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The 2021 SF Independent Film Festival Looks Spectacular

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For those who haven’t been film festival-ed out from checking out Sundance 2021 online, the 23rd edition of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival (affectionately called “Indie Fest” for short) starts up this week. From February 4-21, interested viewers can stream 80 films from around the world. The offerings include feature films and short films in such genres as comedy, documentary, and even post-apocalyptic horror.

Need a movie streaming break during the festival?  There’s the return of the Bad Art Gallery.  Not only will you get exposed to hilariously substandard art, but you get to laugh along to the snarky notes that accompany each piece. Or you can watch a new edition of Filmmaker Feud. Two teams of filmmakers try to guess the most popular answers local art film audience members gave to such questions as “Best Non-Disney Animated Feature Film” and “Frisco: Yes Or No?” Or aspiring film writers can pick up a few words of wisdom regarding the craft of writing at the Screenwriters Panel.

To get started, here are some Indie Fest offerings this year that caught this writer’s eye:  

499

499–The new film from this year’s Indiefest Non-fiction Vanguard Awardee Rodrigo Reyes begins with a shipwrecked 16th century Spanish conquistador magically washed up on the shores of modern day Mexico.  As the self-styled conqueror wanders from Vera Cruz to the Sierras and other points in between, he gets exposed to the hardships faced by ordinary Mexicans in the present day.  But this is less a fiction film than a documentary which in its depiction of violent disappearances and grinding poverty shows that the distance between the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and the present day isn’t as wide as we’d like to think.

The Book Of Vision–The Opening Night Film for this year’s Indie Fest can be described as a dance between the present and the past.  In the present, promising doctor Eva abandons her career to study the History of Medicine at a remote university.  In the 18th century, Prussian physician Johan Anmuth (Charles Dance, “Game Of Thrones”) finds himself figuratively squeezed between the forces of rationality and animism.  Tying these two existences together is the Book of Vision, a record of the hopes, fears, and dreams of over 1800 patients that Dr. Anmuth tended to.  In a way, it could be said those patients’ spirits run through the book’s pages…  

C.I.A.–Despite the title, this is not a spy movie.  It’s a drama about a group of punk kids living in Mexico City.  Bourgeois filmmaker Nicolas wants to make a documentary about these outlaw kids.  So he embeds himself with them as they race around the city and commit crimes.  Yet, can he handle seeing his professional distance go out the window?  Will this be the most punk movie you’ve ever seen?  You decide.

C.I.A.

Hunger–The beautiful Judah is a dancer with a thing for redheads.  Yes, love plays a part in his desire…but so does the urge to feast on redheads’ flesh.  After having sex with (and eating) his first dance partner, Judah goes on the prowl for prospective redheaded meals.  Meanwhile, he’s still short a dance partner.  When Javier comes along, the duo turn out to be so compatible that Judah falls for Javier.  However, the new partner is also a redhead, and Judah is still hungry.

Itchy Fingers–This satire of buzz culture centers on aspiring teen comedian Ernie Burroughs.  Desperate to keep his hopes of prospering in the humor business alive, he joins a youth theater group.  His enthusiasm at being cast as the lead in the group’s next production fades when he realizes he’s playing a school shooter.  Ernie hopes to salvage the situation by playing as if he’s in a comedy.  However, the other group members have him perform rehearsal exercises that will help him connect with his homicidal character.  But is Ernie’s growing offstage suspicion and paranoia really part of the preparation process?

Jumbo–Noemie Merlant, who wowed audiences with her performance in “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire,” stars in this unusual tale of first love.  Merlant plays Jeanne, a shy young woman who works as an amusement park’s night custodian and otherwise lives at home with her uninhibited mother.  Mom wants her daughter to find a guy, but the latter’s more at home creating miniature mechanical models.  Things change with the introduction of a new Tilt-A-Whirl ride, which Jeanne nicknames Jumbo.  What happens when this lonely girl literally falls in love with the Tilt-A-Whirl…and the ride responds?

Jumbo

Keeping Company–Door-to-door insurance salesmen Sonny and Noah get pressured by their boss to boost their sales numbers.  But their attempt to push the anti-social Lucas to buy insurance leads to the salesmen being trapped in the basement of their prospective customer’s  home.  Lucas and his sinister Grandmother turn out to be as ruthless in their way as Sonny and Noah’s workplace.  Laughs and satire come in equal measure in this tale of success and cutthroat behavior.  

Leaving Virginia–This dark comedy from Taiwan takes the teen sex tale in some unexpected directions.  All Big D wanted for his 18th birthday was to lose his virginity.  However, his girlfriend isn’t about to help him make that happen since she’s a good Christian girl.  Best friend Zulie comes up with a Plan B to get Big D what he wants.  But several mishaps, including the need to dispose of an inconvenient corpse, soon makes sex the last thing on these teens’ minds. 

A Life’s Work–How willing would you be to work on a project whose completion you won’t see in your lifetime?  For the subjects of this documentary, the potential benefits of their particular project’s success makes their dedication worth it.  From finding extraterrestrial intelligence to fighting climate change via cloning old-growth trees, their stories may open a viewer’s mind to the importance of long-term thinking. 

Morgana–For much of her life, Morgana accepted trying to meet the social dictums of living a respectable suburban lifestyle.  But when the middle-aged Australian housewife found she couldn’t take living the respectability lie any more, she decided to end it all after one last night of pleasure.  Instead of permanently ending things, the ex-housewife eventually reinvented herself as an acclaimed actor/director of feminist porn.   

Murmur

Murmur–This film won the Claude Jutra Award for best first feature.  60-ish Donna has been ordered to do community service at a local animal shelter.  Donna’s daughter has long written her off, leaving Donna with nobody else to care about her.  Then one day, an elderly dog facing the prospect of being put down catches Donna’s eye.  When the elderly woman takes the sick dog home, her loneliness eases for a bit.  But what happens when Donna starts getting more and more pets to fight off her loneliness? 

The Passing On–Thanks to Southern racism, the funeral business was one of the few paths for ex-slaves to achieve a middle-class life.  Embalmer James Bryant hopes his business’ legacy can be carried on by promising student Clarence Pierre.  However, community homophobia towards the gay Christian Pierre undermines the man’s commitment to continue the local tradition of black-owned funeral homes.

Summertime–Director Carlos Lopez Estrada (“Blindspotting”) brought together 25 young Angelino slam poets to turn their work into a loose narrative about themselves and their relationship to their city.  The result is this slam poetry musical set on one very hot day in Los Angeles.  A group of characters (which includes a skating guitarist, a tagger, a fed-up fast food worker, and a limo driver) find their lives intersecting in various and sometimes unexpected ways.  The poems these characters recite reflect their feelings about various aspects of their lives.

Summertime

This Is Where I Meet You–Aspiring actress Charlotte has hit a rough patch in her career, a problem made worse by her fear of failure.  Hoping to recharge herself, she goes on a camping trip to Croatia with boyfriend Georg.  However, Georg abandons Charlotte to try scoring a DJ gig at a music festival.  The abandonment leads Charlotte to set out on her own journey of self-discovery, accompanied by wannabe shaman Benno and the mysterious dropout Tami.

Truth Be Told: Irving Norman And The Human Predicament–For fifty years, San Francisco-based Social Surreal Artist Irving Norman used his art to offer intricately detailed  commentary on our hyperkinetic society.  Whether using graphite, watercolor, or oil, Norman’s works can be described as a mix of Rivera and Picasso, but with a distinct political edge.  If you haven’t heard of Norman or seen his work, this film offers a nice introduction. 

Consider what’s suggested here a starter.  Feel free to look for other titles that might intrigue you.  Hopefully, you’ll find a cinematic treasure you might not see at your local multiplex.

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Peter Wong

Peter Wong

I've been reviewing films for quite a few years now, principally for the online publication Beyond Chron. My search for unique cinematic experiences and genre dips have taken me everywhere from old S.F. Chinatown movie theaters showing first-run Jackie Chan movies to the chilly slopes of Park City. Movies having cat pron instantly ping my radar.

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