Feb Film Fests: Eclectic, Compelling

by Sura Wood

Local films fests offer an alternative view this month.

Winter is a notorious wasteland for movies, a period when duds are released by the studios and distributors bide their time, waiting for their prestige pictures to rack up Oscars; not so for local festivals and series, which teem with compelling choices this month. 

One of these homegrown events, the Mostly British Film Festival, established a decade ago and astutely programmed by former “Chronicle” movie editor Ruthe Stein, is a substantive mix of classic films and newer releases from Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and India. This year’s festival opens with “Their Finest,” a handsomely produced light comedy directed by Lone Scherfig (“An Education”) and set during the Blitz, a time when the British film industry offered uplifting, sentimental stories to touch the hearts of a weary public and persuade reluctant Americans to join the fight. Gemma Arterton plays a newbie screenwriter recruited for her “woman’s perspective.” She is part of an excellent ensemble cast featuring Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons and the lanky, wryly amusing Bill Nighy as the vain Ambrose Hilliard, a pompous thespian whose glory days as a leading man are behind him. Nighy, an exceptional stage actor known best here for his turns as an aging rock star in “Love Actually,” and a villain in two installments of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, will be interviewed after the screening by A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff. 

“A Quiet Passion,” directed by Terence Davies, is a biographical portrait of the reclusive 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson, whose rebellious spirit and yearning for love were all but extinguished by the stifling social milieu and repressive patriarchal attitudes of the era. She’s played by “Sex and the City” alumna Cynthia Nixon, whose readings of Dickinson’s lyrical verse are heard in voice-over. The fest’s annual evening of British Noir leads off with “Mona Lisa,” Neil Jordan’s London-based romance (made prior to the Irish director’s other, more famous film about an unconventional love, “The Crying Game”) between a high-priced call girl and her smitten driver, an ex-convict with a gruff exterior soulfully played by the late Bob Hoskins.

For Beatles fans there’s a trio of movies including “Nowhere Boy,” which probes the teen-age angst of a young John Lennon during five formative years in 1950s Liverpool, a time when he coped with loving but conflicting relationships with two powerful women in his life: his estranged mother and the aunt who raised him (played by Kristin Scott Thomas). Aaron Taylor Johnson as Lennon is almost too mild and handsome for the role, but he catches the budding musician’s ambition and drive and something of his early chemistry with future partner Paul McCartney. Together they formed the group that not only revolutionized rock music but upended cinematic conventions in their first film, the exuberant “day in the life” romp, “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964). Directed by Richard Lester, shot in black and white and starring the band members as themselves, the film’s anarchic energy and rapid-fire editing, backed up by the Fab Four’s songs, presaged the rise of MTV music videos.

Feb. 16 → 23, Vogue Theater,


A full plate of German-language films arrives with Berlin & Beyond, a six-day boutique fest. Maria Schrader, one of four filmmakers whose work has been shown at previous editions of the festival, wrote and directed “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe,” a well-appointed historic drama that recounts the episodic adventures of Zweig, an Austrian writer from a wealthy Jewish family, who was forced into exile in 1936 at the peak of his literary fame. (Zweig was the inspiration for Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”) Nearly broke and witnessing the destruction of Europe from afar in Rio de Janeiro and Petropolis in Brazil, Buenos Aires and New York, the beauty of his adopted cities did little to mitigate the devastating loss of his homeland. Increasingly despondent, he and his wife committed suicide in 1942. An émigré story of a different kind, Doris Dorrie’s “Fukushima, Mon Amour” begins when a young German woman flees to Japan, hoping to radically change her life and bring comfort to the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Unequipped to deal with tragedy on this scale, she nonetheless stays, bonding with an unlikely cohort: an abrasive older woman who’s the last geisha in town. “Too Hard to Handle” takes a more humorous approach to coping issues. Described in the program guide as “a tragicomedy about love, life and therapy in Berlin, like a Woody Allen in high spirits,” the movie concerns thirtysomething Karo, an extroverted big city hipster with a job in media, who has a meltdown, loses control of her life and her boyfriend, and lands her on the analyst’s couch. “Transit Havana,” a documentary by Daniel Abma, follows three people as it details a progressive state-sponsored program, headed by Fidel Castro’s daughter Mariela, that flies two European plastic surgeons into the country each year to operate on five Cuban transgender persons and then helps them with treatment and adjustment to their new identity. According to Castro, the program is a logical outgrowth of the 1959 revolution’s goals of emancipation and self-realization. Its official slogan: “Homophobia no, socialismo si!”

Feb. 3 → 8, Castro Theatre and Goethe-Institut, San Francisco,

German director Werner Herzog has traveled to many remote outposts to shoot his films but the real voyage is into the depths of his fascinating psyche. The inquiring mind, singular sensibility and philosophical commentary that characterize his best work are on display in a selection of 20 films included in “Werner Herzog and Ecstatic Truth,” the second iteration of Modern Cinema, a collaborative film series put together by the San Francisco Film Society and SFMOMA. Herzog, an idiosyncratic documentarian who has evinced little interest in traditional journalism, is prone to blurring the boundary between fact and fiction. He often returns with unexpected truths as he did with “Encounters at the End of the World,” in which he interviewed free-spirited residents of Antarctica’s McMurdo Station community, whom he calls “professional dreamers,” and photographed surreal imagery of the bizarre creatures that have survived undisturbed for millennia beneath the South Pole’s ice shelves. “I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins,” Herzog recalls assuring that project’s funders, and he made good on that promise. For “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” he journeyed with a skeleton crew to the cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in Southern France, the site of the earliest known wall paintings (mostly of animals), where he ruminated on the artists who created them some 32,000 years ago.

The New York Times has written that Herzog “takes you places you never knew you wanted to go, asks questions you never considered and introduces you to characters who suggest the worst and the very best about us.” The latter is certainly true of Timothy Treadwell, the central figure in Herzog’s heart-of-darkness tale “Grizzly Man,” who lived in the Alaskan wild among the bears and fancied himself one of them until the night he and his girlfriend were devoured by a rogue grizzly. Obsessed, delusional and a character for whom the filmmaker clearly feels an affinity, Treadwell shot extraordinary, intimate wildlife footage, tenderly resurrected by Herzog. Treadwell’s story is of a driven, eccentric, reckless man who, having failed at everything, chased a foolhardy dream that cost him his life.

Feb. 9 → 26, SFMOMA,,