All it took was one great glass elevator ride to know that the San Francisco International Film Festival had changed — a ride up to the top floor of a downtown hotel, where the press conference for the 49th SFIFF took place. In recent years, the nation's oldest film festival put on conferences that had the stultifying air of the type of garden country club lecture presented as a grotesquerie in the original Manchurian Candidate. This year, new executive director Graham Leggat surveyed the room and a 360-degree view of the city while announcing the arrival of a new film-focused Web site, www.sf360.org. If the lofty heights of the setting and Leggat's many ambitions could be said to induce vertigo, his pep talk showed he's considerably more connected with the film community in San Francisco than those who'd recently come before him.
Landing just before Cannes on the calendar, SFIFF has long had to glean the best from the festivals of the previous 12-plus months. The 49th SFIFF has done a better than usual job of shopping for nonstodgy items at Toronto, Sundance, and other fests, landing films such as The Descent, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, James Longley's unembedded doc Iraq in Fragments, and Half Nelson, which features a Ryan Gosling performance that will probably figure in the Oscars next spring. Recently snubbed by the Academy, the oft-brilliant Werner Herzog more than deserves the Film Society Directing Award, and it's great to have Guy Maddin in town. Deerhoof and Heaven and Earth Magic seem like an inspired pairing. The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros and A Short Film about the Indio Nacional may be the tip of a fresh, unconventional wave of Filipino cinema, or they may be the wave itself. The Bridge and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple are dialogue-sparking films about suicide that belong to the Bay Area, even if the rival Tribeca Film Festival seems to have swooped in and landed them as premieres just a few days earlier.
This year's fest could be accused of being overly besotted with gadgetry. Only time will tell whether the festival's Kinotek section, devoted to "new platforms, new work, new audiences" honors gimmicks over content. Yes, it's great that Tilda Swinton is an actor with intelligence. But the idea of projecting a Big Tilda upon the city seems more than a bit silly. And I wonder about a selection of seven Japanese films that includes some painful conceits while leaving out the latest film by Akihiko Shiota, and Shunichi Nagasaki's sequel to his own Heart, Beating in the Dark.
The SFIFF has gotten a bum rap lately — scrape away the public image of a fest like last year's and you'd find an excellent, deep, if sometimes overly solemn, array of movies. San Francisco suffers from no shortage of film festivals, but it's oldest still has a depth and breadth others can scarcely match, and Leggat's arrival gives SFIFF a much-needed boost of energetic, idea-driven intelligence. Now, when it turns 50, perhaps it can go toe-to-toe with the near simultaneous Tribeca fest helmed by ex–SFIFF executive director Peter Scarlet. Programming wars ain't pretty, but they're sure to yield some drama. SFBG