S.F. Film Fest truly a cinematic soup

The 51st annual San Francisco International Film Festival will take place April 24 through May 8 in seven venues, headquartered in the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

At the season announcement Tuesday morning in the Westin St. Francis Hotel, festival executive director Graham Leggat spoke of the need “to hit a balance.”

And so it is among the 177 films to be offered — in 38 languages, representing 49 countries, including eight world and 33 West Coast premieres — a judicious equilibrium between the old and new, the mainstream and the experimental, those for deep thought and others for fun and games.

The spring time period, as usual, handicaps SFIFF in competition with the Cannes Film Festival (which opens next month), but San Francisco still manages to find the “new and unusual,” such as the introduction of a dozen new directors, many female artists among them. Female directors now at the festival number more than three dozen.

“Brick Lane,” for example, the work of highly regarded young director Sarah Gavron, is about the journey of a Muslim woman from Bangladesh to London, and an arranged marriage, in the midst of the rising anti-Muslim backlash in the West.

The North American premiere of Kim Meejeung’s “Shadows in the Palace” is much anticipated because of the proven record of the director’s work: although a first-time director, she was part of the team producing South Korea’s most successful recent film, 2005’s “The King and the Clown.”

“Shadows” is a murder mystery taking place in a Chosun-era palace.

There is much to be said for placing quality above being “first,” so SFIFF’s opening-night attraction is Catherine Breillat’s sexy costume drama “The Last Mistress,” with Asia Argento, which already has screened last year at Cannes, Toronto, Copenhagen, Rio,Haifa, New York and numerous other festivals.

The event’s “centerpiece” presentation, on May 3, will be Jonathan Levine’s “The Wackness,” about the “unlikely alliance between a hip-hop-loving Upper East Side outcast with his drug-addled psychiatrist.”

Closing night, on May 8, features Alex Gibney’s “Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thomson,” focusing on the San Francisco-centered years of the maverick journalist.

The festival’s parent organization, the San Francisco Film Society, will give awards (and show works by) director Mike Leigh, actress Maria Bello and writer Robert Towne.

At the press conference, Leggat reported major expansion of Film Society activities outside the festival frame, screenings increasing from 40 in 1995 (when Leggat arrived) to 125 this year.

Corporate donations, he said, have increased substantially, and the Film Society staff nearly doubled. There are pioneering new projects beginning this year, such as “SFS Screen,” daily screenings at the Sundance Kabuki of films “you are unlikely to see anywhere else,” Leggat said.

Tickets for most screenings outside of special programs are $12.50 general. Call (925) 866-9559 to purchase tickets. For general information, visit www.sffs.org.

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