The Asheville Film Festival Take Four

Don Mancini, Jennifer Tilly and Xpress movie critic Ken Hanke

Celebrating the art and fun of film: Don Mancini, Jennifer Tilly and Xpress movie critic Ken Hanke at this year’s Asheville Film Festival.

Another year, another film festival down — and one that had its share of controversy and troubles, most of which don’t seem to matter that much the morning after. On that score, however, I may be living in a fool’s paradise, since I have no clue how it all played out in terms of success. I do know that even though overall attendance was down, the filmmakers were pleased with the turnout for their films. All of this will have to be factored into any decisions about the future of the festival itself and the direction it takes.

Ups and downs are to be expected. Certainly at the top of the ups was the presence of Jennifer Tilly as the festival’s guest of honor and recipient of the Career Achievement Award. Judging by the turnout for her appearance at the screening of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (the film for which she received an Oscar nomination) and the audience response to her, it’s pretty safe to say that I’m not alone in my views.

Not only is Jennifer Tilly a talented actress and, as it turns out, a terrific storyteller, but she’s a very nice person and unfailingly mindful of and generous to her fans. Plus, she’s charmingly down to earth and blessed with a captivating enthusiasm. As a barometer of this last attribute, she decided she wanted to go to a late-night private screening of The Return that writer-director Don Mancini (who was responsible for getting her here) and I had planned for ourselves. After the film her response was a bubbly, “I’ve never had a theater all to myself before. That was so cool!” That same attitude entered in to everything she did at the festival.

Another big plus were this year’s feature film entries. Yes, they were uneven, but there were a few real gems among them. (Anyone who sat through the films from the first year will know what a huge leap forward that statement indicates.) Filmmaker Tim Kirkman (Loggerheads) and I went back and forth a good bit trying to conclude which of the best two should finally receive the award. I don’t know how Tim finally felt about it, but seeing the clip from the winning film, Ten ‘Til Noon, at the awards ceremony clinched it for me that it was the right choice. Not only did it have the most creative — and ambitious and unusual — narrative structure, but it had a smoothness of style and technique not often seen in low-budget indies.

Somewhat less fortunate were the opening and closing night films. This, of course, is luck of the draw, and you’re not always going to end up with The Squid and the Whale or Being Julia or Kinsey or Good Night, and Good Luck. But this year’s films seem to have come from some specially prepared depressive collection of cinema. The opening-night film, Matt Tauber’s The Architect, was, I’m sorry to say, faux-artsy pretentious twaddle, totally unrelieved by the presence of reliable performers like Anthony LaPaglia and Isabella Rossellini. (I was more succinct at the after-film reception, but there are words I’m not supposed to use here.) The closing film, Neil Armfield’s Candy, was certainly better made and the performances from Heath Ledger, Geoffrey Rush and Abbie Cornish cannot be faulted. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that it’s a depressing (we’re talking hide the razor blades here) love story about two junkies that leaves you wondering why anyone would want to make it in the first place or who the intended audience is.

As noted earlier there was a certain amount of controversy about this year’s festival. That dates all the way back to the decision to include 1987’s Dirty Dancing as part of the events — something that indicated to a lot of people that the festival was heading in the wrong direction. Frankly, that’s an attitude I find understandable, but I also understand the idea behind including it, even while I don’t agree with it. (Sorry, but it was a mediocre movie that became a fluke hit 19 years ago and time has not made it any better.)

There was also a degree of animosity directed at the festival by persons whose films were not accepted into the final competition. I not only understand this, but I find nothing in the least wrong with the idea of a separate festival showcasing the rejected films. (I am, however, still wondering about the film that was supposedly rejected by both the film festival and the reject festival — an accomplishment of some note that makes me want to see it.) The idea is even, I think, a healthy one that demonstrates the passion for film and filmmaking in Asheville. That said, I do feel that a good deal of the rancor was misplaced and that it could have been handled with more grace, humor and diplomacy than it was.

In the end, I think it was a good festival — mishaps (inevitable in such an undertaking) and bruised egos to one side. A lot of people worked hard to make it the best festival possible — Melissa Porter, Lee Nesbitt, Sandra Travis, Neal Reed — even when everyone wasn’t seeing eye to eye on every aspect of it. Others like Jennifer Tilly and Don Mancini gave their time and cooperation to it. The judges — Tim Kirkman, Matt Brunson (Creative Loafing), Betsy Pickle (The Knoxville News Sentinel), filmmakers Jack Sholder and Kristin Hondros, and I — took on the not inconsiderable (and time-consuming) task of tackling the selected films. It was a good festival, because in the end, it was finally what any film festival should be: a celebration of the art and fun of the movies.

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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