The 2008 Asheville Film Festival is behind us, and with its passing comes the usual postmortem examination of what went wrong, what went right and what could have been better. It was, without a question, a somewhat awkward year, plagued with problems that came from regime changes and external, as well as some internal, troubles—not to mention the ultimate inability of this year’s Career Achievement Award recipient Brad Dourif to make it to the festival.
To continue for a moment on the downsides, this was far and away the least effectively promoted festival since the first one in 2003. Since I may be the only person still involved with the festival from its inception on, I’ll freely admit that the first festival—whatever its merits—was a monument to how not to put on a film festival, which is to say that everything about the 2003 edition was a case of learn while you go. That’s not the best route, but it taught much—even if some of its lessons have yet to be fully assimilated.
Now, having said that, it should be mentioned that many advances have been made over the years. In 2003, there was essentially no need to discuss what the best feature was, since My Dinner With Jimi was the clear winner. Frankly, nothing else came close. In fact, with the marginal exception of The Angel Doll, the rest were pretty darn lousy—and that was after winnowing out such dubious entries as a two-plus hour vanity project made by a doting father for (and starring) his daughter. This year there were 14 final features, and of those at least five were worthy of serious consideration for the top prize. That makes the choices harder, but a lot more satisfying.
This year’s feature entries (I didn’t see any of the other categories) lacked anything that stood out quite so dramatically as Year of the Fish did last year, and there was nothing as jaw-droppingly outrageous as Blood Car. But this year’s crop, nonetheless, continued the tradition of being generally better films than in previous years. Whatever has or hasn’t worked the past couple years, there’s no denying that the festival is drawing—and going after—a higher caliber of entries than in the first few years. This is very much a case of positive growth—that could have been capitalized on with better and earlier promotion.
Another area that scored highly were the opening and closing night films—especially the latter. There’s no question that the 2006 films represented the worst such films we ever had, and looked even worse coming after 2005’s The Squid and the Whale and Good Night and Good Luck. Last year, The Savages and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly marked a huge step up, but even better were this year’s Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. The acquisition of these movies was a major coup for the festival. And Slumdog Millionaire hit just the right note for the festival to end on. Even such crowd-pleasers as Being Julia and Good Night and Good Luck didn’t have the impact of Boyle’s film, which garnered tremendous applause when the credits started to roll and then received a greater round when the title and the words, “A Danny Boyle Film,” hit the screen. (Never underestimate the power of Danny Boyle in Asheville.) Special thanks are certainly due to film buyer Greg Gardner for securing these titles.
Gardner also deserves special mention for tracking down a gorgeous HD Cam copy of John Huston’s 1979 classic Wise Blood for the Brad Dourif retrospective. It was nothing short of a revelation to see this now rare film in the way in which Huston intended—in a way that has not generally been seen in more than 20 years.
Yes, it was a disappointment that Dourif couldn’t make it, but that’s a risk you run when dealing with industry people who are still active. Their time isn’t always their own and notice can be short. In all honesty, we’ve simply been very lucky in this regard in previous years. At least, we did have Dourif’s friend and colleague Don Mancini to accept the award for him. Mancini has become something of a much-prized fixture of the festival, and has been very generous with his time and help over the years.
On the other hand, Lifetime Achievement Award recipient screenwriter Frank Pierson—a man whose contributions to film have been great—did make it to the festival. This is the man who wrote or cowrote such films as Cool Hand Luke, Cat Ballou and Dog Day Afternoon, movies that are established classics of American cinema. That it turned out that he’s also an extremely nice, affable and very approachable man (who, by the way, fell in love with Asheville) is one of those delightful bonuses that come with events like this.
Again, the 2008 festival had its problems—problems that urgently need addressing—but it had much that was good, too. It had too much that was good to be ignored or dismissed, and I’m personally looking forward to seeing the festival carry on and improve in the future.