Considering the coverage U.S. cinema receives globally, it might seem odd that there should be a festival that focuses solely on films from the U.S. And yet, a cursory glance over the program for the third edition of the American Film Festival shows just how limited in scope the majority of mainstream American releases actually are. If one wants to find out more about America – the world that exists beyond the blockbusters – it is necessary to dig a little deeper. It is only then that you uncover a rich seam of innovative, challenging and engaging films.
The American Film Festival in Poland this November promotes American indies abroad. Considering there’s money to be made abroad which is not always readily accessible here, indie filmmakers here in the U.S. should take notice of what’s going on in Poland.
Indies have to get into the international scene and the European distribs are often ignorant of what indies exist here in the U.S.
The 2 best films in post-production from last year’s American Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland are now complete and were here in Competition at the Napa Valley Film Festival. Again, Not Waving but Drowning took a prize, this time for cinematography. A new network seems to be creating itself which I hope continues to include arthouse distributor and producer Sophie Dulac’s Champs Elysees Film Festival in Paris and the Mobile New Horizons FF in Wroclaw, Poland’s largest film festival owned by the largest arthouse film distributor (Gutek) in Poland, a rich territory which thus far is relatively untouched even by the European recession.
The films that open and close the third edition offer some indication of what audiences can look forward to over the course of five days. Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the director’s seventh feature, is arguably his most stylised work: a film whose look has been designed to the minutiae, as it charts the love affair between two teens in late-1960s coastal America. As for Ben Affleck’s impressive third feature Argo, which closes the festival, it couldn’t be more different. A high-octane drama, based on a true story that unfolded following the Iranian occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, it cements Affleck’s reputation as a skilled filmmaker. It is also one of the most intelligent and enjoyable Hollywood thrillers in years.
Other major US films featured in the festival include John Hillcoat’s (The Road, The Proposition) Lawless and The Master, the latest film by Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights). Hillcoat’s film, loosely based on the true story of bootleggers at the height of prohibition in rural Virginia, stars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Guy Pearce. With a script by Nick Cave, Lawless plays to Hillcoat’s strengths as one of contemporary cinema’s most muscular directors and features an impressive turn by LaBeouf, suggesting there is more to him than the idiotic lead in Michael Bay’s woeful Transformers franchise.
Anderson’s film is a companion piece – of sorts – to his 2007 drama There Will Be Blood. Like that film, it pits two men against each other: one a primal, barely formed creature whose inability to conform to societal norms finds him adrift in the world; the other the head of a belief system that purports to offer the secrets to humanity’s past and its betterment for the future. A complex, troubling and brilliant film, it is further evidence of Anderson’s position as one of America’s leading filmmakers.
Away from the mainstream, there are numerous delights on offer. Highlights include: Safety Not Guaranteed, a low-budget, comic addition to the time-travel sub-genre; Jeff, Who Lives at Home, the latest film from the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair), starring Jason Segel; Bernie, Richard Linklater’s second collaboration with Jack Black, albeit worlds away from School of Rock; the hugely controversial Compliance, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has seen audiences walking out of screenings wherever it has shown; and Now Forager, a nuanced character study of two mushroom pickers in up state New York, which featured in the Gotham in Progress event at last year’s festival.
Alongside new releases are four retrospectives. Audiences have the chance to see all of Wes Anderson’s films, including his brilliant sophomore feature Rushmore – one of the best films of the 1990s. The Universal horror films of the 1930s (arguably the golden age of Hollywood horror) are represented by three of the most iconic features from that period: Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi; Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932); and arguably the best of the three, James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1931).
The festival is also showcasing is a selection of Nicholas Ray’s films from the 1950s. Ray, one of the visionaries of Hollywood during that decade, took a scalpel to American life, producing a body of work that eviscerated the Norman Rockwell-inspired image of suburbia, with it’s trimmed lawns and white picket fences. Rebel Without a Cause (1955), with James Dean’s searing performance as a teenage rebelling against societal norms, may be the best known of the four films screening, but there is much pleasure to be had from Joan Crawford in one of her finest performances, opposite Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar (1954). Humphrey Bogart is scintillating as a hard-bitten Hollywood screenwriter in one of Tinseltown’s bleakest chronicles, In a Lonely Place (1950). However, the real gem in this brief overview is the director’s 1956 masterpiece Bigger Than Life. James Mason is at his best playing a schoolteacher whose addiction to a prescribed drug transforms his personality. It is a harrowing drama that exposes the rot at the core of Eisenhower-era America.
The final retrospective celebrates the films of Jerry Schatzberg. An acclaimed photographer, he has also directed a body of work that looks at life mostly lived on the margins of American society. Included is the director’s debut Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1971), featuring a startling performance by Faye Dunaway, and Street Smart (1987), about the impact of a journalist’s false claims, starring an Oscar-nominated performance by Morgan Freeman. However, the gems in this brief overview are Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Scarecrow (1973). Both feature a young Al Pacino, but the real star of the films is Schatzberg, who will be present during the festival to talk about his career. His freewheeling camera gave actors the chance to explore their characters in a way less fearless directors would balk at. However, he never loses the sense of place within which the action unfolds. Pacino and Gene Hackman’s journey through America’s hinterland in Scarecrow finds Schatzberg at his best, producing one of the great road movies of the era and reminding us how vital and engaging American cinema can be.
Ten Films to See at the Festival
Wes Anderson’s second feature is still his best – a variation on the high school comedy drama, featuring Jason Schwartzman, Olivia Williams and Anderson regular Bill Murray.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s perplexing and brilliant drama, loosely based on the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Ben Affleck directs what might be this year’s most entertaining Hollywood film.
Jerry Schatzberg’s Palme d’Or-winning road movie, starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.
Bigger Than Life (1956)
James Mason delivers a career-defining performance in Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece.
One of the most original indies of recent years, a nuanced comedy drama set in the world of mushroom picking.
Arguably this year’s most controversial film at the festival, which walks a fine line between exploration and exploitation.
An old-fashioned gangster film set in America’s heartland and featuring a stellar cast.
4:44 Last Day on Earth
American cinema’s enfant terrible Abel Ferrara’s latest film is one of his most highly regarded in recent years.
West of Memphis
A powerful account of a serial killer in America’s Deep South, whose crimes were ignored by the media.