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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Oxford Film Festival 2011 — The Wrap

I got swamped with fest activities and travel, so I’m just now getting around to writing a wrap up the Oxford Film Festival, which just completed its 8th year this past weekend. Now that the awards ceremony is over, I can talk a bit about the winners and other films I liked this year at Oxford — which, it must be said, has been steadily improving the overall quality of their programming slate every single year.

This year there were a number of films that stood out for me. Among the competition docs, which I juried along with Skizz Cyzyk and Michael Rose, there were some real standouts, but in the end after much serious deliberation the docs jury chose Chad Freidrichs’ compelling film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History.

Warning: Constructive criticism ahead: we also agreed that this film was burdened by one of the most cumbersome titles ever, and that the title fails to really encapsulate the heart of the story being told. So while as a jury we didn’t want to take away from the film’s win by pointing this out at the awards ceremony, I personally am respectfully suggesting that Freidrichs might want to consider re-titling the film to better sell the broader ideas around race and social justice for which it won the award.

Outside the docs competition, I caught a number of good films. The very compelling doc Mississippi Innocence, directed by Joe York, played to several sold-out crowds. The film follows the entertwined tale of Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, both convicted of the rape and murder of 3-year-old girls. one was sentenced to death, the other to life in prison, based on questionable “expert” testimony. Both of them, as it turned out, were innocent, and it was only through rapid progress in the field of DNA testing and the passionate involvement of the people behind The Innocence Project that they were finally exonerated.

Mississippi Innocence is blessed with deeply moving subject matter — imagine yourself, knowing you’re innocent, being accused of such a horrific crime, judged by the courts and the court of public opinion, sentenced to die for someone else’s crime, sitting on death row for more than a decade of your life. No, really. Imagine it. It was more moving still, then, to watch Kennedy Brewer dancing and enjoying the Friday night party at Roosters, where blues great T Model Ford was performing.

Among the narratives, I enjoyed Prairie Love, which took the Narrative Feature prize. It’s a dark, sometimes darkly comic story set in the winter in North Dakota, and it’s about a weird guy who lives out of his station wagon who encounters a nearly frozen guy who’s on his way to meet for the first time a woman he’s been corresponding with who’s about to be released from prison. An old switcheroo later, and we have a kind of crazy sort of twisted love tale. Also, it made me very cold to watch this movie, so when you get a chance to see it, I recommend you wear a warm coat or at least your Snuggie.

I was also particularly taken by Passenger Pigeons, a compelling tale that revolves around the death of a coal mine worker. We see the impact of his death on the factory guy and his fresh-faced apprentice, dispatched to deal with PR nightmare the miner’s death represents; the girlfriend of one of the other miners, who’s struggling with the knowledge that this sort of accident could happen to her own boyfriend; the dead man’s brother, widow and young son; and an idealistic young environmentalist who arrives in town for a protest, having missed the memo on the protest being canceled in the wake of the young miner’s death. Writer/director Martha Stephens skillfully weaves her congruent storylines while avoiding the carefully scripted contrivance that often permeates such tales.

There seemed to be a consensus that the shorts programming at Oxford was particularly strong this year. I only caught a few of the shorts, of which I enjoyed Jeffrey Ruggles sweet, simple Queen’s Day, Neil LaBute’s smart, stylish Sexting, and Michael Williams and April Wren’s humorous The Mistake, which evoked for me one of my favorite shorts, Nash Edgerton’s 2007 Spider.

My favorite short (that I saw anyhow) was Pillow, a Southern Gothic bit of cinematic deliciousness that, for all that it’s a short, deserves an entire paragraph all to itself, but I wouldn’t want to give away much of the story other than to say that it’s about two brothers living with their bed-ridden, controlling mother and what happens when the one store in town is out of pillows and Mother demands a new one. Fate sends the brothers across the path of an unexpected source of feathers, and things get weirder and weirder from there.

Now, here’s where you should pay attention if you are a budding would-be filmmaker: If you are going to make a short film, and you understand that a short’s purpose is primarily to show your unique filmmaking style and your ability to actually see a project through to completion, what you want is to make a film as memorable and stylish as Pillow. Gorgeously, stunningly shot, with minimal dialog and a script with shades of Of Mice and Men, Pillow won the jury award for Narrative Short, as well as the inaugral Lisa Blount Memorial Acting Award for Ed Lowry, who played “Brother #1″ in the film. It’s not every day you see a short that sticks with you as much as this one did.

One of my favorite parts of Oxford is always the Speed Pitch Panel, wherein filmmakers sign up for a slot at which they can give their “elevator pitch” to a panel of experts including successful producers and active acquisitions execs. This year they switched to a format I liked better than in previous years, having the panel sit in a semicircle and then having each filmmaker pitch to the entire group, such that everyone could hear each pitch. Todd Gilchrist did a terrific job moderating, and we heard some fascinating pitches … and even more fascinating feedback from folks who work directly in this aspect of the business that gave everyone a glimpse at how things really work behind the scenes.

And then there was the late-night visit to Graceland Too, a kitschy sort of homage to all things Elvis. It has to be seen to believed, truly — if you ever come to Oxford Film Festival, make sure you go on the tour. I’m thinking OFF should make the Graceland Too tour a required part of being a first-timer to Oxford. A rite of initiation, as it were.

I have some photos up in my Flickr account right here, but this is a case where a picture is not actually worth 1,000 words, which is about how many words per minues Graceland Too proprietor Paul McLeod can speak. It’s all either brilliant or crazy, I’m not sure which. Maybe a little of both. Let me just say, when your tour of a crazy-esque house stuffed to the gills with Elvis memorabilia at 2 in the morning begins with the front door being padlocked once everyone is inside, well. It can only get more bizarrely awesome from there.

The anticipated sneak peek at Where I Begin, directed by OFF alum Thomas J. Philips and co-written by OFF co-director Melanie Addington was, I must say, extremely well received by the packed houses both days, and I really enjoyed moderating the Q&A for both screenings. I gave feedback on an early iteration of the script and it was so incredible to see it not only completed so quickly, but completely very well. There are shots of painterly beauty and the film overall is just lovely to look at. Well done.

That wraps the Oxford Film Festival for this year … maybe next year we’ll see you around The Square.

One Response to “Oxford Film Festival 2011 — The Wrap”

  1. Bison says:

    Kewl you should come up with that. Excleeltn!

Quote Unquotesee all »

This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin