One of the Bay Area’s finest movie events, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, returns this week while other enticing fare—the documentary “Spirit of Golf,” another harrowing documentary about the Russia-Ukraine war, and a light, delightful ode to teen drama camps—offer more tempting choices this week. Oh, lest we forget, two heavy hitters are coming out of the batting cage this week. You might have heard, seen and read about Christopher Nolan’s biopic “Oppenheimer,” filmed partially in Berkeley, and Greta Gerwig’s peppy treatment of “Barbie.”
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The 43rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, with an impressive array of films, docs, shorts and events, runs July 20 through Aug. 6 with screenings in San Francisco at the Castro and Vogue theaters and in Oakland at the Piedmont.
The opening night documentary “Remembering Gene Wilder” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Castro promises to be an enlightening, loving portrait (get ready to cry, in other words) of the late actor and comedian. Closing the San Francisco portion of the fest, “Bella!” at 8:05 p.m. July 30 at the Castro, illuminates how tenacious lawyer and women’s rights advocate Bella Abzug blazed trails for feminists.
We watched a few narrative features in advance. Here are our recommendations:
“Alam”: This Bay Area premiere follows Palestinian teens—in particular the casually political Tamer (Mahmood Bakri)—as they develop tight associations and start to engage in protesting. Director Firas Khoury’s passionate award winner (best film, best actor and audience award at the Cairo Film Festival) is topical and heartfelt as it reflects human feelings and that power that arises from using the flag as a symbol of expression and pride. (8:45 p.m. July 28, Vogue)
“I Like Movies”: In this coming-of-age dramedy set in 2003, 17-year-old movie fanatic and self-centered, wannabe filmmaker Lawrence (a painfully real Isaiah Lehtinen) alienates those around him with his grandiose vision of his own talent. His overstated but insecure ways put a strain on his relationships with his directing partner (Percy Hynes White), stressed single mom (Krista Bridges) and new boss (Romina D’Ugo) at a video store in the small Ontario town where he lives. Director-screenwriter Chandler Levack’s brittle comedy, in its Bay Area premiere, is the fest’s next wave spotlight. Although it veers sometimes into that nails-on-the-chalkboard squirmy territory, it’s warranted, Lawrence’s neediness. That edginess makes his journey more interesting, and, best of all, more realistic. (6 p.m. July 21, Castro)
“My Neighbor Adolf”: In this satirical two hander (mostly), Holocaust survivor and nosy neighbor Marek suspects the guy who just moved in next door in a reclusive South American village is Hitler himself. The notion creates all sorts of havoc. Director Leon Prudovsky all but hands over the film to his two leads, David Hayman and Udo Kier, and it’s one wise decision. They obviously are having fun with the material, staging highly theatrical confrontations, exchanges and dustups. The Bay Area premiere is the festival’s centerpiece narrative. (6 p.m. July 22 at the Castro; 5:45 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Piedmont)
“The Secret Art of Human Flight”: Bay Area filmmaking treasure H.P. Mendoza soars yet again with this sentimental but not saccharine dramedy about a grieving husband (Grant Rosenmeyer in a soulful performance as Ben Grady) partnering with a kooky shaman/hippie-like character (perfectly cast Paul Raci) to learn how to fly. Yup, you read that correctly. Ben follows a manual that advises him to engage in questionable activities, all of which attract the attention and concern of his neighbors. The movie’s a heart warmer in the best way; it’s a treat watching this sweet guy seeking to wing away from his catastrophic grief. The movie’s West Coast premiere is the fest’s local spotlight. (8:30 p.m. July 23, Castro)
“The Shadow of the Day”: The grip of fascism tightens its hold in late 1930s Italy, and one person feeling the ratcheting pressure is apprehensive new restaurant employee Anna (Benedetta Porcaroli). She’s holding tight to her own secret, but even her skittish ways won’t deter Luciano (Riccardo Scamarcio), the fine eatery’s manager, from falling for her and ultimately begin to question his own fascist-compliant behavior. The two leads are exceptional; Porcaroli shows a growing desperation and Scamarcio handles his character’s political awakening with deftness. Add in handsome production design, director (and co-writer) Giuseppe Piccioni’s wistful direction and a couple of surprise plot developments, the result is a timeless, absorbing old-fashioned romantic drama that takes a mature look at the meaning of what it is to love someone else, even if you can’t have them. Put this one near the top of your must-see list. (8:55 p.m. July 21, Castro).
“Valeria Is Getting Married”: Told in an airtight 71 minutes and over the course of one eventful day, director Michal Vinik’s claustrophobic drama does an effective job of slamming the door on arranged marriages. There’s not a spare scene or exchange in Vinik’s infuriated feminist feature, a volcanic eruption in which Valeria (Dasha Tvoronovich) flies to Tel Aviv from the Ukraine to meet for the first time, and live with, her selected husband. The pricey union was arranged via the controlling husband of Valeria’s sister Christiane (Lena Fraifeld), who has been in an arranged marriage with Michael (Yaakov Zada Daniel) for a few months. A showdown plays out as tempers flare, pretext and niceties get tossed aside, and characters reveal their biases and hatreds. It’s an electrifying achievement, shot mostly in the unnerving tight quarters of an apartment. The cast seems so real that “Valeria” resembles a wrenching docudrama, and Fraifeld’s complex portrayal of Christiane subtly hits the hardest. The film’s Bay Area premiere at 8:30 p.m. July 29 at the Vogue includes the presentation of the Freedom of Expression Award to actor, writer, producer Lisa Edelstein, along with a screening of her short “Swipe NYC,” actors strike conditions permitting. “Valeria Is Getting Married” also screens at 8 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Piedmont.
For tickets, additional information and a schedule, visit https://jfi.org/sfjff-2023
Should you be a golfer, you and your caddy might want to hop in a cart and head to a 4:15 p.m. July 23 one-time-only screening and onstage talk about director Christopher Felver’s “Spirit of Golf” at the Smith Rafael Film Center.
The Bay Area filmmaker and photographer uses Michael Murphy’s book “Golf in the Kingdom” as his inspiration and framework for this valentine to the sport; the film visits many historic courses and includes discussions with greats such as Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Nancy Lopez and more. Felver, Murphy and historian and author Al Barkow appear at the screening. To sink a hole in one for a ticket, visit https://rafaelfilm.cafilm.org/spirit-of-golf/.
The immersive journalistic documentary “20 Days in Mariupol” exemplifies what it means to be a “tough watch.” But it’s an essential historical document that shows the relentless barrage of Russian attacks on buildings and civilians in the Ukrainian port city. A collaborative project between the Associated Press and PBS’ Frontline, the film captures what committed and embedded Associated Press correspondents, the only journalists there, witnessed. The harrowing accounts got pilloried by a Russian misinformation campaign that claims that some of the dead bodies and carnage were staged. This devastating account from director and journalist Mstyslav Chernov counters the falsehoods, showing brutality and casualties and emphasizing the need for legitimate, vetted journalism. It’s one of the most intense pieces of filmmaking you’ll watch this year. Opens Friday at the Roxie in San Francisco and the Smith Rafael Film Center; Q&As with director Chernov are slated for the 6:30 p.m. July 22 screening at the Roxie and the 4:30 p.m. July 23 screening at the Smith Rafael.
A perfect antidote to that hard-to-watch documentary is delightful comedy “Theater Camp,” directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s kooky homage to summer drama camps and the lovable, at times frustrating, stage folks associated with them. The plot’s breezy: Troy, an out-of-his-element tech guy (Jimmy Tatro, a scene stealer) is thrust into overseeing a scrappy New York camp that’s showing a lot of wear and tear and is situated nearby a well-funded camp. Troy’s tone-deaf ways don’t sway many, including returning camp organizers (Ben Platt and Gordon), who embark on creating a unique stage production to keep the camp from capsizing. Noah Galvin, in a supporting role, has some of the best moments. (“Theater Camp” opens Friday in theaters.)