Asheville’s film fest: on target and getting better

The second annual Asheville Film Festival has come and gone, and in most ways it was a distinct improvement over the first one. This round, the entries were certainly of a higher caliber — at least most of the ones I saw.

In many respects, I was glad not to be a judge this time. Last year, there was little question that My Dinner with Jimi would be the hands-down winner. But this year, the choice wouldn’t have been nearly so easy.

Prior to the festival, I had access to 14 of the features and one of the documentaries. But with only enough time to see a handful of those, I was forced to choose, mostly relying on a sort of “lucky dip” approach. Fate failed me when it came to the festival winner, Sandstorm, but paid off handsomely with some little gems: Black-eyed Susan, New Guy, The Failures, Human Error and, best of all, Strange Fruit. These alone indicate that the pre-selection committee had a better time of it this year than we judges did in the first festival, when some of the entries were, I freely admit, chosen for lack of alternative.

In addition this year, the festival managed to obtain some heavy-hitters in noncompetition features: Dan Harris’ Imaginary Heroes, Istvan Szabo’s Being Julia, Shona Auerbach’s Dear Frankie and, best of all, Bill Condon’s Kinsey.

Opening the festival with Imaginary Heroes proved a good idea. While not a great film, it was nonetheless a very entertaining one with a strong cast (Sigourney Weaver, Emile Hirsch, Jeff Daniels), some unusual themes (even if its central plot-device smacked of Ordinary People), and a high school valedictorian speech that was worth the price of the ticket by itself. Scheduling prevented me from seeing Being Julia, but both the director and the cast alone made it an impressive acquisition.

Though Dear Frankie was unfortunately buried in an 11 a.m. Sunday time-slot, it was a sweet little film, a sort of more serious variant on Goodbye, Lenin!. Fine performances by Emily Mortimer, Gerard Butler, Jack McElhone and Sharon Small offset the sometimes incomprehensible Glaswegian accents and the director’s insistence on shooting in natural light, which made much of the action appear as though it took place in a cave.

Bill Condon’s Kinsey was the perfect capper for this year’s festival. A worthy successor to Condon’s marvelous Gods and Monsters, which it very much resembles in style, Kinsey is an audacious, daring, bracing and thoroughly entertaining work. The film has more laughs than just about any comedy I’ve seen this year, and yet it boasts remarkable emotional and thematic depth. It’s one movie to be on the lookout for when it hits town in general release — and don’t be surprised if you find it on my 10-best list at the end of the year.

Angela Shelton’s Searching for Angela Shelton snagged best documentary from both the judges and the audience, and deservedly so. There’s a very good chance this film will show up here again at the Fine Arts Theatre, so keep your eyes open.

At the time of its award, festival-goers yet to see the winning feature film, Sandstorm, because a technical snafu had caused the public screening to be canceled (the film did play later in the festival).

I tried to watch the audience-award winner, Phreaker – but the less said about my take on this one, the better. Suffice it to say, Phreaker, like another entry, Killing the Dream, was so grimly determined to be hip that I wanted to throw something at it.

This year’s big special event was the lifetime achievement award given to veteran character actor Rance Howard, which also brought us sons Ron and Clint Howard, and granddaughter Bryce Dallas Howard. The proceedings were done up nicely at the Grove Park Inn, complete with a fine selection of clips of the elder Howard’s work, which thankfully included his role as Old Man McCoy (“Son, you’re too vague!”) in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Both Ron and Clint Howard offered good speeches, but Rance stole the show, earning two standing ovations and concluding his remarks by noting wryly, “My sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Petit, told me that the only thing that prevented me from being a truly fine public speaker was that I didn’t know when to get off; I had the same trouble as a husband.”

On the technical level, the awards presentation was streets ahead of last year’s show. This one featured generous clips of the films (nicely done with dual rear-screen projections), and most of the glitches that marred last year’s presentation were pretty much ironed out.

Yes, the festival still has some teething trouble. The technical problem that prevented the showing of Sandstorm should never have happened. Problems with defective equipment — which ruined the last fourth of one film, forcing the hapless filmmakers to explain to the audience the rest of their movie — still need to be addressed. Some of the scheduling was puzzling, to say the least. (For example, I have no idea why the generally lamentable Devil’s Courthouse was shown twice.) There needs to be less video and more film projected (and when screeners must be video, they need to be presented without the critics’ screener warnings on them). While special events are fun for the select few who can attend them, the films really are the crux of a film festival – and so the films and their presentation should be the primary concern.

But all in all, our second film festival was a good one — and a big step forward.

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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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