The 19th annual Philadelphia Film Festival opened on Thursday and plowed through the weekend, kicking off a program loaded with around 107 features, including many favorites from the festival circuit. The crowds went wild for the big titles: Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller "Black Swan" received a standing ovation at its opening night screening, while "Blue Valentine" attracted the same positive buzz it has continually built since its Sundance premiere. In the case of the latter film, there was now an added topic of conversation about the MPAA's controversial decision to bestow the movie with an NC-17 rating.
In the lobby of Philadelphia's Prince Music Theater shortly after the festival's first screening of "Blue Valentine" on Friday, several viewers noted the irony of current box office champ "Jackass 3D" -- where more than one penis gets put on full display -- receiving an R rating, while the alleged source of the MPAA's decision with "Blue Valentine" revolves around a non-explicit sex scene that may or may not constitute rape. In light of that discussion, I found it interesting to revisit the insanely graphic exploitation thriller "A Serbian Film" the following night. Srdjan Spasojevic's insanely vulgar tale of a porn star (Srdjan Todorovic) tricked into participating in a snuff film received one of its first U.S. festival screenings since its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in May. I still find the outrageous blend of sex and violence (bull viagra?) to make for an wildly amusing, provocatively unsettling blend. Whereas the MPAA would easily kill a movie like this, the festival circuit keeps it alive.
The program (arranged by executive director J. Andrew Greenblatt with the newly upgraded programming team of artistic director Michael Lerman, IFC Films's Ryan Werner and Magnolia Pictures's Tom Quinn) contained its fair share of genre entries, a decision that audiences seemed to embrace. Only a few walkouts were noticeable at Saturday's "Serbian Film" screening, and I was personally happy for the opportunity to see Lee Jung-beom's Korean action-drama "The Man from Nowhere," which had its under-the-radar U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest last month. Since it was a late addition to the program, the attendance at "Nowhere" was sparse, but not invisible. The movie, which made top dollar at the Korean box office over the summer, stars Won Bin as a soft-spoken avenger set on rescuing the young daughter of his next door neighbor. Lee directs action with an eye for clarity of motion, at one point allowing his camera to follow Won in a fluid shot as he crashes through a window and lands on the ground several feet below. Beat that, "Bourne" movies.
With selections like "Man from Nowhere," the festival provided one of many opportunities for Philadelphia's sizable culture-savvy audiences to catch up on international cinema that rarely makes it beyond limited theatrical release. Other notable offerings include Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio's lovely Mexican visual poem "Alamar," Chris Morris's British terrorist satire "Four Lions," and Michael Rowe's low key sex drama "Leap Year," which apparently inspired more walkouts than "A Serbian Film." (They probably belonged at the gently moving documentary "Marwencol" instead.)
Beyond emphasizing international titles, the festival also championed local filmmakers with its "Greater Filmadelphia" section. It's hard to imagine a lightweight comedy like "The Best and the Brightest," in which Bonnie Somerville and Neil Patrick Harris play a young New York couple frantically trying to get their daughter into a competitive private kindergarten, gaining much notice at a high profile festival. But Philly residents welcomed the movie at its world premiere with open arms, as they did for the family drama "Lebanon P.A." -- even though its SXSW premiere meant that, like "A Serbian Film," it was old news on the festival circuit. Philly made it new again.
The festival still operates in the shadow of a 2008 breach between the Philadelphia Film Society and TLA Entertainment, which created a competing festival called CineFest in April. (The 2010 installment was canceled due to fundraising problems, but TLA also hosts a gay and lesbian festival in the summer.) Nevertheless, with the Philadelphia Film Festival continuing at eight venues through October 24, audiences have plenty of opportunities to see a wide variety of independent film without leaving town. The dynamics may have changed, but the hunger for new movies almost rivals the local obsession with cheesesteak. Almost.