As if programmed by the staff itself, the first sign of a cloud in four days hit the shores of Nantucket Island hours before its 13th festival was set to close Sunday night with the screening of Jonathan Levine's "The Wackness." Prior to that, perfect weather helped set the scene for what turned out to be another strong edition of the much beloved seaside festival known for its focus on screenwriting and intimate events.
Scaled back a bit to four days this year, the Nantucket Film Festival's first day was filled with the what came to define this year's program: recent hits from the festival circuit such as the Duplass Brothers horror/comedy blend "Baghead," Nanette Burstein's Sundance fave "American Teen" and long-time Nantucket supporter Brad Anderson's "Transsiberian." "Elegy," by Isable Coixet, enjoyed its East Coast premier as a last minute addition to the line up. The film, which premiered in Berlin earlier this year, is an adaptation of Phillip Roth's "The Dying Animal" and features strong acting from Ben Kinglsey playing the oft-examined Roth figure of an older intellectual with an eye for a young beauty. She is played here by Penelope Cruz who anchors the film with her sympathetic and beguiling performance.
The festival's 19 feature films this year represented a number of this season's stronger, if not freshest films. The lack of emphasis on premier status did allow the festival to bring a number of great films to the island that otherwise would not have come ashore, such as "Stranded," eventual audience award winner "Of All the Things" and Sundance Grand Jury Prize winners "Frozen River," "Trouble the Water" and "Man on a Wire." "Bringing a 'best-of' program to Nantucket represents a real treat for our audiences. My feeling is that pursuing premiers at the expense of quality is counter productive" stated first-year festival programmer Colin Stanfield.
One tradition that remains alive and well in Nantucket is their success in producing engaging events to surround the festival's films. Friday morning featured a lively panel discussion with opening night film "Transiberian"'s director Brad Anderson and co-screenwriter Will Conroy, who has been coming to the island since 1970 when his family bought a house in Nantucket. The panel, which had a special resonance since the two met at the festival 11 years ago, delved into everything from the injury-related loss of the film's lead actress Samantha Morton days before the production was set to begin filming, to the on set snowball fight between Anderson and Sir Ben Kinglsey as the crew was finally blessed with the Lithuanian winter weather that the script demanded.
Saturday afternoon began with the staged reading of Billy Wilder's "Some Like it Hot" featuring a cast consisting of Nantucket's own Seaside Shakespeare group. The reading is designed to emphasize the importance of the script itself and deviated from years past by using a classic film instead of an unproduced work. The gamble paid off as laughs filled the high ceilings of the island's stunning Unitarian Universalist church.
The festival then inaugurated a new event in presenting the Compass Rose Acting Tribute to Meg Ryan whose film "The Deal" had played that morning. The ceremony featured a rare in depth discussion with the actress moderated by film critic Leonard Maltin. Ryan touched on everything from the infamous orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally" ("it was all about Rob's mother who was on set that day" the actress said) to her feelings about how each film and set is unique.
"It's like a little dream I'm having, but we're all having it" she stated about the films in which she's acted. But the highlight of the ceremony came towards the end when "The Deal"'s writer/director Steven Schacter and his daughter Sidney walked onto the stage with the film's actor William H. Macy and broke into song about the celebrated actress. As Schacter warbled through lyrics about pursuing Ryan for the role, Macy filled in with his lines all built around titles of her films. "Was she trying to sleep in Seattle, or hiding out in the Presidio," he sang before the three of them enticed the audience into caroling "Oh Meg we found ya, oh Meg we love ya..."
Friday night featured one of the festival's signature events, Late Night Storytelling hosted by Peter Farrely and Anne Meara. The two set just the right tone in telling their own stories on this year's theme "I should be committed!" The mixture of industry and non-industry participants featured a local Nantucket resident telling the harrowing but somehow funny tale of nearly drowning after hours lost at sea in a kite-boarding accident and Leonard Maltin's amusing and ultimately touching tale of meeting a childhood television idol Pinky Lee as an adult.
The festival's Suzanne and Bob Wright Screenwriter's Tribute to Judd Apatow turned out to be the biggest hit of the festival. A hilarious video introduction by Ben Stiller, whose taunting image remained on screen while Artistic Director Mystelle Brabee and Executive Director Jill Burkhart tried to speak from the podium, set a tone for the night that would veer from occasionally laudatory to downright raunchy. Regular MC of the night Brian Williams had to turn over the reins to Farrely and Meara after brief remarks as he was flying out that night to prepare for hosting the next morning's episode of Meet the Press.
Williams, who regulars of the festival know to have one of the driest senses of humor, was able to somehow bookend his heartfelt thoughts on hosting his long time friend and Nantucket resident Tim Russert's show in the morning with hilarious jabs at what Apatow's films have taught his children and how the honoree should really consider casting the newscaster's daughter in his next film. Apatow's own ten year old daughter Maude then joined NBC/Universal president Ron Meyer on stage and joked that "My dad won't let me see any of his films, so I'm not sure if he deserves this award or not." From host Jerry Stiller proclaiming that the first thing he thinks about when he thinks about Judd being "penetration" to Apatow declaring that all of his prepared remarks are about "what a douchebag Brian Williams is," the event was able to somehow match the honoree's work in both its tone and hilarity.
As the festival drew to a close, it was clear that what really emerges from the four days is a sense of intimacy and informality. "Being on an island like this lends itself to a certain type of atmosphere" stated an exhausted Burkhart after the awards ceremony wrapped. "It's kind of like summercamp. We really get a chance to know each other and spend time together with people."
[David Nugent is the Director of Programming at the Hamptons International Film Festival.]