There’s no denying that this year’s Asheville Film Festival was low-key and scaled back. There was no special guest, fewer narrative feature entries and at least one notable miscalculation. That said, the 2009 festival did have more than its share of high points—not the least of which was a very positive vibe from out-of-town filmmakers, who were in unusually high attendance this year.
This was, I believe, the first time that the winner of the award for Best Feature film was actually there to accept the award. And no, it wasn’t like filmmaker Becky Smith—whose 16 to Life snagged that accolade—just drove in from Hendersonville. No, indeed, she came all the way from California to attend the festival—and yes, that was without knowing that her film had taken the top prize. The even more positive thing about this is that she had a good time, meaning that she’ll have gone home with good things to say about the festival in general.
Equally gratifying was the full-scale invasion of what seemed like everyone involved in the production of another feature entry, Laid Off. These folks came in from New Jersey—and happily they took home the Audience Award. I don’t think they would have minded that much if they hadn’t won anything (though they certainly let out a whoop when they did). They were the pleasantest folks you could have hoped for—not even minding the fact that I’d found their film significantly flawed. Indeed, they spent some considerable time talking to me about how they might better their work. With any luck, I was of some small help to them. And if they read this, I was perfectly sincere that I’d be interested to see the next movie they make.
I wasn’t involved with the short films, student films or documentaries, and my schedule this weekend didn’t allow me to rectify this, but the judges who tackled the shorts and student films were very impressed with the overall quality of the work that had made it into the festival. This isn’t hard to believe. The one year I did help judge shorts, I was quite astonished by how good the films were. I understand the appeal for burgeoning filmmakers of making a feature they can call their own—something that advances in digital technology have made practical—but a lot can be learned from crafting a really fine short rather than an overreaching feature.
The opening night film, An Education, was a genuine delight. Unfortunately, it was rather overpriced for most people, since the ticket included the opening-night party. That was definitely too bad. All the hype about the film’s young star, Carey Mulligan, having the kind of star quality associated with the young Audrey Hepburn turns out to be quite true. Think of the film as a kind of sexualized Roman Holiday and you’ll fully understand the comparison. Fortunately, for those who missed it at the festival, it opens this Friday at the Fine Arts (and you can read a more detailed review of it in this week’s Xpress).
Of course, much of the excitement this year centered around the closing-night film, Precious, given the Oscar buzz it has generated. Following its unprecedented box office in limited release the week before, it had sold out by last Wednesday, but the festival booker, Greg Gardner, managed to get a second screening slotted—and that sold out, too. For those who missed it and would like to see it at the theater, I expect the film will open locally within the next week or so. So did Precious live up to its promise? In the main, I’m going to say that, yes, it did—though I don’t think I’m quite as keen on it as a great many people seem to be. It’s certainly a well-made, beautifully acted film of no little power, even if some of that power starts to feel a little trumped-up at times. The performances are stunning—and anyone who sat through Glitter (that’s maybe 20 people) will be stunned to discover that Mariah Carrey actually can act.
Praise to one side—and Precious certainly deserves it—it just didn’t have the ability to transport the crowds the way last year’s closing film, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, did. Precious drew solid, enthusiastic applause, but nothing like the two ovations Slumdog received—nor did it leave you breathlessly excited when you exited the theater (at least, it didn’t leave me feeling that way). But, as I’ve noted before, Slumdog Millionaire isn’t the kind of film you encounter more than every few years—and it’s no disgrace not to match it. And anyway, the two films—and their aims—are so different that it makes actual comparison impossible.
Overall, the festival was a wholly pleasant event. I do regret the pricing of the opening-night film, and I do hope that we can get back to having a guest next year. And good as the entry features mostly were, I definitely want to see a return to the aggressive approach of acquiring films that have played well at other festivals. That was a process that proved very successful the past couple of years here in Asheville in terms of getting a larger body of worthwhile feature entries.
On another positive note, the amount of time and attention given over to local filmmakers this year was a very good move. After all, supporting the art of film in your own backyard can only be a good thing for any film festival. We’re just lucky enough to have a good bit of local filmmaking going on.
So where does all this leave us? This year’s festival wasn’t an unqualified success, but I would call it a success—certainly it was judging by the reaction of those who attended it.