44th annual event to focus on West

SAN FRANCISCO — As its artistic director of the past two decades, Peter Scarlet, prepares to move way east, to his new post heading up the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, the San Francisco Intl. Film Festival seems in a particularly West Coast mood.

California dreamers dominate this 44th year’s sked, topped by tributes to Carmel-based Hollywood veteran Clint Eastwood and L.A. experimental pioneer Kenneth Anger.

Opening and closing nights tilt westward as well.

First is the world preem of hometown talent Wayne Wang’s new “Center of the World,” a sexually graphic meeting of minds between computer geek (Peter Sarsgaard) and sex worker (Molly Parker). Artisan will release the digitally shot feature unrated the day after its SFIFF kickoff on April 19.

Closer on May 3 is Brit director Michael Winterbottom’s MGM feature “The Claim,” a drama transplanting Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” to a mid-19th century California Gold Rush setting. Peter Mullan, Sarah Polley, Wes Bentley and Milla Jovovich topline.

A third gala screening/party takes place May 1 with preem of writer-director-actor Edward Burns’ romantic comedy “Sidewalks of New York,” in which he co-stars with Heather Graham and Stanley Tucci.

Hottest ticket, however, is likely to be the April 26 Palace of Fine Arts presentation of the lifetime-achievement Akira Kurosawa Award to Eastwood, whom fest has been trying to corral for years.

Placing focus on his directing rather than acting record, event will feature screening of his 1972 sophomore feature as helmer, “High Plains Drifter,” as well as a rare onstage interview. Elsewhere, current fest program offers Eastwood-as-auteur highlights including his fave “Bronco Billy” (1980). Peter J. Owens Award to a performer of “brilliance, independence and integrity” goes to Stockard Channing. April 24 presentation precedes screening of “The Business of Strangers,” Patrick Stettner’s drama about female skullduggery in the corporate world. At Sundance preem, pic garnered raves for Channing. She and Eastwood also will be feted at an April 25 black-tie Film Society Awards Night.

Other designated “Big Nights” during the two-week fest include unspooling of Anger’s entire nine-title “Magick Lantern Cycle” (1947-1980) on April 22. Main program is laden with global filmmakers, among them Kon Ichikawa (“Dora-Heita”), Agnes Varda (“The Gleaners & I”) and Jan Svankmajer (“Otesanek”).

High-profile docus on tap include photographer Bruce Weber’s first feature in 12 years, “Chop Suey,” plus “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures.” Fiction slate is highlighted by Joseph M. Castelo’s Amerindie preem “American Saint,” a latter-day beatnik saga starring Kevin Corrigan and controversial French pic “Baise-Moi.”

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