Fall Film Guide

By Sura Wood

From Watch-At-Home to Drive-Ins, Lots of Screen Pleasures Coming Our Way

Of all the art forms thrust into the digital sphere - or the great outdoors - by Covid-19, film is proving to be best suited to weather the storm. While nothing equals the immediacy of seeing a movie on the big screen, shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow moviegoers in a darkened theater, viewers had become accustomed to streaming from a host of platforms before the virus closed multiplexes and movie palaces. Some of your favorite local festivals and repertory theaters have met the moment, offering rotating content online that hungry audiences can turn to in the fall. Here are suggestions on where to look. 

Outstanding selections are on tap, courtesy of that San Francisco treasure, the Roxie Theater. “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life,” from Ric Burns (brother of wunderkind Ken Burns of the epic “Civil War” series), hews closely to the autobiography written by the late neurologist, an avid motorcyclist, gifted storyteller and compassionate healer known for his rueful wit and deep humanity. (Many may be familiar with Sacks from “Awakenings,” the 1990 movie based on his book, starring Robin Williams as the good doctor.) Burns interweaves archival photographs, commentary from physicians, writers, family and friends and interviews with Sacks conducted shortly before his death in 2015.

September 23 - October 7. Roxie Theater

The Mill Valley Film Festival kicks off Thursday, October 8. MVFF43's Opening Night will be at the MVFF Drive-In for the World Premiere of Edward Hall’s "Blithe Spirit," based on the 1941 play by Noël Coward, featuring Dame Judi Dench, Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, and Leslie Mann. Additional special Opening Night films can be enjoyed online: The U.S. Premiere of The Boys Who Said NO!, the California Premiere of "Veins of the World," "Sweet Thing," "The Heist Of The Century" (El Robo Del Siglo), and DocLands’ "Public Trust".


BAMPFA opens its vaults to film aficionados through its “watch from home” program. Craving a French/Italian gangster flick? Then, Claude Sautet’s chilled-to-perfection crime movie, “Classe tous risques” (1960), admired by the likes of Bertrand Tavernier, Hong Kong action master, John Woo, and Jean-Pierre Melville, is just the ticket. The plot concerns a desperate French hoodlum (Lino Ventura) who, after being sentenced in absentia and condemned to death, goes on the run, making his way from Italy to Paris with an unlikely assist from Jean-Paul Belmondo.  “Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful” reassesses the life and controversial career of the decidedly politically incorrect German-born fashion photographer. Indulging taboos and a lurid erotic imagination, he was often criticized for his objectifying images of women and labeled a misogynist by Susan Sontag with whom he’s seen sparring in a clip from a TV show. Director Gero von Boehm takes advantage of abundant interviews with his subject shot before Newton’s death in 2004, while investigating the artist’s formative influences—Leni Riefenstahl for one—and talking to the women he photographed such as Isabella Rossellini and Charlotte Rampling, who share their candid, sometimes trenchant observations.


Fort Mason FLIX, which bills itself as the city’s first drive-in theater, will be screening primarily mainstream movies six days a week, twice daily, on a jumbo 40’ x 20’ high definition screen with San Francisco Bay providing a spectacular backdrop.

Through October 18; tickets ($49 per car) and program info available here

Founded in 1998 by Stanford University lecturer and journalist, Jasmina Bojic, the United Nations Association Film Festival features more than 60 topical social justice and human rights documentaries, which encompass issues from climate change and racism to gender equality and war and peace. UNAFF’s theme for 2020, the Power of Empathy, is certainly on target. “The Invisible Line—America’s Nazi Experiment,” however, examines how quickly empathy can vanish under the right circumstances.  Emanuel Rotstein’s disturbing film recounts the notorious psychological experiment developed in 1967 by Ron Jones, a Palo Alto high school history teacher. Designed to understand what enabled average Germans to accept a sadistic Nazi regime, the project went awry when students embraced the allure of domination and replicated a mini fascist state on campus. In “Picture of His Life” the daring underwater photographer, Amos Nachoum, who swam with great white sharks and cavorted with gigantic anacondas and crocodiles in their watery lairs, treks to the Arctic Ocean and the ends of the earth to pursue an elusive quarry, the polar bear, for the last magnificent shot of his career. 

October 15-25. UNAFF

San Francisco Dance Film Festival, a reliable source for artistic, original approaches to the merging of dance and cinema, arrives with a lineup that emphasizes jazz dance and tap, including profiles of two iconic dancer/choreographers whose accomplishments have been upstaged by their more famous partners.  “Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back” traces the vagaries of the seventy-year career of this charismatic tap dancing sensation, from his childhood, when he performed in an act, modeled on the Nicholas Brothers, with younger sibling, Gregory, whose fame would eclipse his own - their complicated competitive relationship is touched on here - to his film debut in Coppola’s “The Cotton Club,” his years in the Broadway trenches and challenges he faced as a gay black man in show business. “Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon” gives deserved, long overdue attention to the phenomenally talented Broadway song and dance superstar. It charts Verdon’s rise to prominence, often overshadowed by her turbulent marriage to flashy choreographer Bob Fosse; his neurotic, outsized personality and sexy on-stage moves had a habit of grabbing the spotlight. The doc covers Verdon’s early years, plagued by rickets and teenage pregnancy, and delivers rare performance footage, home movies and recollections of former cast members and collaborators. 

October 18-25. SF Dance Festival

Looking for a cache of artist documentaries? KinoNow.com, which has an extensive catalogue of art house and international films, is showing several. Among them is “Beyond the Visible: Hilma Af Klint, a portrait of a visionary, early twentieth century, abstract artist. A woman unfairly marginalized in a male dominated art world, Klint was recently “rediscovered” and rewarded with a critically acclaimed retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. A fusion of biography and art history, “A Bigger Splash” (1974), casts a discerning eye on the social circle of the astronomically successful David Hockney, and his gay romantic relationships, especially the excruciating end of his affair with his American muse, who popped up in numerous. C. Scott Willis’s “The Woodmans” (2010) delves into the dynamics of a creative family and the troubled psyche of one of its most promising and vulnerable members: Francesca, a young photographer who took haunting nude self- portraits, committed suicide at 22.

And don’t miss “Women Make Film,” a 14-hour, 40-chapter documentary showcasing female directors, narrated by Tilda Swinton, Debra Winger, Jane Fonda and others. Traversin 130 years of cinematic history, it airs, along with related programming, on Tuesday nights on Turner Movie Classics. Through December 1. Women Make Film

PIctured: Amos Nachoum, "Picture of His Life." Image courtesy of UNAFF.

The Invisible Line—America’s Nazi Experiment. Image courtesy UNAFF.

Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back. Image courtesy SF Dance Film Festival

Sura Wood
Sura Wood
Sura is a Bay Area arts journalist who covers film, visual art, and architecture. In addition to work for radio and television, her reviews, profiles and features have appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, the San Jose Mercury News. BAR, Dance Magazine among other publications.
Sura is a Bay Area arts journalist who covers film, visual art, and architecture. In addition to work for radio and television, her reviews, profiles and features have appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, the San Jose Mercury News. BAR, Dance Magazine among other publications.
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