The best of the fest

OK, it’s time to talk movies. Oh, I know I’m usually talking movies, but it’s time to talk movies en masse, with the fifth Asheville Film Festival upon us.

Road rage: Indie horror flick Blood Car makes our list of this year’s “must see” films.

By the time you factor in the competition features, the Tess Harper retrospective, the opening and closing night films, a few special movies and a couple out-of-competition pictures, you’re looking at something like 26 movies packed into the space of a few days. And I’m not even talking about documentaries, short films and animation—just feature films. Now, there’s just no way anyone can manage to get through that many films in the space of a few days. (Someone with a case of Red Bull and the economy size bottle of No-Doz will now attempt it just to prove me wrong.)

With that in mind, I’m here to do what I have in years past and make some recommendations for films that are certainly high on the list of titles you’ll want to consider.

The trick this year lies in the fact that the competition features are generally of a higher caliber than they’ve ever been, making the choices more difficult. I really encountered nothing I regretted spending my time watching—something I can’t say about previous years. With this mind, readers might want to plan their viewings around the types of movies at hand. The festival has always had a diverse selection of films—granting the fact that not all the respresented genres were necessarily well represented (a polite way of saying there’ve been a few stinkers). This year, however, there truly is something for everyone.

Garden party of gore: Between the title and the promo image, Murder Party doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

In previous years one of the most lamentable genres has been the horror film. I think you’ll find this year’s crop of horrors and borderline horrors an altogether different proposition—and nicely diverse in the bargain. The titles this time range from the splattery horrors of the Herschell Gordon Lewis-like Murder Party to the almost equally sanguinary Blood Car, which uses its often cheerful gore to present one of the most amazingly subversive socio-political satires I’ve ever seen. (When a movie can shock me, it’s done something.) Director and co-writer Alex Orr has created a film of terrific originality here. It’s already picked up a number of awards at other festivals and I’m calling it one of the festival’s “must see” films—even though it is likely to offend some viewers. (And what’s a film festival without at least one film that can do that?)

More traditional horror can be found in Charlotte-based filmmaker Mark Young’s neon-infused vampire tale Southern Gothic. I approached this one with some trepidation owing to having been unable to make it through Young’s earlier festival entry, Phreaker, but Southern Gothic is a much better work and certainly worth a look for genre fans.

In a different key, there’s Duncan Roy’s contemporary take on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. While making a gay version of Wilde’s novel is a bit on the redundant side, I have to say that this is an intriguing variation—and one that tries (with varying degrees of success) to be something different in terms of style. There’s also the ghost story The List which has the bonus of starring Malcolm McDowell and featuring the festival’s first Lifetime Achievement winner Pat Hingle.

In a totally different vein, there are horrific—or at least fairy-tale-like supernatural—elements in David Kaplan’s truly extraordinary Year of the Fish. This rotoscoped fantasy set in New York’s Chinatown is not only compelling viewing, but it’s far and away the most visually arresting film playing. It’s another title I’m tagging as a “must see.” And though I used the term fairy tale, it ought to be noted that it’s both sexually frank and occasionally terrifying—not meant for kids.

Identity crisis: Randy and the Mob finds gags galore when identical twins with very different personalities get mixed up with the mafia.

Quirky comedy is well represented in Ray McKinnon’s Randy and the Mob in which McKinnon plays twin brothers—a good old boy sort who gets mixed up with the mob and his extremely gay twin brother. McKinnon regular Walton Goggins is also on hand (as is Burt Reynolds) in this warmly funny film that is uniquely southern and ought to play well with admirers of McKinnon’s Oscar winning short The Accountant. Another “must see.”

Think you have no interest in hip-hop loving German graffiti artists? You may want to rethink that once you see Florian Gaag’s Wholetrain. Think of it as a look into a German subculture—much like Paul Verhoeven’s Spetters did with a Dutch subculture 20-odd years ago. It’s one of the most dynamic and creatively made films playing and also earns a “must see.”

The warmly nostalgic Greek film from Costas Kapakas, Uranya is probably the slickest movie in the festival, and it’s a good one, too. Reminiscent in many ways of both Cinema Paradiso and Fellini’s Amarcord, it might seem a little derivative to some, but it has an undeniable appeal that places it in at least the highly recommended category, which is where I’d place Mary McGuckian’s Intervention, a film that overcomes a too-fussy directorial style due to strong characterizations. Actually, it veers into the realm of “must see” based on the performances of Andie MacDowell, Colm Feore and last year’s Career Achievement Award winner Jennifer Tilly. If you only know Tilly from her comedic work, this will be a revelation.

Local interest will run high—and it should—for Ghost Town, which features Rance Howard (AFF Lifetime Award Winner) and Bill McKinney (perhaps best known for Deliverance) in this “Eastern” Western centering on the famous “Ghost Town in the Sky” theme park. Also on the local front, there’s Golden Blade III, the outrageous kung-fu comedy which just snagged “Best Locally Produced Film” in the Xpress “Best of WNC” readers’ poll. Also up is the family drama Simple Things, which was filmed in Asheville.

So much to choose from—and I haven’t even been able to touch on more than a smattering of offerings, but, hopefully this will be of some help to readers—along with the festival guide itself—in making some selections for this terrific event.

[Ken Hanke, author of several books on movies, writes the weekly Xpress movie-review section, “Cranky Hanke.”]

who: The Asheville Film Festival
what: A genre spanning collection celebration of film
where: Downtown Asheville
when: Nov. 8 to 11 (

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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6 thoughts on “The best of the fest

  1. Ken Hanke

    Well, things got underway as far as I was concerned tonight with the judges’ dinner — which precluded my showing up at the screening of SIMPLE THINGS at the Fine Arts. I pretty much knew everyone there — Lee and Lynn Nesbitt, Don Mancini, Larry Toppman, Robby Benson — but this was my introduction to both Don’s partner, Danny, who I’ve been waiting three years to meet, and my first in person encounter with Tess Harper. Tess is truly and immediately wonderful. I was waiting out front of the Marketplace (where the dinner was held) when they pulled up. Not even knowing me, she waved, got out of the car, walked over, introduced herself (which wasn’t really necessary) and started talking to me like she’d known me for years. By the end of the evening, I felt like I’d known HER for years.

  2. David Huff

    Mickey Jones and I enjoyed chatting with you yesterday on Matt Mittan’s show (WWNC 570). We had a great screening of SIMPLE THINGS at the Fine Arts Theatre last night. Here’s to a successful Asheville Film Festival!
    David Huff
    Back 40 Films

  3. Ken Hanke

    I enjoyed it, too, though with Mickey talking there really wasn’t too much need for anyone else. What an entertaining guy. Glad that SIMPLE THINGS went well. Neal Reed (Fine Arts Manager) told me that it was very successful.

  4. Kitty

    Too bad you were unable to catch SIMPLE THINGS – it is really quite a sweet movie. The audience was very interested in the back story and appreciated the fact it was filmed locally. I would loved to have seen BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD myself.

    This was my first film festival, it won’t be my last.

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