Now in its 17th year, the San Diego Intl. Film Festival, produced by the San Diego Film Foundation, has established itself as a premier showcase for outstanding U.S. and international independent filmmaking, and will once again celebrate the year’s best cinema from emerging and established filmmakers from around the world.
SDIFF received more than 2,300 submissions from over 60 countries, including feature films, shorts and documentaries. The lineup includes 115 films from various countries, with seven Narrative Spotlight Competition films, 17 Narrative Competition films, 13 Documentary Competition films, and 72 shorts.
All screenings will be held in the historic Balboa Theater and Regal Theaters in Downtown San Diego, and ArcLight Cinemas in La Jolla. Leading the program this year are the Gala Features screenings, which include seven high-profile titles of various genres.
“All are receiving their Southern California premieres,” says Tonya Mantooth, CEO and artistic director.
The opening-night drama is “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant.
Other galas include Oscar-winner Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” a heist thriller that breaks ground as a big-budget studio actioner fronted by women of color, including Oscar-winner Viola Davis. Also on the sked: director George Tillman Jr.’s “The Hate U Give,” a ripped-from-the-headlines work of fiction based on the acclaimed New York Times bestseller of the same name by Angie Thomas. It stars Amandla Stenberg (“The Hunger Games”) in a breakout performance as Starr, a young woman who witnesses the racially charged fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend by a police officer.
Two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi’s latest, “Everybody Knows,” starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem (pictured above), will screen, along with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ period drama “The Favourite.”
Also on the docket: “Boy Erased,” directed by Joel Edgerton and starring Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Lucas Hedges, about a boy whose religious parents send him to a Christian gay-conversion therapy camp; and drama “Wildlife,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan and which is Paul Dano’s directorial debut.
The fest has a diverse slate of indies and docs, with such pics as Native American culture-themed “Indian Horse,” a Canadian production directed by Stephen Campanelli and exec-produced by Clint Eastwood, in its California premiere; and Sikh-themed “Tiger,” directed by Alister Grierson, in its world premiere.
As in years past, the festival is focusing on social initiatives, including environmental, social justice and military issues.
“But we’ve broadened our reach this year to also include cannabis education,” says Mantooth, who notes that “Mary Janes: The Women of Weed,” directed by Windy Borman and dealing with manifold issues surrounding pot, is getting its San Diego premiere.
The panel Unstoppable Women, moderated by Mantooth, will feature speakers including UC San Diego’s Naila Chowdhury, founder of Women4Empowerment; Sandra Richards, head of global sports and entertainment sales at Morgan Stanley; and filmmaker Sara Zandieh (“Simple Wedding”).
“Given everything going on today with the #MeToo movement, we felt it was important to highlight the role of women — not just in show business, but in business in general,” Mantooth adds.
As the fest has grown, so has the foundation’s education program: the Focus on Impact Film Tour.
Drawing from thousands of films submitted from around the world, about 100 pics spanning topics including homelessness, water pollution and refugees will screen. The program takes films into high schools and includes the opportunity to meet and participate in a dialogue with the filmmakers.
“The response from the high schools and the students has been remarkable,” Mantooth says. “The tour, in partnership with both San Diego County Office of Education and the San Diego Unified School District, will take a program that reached 800 students last year, and ultimately expand it to closer to 80,000.”
Another focus is the threat of animal extinction. “It’s a timely, urgent issue we want to highlight,” she says.
“Our foreign film section is also very strong, and we’re screening the British drama ‘The Drummer and the Keeper,’ directed by Nick Kelly, which is getting its local premiere.” The film is about the unlikely friendship between a rock drummer with bi-polar disorder and a teenager with autism.
“That film and many of the others really speak to the core of our mission,” sums up Mantooth. “We believe that film brings people together.”
Auteur Award – Alex Wolff
The actor-musician started acting at age 6 in the musical comedy “The Naked Brothers Band: The Movie,” written and directed by his mother, Polly Draper. It spawned the Nickelodeon series. Wolff and his brother also released two soundtrack albums for the show and formed a band before he began focusing on acting. Since then, he’s racked up a diverse range of film and television credits, including the lead in the horror hit “Hereditary,” “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” “My Friend Dahmer” and “Stella’s Last Weekend,” Wolff recently wrapped production on his feature directorial debut, “The Cat & the Moon,” in which he also stars.
Cinema Vanguard Award – Topher Grace
Grace grew up in Connecticut, honed his skills in high-school theater, and got his start as one of the stars of the iconic series, “That ’70s Show” before going on to make his mark on the big screen in high-profile films, including “Traffic” (which won him a SAG Award), “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Interstellar,” “War Machine,” “Under the Silver Lake” and “Spider-Man 3.” He was recently seen in Spike Lee’s cop drama “BlacKkKlansman” and also made the move behind the camera and completed production as producer and star of romantic musical comedy “Opening Night,” directed by Isaac Rentz.
Fairbanks Award – Kathryn Hahn
Since her breakout role as Lily Lebowski in NBC’s crime drama “Crossing Jordan,” Hahn has gone on to become one of the industry’s most versatile performers, equally at home in comedy and drama. Currently she’s starring in Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life,” the new Amazon series “The Romanoffs” and HBO’s “Mrs. Fletcher.” Recent TV credits include “I Love Dick” and “Transparent,” for which she received a 2017 Emmy nomination. Other TV credits: “Happyish,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Newsroom,” “Girls,” “Bob’s Burgers” and “American Dad!” Her eclectic film credits include “Bad Moms,” “Hotel Transylvania 3,” “Captain Fantastic,” “The Visit,” “Tomorrowland,” “Stepbrothers” and “Revolutionary Road.”
Music Icon Award – Kenny Loggins
In a four-decade-plus career, Loggins has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, won two Grammys, had smash hits including “This Is It,” “I’m Alright,” “Footloose” and “Danger Zone,” and written songs for some of Hollywood’s biggest movie soundtracks (“Top Gun,” “Caddyshack”). He’s also rocked worldwide stages, and reinvented himself as the first major rock star to dedicate himself to recording music for children and families. His album “Return to Pooh Corner” remains the best-selling children’s album of the past 20 years. In 2016, he released the kiddie book “Footloose,” inspired by his 1985 Oscar-nominated and Grammy-winning “Song of the Year.”
The Nemeth Humanitarian Award – Zachary Levi
Levi stars in the highly anticipated “Shazam!” for New Line Cinema, due out in April. The actor-singer has racked up a long list of film, TV and stage credits since he started acting at age 6. He played the title role in NBC’s comedy/spy drama “Chuck,” won a Tony nom for his starring role in the 2016 Broadway revival of “She Loves Me,” appeared in the blockbusters “Thor: The Dark World” and “Thor Ragnarok,” voiced Flynn Rider in “Tangled,” and will appear in the second season of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Levi’s also an ambassador for Operation Smile, which provide surgeries for children suffering from cleft lip or cleft palate.
Rising Star – Christian Navarro
The highly sought-after actor has grabbed a lot of attention for his portrayal of the sensitive yet ultra-cool Tony Padilla on the critically acclaimed Netflix teen drama “13 Reasons Why.” On the big screen, he next appears in the Melissa McCarthy/Fox Searchlight comedy “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” which screened at Telluride and Toronto. His other film work includes Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s 2017 action thriller “Bushwick,” which screened at Sundance and in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Additional TV credits include a recurring role on Martin Scorsese’s HBO series “Vinyl,” and guest starring roles on Showtime’s “The Affair,” Amazon’s “The Tick” and Fox’s “Rosewood.”
Spotlight Award – John Cho
The charismatic Korean-born, American-raised actor has become one of the most successful Asian stars in Hollywood, thanks to his inspired turns in such hit franchises as “Harold & Kumar,” “American Pie” and the rebooted “Star Trek.” He recently starred in Aneesh Chaganty’s award-winning “Searching,” an emotional thriller that premiered at Sundance and won the festival’s Next category of innovative filmmaking. Last year, Cho earned rave reviews for his performance in Kogonada’s “Columbus” opposite Haley Lu Richardson and will next be seen in “The Oath” from Ike Barinholtz and “The Grudge” opposite Demian Bichir. Cho is in production on the multi-generational drama “Tiger Tail” from Alan Yang for Netflix.