Autumn has finally arrived in New York. Blustery winds, chilled temperatures and rain that would eventually melt into sunshine set the scene for the 8th annual Woodstock Film Festival, a four-day fete of film, music and a self-described ‘fiercely independent’ vision tucked within the Hudson Valley/Catskill region just 90 minutes from New York City. The fest announced it had record attendance which saw the event’s high profile guests and a good number of world premieres.
Opening night kicked off with two simultaneous sold-out screenings of Julian Schnabel’s Cannes-winning masterpiece “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” followed by a celebration at the New World Home Cooking Company complete with free massages, psychic readings and gumbo.
Among the world prem’s were Cristina Kotz Cornejo‘s “3 Americas,” Todd Kwait‘s “Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost” and Oliver Noble‘s “Night of the Living Jews” (who, in true Woodstock fashion, played host to a raucous late night barn party celebrating the film). Among the stand-outs in this group were Noah Bushel‘s “Neal Cassady,” an intelligent, hip but disjointed biopic that focuses on the life of the inspiration behind Dean Moriarty, author Jack Kerouac‘s lead character from “On The Road” and how he launched the Beat Generation and become a cultural icon. Tate Donovan‘s performance as Cassady is reason enough to see this film.
David Van Taylor‘s “Good Ol’ Charles Schulz,” meanwhile, looks at the life of the creator behind “Peanuts” and how he lived with his own Charlie-Brown-style doubts. WFF programmer Michael Lerman says that “when I initially contacted David about sending me the film for consideration, he sent back an email saying, ‘I do like the sound of Woodstock in Woodstock.’ As soon as I saw it, I understand exactly what he meant.”
Turning more serious, Robert Stone‘s feature “Oswald’s Ghost,” sheds new light on one of the biggest murder mysteries in American history–the assassination of President Kennedy. The film, however, is also a story about democracy and how power works in America, a chilling reminder of the state of the world today. Stone says of his film, “for people of a certain age, this is their 9/11. This is not a ‘who-done-it’ but what the ‘who-done-it’ has done to us…”
Perhaps the most somber time of the weekend was a crowded Saturday morning screening of WFF director Miera Blaustein‘s 1999 film “For Love of Julian,” an inspiring and surprisingly unsentimental personal documentary about her son Julian Pelle Blaustein Rejto who lived with multiple handicapped. Julian transcended his disability and conquered many odds until July of this year when he passed away. Julian was 18 years old. Blaustein took the stage during a standing ovation to answer questions from the audience. “For Love of Julian” was the reason Blaustein and Rejto created the Woodstock Film Festival and they dedicated this year’s fete to him.
Moving back to festival levity Woodstock celebrated its ubiquitous tied-dyed reputation with a Bob Dylan look-a-like contest at a local gallery to help promote Todd Haynes‘ closing-night film, “I’m Not There,” which had its North American deubt last month in Toronto. In keeping with the spirit of the film, entrants didn’t have to look exactly like Dylan but were asked to just “embody his spirit and the era.”
Jurors handed out numerous awards at the festival’s Maverick Awards ceremony on Saturday evening, which was a larger more formal event than in years past. Chris Eska‘s “August Evening” took home the Best Narrative Feature prize while Morgan Neville‘s “The Cool School” won Best Documentary Feature (honorable mentions were given to “Run Granny Run” and “Constantine’s Sword,” which also won the Excellence in Editing of a Feature Doc prize). Best Short Doc went to Tim Sternberg for the gorgeous “Salim Baba,” with an honorable mention for “The Ladies.” Andrew Zuckerman‘s “High Falls” won Best Short Narrative and Rob Meyer‘s “Aquarium” took home the Best Student Short Film. Best Animated Film went to “Fantaisie in Bubblewrap” directed by Arthur Metcalf. A special ‘Animation Diva’ award in animation was presented to Signe Baumane for her film “Teat Beat of Sex.” WFF’s Haskell Wexler Award for Best Cinematography was awarded to Sean Fine for his film “War/Dance.” Best Editing of a Feature Narrative was given to “In Search of a Midnight Kiss” with an honorable mention awarded to “Iron Ladies of Liberia.”
John Sloss made the short trek to Woodstock to present The Honorary Trailblazer Award to Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer at Netflix. Sloss, a former Trailblazer honoree, said of Sarandos, “a lot of people throw around the word visionary , but I think this time it applies.” Christine Vachon of Killer Films was honored with this year’s Honorary Maverick Award. Actor/writer Lili Taylor gracefully presented Vachon with the award and said to the very agreeable audience, “I wouldn’t be here without Christine. A lot of us wouldn’t.”
While the fest’s attendance continues to increase (and being able to find a good parking spot decreases) it will be a challenge to hold onto and maintain the festival’s intimacy and informal vibe which seemed to evaporate a bit this year. As the Woodstock Film Festival continues to evolve and carve out a niche for itself in the already over-crowded festival fall months, one thing certainly rings true — industry and locals alike embrace this festival.