Of the hundreds of thousands of feature movies made in the past century, how many were spectacular debuts? Maybe 30? Reason decrees that we can't expect the 11 first features that make up this year's SKYY Prize nominees to be brilliant; frankly, they're not. Yet it was little more than a handful of years ago that the San Francisco International Film Festival's SKYY jury awarded its prize to Jia Zhang-ke's Xiao Wu, a debut that marked the beginning of one of the most masterful filmmaking careers in the world today.
Two of this year's nominees, Kim Rossi Stuart's Along the Ridge, from Italy, and Pavel Giroud's The Silly Age, from Cuba, owe a debt to one of the great debut films, Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows. Truffaut's look at boyhood gone awry has secured the template for a half century of coming-of-age films, but like the biopics that overtake screens and vie for awards at the end of each year, such efforts have become too familiar. Aren't personal stories supposed to be one of a kind, like snowflakes? Perhaps if you've seen one snowflake, you've seen 'em all.
Nominating Horace Ahmad Shansab's Zolykha's Secret, from Afghanistan, was probably some big-hearted gesture of goodwill, but by Western standards, it's a painfully clumsy affair. Similarly, Xiaolu Guo's How Is Your Fish Today?, from China, and John Barker's Bunny Chow, from South Africa, go nowhere fast.
Bay Area native and Golden Horse Award winner Daniel Wu has turned from acting to a comedic directing debut, The Heavenly Kings. Though he treads on sacred Spinal Tap territory with his phony rockumentary idea, he and his friends Conroy Chan Chi-Chung, Andrew Lin, and Terence Yin actually went through with the indignity of being in a boy band called Alive, recording and performing to conjure up material for this film. Only one of them can sing, and none of them can dance, but that doesn't matter in today's music industry, which relies on stylists, choreographers, and hired fans - not to mention Internet scandals - for success. The Heavenly Kings is certainly scathing, even if it's only sporadically funny. (The best line involves African rainforests.)
I suspect that Marwan Hamed's The Yacoubian Building, from Egypt, is also trying to be funny, but it tries to be too many other things as well. Based on a beloved novel by Alaa' al-Aswany and sprawling to almost three hours, it's stuck between pleasing the novel's fans and appealing to new audiences, an impasse that results in heavy exposition and a kind of middling pace that makes time crawl. But it's also full of sweeping crane and dolly shots, and as with films such as The English Patient, its gargantuan scale will impress some viewers. Jean-Pascal Hattu's 7 Years, from France, is a bit more daring in its depiction of a woman who falls in love with her incarcerated husband's prison warden. But it dabbles in Bressonian artificiality without achieving a Bressonian sense of grace.
In surveying this year's SKYY Prize nominees, perhaps it's best to search for glimpses of genius or inspiration that could possibly lead to more interesting follow-ups. Joachim Trier's Reprise, from Norway, has many such glimpses, thanks to frenetic flashbacks that recall everything from Run Lola Run to Snatch and Human Traffic and also due to its discriminating taste in vintage punk music. But when the film's narrative returns to the present, it begins to wallow in a kind of maudlin, navel-gazing dopiness that kills the initial buzz. Tariq Teguia's Rome Rather Than You, shot in Algeria, couples startling cinematic brilliance with highly irritating patches of indulgence. Its tale of an Algerian pizza chef who applies for a visa to move to Italy is like a tantalizing mystery house with long, winding passages that lead nowhere.