Pick a movie, any movie.
That's my advice for truly surrendering yourself to the San Francisco International Film Festival, kicking off its 56th year and running from April 25 to May 4.
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In case that's too overwhelming to ponder, here are 10 films in the ambitious lineup you might want to consider:
"What Maisie Knew": Oh, how I love this wise, observant little gem: a modern retelling of a Henry James novel. Told through the eyes of a sensitive 6-year-old (Onata Aprile in an Oscar-worthy performance), "Maisie" depicts an ugly tug-of-war custody battle between two selfish parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, both terrific). It's a deceptively simple tale with a rich, meaningful emotional core. Kudos to directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel ("The Deep End") for producing their finest film yet, and to Alexander Skarsgard of "True Blood" for such a sweet supporting performance. What a great way to open the festival. (7 p.m., April 25, Castro Theatre. ) Opens wide May 24.
"Frances Ha": In Noah Baumbach's buoyant, razor-sharp dramedy, filmed in black and white, a 27-year-old who's a modestly talented dancer but quite good choreographer struggles to find her place in the world, or more specifically, New York City. Greta Gerwig is pitch-perfect as the alternately endearing and frustrating title character -- someone who rambles on enough to stick her foot in her mouth on a regular basis. This is one of the most beguiling and consistently clever dramedies I've seen recently. Who wouldn't adore a film that features such clever lines as: "Don't treat me like a three-hour brunch friend." Don't miss it. (6:30 p.m. May 2, Kabuki; 4 p.m., May 3, Kabuki). Also scheduled to open in San Francisco, San Jose and Berkeley on May 24.
"Before You Know It": Director PJ Raval ventures beyond the obvious to create fully etched portraits of three older gay men. Raval's insightful, nearly two-hour documentary never stalls as it tells the stories of a conflicted Texas bar owner, a committed Harlem activist and a depressed widower who divides his time between Florida and Oregon and is fond of wearing women's clothing. "Before You Know It" avoids manipulative claptrap and goes for candor, as he shows us why issues such as same-sex marriage truly matter. (6 p.m., May 3, Kabuki; 9 p.m. May 5, Kabuki; 5 p.m. May 9, Kabuki)
"Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time": Anyone who loves a gangster film should rush out to see this engrossing South Korean epic. Writer/director Yoon Jong-bin charts the 1980s ascension of a sociopathic customs official ("Oldboy's" Choi Min-sik), who unites with a shrewd, sharp-dressed gangster boss (Ha Jung-woo). Everyone's a rat, and that's part of why Jong-bin's uncompromising and violent character study is such fun to watch. (9:45 p.m., April 27, Kabuki; 9:30 p.m., May 2, Kabuki; 1:15 p.m., May 3, Kabuki)
"Google and the World Brain": The talking-heads documentary can be a bore. This one, which takes a subject that sounds stultifying -- Google's drive to digitize books -- isn't. Visually, director Ben Lewis didn't have a lot to work with, since video of the actual digitizing process is limited to a snippet, and even then it's not exactly cinematic. So he relies on interviewees to raise salient talking points about the benefits and downfalls of this ambitious -- some would say blindly so -- project. For the most part, that approach is successful. A fascinating dive into big-picture issues about the Internet. (6:45 p.m. April 27, New People; 6:30 p.m. May 5, Kabuki)
"Il Futuro": After their parents die in a car crash, the future grows bleak for teens Bianca (Manuela Martelli) and Tomas (Luigi Ciardo). Further complications arise when Tomas invites two shady personal trainers to stay at their messy apartment. The duo cooks up a criminal scheme that requires Bianca to land in the bed of a gone-to-seed former Mr. Universe/action actor (Rutger Hauer). To Bianca's surprise, she falls for the older blind man. The premise is way creepy, but director Alicia Scherson and frequently nude actress Martelli, along with Hauer, tap into why these two souls are attracted to each other -- no matter how wrong it is. It's a shame the ending is so anti-climatic. (6:45 p.m. May 7, Kabuki; 9:30 p.m. May 8, Kabuki; 8:50 p.m., May 9, BAM/PFA)
"In the Fog": Devoid of any real hope, director Sergei Loznitsa's claustrophobic World War II drama set in a ravaged Russia is an endurance test. But weather its determined bleakness, and you'll find a strikingly photographed parable on war and how it strips man of rational choices. An innocent rail worker (Vladimir Svirski), accused of something he didn't do, escapes a hanging only to face an even worse fate. You might need to throw back some anti-depressants to soldier on to its end, but you won't deny Loznitsa is a talented filmmaker. (6:30 p.m., April 26, BAM/PFA, 6:30 p.m. April 28, New People; 9:30 p.m. April 30, New People)
"Nights With Theodore": Quirky is too tame a word to describe this odd confection from director Sebastien Bebeder. Consider the plot: Boy meets girl in Paris. Boy takes girl to Buttes Chaumont Park. Boy and girl make it their go-to spot. Boy gets possessive of the place. Girl thinks he might be off. Guess what? She's right! Everything about Bebeder's tale is offbeat, including the documentarylike history of Buttes Chaumont at the start to the unsettling development near the end. A curious story, well told and acted. (6:45 p.m. April 28, Kabuki; 3:30 p.m. April 29, Kabuki; 9:30 p.m., May 5, Kabuki)
"The Last Step": Iran's film industry is undeniably impressive. And while this compelling surrealist love triangle fades in comparison to 2011's "A Separation," it does share one of its greatest attributes -- the stunning Leila Hatami at its center. Hatami plays Leyli, an actress whose husband Khosro (Ali Mosaffa, who also directed and wrote the screenplay) dies. The dead husband provides the voice-over narration as the screenplay metes out some shocks sallying back and forth in time. The film left me feeling emotionally disconnected, but Hatami couldn't be better. (7 p.m. May 4, New People; 6:15 p.m. May 8, New People; 1 p.m. May 9, New People)
"Therèse Desqueyroux": Claude Miller was an elegant director with a knack for burrowing deep into complicated characters. Fittingly this -- his final film which he was working on when he died -- delivers an unsettling psychological portrait of a repressed 1926 woman ("Amelie's" Audrey Tautou) stuck in a marriage aimed to help two families unite their large land parcels. Tautou is mesmerizing as the crafty, jealous lead character, and the gorgeous film reflects an expert craftsman at work. (3 p.m. April 27, Kabuki; 6:30 p.m. April 29, New People) ___
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