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Top picks for this weekend’s Sonoma International Film Fest

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Symbols of screening locations

ST= Sebastiani Theatre at 476 First Street East

VB= Veteran’s Memorial Building, rooms I or II at 126 First Street West

AH= Andrew’s Hall at the Sonoma Community Center at 276 East Napa Street

SVMA= Sonoma Valley Museum of Art at 551 Broadway

VH= Vintage House at 264 Frist Street East

BH= Burlingame Hall at 253 W. Spain

The banners are up around the Plaza and the Sonomawood sign will be installed on Wednesday morning. The 21st annual Sonoma International Film Festival is back and, according to executive director Kevin McNeely, bigger and better than ever.

The festival runs Wednesday through March 25 and its primary venues are the Sebastiani Theatre (ST), Vintage House (VH), Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (SVMA), Andrews Hall (AH), Burlingame Hall (BH) and the Veterans Memorial Building (VB). With more than 100 films to choose from, we’ve taken a crack at highlighting some of the most highly anticipated entries this year.

Wednesday

The festival opens on Wednesday night with two choices of opening films. The French drama “Back to Burgundy” at 7:15 p.m. (ST) centers on three siblings who reunite at their home in Burgundy to save the family vineyard. The Swedish drama “Borg vs. McEnroe” focuses on the famous tennis rivalry, and it screens at 7:45 p.m. (VH)

Thursday

Filmgoers who are raring to go on the first full day of screenings can catch the timely American comedy “Life Hack” about digital privacy... or lack thereof. Thursday at 9 a.m. and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (AH).

Tied with “Life Hack” in advance buzz is “The Rockstar of Real Estate” featuring TEDx, speaker Ken DeLeon. DeLeon has led the pack of Silicon Valley realtors for over a decade, despite major tragedies and heartbreaking loss. Thursday at 2 p.m. (SB) and Saturday at 11:30 a.m. (VB).

“In the Orchard” is a powerful American drama that centers on a grief-stricken woman who befriends a Marine veteran with PTSD, and the relationship which may lead them toward tragic consequences. Thursday at 2 p.m. (AH) and Friday at 8:30 p.m. (VH).

If light-hearted comedy is more your thing, “Funny Story” will fit the bill. After years of being a neglectful father, a womanizing TV star decides to crash his estranged daughter’s vacation in Big Sur. Thursday at 11:30 a.m. and Saturday at 11:45 a.m. (VH).

Sweden’s Oscar submission is perhaps the feel-good film of the festival. “The Square” is set in a renowned museum where an artist exhibits an installation meant to promote altruism. Thursday at 5 p.m. (ST) and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. (SVMA).

Perhaps the most highly anticipated documentary is “Wilder than Wild: Fire, Forests and the Future” by local filmmaker Kevin White. Thursday at 11:45 a.m. and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (AH).

But it wouldn’t be SIFF without a film about weed. “Mary Janes: The Women of Weed” uncovers the women who are changing the face of today’s fastest growing industry – cannabis. Thursday at 2:15 p.m. (VH) and Saturday at 9 a.m. (VB).

Two of McNelly’s two top picks for hot documentaries are “Coyote: The Mike Plant Story” about the American adventurer, and “Becoming Cary Grant” about a different side to the iconic actor.

“Cancer Can Be Killed” is expected to draw a crowd. The director seeks to figure out why and how his wife was cured of her cancer in 30 days. A Stage IV cancer survivor will be in attendance to discuss new treatment. Thursday at 4:45 p.m. (AH) and Saturday at 4:45 p.m. (VH).

Friday

Film Festival staff predicts that “The Invisibles” will be Germany’s 2019 Oscar submission. Young Jews survive the Third Reich in the middle of Berlin by living so recklessly that they become “invisible.” These real-life survivors learned that sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight. Friday at 11:15 a.m. (ST) and Sunday at noon (VB).

Symbols of screening locations

ST= Sebastiani Theatre at 476 First Street East

VB= Veteran’s Memorial Building, rooms I or II at 126 First Street West

AH= Andrew’s Hall at the Sonoma Community Center at 276 East Napa Street

SVMA= Sonoma Valley Museum of Art at 551 Broadway

VH= Vintage House at 264 Frist Street East

BH= Burlingame Hall at 253 W. Spain

Also a lovely film, is the feature “Tulipiani, Love, Honor & a Bicycle.” After losing his farm during the floods of 1953, a Dutch farmer cycles to Italy and decides to grow tulips in Puglia. Friday at 9 a.m. (VB) and Sunday at 5 p.m. (ST).

“You Can’t Say No” provides some thought-provoking fun. Days from signing divorce papers, a couple decides to give their marriage one last shot by playing a game with just one rule: No matter what they ask each other to do, they can’t say no. Friday at 5:45 p.m. (VH) and Sunday at noon (BH).

As almost a companion piece to “You Can’t Say No,” the feature “The California No” centers on a hapless husband who, during his first visit to couples therapy, finds out he’s in an open marriage. Friday at 11:45 a.m. (BH) and Sunday at 6 p.m. (AH).

If couples therapy isn’t your thing, “Salyut-7” focuses on astronauts sent to the rescue of an unresponsive Soviet space station. What results is one of the most complicated missions in the history of space navigation. Friday at 7:45 p.m. (VB) and Sunday at 11:30 a.m. (ST).

One of the few music documentaries this year, “Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World” brings to light the profound and overlooked influence of indigenous people on popular music in North America. The film was the winner of a Special Jury Award at Sundance. Friday at 6:30 p.m. (SVMA) and Saturday at 11:45 a.m. (VB).

Friday afternoon’s feature at Vintage House is also the theme for the big backlot party that follows at 7 p.m. “Frank and Ava” focuses on a near-destitute Frank Sinatra as he enters a sexually charged, suspicion-filled romance with the mercurial Gardner. Friday at 4:45 p.m. (VB) and Saturday at 8 p.m. (VH).

Saturday

The highlight of the festival for families is always the Saturday morning family program. This year, the centerpiece is the North American premiere of “Children of Genghis.” The film centers on the horse racing traditions of the Mongolian people. The filmmakers will be in attendance. Saturday at 9 a.m. and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. (ST)

After the family program on Saturday, the gripping “Rescue Under Fire” will screen. What should be a routine rescue of the injured in Afghanistan is anything but routine when the helicopter becomes surrounded by the Taliban. Saturday at 11:45 a.m. (ST) and Sunday at 3 p.m. (VB).

Another pick expected to be popular with filmgoers is Iceland’s “Under the Tree.” When neighbors complain that a tree in their backyard casts a shadow over their sundeck, what starts off as a typical spat in the suburbs unexpectedly and violently spirals out of control. Friday at 7:45 p.m. and Sunday at 9 a.m. (ST).

Panel discussions

SIFF is hosting a discussion inspired by the equal pay movement with actress Karen Allen and a panel of entertainment journalists and executives in the Backlot tent from 10 to 11 a.m. on Saturday.

Returning again this year is SIFF’s UFO Symposium, this year centered on the secret link between UFOs and nukes, which starts at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday and runs until 2 p.m. (AH).

Food, wine & the environment

This year’s festival has a dedicated track of programming that includes some hot tickets for foodies and winophiles. Some of the highlights include:

In “The Quest of Alain Ducasse,” the chef chronicles his favorites in a worldwide taste tour. Friday at 11 a.m. (VB) and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (ST)

Opposites attract in the sweet romantic comedy, “Off The Menu,” which centers on food, family and love with a feisty female chef who falls for an arrogant but lovable heir to a fast food chain. Thursday at 9 a.m. (VH) and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. (VB)

“Andre: The Voice of Wine” centers on the epic journey of a Russian aristocrat who helped to reinvent the Californian wine industry after the repeal of Prohibition. The film screens on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (ST)

Local Sonoma filmmaker Andrew Peat, who teaches film at Taiwan University, will be in town to screen his visually stunning film “Scotch: A Golden Dream” on Friday at Friday at 4 p.m. (VB) and Saturday at 5 p.m. (AH) The closing night film, “Chef,” which screens at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday night, is a bittersweet Indian feature about a Michelin-star chef and his estranged son. (ST)

There are also a handful of films focused on the environment including “Poisoning Paradise” about experimental test sites in Hawaii; “Modified” about GMOs in America; “The Need to Grow” about dying soil; and “Wasted” about food waste. See program for additional details.

McNeely isn’t getting much sleep in these final hours before S-O-N-O-M-A-W-O-O-D launches but he says he’s confident that the mix of films this year will satisfy the most discerning moviegoers.

“Add to that new culinary programming this year, local art on display in the Backlot Tent, a new Plaza stroll and our evening parties... the Film Fest is really coming of age this year as it turns 21.”

The entire program is available online at sonomafilmfest.org.

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.