This year’s Virginia Film Festival is going to be different. Less classic cinema. More new and independent flicks that reflect contemporary concerns. A snazzy new festival logo. Plus, they’ve established an additional box office at the Main Street Arena, so viewers don’t have to trek to Culbreth for a movie that’s showing Downtown.
But what stays the same—and this is the most important thing—is the spell of excitement that the festival casts over Charlottesville with four days of expert-curated films, bigshot special guests and glitzy parties. And given the vast selection of fun times, we know how hard it is to pick out which movies are must-sees—and which ones you don’t want to be seen at. In this feature you’ll find suggestions from our film critic, previews of new movies from Darren Aronofsky and Tom Shadyac and a rundown of this year’s festival, by the numbers.
When looking at the full schedule, don’t forget that a lot of local filmmakers are bringing the heat. Enjoy already acclaimed features like The Parking Lot Movie(Friday 9:30pm, Vinegar Hill)and World Peace…and other Fourth Grade Achievements (Sunday 3:15pm, The Paramount), but be sure to check out newer regional fare, like Vintage: The Winemaker’s Year (Saturday 6pm, The Paramount), about Virginia’s wine scene, and Beardo (Saturday 5pm, Vinegar Hill), a Harrisonburg-produced short documentary about a competition in Alaska that determines whose beard is the world’s finest. In the end, the choice is yours.—Andrew Cedermark
Darren Aronofsky brings his unique vision to a ballet thriller
Darren Aronofsky arrived as a fully formed auteur in 1998 with the low-budget, black-and-white film Pi. The film generated suspense—horror, even—through little more than a paranoid, migraine-plagued genius’ interactions with his jerry-rigged computer and a 216-digit number that may have had a connection to an esoteric mathematical formulation (the Fibonacci Sequence), may have been a Cabalistic interpretation of the Old Testament, or may have served as a way to predict the rise and fall of the stock market. Or, maybe not. It didn’t matter: The number was just a means to a disturbed ending. Aronofsky explored the descent of Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) into madness through an ever shifting lens that looked outward from a mind on the brink of disintegration to capture increasingly disjointed and surrealistic visions. The film wasn’t so much avant garde as it was guardedly avant: It introduced a talent who wasn’t afraid to experiment with everything from plot and narrative to lighting and camera angles, yet never gratuitously so. Even Aronofsky’s most daring shots served the larger purpose of generating psychological tension that’s only dispelled when Cohen takes a power drill to his temple.
Ballet and psychological terror collide in Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder and Mila Kunis. This acclaimed new film from Darren Aronofsky opens the Virginia Film Festival on Thursday.
Aronofsky remains an obsessive filmmaker who makes obsessive films about obsession. He’s always taken on big themes—addiction in 2000’s Requiem For A Dream, mortality in 2006’s The Fountain, and the rise and fall of Mickey Rourke as Randy “the Ram” Robinson in 2008’s The Wrestler. But it is the little things that have distinguished Aronofsky’s filmmaking. With help from longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique, he’s developed the right instinct for deploying clever filmic flourishes: the split-screen technique and rapid-fire montages in Requiem, the aggressive graininess of Pi, the hallucinatory textures and seamless fades that bind the three narratives in The Fountain, and the casual hand-held shots that give The Wrestler the feel of a documentary.
The latter film earned Rourke an Oscar nomination and gave Aronofsky his first taste of mainstream success. It also created the inspiration for Black Swan (Thursday 7pm, Culbreth) Aronofsky’s new film, and put him in a position to cast Natalie Portman in the lead of what’s predicted to be an even bigger commercial breakthrough. Based around a New York City ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, Black Swan pits Portman, whose Nina is more comfortable in the role of the innocent White Swan, against Mila Kunis’ Lily, an understudy whose character better suits her for the role of the more devious, sensual Black Swan. Obsession takes over as Nina explores the dark side, succumbs to paranoia, and gives Aronofsky’s camera yet another opportunity to experiment with perceptual distortions and reeling realities. This is familiar terrain for Aronofsky, a director who seems most at home when his camera is peering into the twisted corners of the private hell he creates for his characters. When he introduced the film at the Telluride Film Festival in September, he did so with an open-ended apology. Presumably, he was trying to warn away anyone under the impression that a big star, a big budget, and a big ballet might have tempered his penchant for unpredictability or his preference for unhappy endings.—Matt Ashare
A critic’s picks
Sometimes it’s best to defer to the experts.
What to see? Well, everything, of course. But maybe you won’t have time for everything. So here’s a short list of suggestions. Never mind Black Swan(Thursday 7pm, Culbreth) andCasino Jack(Sunday 4pm, Culbreth) andI Love You Phillip Morris (Friday 9:45pm, Culbreth) and such. Yes, it’d be cool to catch those before their theatrical releases. But it’s also cool to catch other, stranger things that you might never see on a big screen again. Such as:
At least one classic. As a 50th anniversary give-back gift to the gods of cinema, this year’s fest kindly reminds us how incredible it must have been when Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (Thursday 7pm, Newcomb), Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (Thursday 8:30pm, Regal Downtown), Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (Friday 7:30pm, Regal Downtown) Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (Sunday 6:30pm, Culbreth) Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (Sunday 6:45pm, Regal Downtown) and Robert Drew’s JFK documentary Primary (Friday 3:15, Regal Downtown) all hit theaters in the same year, 1960. Now, also incredibly, they’re all hitting theaters in the same weekend. We’re paralyzed with indecision here; the choice is yours.
At least one film by Festival Fellow Peter Bogdanovich. The dandily attired Oscar-winning writer-actor-director-producer-historian-critic came all this way to talk shop, bringing along more than half a century’s worth of experience and, we hope, at least one of his signature neck scarves. Opt for the perpetually charming What’s Up, Doc? (Sunday 10:45am, The Paramount) Plot particulars—something about jewels, underwear, igneous rocks, secret documents and a quadruple suitcase switcheroo—matter less than the comedy and romance of manners by which prim musicologist Ryan O’Neal finds himself hijacked from sourpuss fiancee Madeline Kahn (in her delicious film debut) by breath of fresh air Barbra Streisand (yes, there was a time).
At least one local highlight. We suggest Vintage: The Winemaker’s Year(Saturday 6pm, The Paramount)for purely practical reasons. First, as fun as it is to guess what Thomas Jefferson might make of how the whole democratic republic thing has turned out here, it’s even more satisfying to gloat over actually having mastered that which he never could: the making of fine wine from Virginian soils. Second, the festival’s presentation of this documentary includes a Virginia winemakers reception and a post-screening panel discussion moderated by C-VILLE Editor Cathy Harding. Cheers.
At least one foreign film about young romance—or maybe two. In Elvis & Madona (Friday 5pm, Regal Downtown) a proven LGBT crowd-pleaser from Brazil, the romance between a transgendered cabaret performer and a lesbian is, shall we say, complicated. And you thought the whole genre of romantic comedy had exhausted itself. By contrast, German director Maren Ade’s intelligent, beautifully observed and ultimately harrowing drama Everyone Else(Sunday 6:45pm, Vinegar Hill) is a naturalistic portrait of romantic disintegration that focuses on a young, attractive (hetero) couple on vacation in Sardinia. It’s as if the tradition of John Cassavetes were transposed to the key of contemporary young Europeans. We’re just saying these two would make a hell of a double-feature.
At least one surprisingly unsentimental animated film about the special bond between a sad, clever old Englishman and the Alsatian bitch he reluctantly adopted. O.K., we weren’t sure how to categorize My Dog Tulip (Sunday 2pm, Vinegar Hill), but wanted to be sure to recommend it. Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s animated adaptation of British writer J. R. Ackerley’s memoir is a singular testament to true companionship, and yes, so unsentimental it’s almost shocking. With the voices of Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini, and reportedly the first animated feature to be entirely hand drawn with paperless computer technology, it has special credentials. More important is that it is at once a complete delight for dog lovers and a complete surprise for people who might not be into movies that delight dog-lovers.—Jonathan Kiefer
Tom Shadyac gets serious with new documentary
There is a picture from 2005’s Virginia Film Festival of Tom Shadyac sitting in room 223 of the Cavalier Inn, his long mane dangling halfway to his ripped jeans. The room is trashed. It’s 7:45am.
Three years ago Tom Shadyac was injured in a mountain biking accident that nearly cost him his faculties. Now 95 percent recovered, he presents a documentary that’s more than a stone’s throw from the Jim Carrey vehicles that made him his name.
This isn’t the stuff of fantasy Hollywood all-nighters; Shadyac has stopped by the room to offer his services as a special-guest mentor for the Adrenaline Film Project, where crews are given 72 hours make an entire short film, from script to post. At one point in the encounter Shadyac corroborates a friend’s advice on the film, and the friend says, “Nobody believes me until I bring in a billion-dollar director.” Shadyac chimes in: “And that’s with a B, motherfucker.”
That’s Shadyac’s signature sense of humor. He’s a Falls Church native and UVA graduate whose hilarious—and did we mention lucrative?—partnership with Jim Carrey produced Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty. (Shadyac also directed Evan Almighty, one of the most expensive comedies ever made, in Albemarle County.) But he returns to the Virginia Film Festival to introduce a new documentary, I AM (Saturday 2pm, Newcomb Theater) that asks two fundamental questions: “What’s wrong with the world,” and “What can we do about it.” In it he interviews the likes of Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
I AM is a product of an extended period in which Shadyac’s sense of humor was put to the test, after he was involved in a mountain biking accident that was “serious enough that I didn’t think I was going to live,” he says. “I developed post-concussion syndrome, which is a syndrome when the symptoms of a concussion don’t go away. Your brain essentially loses the ability to filter stimuli, which is one of its primary functions. And my brain lost the ability to filter sound and light. It becomes quite, quite torturous.”
In the meantime, Shadyac had grown increasingly involved in philanthropy, even going so far as to purchase the First Street Church in Downtown Charlottesville in 2006 for $5 million after wrapping up Evan Almighty. “I was compelled to release a conversation that had been locked inside of me that I wanted to share with people,” says Shadyac. “That was the birth of I AM.”
Are people ready for a serious Tom Shadyac film? It may help when pondering that question to think of Shadyac’s past films. Perhaps you enjoyed them for their silliness: When Ace Ventura slaps his breast pocket, it explodes with water, and he says, “Do not go in there.” Young Dave Chappelle’s “Women be shopping!” monologue from The Nutty Professor. Or in Patch Adams, when the gynecologists find that they must walk through an enormous set of lady-legs and a sign that says “Welcome, Gynos! At your cervix” to get into Adams’ institute.
While indeed silly, these are the kind of comedies with heart that, it seems, are few and far between these days. Patch Adams was about compassion, The Nutty Professor about feeling comfortable in your own skin, and Ace Ventura was about…well, you get the point.
“I have screened I AM for a lot of people,” he says. “The most common response I get is, ‘I’m so thankful that you made this film because this has been something that’s been in me that I haven’t been able to express and nobody is talking about.’”
“It’s all a journey. My other films are kind of thematic parables, from a silly thing like Liar Liar, which is really about how the truth sets us free—whatever that is in our own life,” says Shadyac. “Bruce Almighty was an exploration of true power.”—A.C.
DUDE, WHERE’S MY THEME?
Five questions for Executive Director Jody Kielbasa
What film are you most looking forward to?
Jody Kielbasa’s second year at the Virginia Film Festival has been his first to enact his vision, which includes clear branding and a new emphasis on regional films and contemporary cinema.
Honestly, I’m really looking forward to the opening of Black Swan. That is one that I’ve taken on recommendation entirely—very high recommendation, in fact, it’s almost universally acclaimed. But I haven’t see that film, so I’m going to have the same discovery process that everybody sitting in the theater will have. That’s exciting. And nerve-wracking. Simultaneously.
It’s certainly opened the floodgates for us, in terms of programming, allowing us to explore a much wider variety of themes, topics and issues, and to be much more current and contemporary in our programming. I think that’s what the festival should be about: The process of discovery.
The festival celebrates 1960 this year. Do you think 2010 is poised to be as good a year as 1960 was?
I haven’t seen it yet. Of course, a lot of the films that are likely to be nominated for Academy Awards this year, or for the award season in general, are likely to be coming out in the next few months. I haven’t seen those films, not a lot of them anyway, so it’s tough for me to say.
What’s the biggest challenge of running the festival?
We ended our call for entries on September 15, and we had to announce our program on October 5. That’s really less than a three-week turnaround from that date, and then you have to make decisions about what you’ll drop or add. And then the guests you’ll bring in, which is very tough as well, because you’re trying to lock down their schedules and they have schedules that change. It’s a moving target.
What do you have planned for November 8?
Honestly, I’m going to be driving a pickup truck with my staff unloading all sorts of various and sundry parts of the festival for at least half the day. The 9th I might be on the golf course.—A.C.
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