Hamptons International Film Festival boasts its strongest lineup to date

ScreenerBlog

Front-loaded with its best lineup ever, the 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) was an all-round celebration. The preponderance of quality was especially noteworthy for an event that has showcased many Oscar winners throughout the years. Just last year, HIFF screened films that landed 45 Oscar nominations; HIFF artistic director David Nugent, invoking last February’s big Oscar ceremony gaffe, joked that the 2016 festival had both Oscar Best Picture winners (La La Land and Moonlight).

Of course, prestigious fests like the Hamptons are known for and expected to have strong lineups. But with films like Darkest Hour, The Divine Order, The Square, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and on and on, something beyond quality set HIFF apart this year. That was the perception that Hamptons 2017 gave cinephiles the greatest concentration of filmmaking excellence plus playability among its approximate 120 feature selections.

October is appropriately harvest season, so following the year’s other sizeable fests (Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Cannes, SXSW, Venice, Toronto), HIFF provides attendees with the latest look at the oncoming film flotilla seeking awards attention and big seasonal audiences. But the window separating fest selections from their commercial releases is closing tighter and tighter (e.g., HIFF’s The Florida Project, Goodbye Christopher Robin, The Meyerowitz Stories, Marshall, Breathe and Human Flow have already gone public), as festivals grow more valuable as platforms for marketing opportunities amidst the content downpour.

Among the very best of films caught during the Long Island event’s five-day run and impressing as one of the top bets for the box office was Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a spectacular dramatization of Winston Churchill’s difficult early year as Prime Minister at the beginning of World War II as Germany encroached on Western Europe. Bets are also on that Gary Oldman will take home an Oscar for his remarkable performance as Churchill in the Focus Features release.

Another strong politically themed film and equally entertaining is Rob Reiner’s LBJ, a close-up look at the 36th U.S. President who fought to turn the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s dreams for this country—most significantly, a Civil Rights Act—into reality. Look for Woody Harrelson as the great, canny Texas straight-talker to stir awards talk. Such heat will also swirl around Annette Bening for her performance in Sony Pictures Classics’ Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool as Gloria Grahame, the 1940s-50s Hollywood star who in her later troubled years took up with a young Liverpudlian actor (Jamie Bell is terrific). Vanessa Redgrave as Grahame’s British-born, Hollywood-based mother is another bonus in a drama that should, like its subject, make a pond-like leap from art houses to broader audiences.

Also among HIFF’s major highlights was the closing-night selection I, Tonya, directed by Aussie Craig Gillepsie and starring Aussie Margot Robbie as the young Washington State skating star whose rival Nancy Kerrigan, as they were competing close to the Olympics, had her knee bludgeoned. A perp emerged in the 1994 scandal, but Harding and her husband were implicated. Going very deep and often funny into white-trash America, the film is a rare mix of brilliant craft, intelligence and flat-out entertainment. Awards suspects are Robbie, co-star Allison Janney as her mom-from-hell, Gillepsie and writer Steven Rogers.

Among the best in the lineup were films from afar. Ruben Östlund’s Swedish dark comedy The Square is a grandly stylish satire that savages the preposterous pieces and installations that pass for contemporary art and the high-end contemporary museums and their pretentious curators and PR people who perpetuate what many see as a grand scam. (The apparently yet-to-be-released documentary Blurred Lines also takes on the contemporary art scene with killer impact).

Other winners from Europe that are sure to attract quality-seeking cinephiles are Luca Guadagnino’s picturesque Call Me By Your Name and Switzerland’s Oscar bid The Divine Order. The former is a 1980s coming-out story about a summer dalliance between a crush-prone 18-year-old European (Timothée Chalamet, a busy French-American actor on the rise) and the older, bisexual scholar-assistant (Armie Hammer) whom the teen’s archeologist father hires and brings into his cultured Jewish family for the summer. The growing attraction between the two— more tender than graphic and mixing occasional humor and the erotic—lyrically unfolds in a lovely northern Italian villa and its charming, lush surroundings.

Zeitgeit’s The Divine Order, which was the big surprise at last spring’s Tribeca Film Festival where it debuted, is based on the true story of how females mobilizing in a small Swiss village in 1971 helped win women in Switzerland the right to vote. There’s plenty of blunt sex talk and action amidst the glorious scenery and charming villages depicted. Acting, writing, direction are all on the mark in this cinematic delight.

HIFF’s other strong dramas often boasted name casts, included Sony Pictures Classics’ The Leisure Seeker, a tragicomic road pic (made by Italians!) that follows an elderly Massachusetts couple (Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland) who defy their family and furtively take to their beloved vacation van for an escape to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West. The scenery and their adventures are more palatable than their fretting, overwrought adult kids, until a surprise ending, well, surprises.

Blessed with terrific performances from Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell and an authentic-looking locale (North Carolina standing in admirably) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, from the U.K.’s Martin McDonough, teases as a mystery but delivers as nasty satire that takes on small-town police injustice and sloth as cops flop in their efforts to find the perp who raped and killed a young woman. But the girl’s mother is a take-charge avenger played by a formidable and often hilariously brazen McDormand.

From the American indie front came Sony Pictures Classics’ Novitiate, a realistic and austere look at convent life through the eyes of a young nun in the 1960s, when the Catholic Church was on the brink of making some much-needed big changes in its institutions and m.o. Oscar winner Melissa Leo (here as the Mother Superior you don’t want to mess with) is always a film enhancer.

Another indie film of interest was Todd Haynes' odd concoction Wonderstruck, atime-spanning tale involving kids, deafness, a homage to film, visual trickery and a momentous museum visit, all adapted from a novel by the author of Hugo, Brian Selznick. In a more conventional vein was the world premiere of The Tribes of Palos Verdes, about a hyper-dysfunctional, upper-middle-class family newly arrived to California’s posh Oceanside ’burbs, characterized by drugs, divorces, surfers, and stylish but soulless interiors where misery festers. The drama affords Jennifer Garner some strong scenes as a pill-popping, neurotic mother who loses her husband to a younger local and is left to cope with troubled teen twins.

Foreign-film representation seemed sparer this year at HIFF, but among the best was Janus Films’ immigrant-themed The Other Side of Hope, in which Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki returns to a port city. (His previous was the haunting Le Havre, set in the titular French locale.) Here it’s Helsinki, where a Syrian immigrant disembarks and finds an opportunity for survival (and our amusement) in the new restaurant launched by a recently separated middle-aged man attempting a new career. Kaurismäki also returns here to his unique mix of music, humor and serious drama that again meshes and delights.

From afar also came a big surprise (that proverbial “revelation”) by way of Ali Asgari’s quiet Iranian drama Disappearance, as some likeable collegians embark on a nocturnal search through a haunting city to find medical help for one in their group who just lost her virginity at a party and is bleeding profusely. What lacks in story and pacing (in spite of some tension generated) is more than made up for in atmosphere and the wonderful performances that grace this genuine discovery.

For foreign star power, HIFF had Sony Pictures Classics’ quirky Happy End, from master Austrian/Paris-based Oscar-winning director Michael Haneke, with stars Isabelle Huppert and beloved veteran Jean-Louis Trintignant in a drama tracking the ill fortunes of a bourgeois family prominent in the construction business but unable to stanch its own deconstruction.

Again, HIFF had a strong documentary lineup, most notably opening night’s Itzhak, a close-up look at the beloved Itzhak Perlman, the warm, brilliant Israeli-born violin prodigy and his passion for music and teaching. Teeming with classical music he performs or conducts, the doc also shows Perlman—disabled for decades by polio—as a gentle, grateful and generous person who inspires.

The hugely entertaining Love, Cecil (a HIFF Audience Award winner and hot for acquisition) focuses on celebrity dandy and aesthete Cecil Beaton, who began as one of London’s “Bright Young Things” of the 1920s and emerged as one of the world’s most sought-after photographers and award-winning film and stage designers (My Fair Lady, Gigi, etc.). The doc’s abundance of archival material, celebrity talking heads and Beaton’s unapologetic musings (and intimacies with the likes of Greta Garbo) add to this precious cinematic bouquet.

Moving 180 degrees in another direction was the disturbing The Family I Had (a knockout at the Tribeca Festival), which focuses on the tragedies that befell several generations of a prosperous, contemporary American family and the inevitable evil within people that suggests that so much damage was inevitable. Producer/curator Jeff Deutchman’s 11/8/16 is a profile of varied American voters (caught by a brigade of different directors) across the country and across parties on that fateful, fretful Election Day that brought Donald Trump into power. The shock of the morning after aside, the doc now screams loudest for a sequel about its Trumpian voters and how they feel about what their votes hath wrought.

Other docs that mattered included The China Hustle, about China’s economic hanky-panky in the U.S. a few years ago that introduced reverse IPOs for shoddy Chinese companies, a curious product that deceived clueless U.S. investors with the help of U.S. middlemen who pocketed profits pushing the deals. (Yes, it’s complicated.) Another doc, One of Us, is a creepy look (no other way to put it) inside Brooklyn’s Hasidic ultra-orthodox Jewish communities and the control they have and wield over those who wish to escape. The latter include an abused wife and mother of seven kids, an 18-year-old lost soul attracted to an outside world of normalcy that both beckons and threatens, and a rebellious young working actor who got out with difficulty but still feels the pull of the old way.

Additionally and traditionally, the Hamptons Fest presented an array of short films and special-interest (politics, animal welfare, etc.) screenings, post-screening Q&As, sidebars, talks and tributes, most notably a Lifetime Achievement Award salute to beloved mega-star Julie Andrews. The event included a special screening of Victor Victoria and a conversation between Andrews and HIFF co-chair Alec Baldwin.

Similar live encounters for attendees included conversations with Rob Reiner and Patrick Stewart. And talking abounded at the annual Variety-sponsored “10 Actors to Watch” (a few years back, Oscar winner Emma Stone was just one unknown in this ongoing series). This year’s impressive seven included Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya, Timothée Chalmet and The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani. Delivering some tidbits to aspiring young actors, Kaluuya confided that “Never play the funny but play the truth” helped him as an actor. And “Big Little Lies” and Downsizing star Hong Chau viewed “hard work and loving what you do” as keys to her career.

HIFF talks also got into biz concerns, with a panel on streaming. Among the speakers were a senior curator at Vimeo and several journalists and award-winning TV filmmakers, all with considerable online experience. Subjects of discussion included Netflix and MoviePass and whether these businesses (MoviePass especially) represent sustainable models in the long run. (It was noted that Netflix last year spent $7 billion to create original film content.)

Acknowledging the confusion in the rapidly changing entertainment business, one panelist quoted Netflix’s Ted Sarandos as saying, “Our goal is to become HBO before HBO become us.” The power of newcomers like Netflix (represented at HIFF this year with five titles), Amazon (one title), Hulu, etc. was underscored with reminders that Martin Scorsese’s upcoming The Irishman will hit theatres through Netflix and that Amazon’s first theatrical release on its own will be Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel.

Windowing was noted to especially impact the life of mid-range films traveling from theatrical to transactional to streaming, as timing these well is especially critical to success. And while filmmakers value the big-screen exposure most, a panelist reminded that “three hundred people in a room is nice, but hundreds of thousands around the world simultaneously streaming can sound more appealing.”

But the panelists suggested that as viewers these days drown in content, they are often frustrated trying to find and access exactly what they want. (Apps, it was noted, can now also function as channels.)

Although not addressing the role of curators who confront the content inundation, the streaming discussion also provoked the suspicion (at least for this listener) that today’s great world explorers (at least for content) are film festival programmers (the grand curators and filterers) who do the grunt work for cinephile consumers lost in the twisty content jungle. Yes, Netflix has come up with an algorithm that suggests what individual viewers on their service might like to watch. But it’s the roaming programmers who mine the festivals and uncountable small-screen submissions who find the quality. They are the chief tipsters for cinephiles.

These fest programmers, like those at HIFF, do the dirty work for us. But outside festival walls lies a big business opportunity for explorers who can provide the most effective E-Z passes to exactly what we want and when and where to find it.