The 26th Sonoma International Film Festival kicks off Wednesday, March 22, with five days of films from all over the world, discussions with directors and actors, food events, parties and more.
With so many extraordinary screenings at this year’s Sonoma International Film Festival, it’s hard to select the 10 best, so this list goes to 12.
Based on interviews with Festival Director Ginny Krieger and Artistic Director Carl Spence, here are some of the most compelling programs, many featuring appearances by filmmakers and actors.
“The biggest excitement is when filmmakers descend on Sonoma,” Krieger said. “It just brings such a tremendous vibe to our town. It brings a wealth of talent. The town just bustles.”
One highlight is the Chefs and Shorts dinner featuring Martin Yan of “Yan Can Cook” fame.
The dinner pairs short films with an innovative five-course dinner, with each course riffing off a film. Other participating chefs include Michael Howell, Emily Lim and Ruby Oliveros. 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, at the Hanna Center.
The festival is truly international, with the 110 films coming from 32 countries. Eight feature films are making their U.S. premieres, including one that is making its world premiere.
This year the festival will employ four screens at Prime Cinemas, about 2 miles from downtown Sonoma.
Most attendees purchase festival passes, Krieger said, but you can buy tickets to single screenings. Some films show twice during the festival, which runs March 22-26.
“Jules” starring Ben Kingsley is the opening-night film, a comedy about an older man whose life is turned upside-down when he receives a surprise visitor. “It’s about finding purpose in life at any age,” Spence said. Kingsley, director Marc Turtletaub and several other stars will attend the screening at Sebastiani Theatre. The 90-minute film also shows at Sonoma Memorial Veterans Hall. The post-film conversation will be live-cast there. Both screenings are at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 22.
“Two Many Chefs” is a haute-cuisine comedy about a young chef and his amnesiac father who reconnect in pursuit of a third Michelin star, fine dining’s Holy Grail. “It’s a big-budget Spanish film,” Spence noted. 3:30 p.m. Friday, March 24, and 6 p.m. Saturday, March 25, both at Veterans Hall.
“The Grab” spotlights how resources are being acquired worldwide, threatening food and water security, especially in the developing world. One example: Saudi Arabia’s purchase of land in rural Arizona where there’s no limit on how much groundwater can be pumped, even if it drains the wells of local farmers. It’s directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“Blackfish”), and the film’s primary investigator is Nathan Halverson, a former reporter for The Press Democrat. 7:15 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at Prime Cinemas.
“The Beasts” focuses on a brooding French couple in a Galician mountain town, “but the locals are not sure why they’re there,” Spence said. It’s a classic culture clash: The couple seeks salvation in a place found by accident after a drunken bender, but one local says: “I wish you’d woken up in a different village.” 10:15 a.m. Friday, March 24, at Andrews Hall and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at Prime Cinemas.
“Last Dance” is the U.S. premiere of this Swiss film about a man whose wife dies suddenly. To honor her, he fills the role she played in an avant-garde theatrical dance performance. 3:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, and 10 a.m. Saturday, March 25, both at Veterans Hall.
“Big Giant Wave” considers how music makes us human and connects people by transcending boundaries. This documentary travels from Canada to Italy, from Sweden to Mexico. Scientists and artists consider music’s essential role in our lives. 4:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, and 1 p.m. Saturday, March 25, both at Prime Cinemas.
“Ajoomma” is about a widow in Singapore who pursues her dream of visiting South Korea. Mrs. Lim, who is called “Auntie,” is an avid fan of Korean soap operas and has convinced her son to take her on a tour of Seoul. When the son backs out of the trip, Auntie decides to go alone on the Secrets of the Stars tour, which sounds fine until the bus accidently leaves her behind. 4:15 p.m. Friday, March 24, at Prime Cinemas and 1 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at Andrews Hall.
In “Joyland” a Pakistani film that won the Cannes jury prize, a theater manager falls in love with a transgender star. Variety calls it a “luminous Pakistani crowd-pleaser” that’s “tartly funny and plungingly sad” in which “taboo desires emerge tentatively into the open” but “there’s no identified villain or oppressor, just an uncertain world.” 12:30 Thursday, March 23, at Veterans Hall.
“Carmen” is a tale about the sister of a priest in rural Malta. When he dies, she masquerades as the new priest. From the confession booth she dispenses sage advice, empowering women to live in this life rather than wait for the next. Donations soar, and she uses these funds in unorthodox ways. “This film electrified me,” Spence said. 6 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at Veterans Hall.
“A Stage of Twilight” stars the engaging Karen Allen as a woman whose husband has been diagnosed with a terminal condition. They grope for ways to navigate the abyss of impending death and do their best to support one another along the way. Allen is slated to attend the screenings. 4:30 p.m. Friday, March 24, and 1:15 p.m. Saturday, March 25, both at Prime Cinemas.
“The Eight Mountains” is one of two closing-night films. It’s a tale of two boyhood friends, one from the city, the other from a remote mountain village, who have chosen different paths as adults. Both seek to escape the legacies of their fathers. This Italian film won the Cannes jury prize. 6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 26, at Veterans Hall.
Foodies shouldn’t miss “The Art of M.F.K. Fisher,” about the legendary author who spent her last years in Glen Ellen and whose writing celebrated the enjoyment of sharing a fine meal. The film includes comments from author Anne Lamott, food critic Ruth Reichl and Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters; 1 p.m. Friday, March 24, at Andrews Hall.
The films above are just a sampling. Among the other great ones are “Final Cut,” a zombie thriller where the horror becomes real, and “Master Gardener” starring Sigourney Weaver.
Krieger suggests perusing the schedule, watching a bunch of trailers and making your own list of top films and events. No matter what you choose, you can’t go wrong.
Michael Shapiro’s latest book, “The Creative Spark,” is a collection of interviews with writers and musicians, contact him via: michaelshapiro.net