to have been friends with her fiancé and, slowly, she begins to develop feelings for him. Shot in black and white, with brief interludes of color, the film is a loose adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 drama Broken Lullaby which itself was based on a play by French playwright Maurice Rostand. Niney, whose elegant face would have inspired Michelangelo, won a Cesar award for his outstanding performance in Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent (2014).
Mom and Other Loonies in the Family—Sat, Oct 15 and Sun, Oct 16
Hungarian director Ibolya Fekete’s Mom and Other Loonies in the Family revolves around a 94 year-old grandmother with dementia who relates her life story to her daughter. It’s a heartwarming recounting, told through flashbacks over four generations of crazies. She was a mother on the run who moved twenty-seven times—and the film spans all of the 20th century, meandering through epic moments in Hungarian and world history. Her “present” is a time that is infused with struggles, declining health and the confusing intervention of past events. Her past was committed to keeping the family together at any cost. The story is based on the filmmaker’s own family and stories related to her by relatives. Characters appear in archival footage and in well-known Hungarian films as if they were actually in those films. Eszter Ónodi shines as the reliable yet somewhat whimsical woman who moved too many times and just wants to stand on her own two feet. Her ninety four-year old demented self is played by Danuta Szaflarska who credibly plays the role by reverting to childlike responses.
Green is Gold—Sat, Oct 8 and Sun, Oct 9
I have a weakness for films that are set in Northern, California, where I grew up. Sonoma State University graduate Ryan Baxter’s first feature, Green is Gold, is set in rural Sonoma County and is a family bonds over pot business story that picked up the Audience Best Fiction Film award at the Los Angeles Film Festival for its poetic filmmaking and emotional truth. Ryan Baxter, the writer, director, editor and star, plays the older brother, Cameron, a black market potrepneur ( a real word I picked up at the Heirloom Festival) who is forced to take care of his younger brother, Jimmy (his real life brother, Jimmy Baxter) when their dad is imprisoned. Cameron tries to put some distance between the kid and the cannabis business, which involves considerable risk but high payoffs, but, soon Jimmy is knee deep in buds and the two find themselves embarking on a dangerous pot delivery journey that will either leave them rolling in dough or six feet under. Ryan Baxter, actor Jimmy Baxtor, and rest of cast and crew in attendance at both screenings.)
Unleashed—Wed, Oct 12 and Thurs, Oct 13
What if your pets turned into full-grown men? I couldn’t resist the whacky premise behind Finn Taylor’s Unleashed, which has a thirty-something software app designer Emma (Kate Micucci) settling into her life in San Francisco when her cat, Ajax, and her dog, Summit, disappear only to reappear in her life as full-grown men (Steve Howet and Justin Chatwin). All their four-legged memories are fully intact and they vie for her affection in their very specific cat and dog styles.
Details MVFF 39:
The 39th Mill Valley Film Festival opens on Thursday, October 6 and runs through Sunday, October 16, 2016. Buy tickets online now at http://www.mvff.com/. Most tickets for films are $14 and special programs starts at $25.