As Roger Ebert noted in February, film festivals have become so ubiquitous that there's almost certainly one within driving distance of most film fans in the US. And lots of them are sprouting world-wide. Three years ago, I'd pitched Roger with an "FFC" piece on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. He advised that I provide a sense of the town and its atmosphere, the people, as well as what the festival itself was like.
As Carol Marshall, the much-admired PR ace who deftly handles several yearly festivals (including Santa Barbara), said when encouraging me to attend the 16th Sonoma International Film Festival: "Sonoma is a unique festival. They weave their film screenings around tastings of the fine local wines and food in this excellent community atmosphere. Nobody else does it like this."
I'd never been to Sonoma County, always stopping short of it on visits to San Francisco and the East Bay, where friends and family members live. But film, food and wine? This invitation was too tempting to pass up.
Arriving in Sonoma on the first day, I'm struck by the warmth of the people. It's an enduring impression, even as I watch citizen volunteers, including local members of the Native Sons of the Golden West, who will make as many as 200 auto trips each day, squiring visitors around. In a town that counts on tourists and their dollars, it's surely challenging to always be nice, and yet here in Sonoma they do it with a smile.
SIFF kicks off with a reception where the wine flows. I meet the affable Executive Director, Kevin McNeeley, and chat with several other folks psyched to spend lots of hours in darkened venues watching films. Then it's on to the classic Sebastiani Theatre, named for one of the region's most prominent winemaking families, where McNeeley, and the charmingly pony-tailed and even barefoot mayor, Ken Brown, welcome all.
"The Iceman," selected as the premiere film, screens to a packed house. Directed and co-written by Israeli-born Ariel Vromen, the film stars Michael Shannon as real-life Mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski, known to have murdered more than 100 people over 3 decades before his arrest, while somehow managing to keep his wife (played by Winona Ryder) and daughters in the dark about his work.
"The Iceman" proves instantly and viscerally divisive, eliciting strong opinions pro and con, which continue in passionate discussions throughout the festival. I'm among those who could've lived without seeing it, as it seems like "GoodFellas" redux — a film I also disliked (and yes, I know that's heresy) — with Michael Shannon's haunted character too similar to his Oscar-nominated lead in last year's "Take Shelter." Bobby Bukowski's always fine cinematography and standout production design by Nathan Amondson, recreating urban New Jersey from the '60s into the '80s, are noteworthy. And the acting, including by Ray Liotta, with cameo appearances by the likes of James Franco, Stephen Dorff, an unrecognizable David Schwimmer and others, is certainly first rate. The rare chance to see a slightly older Winona Ryder in a substantial role helped me endure a story I found tedious and too familiar.
Vromen and Liotta come to the stage for a wide-ranging Q & A as the film ends. The applause is strong, but so are some of the politely critical questions. One woman asks Liotta whether, after around 100 films, there's any character he'd still like to play. Tellingly, he explains he "likes to work." And has a teenaged daughter to support. "But someday I'd really like to kiss the girl — and not have to strangle her first." There's appreciative laughter at this.(Later, at a dinner, I have a chance to say I hope he'll get that role, and that I still favor one of his earliest films, Robert M. Young's "Dominick and Eugene.")
Vromen, too, seems to offer a caveat in acknowledging that he was particularly attracted by the "duality" of the Kuklinski character — how he could be both an ice cold killer and a devoted family man? — but that he "didn't get to explore that very much."
The after-party is held at a gorgeous, restored Victorian, the General's Daughter (the General being Vallejo, founder of Sonoma). Christopher Olness, a director who is showing his short film "Coming Home," is an alum of the American Film Institute, where I spent three years on staff. We find a lot to talk about, even as a good live band entertains the crowd. "Coming Home" is about an astronaut returned from space and discovering that surfing can be the elemental link he needs to integrate the worlds of space and earth. One of only six proposals selected from 1000 entries, Olness' well-made film, produced by Levi's in association with AFI, shows plenty of promise.
We connect with David Miller, a prolific independent producer whose award-winning Canadian film, "Blackbird," written and directed by first timer Jason Buxton, takes a compelling look at school bullying and post-Columbine paranoia. Sean is the town's one goth kid, who forms an unlikely friendship with one of the popular girls. Her jealous jock boyfriend roughs him up and, frightened, Sean posts a foolish, threatening response online, causing all hell to break loose. I hope this perceptive cautionary tale, which won SIFF's Best World Feature award, will soon become available in the U.S.
The next morning I walk from my room at the pleasant El Pueblo Inn to Sonoma Square, a large, leafy park surrounded on all sides by restaurants, shops, tasting rooms, and the Sebastiani Theatre. Near City Hall, SIFF has pitched a great white tent containing live music, friendly folks, excellent local cheeses and more wine. On the Square or in the tent — that's where the action is.
I get a coffee and find myself in conversation with one, then two, of the very engaging, long-time SIFF board members. We discuss this lovely, easy town they call home. We talk about Hollywood, and what kinds of pictures get funded (e.g., "The Iceman" will probably do well internationally, making it attractive to backers), and which ones we'd like to see (e.g., non-violent, character-driven stories, more female leads) that often don't.
They ask about Roger. As has been noted so many times, the world's best-known film critic was deeply loved. People who never met him have taken his passing personally. They're shocked by his sudden death. He truly touched them. Although I still don't quite believe he's left us, I'm struck by his tremendous legacy. Alongside that lasting body of work, can there be anything more wonderful than being so widely respected and loved?
On Thursday, I see "Caught in the Web," Chen Kaige's latest and China's 2013 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film. An admirer of his work since 1993's "Farewell My Concubine," this one eludes me. Described as a black comedy about contemporary China, it's striking to look at but what's being said? I figure there are cultural references I can't possibly understand and afterwards I'm glad to converse with two Chinese-born moviegoers. They agree the film is commenting on China's rapid-fire industrialization and its modern affluence, but say they don't completely understand it either. They've been living in America too long. Is this inscrutability the "fault" of the film, or mine — or am I simply missing Gong Li, the luminous actress who graced several of his earlier films? I'm undecided, but nothing of the film lingers a day later.
Netflix, which has just shipped its 4 billionth DVD, is SIFF's presenting sponsor this year. One night the company hosts an elegant dinner. I'm seated beside filmmaker Mary Lambert, well-known for groundbreaking music videos with Madonna, who is here with a short film, "Pearl," inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." Remarkably, Lambert and I share a good friend but have never met before. Our conversation comes easily, and includes Kevin McNeeley, on Lambert's left.
Paul Johnson, Netflix' amiable British-born Director of Operations Support, is on my right. We discuss Netflix' current bull's-eye via its first production, "House of Cards." I admit to being among the binge-viewers on the first weekend and express interest in what the company will do next. Hollywood, I tell him, is worried, as are theatre owners. He says with clear sincerity that Netflix doesn't want to take anything away from other producers nor distributors, but wants to be a participant. The more the merrier, I think, as long as it means work for writers, directors, actors, DPs, editors, et. al.
Cydney Payton, after conceiving, curating and raising lots of money to build Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, now resides with her husband in San Francisco. A close friend for longer than I'll admit in print, I've invited her to join me at SIFF. We head for "The Hunt," a drama from Denmark's Thomas Vinterberg, known for "The Celebration" and as the co-creator with Lars von Trier of Dogma 95. The film's star, Mads Mikkelsen, who won Best Actor for this performance last year at Cannes, is superb. And, as attested to by SIFF co-programmer and public relations head Claudia Mendozza Carruth's appreciative introduction, his international, predominantly female fan base, including me, is exploding.
Easily my favorite festival film, "The Hunt" is a taut, edge-of-the-seat stunner, a fable about what can unfold when one rumor or misunderstanding about an innocent person is taken for truth. Mikkelsen portrays a man recovering from a divorce, crafting a new life as a nursery school teacher in a Danish village. In a flash, a small child's fib about sexual abuse turns everyone against this gentle, well-liked man, causing a mass hysteria much like the Salem witch trials, or California's McMartin child molestation case in the 1980s.
"Jackie," directed by Antoinette Beumer, stars two Dutch actresses, actual sisters playing sisters who long for the American mother they've never known. The always watchable Holly Hunter is Jackie, an irascible outcast they believe may be their mother. Dutch-made and shot mainly in New Mexico, this is a classic road movie, quite funny and with a surprising ending, which I'd adored at Santa Barbara and would've seen again if there'd been time. Instead Cydney sees and loves it, as did many others I heard praising it afterwards. Although SIFF only screened it once, "Jackie" garners the Audience Award. It so deserves a theatrical release. Watch for it if it comes your way.
By now I've noticed what a great job Sonoma has done in programming female filmmakers. This is uncommon and very welcome. And this sophisticated audience seems to agree.
Actress Nikki Braendlin met producer Lena Bubenechik at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. One year later, they're here with Braendlin's first stab at writing and directing: "As High As the Sky," shot in 12 days by a mostly female crew with an all female cast. Its lead is Caroline Fogarty, a successful commercial actress whose perfect mid-century Eichler home provides the set. The story concerns two very different sisters, divided by age and life experiences but brought together by the sudden appearance of an older sister (Bonnie McNeil) and her pre-teen child (Laurel Porter). The performances are uniformly terrific and there's an exhilaration evident in the filmmaking. They've really pulled something off, I think watching it, and that ain't easy. The film wins Sonoma's Best American Independent Feature.
It's notable, too, that SIFF has scheduled four programs of shorts — 25 films — while also showing shorts before each feature. My experience has been that shorts are often made as filmmakers' calling cards, a way to show potential backers what kind of full-length film they might make. But all these shorts, only a few of which I'm able to work in, make me rethink this. Maybe it's a new moment, where shorts are truly made for their own sakes? I ask Netflix' Johnson about this, asserting that the 30-minute form isn't very different from half an hour of television, so perhaps viewers have opened to them? Johnson explains that his company has experimented with streaming shorts but so far there have been few takers. Perhaps we'll get there.
Among those I see is "Right There: A Film about Tolerance." British-born New Yorker Florence Buchanan, whom I've noticed asking good questions at the Distribution Seminar, lived within two blocks of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Her daughter was among the small kids evacuated that day from nearby PS 234. Ten years later to the day, Buchanan returns to the school with 15 of those children, examining their experiences and perspectives to reveal young people much like others, filled with dreams and hope and openness to what's good in the world. Buchanan should take this on again, something like Michael Apted's "7 Up" series, in another 10 years.
"Chance of Rain" is directed by Philipp C. Wolter, who co-stars with Michelle Glick. They're a young married couple who make films together out of Brooklyn. Both possess the sort of beauty which could easily inspire envy in others, yet they're also down-to-earth and instantly likable. Their moody, atmospheric film — just 14 minutes long — takes us into a world we'd willingly spend more time exploring with its intriguing characters. When it wins Best Narrative Short, the applause is heartfelt.
Every film festival features tributes, inviting actors — and sometimes directors — to appear in a Q&A sessions. Having seen quite a few, I'm admittedly rather jaded, yet I truly enjoy seeing Mary Louise Parker and Demian Bichir receiving 2013 Sonoma Spotlight Award. Parker walks out on stage in a floaty, very short silk dress which shows off a pair of long and beautiful legs. Soon she's joined by the handsome Mexican-born actor Demian Bichir, Oscar-nominated last year for "A Better Life," but still not as well-known as he deserves to be. Their experience acting together in the Showtime series "Weeds" has developed into a playful chemistry. Everybody, including the stars, seemed to have an especially good time. (I'd love to see this "two-character format" in other tributes.)
Cydney and I go on to The Girl and the Fig, a Sonoma restaurant we've heard raves about. Too late for reservations, we hope for places at the bar but soon luck out with comfy banquette spots. We order a local bottle, and several dishes to share. Over long conversation we nosh as we catch up, enjoying the attentions of a friendly waiter who keeps our glasses filled. Finally sated, we return to those plush pillows at the hotel, thinking this restaurant is one we'll happily ecommend (in fact, we get brunch there another day) -- for food, drink, service and atmosphere.
There are about 100 films at SIFF and, as others lament, it's simply impossible to see everything, or even to write about all I've seen. But I want to note a real surprise: "Living on One Dollar." Two friends major in economics at Claremont McKenna College, where they keep hearing that 1.1 billion people exist on less than one dollar a day. How is that even possible, they wonder, and then decide to find out. The result is a 53-minute personal documentary shot over one summer in a tiny, unimaginably impoverished Guatemalan village, where four affluent Americans attempt to replicate and survive under local conditions. Meeting the earnest young "economist-filmmakers," Zach Ingrasci, Sean Leonard and Chris Temple, at a breakfast, I decide to catch their film and walk over to the Sebastiani with Meredith Brody, an Indiewire writer I've long followed. We both expect to be touched by the story but I'm really startled by how solid the filmmaking is. The cinematography, editing, pacing — everything is remarkably tight and polished.
Afterwards the guys tell about the non-profit they've established and all the travel to show the film in public schools and colleges in the hope of reaching young people at their most open and idealistic ages. Finishing college, they'd all been offered excellent, high-paid jobs but passed to dedicate themselves to this cause. Take a look at their website. Donate and make a difference if you can.
Can I possibly follow that with our cushy afternoon visit to the fabled Buena Vista Winery on the edge of Sonoma? That's what we're invited to do, and it's quite memorable. The land itself is so beautiful: the old, restored buildings … and the tastings of multiple varieties of Buena Vista's wines. Of course I know one is expected to swirl and taste and spit a bit of it out, but I can't bear to do so. This is why people come from around the world to visit Wine Country — and why they return.
The closing film, "A Monkey on My Shoulder," directed by Marion Laine, features the incomparable French actress Juliette Binoche and Edgar Ramirez, Venezuela's superstar, portraying married heart surgeons working in the same hospital. They're at the top of this high-flying field and passionate about each other but he's got an issue with alcohol that will eventually cost him his job and threaten their marriage. She seems "in denial," unable to face his problem, which for me becomes a weakness in an undercooked script. But I'll see Binoche in anything. The chemistry between two very appealing actors is worth watching, and a surprise ending will follow you out of the theatre.
How to end what's been an idyllic time in this enchanting place? With Sonoma's adopted son, Jack London, of course, and his quote, embedded in Keith English's sweet animation, which has opened every film this year at SIFF:
"The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smoulders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive. I am filled with dreams and mysteries. I am all sun and air and sparkle. I am vitalized, organic." — Jack London