Cream of the Crop: Hamptons International Film Festival highlights award season’s best

ScreenerBlog

The buzz at the 26th annual Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF), which wrapped this past Monday, was that this was the best installment in the fest’s long history. The five-day event, again with many stars, awards and side events, had an exceptional lineup and unfolded without a glitch (yes, there were some bumps in the early years).

Reminding that the film business is fundamentally a business, a number of industry heavyweights showed up (Sony Pictures Classics co-head Michael Barker and Cinetic founder John Sloss, to name a few) to join the crowd of stars, filmmakers and film fans.

Helping ease the way, of course, was a committed team of sponsors, among the biggest being Audi, Out East, Delta Air Lines, Altour International, and even stream demon Netflix, which was all over the place and hopefully wising up to the fact that, as HIFF proved, people love seeing their movies on big screens, provided they get the content and comfort they deserve.

The concentration of high-quality films was impressive. Bigger, earlier events in the year’s festival cycle (Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, Venice, etc.) are also packed with fine titles, but good luck hunting! HIFF, on the other hand, is not the sort of event where attendees often have to sweat the jaw-dropping choices, crowds, access and schedules to see what they want or suspect they’ll like.

The Fest is also the lucky beneficiary of, to summon that familiar expression, good “location, location, location.” The location on Long Island’s southern ocean shore and only a few hours out of Manhattan is very nice, thank you, but equally critical is its chronological “location” at the end of the year’s major festival calendar.

Exploiting this (and with the indispensable blessing of its savvy curators and programmers scouting everywhere), HIFF has cannily sniffed out and rounded up the season’s top titles. This late-to-the-fest-circuit status is especially evident in how many of its foreign-film selections are among the just-announced (only days ago) 88 or so official country selections for Oscar nomination consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category as the Academy’s 91st Oscars event approaches.

Among these at HIFF were France’s Non-Fiction, Olivier Assayas’delightful contemporary dramedy about the collisions that infidelity and digital technology bring to the traditional worlds of publishing and marriage; Denmark’s exquisitely minimal but surprising mystery/thriller The Guilty; Germany’s Never Look Away, a late-announced HIFF selection from Oscar-winning filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others); Mexico’s Roma, from writer/filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón (the multi-Oscar winning Gravity), which is being hailed for its black-and-white cinematography, as is Poland’s Oscar bid Cold War, directed by Cannes Best Director and former Oscar-winning filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida).

Also in HIFF’s batch of official foreign Oscar nomination hopefuls were Colombia’s Birds of Passage; Japan’s Shoplifters, winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; Iceland’s Woman at War; Lebanon’s Capernaum, a Cannes Jury Prize winner; Romania’s Karlovy Vary Grand Prize winner “I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians”; South Korea’s Burning: and Sweden’s Border, whose two leads were recognized with HIFF’s Special Jury Prize for acting. If any of these titles ring no bells now, just wait until their loud chiming come the awards season.

Beyond so much foreign cinematic lucre, eight times in a row a Hamptons selection has become the eventual Best Picture winner at the Oscars. So which might be the big awards contenders in 2019?

With too much to see and too little space allotted to fill, what follows are just select highlights, which, alas, leaves the reportorial cutting-room floor littered with many more equally worthy but unmentioned HIFF 2018 “must-sees.”

Universal’s Green Book is director Peter Farrelly’s (There’s Something About Mary) exceedingly smart and entertaining dramedy, based on a true early-’60s story. It stars Viggo Mortensen (never better) as a tough Italian-American Bronx bouncer who becomes the driver and bodyguard for Moonlight Oscar winner Mahershala Ali’s Don Shirley, an impeccably stylish, classically trained jazz musician who, in the pre-Civil Rights Act turmoil of 1962, embarks on a tour of the near Midwest (no problem) and the deep South (problems, even with the Negro Motorist Green Book as their lodging guide!).

Farrelly’s film is funny, authentic and heartwarming (with Mortensen a slam-dunk for awards buzz) and Ali is impressive as the celebrated pianist. A nostalgic soundtrack adds warmth, and the horrendous segregation climate of the South heat.

The Happy Princehas actor Rupert Everett triumphant as writer, star and first-time director in this drama based on the ailing, failing disgraced final years of brilliant writer, poet, lecturer and wit Oscar Wilde. The supporting cast (including Colin Firth and Emily Watson) and the gorgeous production design make invaluable contributions to so rich and flamboyant a tragic subject.

George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, a contemporary crime drama about America’s ongoing racial divide and unending violence, gives Amandla Stenberg a breakthrough role as a black teen who attends an upper-class, predominantly white school but commutes from and maintains friends in her working-class neighborhood. It all unfolds in a California city where she experiences two sides of a coin still spinning. This HIFF Audience Award winner, adapted from the best-selling young-adult novel, is an intelligent look at a variety of hot-button issues (police violence, prejudice, etc.) told amidst the right doses of action and twists. All performances, with Stenberg the standout, are strong and the messages of love vs. hate and importance of decency and tolerance couldn’t be more relevant than they are today. But the film is lengthy and the complexities of seemingly endless problems may tax some viewers needing relief from today’s other punishing current events.

Wildlife, actor Paul Dano’s impressive directorial debut, is a period drama about a struggling Montana working-class couple whose marriage, seen mostly from their son’s POV, comes apart when the husband leaves for temp work a distance away. The film is perfectly cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Bill Camp, and Ed Oxenbould in a breakthrough role), smartly written and directed and the quiet frustrations of 1960 rural town convincingly evoked.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?is director Marielle Heller’s fact-based drama about successful biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy, making quite a stretch), who slips into the dark side when, after becoming a frumpy outcast in the snooty 1980s publishing world, she discovers she has an income source in a career imitating the voices and literary styles of the famous and forging their works for profit.

Con women aren’t often depicted onscreen (unless they’re of the fatale variety) and the characters, including Richard E. Grant as her très gay accomplice, are highly watchable. But some viewers may want more Streisand-like authenticity (including the accent) from McCarthy’s feisty outer-borough, lower-class Jewish gal.

First Man, with Ryan Gosling starring as NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong, the world’s first man on the Moon, re-teams Gosling with Oscar winner Damien Chazelle (La La Land). In style and content this film is a world away from the La La entertainment universe as it delivers an aggressively kinetic and immersive close-up journey into the Apollo space program and Armstrong’s triumphant 1969 Moonwalking feat. Going immersive with close-ups when not going wide into outer space, the film never flags in its intensity.

Beautiful Boy, whose Belgian director Felix van Groeningen delivered the HIFF 2013 favorite The Broken Circle Breakdown, comes stateside and to northern California for this drama about a father (Steve Carell) dealing with the seemingly unsolvable problem of his beloved son’s (Timothée Chalamet, breakthrough star in last year’s Call Me By Your Name) struggle to kick the drug habit as relapse and recovery take him in and out of his father’s otherwise comfortable life.

The performances are fine, but some may be unwilling to buy tickets for another journey into the self-destructive drug world.

A Private War, which marks documentarian Matthew Heineman’s first foray into narrative, is based on the true story of tough New York-born journalist and photographer Marie Colvin (nicely played by British Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike), who was unapologetically drawn to booze, cigarettes, easy sex and the world’s most dangerous hot spots. Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts) pays tribute to Colvin’s extraordinary life both on and off the battlefield with this thrilling look at one individual’s devotion to bringing a voice to the voiceless.

The Kindergarten Teacher, which opened HIFF, delivers a story about a seemingly simple Staten Island kindergarten teacher, housewife/mother and wannabe poet (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who becomes so obsessed with the poetic gifts of one of her students, the envy takes her (and the kid) off the rails.

This drama is certainly different, but it may elude viewers with no more than passing interests in cute kids, haiku poetry, and obsessions of a peculiar kind.

Among narratives not caught but strongly buzzed about were debuting filmmaker Eva Troisch’s All Good, which took the HIFF Award for Best Narrative Feature and concerns victimization and the ramification’s of a victim’s denial; Boy Erased, brilliant actor turned director Joel Edgerton’s film about the family and community pressures weighing on a young man who is “outed,” then relegated to a conversion program; Ben Is Back, Peter Hedges’ film that stars his son Lucas as a former opioid addict making a surprise visit home after rehab treatment; Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows, starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem in a crime drama with more family angst about the kidnapping of a young woman during a festive family wedding celebration in Spain’s wine country; actor/director/writer Emilio Estevez’s The Public, a drama boasting Jeffrey Wright and Alec Baldwin, among others, in its cast and sure to raise awareness of growing problems of the homeless and that ever-widening economic divide at the heart. Another film winning fans and best buzz was Steve McQueen’s latecomer to HIFF, Widows, a contemporary thriller set in Chicago and set in motion by the four women (including Oscar winner Viola Davis) left widows by their criminal husbands.

Again, HIFF didn’t disappoint with its lineup of docs. Among the strongest was Tom Donahue’s This Changes Everything, about the growing movement to gain women equality in the traditionally male Hollywood factory. Donahue brings to his work so many female stars, industry movers and shakers, historians, shameful statistics about the gender “boy”-cott and the women activists effecting the much-needed changes, especially real-life female crusader Maria Giese. Also clarified are how the EEOC, the ACLU, and even the Civil Rights Act are empowering women. A major distributor is almost onboard to assure this doc makes the rounds.

Jesse Sweet’s City of Joel isabout Kiryas Joel, the fast-growing Hasidic orthodox community tightly packed into upstate New York’s town of Monroe and the Hasidim’s determination to expand and develop into new areas where they are opposed by the locals, many of whom moved north for back-to-nature rural pleasures they are now losing. The struggle raises all kinds of questions but also sadly resonates with the controversial Jewish expansions in Israeli’s West Bank. The doc took many years to make and the footage of so guarded a religious community is quite amazing.

A Murder in Mansfield, from Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple, is the remarkably dramatic and emotionally effective true story of a son’s efforts to confront his prominent doctor father, imprisoned for the 1990 murder of his wife, the son’s mother. Although convicted, the proud, stubborn father still maintains his innocence and the son is determined to finally extract closure regarding his mother’s death and his father’s guilt.

Watergate is Charles Ferguson’s (Oscar for Inside Job) in-depth look back at Nixon and the historic Watergate scandal. Ferguson brings it all back to life with a mix of old archival footage and stills, ample contemporary interviews with many who were intimately involved on both sides (including journalist Carl Bernstein) and even convincing re-enactments of key moments The doc is long, a little depressing and very necessary for these times.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Deadis the must-see doc about Orson Welles and his struggle to complete his last film, The Other Side of the Wind, which over the years since Welles’ death has been patched together and is now, though quite a mess, in release. The doc is not. It’s a fascinating look at many things, including Welles himself, the changing, decadent Hollywood of the early 1970s, and what it really takes to make a movie, beginning with the money, the luck and the discipline.

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, from director Alexis Bloom, deservedly took the HIFF Award for Best Documentary Feature and is especially required viewing for today when the power of Fox News, where Ailes ruled before accusations of sexual harassment mounted, and Donald Trump are so inextricably intertwined. Ailes is seen, among many unseemly things, as a master manipulator and power grabber, with a scary wife who’s the surprising enabler of so much unspeakably bad behavior.

Ghost Fleet, from directors Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron, follows Thai human-rights activist Patima Tungpuchayakul (a 2017 Nobel Prize nominee) as she and her team travel to some of Indonesia’s southern islands to interview and help men who have escaped there after spending years in slavery working aboard Thai fishing boats. Thailand is dependent upon its global fishing industry and doesn’t exercise the oversight it should to regulate the fishing boats whose owners kidnap men to toil on their vessels and, working nonstop just so they can eat and having no lives of their own, become ghost-like.

Also outstanding among the docs is Oscar-nominated director Rory Kennedy’s Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow, a visually powerful trek into NASA’s past and into the future as dazzling footage (planets, galaxies, the International Space Station), the triumphant and even failed missions, new and archival footage, multiple interviews and clarifying animation make the case for NASA’s invaluable research and the climate crisis that looms for the lone planet that (so far) supports life.

Other docs not be missed include Alex Winter’sThe Panama Papers, about the historic release of over 11 million documents and those implicated around the world, exposing corruption as never seen before; Monrovia, Indiana, veteran director Frederick Wiseman’s in-depth look at a small contemporary town that sweeps viewers back into more serene times, and The Biggest Little Farm, winner of HIFF’s Audience Award for Best Documentary, a heartwarming look at a couple’s attempt to revive a small northern California farm.

Roll Red Roll isn’t quite a replay of the recent Kavanaugh-Ford hearing but reflects it. The doc is about a recent rape case involving several Steubenville, Ohio high-school football players, their young victim, too much social-media sharing, and reactions to the allegations and crime across the community. It’s more of that “Boys will be boys” mantra that again falls flat because the filmmaker doesn’t bother with any hints of why the perps did what they did or what kind of backgrounds they came from.

Opera fans will get a kick out of Maria By Callas, which, operatic in style and substance, is showy without depth and dominated by the voice and archival and home-movie visuals of its crowd-loving, tabloid magnet star, appearing as a glutton for all the attention.

The Hamptons event may not be the loudest or splashiest of festivals, but dare anyone dispute that it is certainly among the very few in the big to mid-size range that can boast so high a concentration of strong, award-magnet films? It also deserves a special mention just for its continuing “Compassion,” “Justice & Animal Rights” and “Conflict & Resolution” sidebars.