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Film fest earned its good luck

Category: Dear Frankie News
Article Date: November 26, 2004 | Publication: St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Author: Joe Williams

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For the St. Louis International Film Festival, which concluded on Sunday, 13 was a lucky number. The 13th installment was both a commercial and artistic success, with solid attendance, distinguished guests, a near-perfectly balanced roster and an enthusiastic reception for the right films.

Phil Moses, a board member of the sponsoring organization, Cinema St. Louis, declared that it is now one of the 10 best film festivals in America. That's a bit of a stretch, but not an outrageous one.

The surest evidence of the festival's maturation was the quality of its films, which came from 30 countries. Those movies included several high-profile releases that will have regular runs in St. Louis in the next few months: "Finding Neverland," "Kinsey," "House of Flying Daggers," "Bad Education," "Imaginary Heroes," "The Chorus" and "Dear Frankie." The latter two movies were the biggest vote-getters in the audience-choice award balloting and were named best foreign film and best overall film, respectively. That surely pleased their distributor, Miramax, which is likely to funnel more movies to St. Louis in future years, particularly since our festival is so close to the year-end Oscar race. A critical curmudgeon might note that they are both rather warm-and-fuzzy films (about a choir of reformed delinquents and a fatherless deaf boy) and don't compare in artistic merit to the others on that list.

"Kinsey," in particular, was the biggest news among the movies, both because it is a legitimate contender for Academy Awards and because director Bill Condon brought a palpable excitement to town with him. His book signing at the Borders store in Brentwood attracted about a dozen protesters, who felt that the biopic of sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey valorizes a man who is largely responsible for the moral decay of our society.

Condon has many friends and crew members from St. Louis (including former Point DJ MaryEllen Owen, whose mockumentary "Beaux and Daria" tied for best locally produced short), and he was besieged by well-wishers at some of the festival's social events. At the closing-night party at Blueberry Hill, he told me that he was still surprised to encounter resistance to Kinsey's inclusive view of human nature. When Condon sought permission to use a Kinsey reference from an "I Love Lucy" episode in the film, Lucy Arnaz turned him down, saying that her parents didn't approve of what the doctor had done.

Another guest of the fest was Jack Valenti, the recently retired president of the Motion Picture Association of America. As the Hollywood mascot of self-regulation, Valenti opined to Chris Clark, the executive director of the fest, that a filmmaker in Condon's position should praise the great American tradition of getting into an argument about Kinsey's work.

Somehow, the other films in the festival with adult themes managed to slip beneath the radar. Although a documentary about "personal massage devices" was expected to generate a buzz, our Gail Pennington felt it was lifeless. The audience choice for best documentary was the civil-rights-themed "A Panther in Africa." Based on the life of former Kansas City activist Pete O'Neal, it marks a stride away from the homerism of last year's contest, when the winning doc was a local high-schooler's film about D-Day. (Likewise, last year's prize for best overall feature was given to a forgettable movie called "Clipping Adam" that happened to star a former St. Louisan with lots of schoolmates in the audience. Such things don't happen at top-10 festivals.)

For me, however, the best documentary was "Tarnation," in which director Jonathan Caouette uses old home movies to recount his mother's struggle with schizophrenia. It will play a regular theatrical run here soon.

Another documentary I should mention is Patricia Scallet's "Fundamental Fairness," which tied with "Beaux and Daria" for best locally produced short. It examines an apparent miscarriage of justice in which a man is serving a life sentence for a Clayton murder. Twenty-seven minutes isn't long enough to scrutinize all the facts in the case, but it's more than enough time to remind us that filmmakers can sometimes be the last link in our connection to others.

The total attendance for the 11-day festival was approximately 18,000, about the same as last year.


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