Canceled last year because of the pandemic, the SFFILM Festival launches its 2021 edition, which features online and outdoor programs, on Friday. While nothing can equal the big-screen experience and in-person community vibe that makes film festivals exciting, attendees at this year’s event can expect a worthy and fun bill of film fare that reflects the 64-year-old festival’s focus on international cinema, independent voices and Bay Area sensibilities.
Scaled down slightly from previous years, the 2021 SFFILM Festival, aka San Francisco International Film Festival, which is presented by the nonprofit organization SFFILM, will show 103 films, including 42 features and 13 world premieres, from 41 countries, over 10 days. Fifty-seven percent of the films are directed by women; 57 percent have nonwhite directors.
Screenings will take place online, via the SFFILM website, and live at the Fort Mason Flix drive-in theater.
“Some of the most daring and unique filmmaking from across the country and around the world” is how Anne Lai, SFFILM’s executive director, describes this year’s lineup, which includes, as always, high-profile premieres, buzzy titles that have shown at other festivals, and under-the-radar indie and foreign-language offerings.
Receiving top spotlight are the annual “Big Nights,” most of which screen both at the drive-in and online.
First up in this arena is “Naked Singularity,” this year’s Opening Night attraction. World-premiering on Friday, the drama, directed by Chase Palmer, stars John Boyega as what is billed as an “impassioned public defender who stumbles into a drug heist while his reality collapses all around him.”
“Socks on Fire,” the Centerpiece feature, screens on Saturday. Filmmaker Bo McGuire looks at the dynamics of his homophobic aunt and drag-queen uncle in this documentary. A drag show will accompany the drive-in screening.
“Fantastic Negrito: Live Score + ‘Lost Landscapes of Oakland’” — a Music + Film event on April 15 — combines a rare visual look at East Bay history with a live performance by roots-music ground-breaker Fantastic Negrito.
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary about the history and emotional impact of the long-running children’s TV series, is this year’s Closing Night film. It shows on April 17-18.
Non-“Big Night” films selected for drive-in screenings include “Language Lessons,” which will sneak-preview on Sunday. Mark Duplass stars in this teacher-student story directed by costar Natalie Morales.
Also at the drive-in, look for the documentary “Lily Topples the World,” about the YouTube domino star on Sunday; “Censor,” an acclaimed British psycho-horror film on April 15; “Supercool,” a teens-go-bonkers comedy on April 17; “Strawberry Mansion,” a surreal romantic adventure on April 16; and “The Dry,” an Australian murder mystery starring Eric Bana on Saturday.
Awards programs will honor Peter Nicks, director of the documentary “Homeroom,” with the festival’s George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award on April 16 and Dash Shaw, director of animated fantastical creature tale “Cryptozoo,” with the Persistence of Vision Award, on April 16. Both above-mentioned films will screen at the festival.
Recipients of the annual Golden Gate Awards, for which 36 films are competing, will be announced on April 17.
International films remain a primary component of the SFFILM Festival, whose inaugural presentation, in 1957, included Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali,” Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” and Luchino Visconti’s “Senso.”
This year’s global section features “Dance of the 41” (Mexico/Brazil), a fact-based drama about a scandalous love affair between a politician and a lawyer in early 20th-century Mexico; “The Perfect Candidate” (Saudi Arabia/Germany), “Wadjda” director Haifaa Al Mansour’s entertaining dramedy about a female Saudi doctor who ruffles patriarchal attitudes when she runs for political office; “Poppy Field” (Romania/France), a drama about a closeted gay Romanian cop and his response to a protest of an LGBT-themed movie; and “Tove” (Finland), a biodrama about artist-illustrator Tove Jansson, known for her Moomins children’s books.
A U.S. highlight on the streaming slate is “I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking),” starring Kelley Kali (also the movie’s co-creator) as a houseless woman who dashes around her Southern California town on roller skates to acquire enough money to get an apartment for herself and her daughter.
Impressive documentaries are, as usual, numerous. A wee few are “Seyran Ates: Sex, Revolution and Islam” (Norway), about a Turkish-German feminist, lawyer and imam; “The Spokeswoman” (Mexico), about the first indigenous woman to run for president of Mexico; “In the Same Breath (USA/China), director Nanfu Wang’s examination of the COVID-19 pandemic; “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” (USA), a celebration of the entertainer and her 70-year career; and “Unseen Skies,” in which artist Trevor Paglen, whose concerns involve privacy rights and government spying, prepares to (literally) launch an ambitious project.
Also on the online bill are short films, mid-length films, Q&As, talks, parties, and a tribute to actor Vanessa Kirby.
IF YOU GO
When: April 9 to April 18
Where: Fort Mason Flix drive-in theater, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F. and online
Tickets: $12 to $100; $75 for passes
Information and online viewing: sffilm.org