Beachfront Bellwether: Hamptons Fest previews the season’s award contenders

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The New York area again greets a rich fall festival season of important film happenings—the Hamptons, New York and Woodstock fests and IFP’s event—this year running almost concurrently.

Standing apart as cinema’s beachfront bellwether for upcoming product destined for commercial and awards conquest is eastern Long Island’s ebullient annual Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF), embarking on its 24th session. Running Oct. 6-10 in leafy (till they drop) East Hampton and environs, the fest continues to expand not just in numbers (dozens of features and many shorts, and related activities and attractions) but in its reputation for offering a lineup of just-gotta-see films destined for marketplace impact and awards attention, if not the pinnacle of prizes.

All these fall New York film events matter and share a mission of showcasing choice new movies. HIFF, however, reaps the benefits of a “perfect storm”—speaking non-meteorologically, of course. It boasts size but with ease of consumption; proximity to media-centric, marketing-muscled Manhattan where most important releases first face the commercial marketplace; and HIFF’s location in a diverse town where film industry and hedge-fund heavies, a growing Latino community, and artists also live. In other words, a coveted testing ground for filmmakers and distributors.

But the HIFF storm could not be “perfect” without its continuing high level of curation and quality, a fact no doubt abetted by a growth in quality throughout cinema and TV. Another plus is the breadth of many different themes addressed in many different ways. Comments HIFF artistic director David Nugent, “The festival tries to appeal to our very diverse audience and their varying interests.”

Mindful of the rattling presidential race around us, HIFF executive director Anne Chaisson says the fest this year "wanted to appeal to both the part of our audience that is hungry for more topical content and the part of our audience that wants to escape into different narratives and stories. The festival has been very successful in engaging the community and bringing topics from all over to the world out to the Hamptons."

While the fest traditionally introduces new worldwide films that few have heard of, it has also become a harbinger for higher-profile titles whose profiles will grow during the upcoming awards season. In fact, 2015 marked the seventh time in the last eight years that a HIFF film has become the eventual Best Picture winner at the Oscars, making it the only festival on the East Coast with such a distinction.

This year’s highlights (including a few films already caught by this writer) suggest if not scream nothing less. Opening night brings writer-director Jeff Nichols’ Loving, starring Ruth Negga (award alert for her performance) and Australia’s remarkable actor/filmmaker Joel Edgerton playing the real-life 1950s interracial Virginia couple whose union was illegal in the state. One of the film’s producers is Nancy Buirski, whose multi-award-winning doc The Loving Story dealt with the Lovings’ marriage and ordeal and how it led to the historic Supreme Court decision to legalize such unions throughout the country.

This year, HIFF offers a separate opening-night feature for the nearby town of Southampton: Katherine Dieckmann’s Holly Hunter starrer Strange Weather, a dramatic road-trip portrait of a woman looking for answers to difficult questions.

Hunter, along with actor/filmmaker/activist Edward Norton, will participate in HIFF talks, conversations and panels. Additionally, the fest will honor Norton with its Career Achievement Award at a Sunday dinner benefit. Norton starred in such films as Birdman (a HIFF 2014 selection), Fight Club, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Primal Fear, his astonishing feature debut, and will co-star in the upcoming Collateral Beauty. He also founded and now heads the socially concerned CrowdRise, one of the largest fundraising platforms, and was an executive producer on the HIFF doc Bunker77 (see below).

Back on the film-watching front, HIFF’s Centerpiece selections are also powerful draws. From one oceanfront to another, the searing seaside family drama Manchester by the Sea blows ashore as a sure bet for writer-director Kenneth Lonergan and star Casey Affleck to attract awards nominations as sure as beaches attract waves. Affleck plays a ne’er-do-well Boston janitor/handyman called back to his hometown fishing community, where all kinds of memories, reunions and dilemmas ignite after his brother dies. And A24’s period comedy 20th Century Women, the other Centerpiece offering, has Annette Bening as a single mother in the late ’70s raising a teen daughter in a bohemian Santa Barbara household with its share of colorful tenants and visitors.

Closing night has the ever-busy Scottish actor and now filmmaker Ewan McGregor doing a multi-faceted stretch with his directorial debut, American Pastoral. The drama is a Philip Roth adaptation that features McGregor in the role of a New Jersey husband and father whose daughter becomes radicalized in the tumultuous late ’60s/early ’70s. Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Connelly and David Strathairn co-star.

Other gems already getting big buzz among critics and cinephiles are the Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone contemporary L.A. musical La La Land, from writer/filmmaker Damien Chazelle, who delivered the HIFF 2014 smash indie hit Whiplash; Pedro Almodóvar’s dazzling visual and emotional tour de force Julieta, a magnificently performed and told, color-saturated family drama and arguably the director’s career best to date; The Weinstein Company’s Lion, starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara in an adventure drama about an Indian man, adopted as a boy by an Australian couple, returning to India to uncover his past; and Barry Jenkins’ remarkable Moonlight, a powerful, magnificently shot and acted coming-of-age tale involving a poor black youth in a drug-ridden Miami neighborhood confronting severe family and sexual-identity problems, and proving how seemingly downbeat themes can be utterly uplifting.

From the unexpectedly sweet and affecting but perennially cool indie icon Jim Jarmusch comes the unexpectedly sweet and affecting Paterson, starring, yes, an unexpectedly sweet and affecting Adam Driver in the role of a poetry-writing bus driver named Paterson in the city of Paterson, New Jersey, where Jarmusch lensed. The film is so damn good and that iscool.

Other entries sure to pique interest include, to name just a few, Wakefield, starring the addictively watchable Bryan Cranston as a distraught lawyer whose angst drives him to a quirky extreme; Una, with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn in a relationship drama of trauma and revenge; and no doubt comfortable at the fest and attracting attention in this fashion-conscious town will be Franca: Chaos & Creation, one of many world premieres to hit the screens. It focuses on Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of the controversial Italian Vogue magazine, as seen through the directorial lens of her son Francesco Carrozzini, himself an accomplished fashion photographer.

The doc Supergirl goes close-up on a nine-year-old girl who’s not just a record-breaking world powerlifting champ but also an Orthodox Jewish kid from Jersey, as she grows into adolescence and the added complications that brings.

Traditionally, HIFF, mainly through a strong lineup of docs, gives considerable screen and discussion time to social, political and environmental issues. This year, National Geographic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Oscar-winning director Fisher Stevens’ Before the Flood, which arrives in theatres later this month, probes how society can prevent the demise worldwide of endangered species, ecosystems and native communities.

On the animal-rights front (East Hampton is emphatically an animal-loving community) comes Unlocking the Cage, that has legendary doc filmmakers (and Hamptons locals) D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus following animal-rights lawyer Steven Wise and some neglected caged former showbiz chimps in an important court case. And The Ivory Game, with Leonardo DiCaprio executive producing, deals with the tragic slaughter of the African elephant.

Disturbing the Peacecovers a bipartisan Middle East organization of Israelis and Palestinians who transitioned from combatants on opposing sides to a mutual goal of reaching peaceful solutions together. A panel discussion follows. In Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript generates a look, also via archival material, at some major black figures, including Baldwin, and major aspects of black history.

Another HIFF tradition is HIFF’s global reach, this year exemplified by its Focus on Norwegian Cinema and dozens of features in the World Cinema section. Several have been previously mentioned, but among the many others that spark interest are Ken Loach’s devastating and superbly acted I, Daniel Blake, an awards magnet about the horrific consequences of tangly urban bureaucracy on the disadvantaged; Blue Jay, starring indie favorite and occasional Hollywood crossover Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulsen (just off her big Emmy win for “The People vs. O.J. Simpson”) as two former high-school sweethearts who accidentally reunite; and Bunker77, the aforementioned Norton doc, about Clark Gable’s very rich sugar heir stepson who lived very large and, at 27, died very young.

From France comes renowned filmmaker François Ozon’s much-anticipated period romance Frantz. Also on the burner is Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, arguably one of the best docs ever made about a chef and what makes him tick inside and outside his kitchens. Magnus is a Norwegian doc about one of the youngest grandmasters ever in chess, and Maren Ade’s poignant and startling German dramedy Toni Erdmann, a Sony Pictures Classics release, provides a goofy/wise evisceration of a desiccated corporate culture through the eyes of a strained father-daughter relationship. The remarkable doc Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, follows the long, agonizing ordeal beginning in the early ’90s of some working-class Latino lesbians in Texas wrongly convicted of and incarcerated for child abuse as a result of ignorance and prejudices that are sadly alive today.

Bestowing cash and in-kind prizes totaling more than $165,000, HIFF again also gets competitive in its Narrative and Documentary Competition lineups. And the fest gets prophetic (as the accomplishments of past honorees emphatically confirm) with its annual 10 Actors to Watch sidebar that celebrates young onscreen talent about to emerge. This year offers an extraordinary batch of newcomers, including (just to name a few performances already caught) Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali, Alden Ehrenreich (the revelation in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!), Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges and Una’s Riz Ahmed (also the star of HBO’s “The Night of”).

There’s so much more, including parties and hangouts scattered about for film fans to chew over what they’ve seen or want to, because HIFF continues to be all about films that thrill and enrich us.