October has become quite a busy month for film festivals in and around New York City. While the highly selective New York Film Festival runs for more than two weeks at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, about two hours north of the city the annual Woodstock Film Festival offers a getaway weekend in the Hudson Valley for a program of films mostly from the recent festival circuit, even as the NYFF continued, while the following weekend, the Hamptons International Film Festival will weigh in with an increasingly international showcase for new movies on the East End of Long Island (a few hours away of the city). Touting record attendance at its annual gathering, anchored in the infamously tie-dyed music town (with additional screenings and events in nearby Rhinebeck, Hunter and Rosendale, NY), the Woodstock Film Festival celebrated its 7th anniversary this weekend amidst fall color in Upstate New York.
Check out photos from this weekend's Woodstock Film Festival in indieWIRE's iPOP section.
The region has proven quite fertile for a relatively small creative community of artists, many of whom seem to reside in the area all year long. A decidedly local, quite informal, rather homespun event, Woodstock's festival was launched in 2000 by Meira Blaustein and Laurent Rejto (head of the local Hudson Valley Film Commission). The event picked up steam from the late Hudson Valley Film Festival after the executive director of that event, Denise Kasell, left to head the Hamptons festival. Blaustein, a former curator at the Hudson Valley fest, has steadily built a festival that not only plays a key role in the local film community, but also showcases the beauty of the region in the midst of its peak fall season. Despite occasional logistical missteps that can mostly be chalked up to the event's informal vibe, the event seems to have evolved into a worthwhile event for locals, as well as industry insiders looking for a brief respite from city life.
Among the notables who made the short trek into the autumn-colored Catskills were a mix of longtime fest supporters and friends, Barbara Kopple was saluted by Woodstock music festival organizer Michael Lang and actress turned doc director Rosie Perez at the informal awards ceremony, a day before her "Shut Up and Sing" closed the festival, while IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring was also honored during the event--introduced by previous industry award recipient John Sloss and actor Matt Dillon. The handful of New York City industry insiders who spent some time at the festival this weekend seemed to appreciate the opportunity to escape for a couple of days to an idyllic setting, opting for afternoon receptions or intimate dinners at local restaurants and drinks at nearby watering holes in favor of overcrowded evening parties like Friday's raucous nighttime bash that momentarily undermined the low-key nature of the fest.
WFF opened in Woodstock with a screening of Douglas McGrath's "Infamous" the night before the film debuted in U.S theaters, while on the same night over in Rhinebeck, the East Coast premiere of Rachid Bouchareb's "Days of Glory" (Indigenes) kicked off an almost parallel festival of screenings for locals in that neighboring town. While filmmakers shuttled to both cities, most industry and guests mostly stuck with screenings in Woodstock and nearby Bearsville, where panels discussions were held.
Jurors chose Julia Loktev's Cannes 2006 debut "Day Night Day Night" as the winner of the fest's best feature film prize. It is described as, "the story of a 19-year old girl, who conspires with three masked men as they prepare her for a suicide mission. The men tell her precisely what to do, how to do it and then drop her off in the middle of Times Square with a bomb strapped to her back." Meanwhile, John Mounier's "Beyond Eyruv" won the award for best documentary. It offers a portrait of a troubled teenager who rejects the restrictions of Hassidic life, but faces numerous challenges when trying to establish an independent life in New York City.
Other prize winners included Kirby Hammond, winner of the best short doc award for "Universal Movement Machine: Meshell Melvin," and Nick Childs' "The Shovel," winner of the best short narrative prize. The award for best student short went to Moon Molson's "Pop Foul," while the prize for best animated film went to Joanna Quinn for "Dreams & Desires - Family Ties." Finally, the prize for best cinematography, chosen by Haskell Wexler, went to David Morrison for "Stephanie Daley," and prizes for editing went to Boogie Dean, Vinnie Angel and Arthur Wilinski for "The Orange Thief" (dramatic) and Gloria la Morte and Joseph la Morte for "Autumn's Eyes" (documentary).
Highlights among the films having their first New York area screenings included Aaron Katz' "Dance Party, USA," a low-budget look at the lives of a group of kids, that debuted at SXSW earlier this year. Katz' frank film is a solid debut offering a candid look at sex among a pair of American teenagers, featuring natural performances from a young, attractive cast. Also notable was another SXSW debut, the east coast premiere of Steve Collins' "Gretchen," is a distinctive look at the title character. For some, the film echoes Solondz' infamous Dawn Weiner in "Welcome to the Dollhouse," yet in this film the tortured teen follows a somewhat less painful path. Collins won the big cash prize at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival and producers Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, and Anish Savjani (along with reps Cinetic Media) are closing in on a U.S. theatrical distribution deal for the dark comedy.
Among the competition documentaries, highlights included Paola Mendoza and Gabriel Noble's "Autumn's Eyes" (also from SXSW), a heartbreaking look at the lives of a group of women and children struggling to survive in poverty in New Jersey. Revealing verite footage and top notch editing combine to create a compelling story within this powerful low-budget doc, that only suffers slightly from a rather abrupt ending leaving viewers wondering what might happen next. Meanwhile, Stevan Riley's "Blue Blood" offers a look at lives that are the polar opposites of those depicted in "Autumn's Eyes." In the engaging crowd-pleaser, privileged young Oxford students prepare for an annual British boxing tournament against bitter rivals Cambridge. As in any good competition doc, mini-portraits of participants are combined with footage of the actual competition itself. Riley expertly assembles all the elements, including a striking (perhaps at times slightly excessive) soundtrack of familiar tracks.
Finally, also worth highlighting is Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack's excellent "A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash," another SXSW title that hits much harder than this year's successful "An Inconvenient Truth." Seen in a slightly revamped edition than the version that screened in Austin as "Oil Crash," it's a sometimes shocking exploration of the "peak oil crisis" to come when the depletion of fossil fuels could cripple the world. It is essential viewing, but often numbing and frightening at the same time.
The popular Al Gore doc "An Inconvenient Truth," as well as the equally surprising success of the Sundance debut "Little Miss Sunshine" were among the films in focus Saturday afternoon at the Woodstock Film Festival, as critic John Anderson led John Sloss from Cinetic, IFC Films consultant Bingham Ray, "Hollywoodland" director Allen Coulter, and producer Lemore Syvan ("Sherrybaby", "Personal Velocity") in a discussion about navigating the business with often personal, artistic and sometimes uncommercial pictures. Asked why the Gore film, essentially a global warming lecture by a former presidential candidate once considered rather boring, found such success earning $23.7 million in theaters, Bingham Ray offered that the movie was well-timed, and simply presented. He explained that the film's message issued a striking counterpoint to the Bush administration's opposing views on global warming, making it even more compelling for some.
Sometimes such success can surprise an executive, noted the panelists. In the case of "An Inconvenient Truth," insiders involved with the film apparently worried that it might be seen merely as a lecture, but when they realized that evangelicals and liberals alike embraced the film at early screenings, they saw that they might be onto something. While in the case of "Little Miss Sunshine," an unlikely film made up of mostly character actors overcame any stigma associated with other high-priced Sundance acquisitions to make more than $55.5 million so far, despite being dropped by Focus Features at the development stage.
"I am actually kind of shocked that 'Little Miss Sunshine' hasn't grossed more than it has," posed Cinetic John Sloss, who brokered the Fox Searchlight deal for the film at Sundance this year. He continued, wondering, "What are the inherent limits of a movie..." The film, the first to be shipped as a screener to Oscar voters, seems to be shaping up as an awards season contender, which could certainly boost its box office considerably.
Meanwhile challenges of another high-profile Sundance entry left some on the panel perplexed. After "Quinceanera" won both the audience and jury awards at the festival, Cinetic's Sloss admitted expecting to strike an immediate deal with distributors. The fact that finding a distributor took a month, despite the acclaim, was an eye-opener.
"That really made me sit back and think about the state of affairs in independent distribution," Sloss said.
[EDITORS NOTE: Eugene Hernandez served as a documentary competition at the 2006 Woodstock Film Festival]