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By Jessica Baxter | April 24, 2014

Spring in lovely San Francisco, CA may not sound like the ideal time to hide yourself away in a windowless room for hours on end. But film lovers clamoring to be the first to discover the next great indie film will be richly rewarded by choosing darkness.

Now in its 57th year, the San Francisco International Film Festival curates an extremely diverse program, including exclusive premieres, special engagements and critical darlings making the festival circuit.

With 168 films to choose from, it’s difficult to know where to start with planning your schedule. However, I can tell you with certainty that you’ll want to make room for at least a couple of the following:

The festivities kick off on April 24th with the North American premiere of “The Two Faces of January” at the Castro Theatre. Special guests may or may not include stars Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst or writer Hossein Amini (“Drive”) who also directed this literary adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith thriller Reportedly, Amini employs the same dialogue-light tension-building tone that he perfected in “Drive”, so if that did anything for you, this one sounds like a safe bet. Afterward, the party moves to Public Works for celebrated local fare and craft cocktails.

The 2014 Founder’s Directing Award recipient is none other than Richard Linklater. The celebration includes coverage of his vast career, which started turning heads way back in 1991 with “Slacker” and has since churned out numerous beloved experimental and straightforward narratives (“Dazed and Confused”, “Waking Life”, the “Before [time of day]” trilogy). The “Evening with Richard Linklater” on May 1st includes a live interview and a screening of his latest opus, “Boyhood” – a film 12 years in the making. The story follows a 6-year-old boy through childhood, adolescence and the cusp of adulthood at the age of 18. The same actor throughout the film plays the protagonist. Though the narrative is a fictional one, the film’s star truly grows up before our eyes, allegedly resulting in one of the most honest portrayals of a man’s formative years ever captured. It also stars Patricia Arquette and Linklater’s muse, Ethan Hawke. It’s cinematic experiment not to be missed.

The musical spotlight includes an exclusive screening of Tod Browning’s (“Freaks”) cult classic thriller, “The Unknown” along with a live score from Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. Browning’s lesser-known work tells the story of an armless circus performer who uses his feet to amaze audiences and get away with murder. Don’t miss the one-time screening on May 6th at the Castro Theatre.

It’s not often that I look forward to a sequel, but I am thrilled to pieces about Michael Winterbottom’s follow-up to 2010’s “The Trip”, called “The Trip to Italy”. It’s probably not necessary to see the original because the premises sound fairly identical, but this is a recipe that seems immune to staleness thanks to the staggering talents of character comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Playing parodies of their real-life personas, Coogan and Brydon once again take to the road bankrolled by The Observer to write a travel series about Italy. But they are motivated by far more than a journalism assignment. The men are professional fremeses (friendly nemeses), with a rivalry mostly fueled by Coogan’s thinly-veiled insecurity and love/faux-hate relationship with fame. Their wit battles and impression-offs are hilarious and peppered with emotional sucker-punches, leaving you feeling both entertained and exorcised. Though I haven’t seen the film, I can stake my reputation (I probably have one of those, right?) on the foolproof formula.

The festival centerpiece is “Palo Alto”, is a coming-of-age story, Franco style. Adapted from Renaissance man James Franco’s book of short stories and directed by Gia “You May Have Heard of my Grandpa” Coppola, the ensemble cast features Franco as well as Emma Roberts and Val Kilmer. It premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last August to some acclaim. It’s rumored that Franco’s recent “chat snafu” with a 17-year-old girl was actually a publicity stunt to promote the film in which he plays a high school soccer teacher who has an affair with a student. Come decide for yourself (or ask the director) at the May 3rd screening at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

Ever wonder about the bearded face staring at you from your all-natural cosmetics? “Burt’s Buzz” will clear the mist surrounding the man behind the popular “Burt’s Bees” product line. Ingram Berg Shavitz is an eccentric loner, holed up on his farm in Maine. That is, when he’s not traveling the world to promote the products which bare his image. He is an enigma with a complex relationship to his brand of fame and the tale of how it came about is a riveting one.

You have 3 chances (May 3rd, 5th and 7th) to catch “South is Nothing”. Italian director, Fabio Mollo also co-wrote the powerful script, which serves as a series of swift punches to the gut as 17-year-old Grazia and her single father deal (and not deal) with the death of her brother. Lead actress, Miriam Karlvist, deftly wields the emotional weight of the sparse script. We don’t always know what’s going through her head, but we don’t need specifics to feel her grief and frustration with her father’s refusal to connect and her own inability to find where she belongs.

Mexico’s answer to “Moonrise Kingdom”, writer/director Fernando Eimbcke has perfectly captured the fleeting adolescent vacation romance with “Club Sandwich”. 15-year-old Hector and his young, hip, single mother, Paloma, seem perfectly content spending their off-season resort vacation lounging around the deserted pool and playing card games in their hotel room. But Hector’s emerging sexuality is the elephant in the room that only becomes more apparent once a girl his own age shows up. Confident, precocious Jazmin is the passive-aggressor in their budding fling, while Paloma struggles to accept the fact that her baby boy is growing up. Eimbcke’s quiet script packs pathos a-plenty.

Fans of musician, Elliott Smith, will not want to miss Nickolas Rossi’s documentary, “Heaven Adores You”. While the interviews leave many questions unanswered, the beautiful images of Smith’s stomping grounds scored with his music provide a unique level of intimacy with the man himself.

The festival winds down on May 8th at the Castro with the premiere of “Alex of Venice”, the directorial debut from Chris Messina (TVs “The Mindy Project”) who also stars alongside the always-winning Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Winstead plays the titular protagonist, a lawyer struggling to hold her life together after the unexpected departure of her husband. The buzz is that both Messina and Winstead (who will be in attendance) knock it out of the park.

Check out the festival website for descriptions of all the films, screening times and to buy tickets.

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