Hamptons haven: Long Island film fest is small but robust

Memo to the Cannes, Toronto and New York Film Festivals: Small still works, as the 20th installment of the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) just proved.

The rural Hamptons in Long Island, New York, is hardly an urban sprawl, so geography has its say but has also proved a blessing. HIFF let change, growth, experimentation and digital anxiety take balcony seats so the focus could remain, as it has in its 20 years of success, on finding the best films and most rewarding events that fit a scale appropriate to its audience within five glorious early October days of not-quite movie overkill.

Sticking to an impressive ability to ensnare a wide variety of highly watchable films culled from afar or from as near as home (as proved by the terrific, beautifully made and inspirational short “Growing Farmers,” about, in the locavore spirit, a movement to grow and train new farmers and food products in the region), HIFF continues to pack auditoriums and soothe its enthusiastic, sometimes crunching crowds with a minimum of hassle. East Hampton’s Regal six-screen, DCP-capable multiplex continues as the fest’s nucleus, but also humming were other hot spots for films and special events like the Village’s large, elegant and recently renovated Guild Hall and Sag Harbor’s funky and beloved art house.

Credit for HIFF’s continuing vigor and winning formula again go to executive director Karen Arikian and her administrative team; director of programming David Nugent, who heads the selection team that surely goes weary eyeballing the thousands of yearly and growing submissions (again this year, over 150 made the cut, including several dozen shorts), and, last but hardly least, HIFF chairman and co-founder Stuart Match Suna, who also somehow manages to run the island’s insanely busy Silvercup Studios, the East Coast mecca for TV and feature film production. Sharing his theory about HIFF’s robustness, Suna believes it has much to do with the karma in the festival air that has Hamptons people and supportive companies rooting for the fest’s success, plus the more earthbound “terroir” advantage of the Hamptons being such a beautiful location that also happens to sustain many people who love and/or work in film.

Helping with this year’s sizzle was HIFF honorary chairman Alec Baldwin, who didn’t just have official chores like interviewing HIFF-honored actor Richard Gere but was kicking around the fest and its screenings like the local yokel (not quite) that he is.

Yes, there were panels, tributes, parties, revivals (A Beautiful Mind, Days of Heaven, The Talented Mr. Ripley, etc.) and other special events aplenty, but it’s always been about the new films.

HIFF hasn’t yet become the “Coming Attractions Film Festival,” but, offering an abundance of films on the verge of release and a number that just hit theatres, it wisely and discreetly leverages distributor needs to disseminate that all-important word of mouth among the right audiences and just prior to a film’s release, whatever the initial platform.

This year from the studios came Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie; Ben Affleck’s excellent fact-based CIA caper Argo; Sony Pictures Classics’ solid Smashed; Warner Bros.’ bold (163-minute) gamble Cloud Atlas, which, like Fox’s upcoming Life of Pi, is betting on the power of a well-known book and on spiritual matters to transport audiences (or at least woo them in the first place); and the goofy/charming/original rom-com Silver Linings Playbook, from writer-director David O. Russell and starring unstoppables Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as two borderline certifiables running loose and lost in their native Philadelphia.

Also notable and from across the pond were the over-the-top Seven Psychopaths, a nutty, violent and often funny drug-fueled spin on Adaptation in its embrace of a screenwriter’s writing block and tortured scramble, and Shadow Dancer, James Marsh’s Clive Owen thriller about a big double-cross that occurred in an MI5 operation against the IRA during Northern Ireland’s historic, stubborn and deadly “troubles” of the early ’90s. And Terry George, turning 180 degrees from his searing drama Hotel Rwanda, came through with Whole Lotta Sole, the de rigueur earthy fest comedy bursting with local color and very colorful local types that has a Belfast man desperate for cash steal from a fish store, take hostages, but end up butting heads with the American (Brendan Fraser) who is temporarily manning the shop where the thief takes refuge.

Also from foreign shores came the exceptional German-Australian co-production Lore (Australia’s official submission for Best Foreign-Language Film consideration), which follows young siblings inadvertently left stranded in the German countryside by their arrested high-ranking Nazi officer father and mother, who struggle to reach their grandmother’s home in the north as the Allies close in. Writer-director Cate Shortland, who launched a then-unknown Abby Cornish into stardom with Somersault, here delivers another promising teen talent in Saskia Rosendahl, portraying the oldest of the children who must guide them through the new post-war thicket of cruelty, poverty and chaos. Amazing cinematography and a new map into the Nazi mind also set this Music Box Films release apart. Lore shared the fest’s Golden Starfish Award for Best Narrative Feature with the Austrian drama Kuma.

Another strong film among HIFF’s foreign imports was Sony Pictures Classics’ fine drama Rust and Bone, boasting co-stars Marion Cotillard (Oscar winner for her unforgettable performance as Edith Piaf) and the very emerging Matthias Schoenaerts (who stunned in Belgium’s Oscar-nominated Bullhead and will be seen in the upcoming Blood Ties). Again writer-director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) takes audiences into seemingly unappealing milieus (here those of working-class boxers and the severely disabled) and makes their worlds gripping.

Proof that fests these days no longer bash one another over exclusives, at least two higher-profile HIFF offerings showed up just days earlier at the New York Film Festival: Sony Pictures Classics’ profoundly affecting Amour and David Chase’s Not Fade Away, his ’60s-themed, rock-driven, nostalgia downpour of a feature debut.

And lest anyone suspect that documentaries, flourishing everywhere like kudzu, have run their course, HIFF proved otherwise. There was HBO’s Love, Marilyn, Liz Garbus’ richly sourced, star-studded gift (by way of voiceovers of newly revealed Monroe diaries from some of today’s most celebrated actors) to Marilyn Monroe fans and all those wanting to understand the undying interest in this former pin-up turned superstar; 56 Up, Michael Apted’s still-gripping chronicle of Brit kids he began tracking when they were seven; American Masters’ Inventing David Geffen, a bit of a whitewash of media force Geffen (appropriate considering his penchant for white t-shirts) but rich in insights into what makes a mogul (arrogance, focus, fearlessness, bad grades, etc.) and much archival material of his amazing ascent in the music and film businesses. A kind of mogul primer a la Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Picture, the doc—also teeming with celeb talking heads (Clive Davis, Don Henley, Cher, Elton John and Steven Spielberg among dozens weighing in) from music and film—suggests how a nobody from Brooklyn who barely got out of high school became a billionaire just after he turned 50. It’s “What Makes David Run?” for later generations.

Like the Geffen doc, Citizen Hearst is a beautiful, richly documented look into a media phenom. Here it’s the great global media empire that has ruled since the early 20th century. The still privately held Hearst Corp. funded this elaborate effort, so, at worst, it’s very much a promotional film. But entertaining and informative to the max, the Hearst money is up on the screen. Beginning with a close look at legendary founder William Randolph Hearst, the doc follows a century’s worth of media history and overflows with commentary from Hearst bigwigs and editors (longtime Hearst CEO Frank Bennack, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, and too many other Hearst luminaries to mention).

Other top HIFF docs included two current theatre offerings, both intriguing. Brooklyn Castle looks at some minority chess whiz-kids in the borough of Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen, and the Israeli film The Flat surprises as an exposé of some ambitious German Jews before World War II who managed to, metaphorically, climb into bed with some top-level Nazis and remain in denial of the protracted friendship even post-war. when the full horrors of the Holocaust became clear.

Among the docs was at least one “revelation” (what fest is complete without one?) of exceptional quality and audience appeal. Romeo, Romeo, which follows a likeable Brooklyn lesbian couple as one of the women tries to conceive a child the new-fashioned way, actually functions as suspense (will she or won’t she?). The film's subjects, by the way, are married and attractive enough to be poster girls for marriage equality. This very special film—completed the day before the fest and arriving without a sales agent—is sure to find a home (maybe Zeitgeist?).

Other exceptional docs featured locals or regular visitors as their subjects. James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime, had front-and-center the local writer of national renown, and Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, was a very close-up look at the late Paris Review editor. The Plimpton doc is a real treat—it’s genuinely entertaining, as this charming socialite and accidental journo/author/renaissance man of letters, stunts and professional team sports can’t be anything but. He was a high-class smoothie, a natural for the camera and the media attention he received.

Tribeca Films will be releasing early next year the remarkable and harrowing docu-like fiction film War Witch, about the fact-based ordeal of a young female teen forced by the Congolese rebels to become a killer. Not only are the story and performances beyond reproach, but the camera capture is magnificent in its close-up portrayal of the turmoil it records. Teen star Rachel Mwanza, who apparently experienced in her real troubled life some of what is shown, astonishes. War Witch is Canada’s selection for this year’s Foreign-Language Oscar race.

Again, indie fiction features—some from here, others from abroad and some settled with distributors and others seeking homes—continued as a HIFF staple. Among the best was Magnolia’s upcoming Denmark Oscar nom hopeful A Royal Affair, a politically charged drama about the real-life late-18th-century court affair between the handsome court physician and a young queen stuck with the country’s mentally challenged king.

One of the big indie surprises was the wonderful drama A Late Quartet (opening Nov. 2), from filmmaker Yaron Zilberman and co-starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the second violinist in a seasoned Manhattan-based chamber-music quartet that is on the verge of disintegration as illness and philandering within strike destructive notes. This is smart stuff for the music and high quality-inclined. Another pleasant surprise came by way of Sean Baker’s Starlet, starring the excellent Dree Hemingway (daughter of Mariel, granddaughter of Ernest), as a 21-year-old San Fernando Valley lowlife sharing quarters with a similarly unimpressive couple in a depressing boxy apartment. But surprises emerge and Baker takes us into unexpected worlds after the heroine finds a stash of serious cash in a yard-sale purchase and befriends the octogenarian owner.

Another surprise came from a Stevie Nicks doc tucked into the appropriately spacious but slightly funky Sag Harbor venue (think theatres of the ’70s and ’80s that housed rock concerts). Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac fans turned out in noisy numbers for the exuberant and thoroughly thrilling doc In Your Dreams—Stevie Nicks, a delicious account of the legendary singer and her collaboration with Eurythmics original and renowned pop producer/musician Dave Stewart. Honest, intimate and music-packed, the film has the charismatic Nicks and Stewart front stage and center as they record their album. Yes, this often seems like a full-length promotional music-video for their latest album, but fans couldn’t ask for more. Both in fact pushed the promotion by appearing for a post-screening interview and the audience went wild (well, not that wild, as it was the Hamptons).

Gay themes stirred in this indie pot of HIFF films. Gayby amuses with appealing characters (including the film’s director Jonathan Lisecki in a droll role) and it’s off-center concept of having a très gay man and his straight female old buddy try to conceive the old-fashioned way. (Hey, anything for a girlfriend.) And Any Day Now, slated for December after making the rounds of fests, is an AIDS-themed period romantic drama that has Alan Cumming as a struggling Queens transplant and cabaret singer in L.A. who finds a terrific mate just as the disease spoiler begins its assault.

With HBO’s The Girl, about Alfred Hitchcock’s apparently extreme obsession with his Birds’ find Tippi Hedren (played by Sienna Miller), HIFF again brought home the message that a lot of entertainment’s best dramas can indeed be found at home. Toby Jones, one of the many personalities on hand at HIFF, is pretty convincing as Hitch, although diehard fans may wish there had been some prosthetic plumping of Jones’ lower lip to enhance that iconic look and profile.

Several indies delivered lessons rather than entertainment regarding the importance of crafting main characters that audiences are required to spend two hours of their lives with. Among these films that usually strain for originality at the expense of what really matters were The Taiwan Oyster, a road pic about two American dudes in Taiwan traveling afar to bury a deceased fellow dude they knew; The Details, which has Tobey Maguire as a sneaky doctor you wouldn’t even trust to take your temperature; and The Discoverers, which delivers a double whammy of big-time losers with its smalltime college professor/failing author “hero” whose father is one of the most off-putting characters to ever hit screens.

But good stuff reigned and it didn’t rain (except for a wet opening night). Pretty good weather, like the festival itself, is another Hamptons thing that’s dependable.