‘King,’ ‘Wonderland’ top S.F. Film Festival

SAN FRANCISCO — Chinese director Wu Tianming’s “The King of Masks” and U.S. helmer John O’Hagan’s Sundance-preemed “Wonderland” won the Audience Awards for best feature and best documentary, respectively, at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

The fest posted its best-ever attendance, with some 77,000 patrons logged at various S.F., Berkeley and Larkspur venues.

The official May 8 closer to the 40th anniversary fest was a “surprise” world premiere — Jim Jarmusch’s “Year of the Horse,” a concert pic featuring Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

Young and fellow band members were on hand for the preem screening, though only Jarmusch hung out to answer questions afterward. “This film was made in a very loose kind of way — I guess that’s obvious,” he said, alluding to pic’s rough-hewn, largely 8mm-shot (albeit Dolby-recorded) impact. “It wasn’t the kind of grind to make that a feature (narrative) film is.” The gentle waftage of nonmedicinal marijuana in the Castro Theatre during unspooling made it clear that this aud hadn’t come to see an art flick, in any case.

Media hoopla

Despite all fourth decade local media hoopla and an earnest (if just semi-successful) effort at courting celeb visitors, the fest sked underlined the event’s ongoing appeal to true cineastes. Sellout screenings testified to idiosyncratic S.F. tastes — obscurantist Russian helmer Aleksandr Sokurov required a fourth, added date for his poetical non-narrative “Mother and Son” — while notable guests made appearances ranging from the gracious to the pugnacious.

Annette Bening arrived to accept her Peter J. Owens Award for “an actor whose work exemplifies brilliance, independence and integrity” on April 25 with hubby Warren Beatty duly in attendance — though he kept well out of her spotlight, to the polite exasperation of stardust-lusting locals. Bening was composed and articulate on subjects ranging from her famous marriage (“We have a life together that’s separate from all of this, as much as it can be. … That life makes moments like this special”) to filmmaking itself (“It’s hard to feel spontaneous or free because it’s all so expensive”).

But her most engaged words were saved for late American Conservatory Theatre founder Bill Ball, who gave Bening her first break. “He was my hero, my mentor … and a real madman, who was very kind to me.” The infamously temperamental Ball cast Conservatory student Bening in early 1980s leads, which led to her Broadway and subsequent Hollywood breakthroughs.

Italo cinemaster Francesco Rosi accepted his lifetime achievement Akira Kurosawa Award following a May 2 screening of his 1973 gangster drama “Lucky Luciano.” “Life is a balance between truth and lies. … I don’t believe in the ‘happy ending,’ ” he said. “The solution is never so certain.”

This stalwart inheritor to the neo-realist tradition admitted that, as a child, he’d won a Jackie Coogan lookalike contest — and passed up a resulting prize trip because his mom wouldn’t let him go to L.A.

Brit stage/TV/film writer and sometime actor Alan Bennett (“The Madness of King George”) couldn’t tear himself away from home ground during a general election week, stymieing the fest’s tribute. So L.A.-based, U.K.-bred comic thesp Tracey Ullman accepted his honors on May 1, deploying her own ease with multicharacter voices to deliciously recite from several decades’ worth of arch/poignant Bennett “diaries.”

Hungarian-born Hollywood mainstay Andre de Toth (director as well as sometime screenwriter, producer and husband to ’40s glam zenith Veronica Lake) blistered S.F. Fest audiences with his salty insights, few of which are printable here. His 1954 noir “Crime Wave” and amazingly prescient 1944 war-crimes drama “None Shall Escape” (offered in a new print) were retro’d.

After screening of the latter for a film-student audience, the wheelchair-bound, eye-patched de Toth offered his 84 years’ accumulated wisdom. “I don’t like to hear myself and I don’t like to bullshit around. What do you expect of me? … Don’t compromise. Make the biggest goddamn mistake you can — but don’t repeat it, that’s a bad habit.”

Closing night at SFIFF brought news of the first annual Skyy Vodka Award, which honors a career-outset director whose feature hasn’t yet won U.S. distribution. Winner of the $10,000 prize (judged by an industry/journalist panel) was Swiss helmer Olivier Assayas for the Tunisian-set drama “Honey and Ashes.”

Scoring high behind “King of Masks” and “Wonderland” on the audience polls were Charles Burnett’s U.S. telepic “Nightjohn,” dual Argentine dramas “Autumn Sun” and “Moebius,” Italo-German co-prod “Pizzicata,” Belgian “La Promesse” and American docus “A Midwife’s Tale,” “Colors Straight Up” and “Nobody’s Business.”

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