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'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' starring Frances McDormand is just one of the 40 films being shown at FilmColmbia this week. Image courtesy FilmColumbia

FilmColumbia: A first-rate festival with cream-of-the-crop films

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By Tuesday, Oct 24, 2017 Arts & Entertainment

I have found some real beauty and artistic engagement in Columbia County. Many people, including myself, have not paid enough attention to it but it has been right here for 17 years!  I am talking about the FilmColumbia festival sponsored by the Chatham Film Club. I love the Berkshire International Film Festival. I attend it every year and have written reviews for the past three festivals. But how have I missed this other great festival right in my backyard? Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this obvious blindspot in my cultural landscape but, now that I have discovered this festival, I am a huge fan. I suggest my Berkshire friends take notice of this awesome event taking place this week, Oct. 22–29.

Peter Biskind. Photo courtesy FilmColumbia

I spoke with Peter Biskind, the executive and co-artistic director of FilmColumbia, about this festival – eight days, 40 films with features, shorts, documentaries, and filmmaker Q-and-As from around the world. To underscore the quality of these films: Seven have been selected as their countries’ submissions to this years Academy Awards in the Foreign Language category.  Peter said that we will be viewing the “cream of the crop” from the past film festivals this year including award-winning films from Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and recent nominees for the Gotham Awards/Independent Filmmaker Project. Peter is well-qualified to program this festival: He’s an author, film historian, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and executive editor of Premiere Magazine–one of my past favorite magazines–for 10 years. Laurence Kardish is the co-artistic director of the festival. He is the former senior curator–44 years!–for film at New York’s MOMA. I spent many happy post-college days and nights viewing films there and I want to thank Mr. Kardish for his awesome choices. He made me a lover of the films of Claude Chabrol, Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson and so many other incredible directors.

Laurence Kardish. Photo courtesy FilmColumbia

This festival is manageable in terms of the usual regret at film festivals of seeing one film and missing another one that looks equally delicious. The films are screened at the wonderful old vaudeville theatre the Crandell Theatre in downtown Chatham, New York. The final weekend of the festival will have some counter-programming at the Morris Memorial and there will be a screenwriting workshop next Saturday night at the Tracy Memorial, all within walking distance in Chatham.

There are some films that really stand out for me and I can’t wait to view them. Frances McDormand is starring in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” It is written and directed by Martin McDonagh who brought us the excellent “In Bruges” starring Colin Farrell several years ago. Variety described his new film as “Southern American with an Irish attitude.” Reviews have been ecstatic about Ms. McDormand’s performance, saying it is her best film work since “Fargo.” I don’t want to spoil the film for you but it involves the tragedy of a murdered daughter and a mother’s anger at the inaction of the local police department. This forces Ms. McDormand’s character to take matters into her own hands. The cast is fantastic: Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges–the young boy in “Manchester in the Sea” and also an Academy Award nominee–and John Hawkes. This film won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival: the Audience Award.

A still from ‘Rumble: Indians Who Rock the World.’ Image courtesy FilmColumbia

“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” is a documentary which will open our minds and ears to how Native Americans have integrated their musical style and made their mark on American music, especially rock ’n roll . There are so many musicians that we may be unaware of their Indian heritage: Robbie Robertson, Howlin’ Wolf, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jimi Hendrix and the Neville Brothers. One of my favorites, Link Wray’s “Rumble”, was actually banned from radio because the distortion and feedback made stations worry that it might incite violence. This tune is famous now as it is the song played in “Pulp Fiction” when Uma Thurman and John Travolta share their “$5 milkshake” at Jack Rabbit Slims!

A still from ‘I, Tonya.’ Image courtesy FilmColumbia

“I, Tonya” was recently added to the schedule and it looks great–it was just was nominated for the Gotham Awards’ Best Picture. Margot Robbie, who was nominated for a Gotham Award for Best Actress, portrays Tonya Harding, the much-maligned figure skater involved in the Kerrigan knee clubbing. The always wonderful Allison Janney plays her mother-from-hell. It was a runner-up for the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival.

A still from ‘The Florida Project.’ Image courtesy FilmColumbia

“Florida Project” has been getting some great press and features one of my favorite actors: Willem Dafoe. The Gotham Awards also nominated this film for Best Picture, along with Best Actor for Mr. Dafoe. The 6-year-old Brooklynn Prince–also nominated for Best Breakthrough Actress–plays a resourceful, creative, unique little girl living with her single mom in a cheap motel called The Magic Kingdom that is run by Mr. Dafoe. He is a decent, steady presence in her life, but is that enough to prevent chaos in their lives?

A still from ‘Loveless.’ Image courtesy FilmColumbia

Andrey Zvyagintsev, director of “Loveless,” Russia’s submission to  Academy Awards for Foreign Language Film, has made a very heartbreaking film about divorce. A 12-year-old boy overhears his parents discussing their break-up with neither one wanting custody of this child. He disappears and the rest of the film becomes a procedural about finding this missing boy. It sounds like a very hard-hitting film, examining our souls for the accidental cruelty we may inflict on our loved ones. This film won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Chavela. Photo: Alicia Perez-­Duarte, courtesy of Music Box Films

On a more light-hearted note, “Chavela” is a documentary about a Mexican chanteuse. She  sang love songs with so much longing that a subject said in the film “it seemed to emanate from a tremendous canyon” rather than from an ordinary human. She was a muse to Spain’s Pedro Almodovar who featured her songs in his films. I am more than curious to hear her sing, as Alan Scherstuhl from the Village Voice said that “the day you first hear Chavela Vargas is the best day you’ll have that year.” She has been called by her fans “the rough voice of tenderness.” Chavela Vargas was a lesbian nonconformist who supposedly romanced Frida Kahlo and Ava Gardner. Sounds interesting at the least!!!

A scene from the Austrian film ‘Happy End.’ Image courtesy FilmColumbia

I want to see the new Michael Haneke film “Happy End.” By all accounts the title is not indicative of this wealthy and miserable family portrayed here. But I loved “Amour” by the same director with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert also starring in it. This is not a continuation of that film but a soap opera about a rich, nasty family oblivious to the misery of migrants around them. Austria submitted this film for Academy Award consideration in the Foreign Language category.

A still from ‘The Square.’ Image courtesy FilmColumbia

A few years back, I saw a film called “Force Majeure,” which encouraged deep discussions about relationships and how we react to natural disasters. The director, Sweden’s Ruben Ostlund, has a new film out this year, “The Square,”  and it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival–it also has been submitted to the Academy Awards for Foreign Language Film. It sounds like a disturbing work focusing on a curator at an avant-garde art museum in Sweden.  Several vignettes display how his liberal views often come up against real-world chaos and prejudice. A quirky reporter–Elisabeth Moss–has a wild fling with this curator. And an artist–Dominic West–is interviewed while an audience member either comments negatively on his work or perhaps is afflicted with Tourette’s! Sounds charming!

A still from ‘In the Fade.’ Image courtesy FilmColumbia

Another film that is being submitted for Academy Award consideration by Germany for Best Foreign Language Film is “In the Fade.” Fatih Akin is a German-born director of Turkish origin who examines a possible hate crime that may be directed at the Turkish husband of Diane Kruger’s character. She has to overcome the prejudices of parents and in-laws and the judicial system while she is mourning the loss of her family. The movie is very of-the-moment and Diane Kruger won the Best Actress prize at Cannes.

A still from ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.’ Image courtesy FilmColumbia

There are so many other films that have piqued my interest. There is the Gloria Graham biopic “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”  starring Annette Bening and Jamie Bell with Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Walters. In short, it’s a romance between a young movie buff and a gorgeous, much older movie star and it looks very promising. We have seen Bening play that type before in “The Grifters” and she does it very well. A quick mention about an unusual comedy, “Let Yourself Go,” featuring a Jewish Italian Freudian psychoanalyst: Not a conventional central character, but it does sound like fun.

A still from ‘Call Me by Your Name.’ Image courtesy FilmColumbia

One last film that should be mentioned, which just received three Gotham Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Breakthrough Actor–Timothee Chalamet from “Homeland”–and Best Screenplay for James Ivory: “Call Me By Your Name” is directed by Luca Guadagnino, who wowed us years ago with “I Am Love” starring Tilda Swinton. That film was also about a forbidden passion, but this one sounds even more intriguing: a story of transformative first love. Every year Professor Perlman–Michael Stuhlbarg–invites a young doctoral student to his family vacation home in Lombardy to assist with his research. The young, gorgeous intern–Armie Hammer–stirs erotic feelings in the professor’s adolescent son–Timothee Chalamet. These underlying passions are explored through the use of the sensuous beauty, music and dance of the region, and with an especially suggestive scene using food as a prop! The reviews have been glowing and it was a runner-up in Toronto for the Audience Award. What makes this film event even more interesting is that it will be followed by a Q-and-A with James Ivory, Timothee Chalamet, producer Peter Spears and Andre Aciman–the author of the book the film is based on).

There are so many more gems to be seen this week — this is just a taste. Please explore this festival! For more information and the screening schedule, please see the Berkshire Edge calendar or call (518) 392-3445. See you at the Festival!!!!

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