FESTIVALS: Bright Shiny Day; AFI Fest Sees Clearly Now
by Matthew Breen
(indieWIRE/ 11.1.00) — Featuring new locations, a new director, and a slate of ninety new films, AFI Fest 2000 (Oct. 19-26) finally came into it’s own in this first year of the millennium. Located on a stretch of Hollywood Boulevard smack dab in the middle of Hollywood, the festival had a new home base, with premiere screenings at the restored Egyptian Theatre, and at several of Tinsel Town’s most historic venues. Christian Gaines, former director of the Hawaiian Film Festival joined Director of Programming Nancy Collet to head up AFI Fest 2000 as new Director of Festivals.
Though launching the festival was the U.S. Premiere of the Coen Brothers‘ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?“, the festival continued for the most part its tradition of placing its international (particularly European) fare front and center, premiering such run-away foreign hits in the past as “Life is Beautiful.” The Grand Jury Prize in the International Competition was awarded to “Blackboards” (Samira Makhmalbaf) — the title refers to the blackboards that disenfranchised teachers must covertly carry through the Kurdish mountains as they attempt to evade border police. “Blackboards” won a Special Jury Prize in Cannes, and remains one of the few Iranian festival hits that has yet to find a U.S. distributor. Also in competition was “Gangster No. 1,” from “Acid House” director Paul McGuigan, a relentless and bloody British version of “Reservoir Dogs” set amidst the tight suits and floppy hair of the late ’60s. D.P. Peter Sova won the Kodak Vision Award in Cinematography. Both films were U.S. premieres here.
From the New Directions from American Independents category came hilarious no-brainer “Chump Change” (Stephen. D. Burrows), a slightly fictionalized story tracing the director’s minor rise, and major fall in both Hollywood and Wisconsin. Also premiering, but to less than hilarious response was “Postmark Paradise” (Thompson E. Clay) — an innocuous but slightly cloying film about a beautiful Ukranian woman who agrees to come to Paradise, Michigan as a mail-order bride, only to find out that her intended is only intended as the butt of a joke. The directing award in this category went to former “Northern Exposure” actor Rob Morrow for his feature debut “Maze,” an innovatively-lensed film about an artist with Tourette Syndrome, and the isolation his disease causes. Morrow utilized 35 mm for the bulk of the film, tossing in washed out colors and shaky digital footage to simulate his character’s less than ideal perspective.
The Producer to Watch Award went to Richard Miller and Ellen Rigas Venetis of Sundance 2000 entry, “Songcatcher,” (Maggie Greenwald) about an uptight musicologist, played by Janet McTeer, who discovers the musical magic hidden high in Appalachia. But the big winner was “You Can Count on Me,” from director-screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan, running away with both the Grand Jury Award and the Best New Writer Award (even though Lonergan is not actually a new writer with “Analyze This” and “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” under his belt). In addition to the usual spate of prizes, Lonergan was also awarded a year’s supply of Krispy Kreme donuts.
“Naked States” (Arlene Donnelly) won the Discovery Documentary Competition Prize. The often silly, occasionally poignant film tracked photographer Spencer Tunick on his five-month odyssey asking strangers to pose nude in public places for his documentary, and it’s surprising to see the sheer number of people willing to comply. The Best Documentary Film Audience Award went to “Homeland,” (Jilann Spitzmiller, Hank Rogerson) which follows the sometimes bleak realities of Lakota Indian families on The Rez in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Also awarded a Special Jury Mention prize was “Gaea Girls” (Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams), a flying leap into the world of Japanese female wrestling.
The highlight of the non-competition films was the U.S. Premiere of Brit entry “House!” (Julian Kemp), starring Kelly Macdonald in the striking story of a young woman who attempts to save a doomed bingo hall while simultaneously discovering her own strange gift for predicting the numbers. It’s a snappily edited and quirky film, engaging and fun, marking Kemp as a filmmaker to watch out for.
Surprisingly, the Audience Award for Best Feature Film went to the not-so-obvious audience-pleasing Mexican film, “Amores Perros,” directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. The 153-minute film nearly matched the human-to-human bloodshed of it’s trans-Atlantic counterpart “Gangster No. 1,” but categorically outpaced it in brutality to animals. Though director Inarritu assures viewers that the gruesome dogfights were all done through editing tricks, you can’t tell me no animals were harmed in the making of this film.
New to the AFI Film Festival, and owing to new festival director Gaines’ recent arrival from the Hawaiian Film Festival (which included many Asian films) is the Asian New Classics category. Says Gaines, “adding Asian New Classics to AFI Fest 2000 is the perfect way to increase the level of international works and bring new audiences to the Festival.” The festival launched the section with Im Kwon Taek‘s “Chunhyang” at the Egyptian Theater. Widely considered to be Korea’s greatest living filmmaker, and certainly the most prolific with a hundred-plus titles to his name, Im Kwon Taek chose for his latest film a spectacular retelling of a well-known Korean love story, set within the frame of a Pansori performance (haunting long-form poetry accompanied by a drum) before a live audience. Also included was the Chinese “Suzhou River” (Lou Ye), a noirish twist on a love story. Set against the banks of the Suzhou River that flows through the modern Shanghai, it’s a gritty yet romantic and bold tale employing an unseen narrator as he tells us the story of the woman he lost, then found again — or did he?
Other events included the retrospective screenings of Philip Kaufman, including “The Right Stuff,” “Henry and June,” “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” among others. The retrospective was capped by the Closing Night Gala premiere of “Quills,” Kaufman’s latest film, starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet and Joaquin Phoenix. Unfortunately the closing night party for “Quills” was forced under tents at the last minute due to rain. Yet the AFI Film Festival seems destined for brighter days ahead.
[Matthew Breen writes film reviews for the Orange County Register website My Orange County (www.myoc.com).]