SAN FRANCISCO — Movie programming is a fine art, and the folks who do it professionally always hope they can find a really distinctive item to launch their latest festival.
In this regard, the selectors of the 42nd annual San Francisco International Film Festival have struck gold, kicking off their highly impressive program with the kind of picture you don't come across very often: a sensitive, thought-provoking drama that also happens to be a G-rated movie for grown-ups!
It's called The Winslow Boy. The first of its many surprises is that it was directed by David Mamet. The hard-hitting artist's best-known works - "American Buffalo" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" - are famous for orchestrating four-letter words into intricately crafted reflections of alienated characters. Coming a year after "The Spanish Prisoner," another excellent Mamet movie with a genteel vocabulary, the new picture confirms his deepening interest in a very different part of the English language.
Also unexpected is the movie's milieu. Far from the contemporary American cities that Mamet usually explores, it's a comfortable London home in the elegant Edwardian era, taken directly from the classic Terrence Rattigan play that inspired the movie. Mamet has adapted this drama faithfully, keeping its plot and themes largely intact, yet giving it a rhythmic thrust that Mamet admirers will recognize as very much his own.
The story focuses on an aging businessman whose young son has been expelled from school for a petty theft. Convinced of the boy's innocence and determined to clear his name, the father initiates a drawn-out legal fight that affects his entire family before reaching its long-delayed climax.
For all its genteel dialogue and period atmosphere, "The Winslow Boy" has remarkable relevance to the 1990s, exploring such timely issues as public morality, the value of family ties, and even the media madness that surrounds high-profile controversies. Eloquently acted by a fine cast including Nigel Hawthorne and Rebecca Pidgeon, this is the kind of movie that literate viewers pine for. The San Francisco festival programmers deserve a cheer for boosting its fortunes with a crowd-pleasing world premire.
More cheers are in order for Run Lola Run, a comedy-drama that drew a rapturous reception here. The heroine is a young woman who has just 20 minutes to save her boyfriend's life by raising a huge amount of cash. What makes the movie special is partly its anything-goes plot and partly the explosive creativity of Tom Tykwer's filmmaking, which has more energy and imagination than a dozen ordinary features. He's the most amazing new talent to hail from Germany in ages, and his debut film deserves to be a runaway hit.
Asian films always play a prominent part in this globally minded festival, and this year's list includes After Life, a gently made Japanese allegory about the relationship between love and memory. The setting is a homely old building where recently deceased people are invited to choose their most valued memory, which is then preserved by being staged and filmed on a movie set. This premise seems strained at first, but the fantasy builds genuine power as it explores the lives and hopes of its ghostly "movie producers" as well as the people they're trying to serve.
An unofficial highlight of this year's festival is the opportunity to see several pictures reflecting events in the Balkans. Powder Keg, by Goran Paskaljevic, suggests that Serbia is wracked by internal pains as wrenching as the international violence it now faces. Wounds, by Srdjan Dragojevic, crosses "Natural Born Killers" with "Beavis and Butt-head" as it uses teenage crime to represent Belgrade's social scars. Black Cat, White Cat, by Emir Kusturica, uses a raucous look at Gypsy life to divert attention from Serbian political upheavals of the kind that dominated his prize-winning "Underground" two years ago.
In addition to its impressive lineup of new movies, the festival is bestowing awards on a wide variety of major screen artists, ranging from Hollywood star Sean Penn - honored for his acting career, but represented by a screening of "The Indian Runner" (1991), his very fine directorial debut - to Johan van der Keuken, a Dutch documentarist, and Arturo Ripstein, today's greatest Mexican director. Special showings include a gala presentation of This Is My Father, with Aidan Quinn as an American teacher visiting Ireland to trace his family's troubled history.
And get ready for the reissue of A Hard Day's Night (1964), the greatest Beatles movie of them all. San Francisco has a long rock 'n' roll tradition. The fabled Fillmore Auditorium is just a few steps away from the festival's main theater, so it's fitting that the filmfest program jumps from the '60s rhythms of the British Invasion to the pulsing technopop of "Run Lola Run" and the Cuban beat of "The Buena Vista Social Club," not to mention a reunion of the Talking Heads band on the anniversary of their hit "Stop Making Sense," which premired here 15 years ago.
Movies, music, and more. This is a world-class festival, and its riches are already heading for theaters around the world.
*The festival continues through May 6. 'The Winslow Boy' opens commercially today; 'This Is My Father,' May 7; 'After Life,' May 12; 'Black Cat, White Cat,' May 14; 'Biema Vista Social Club,' June 4; 'Run Lola Run,' June 18; 'A Hard Day's Night,' Sept. 17. The tribute to Czech director Gustav Machaty, with three excellent films made around 1930, is being reprised this weekend at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.