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You may notice this year that, for the first time in the history of New Times Broward-Palm Beach, reviews of selections from the 18th-annual "Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival" bear more than one byline.
OK, I confess: After nearly a decade and a half of covering the festival solo -- first for the Palm Beach Post, then as a freelancer for various small publications, and now for New Times -- I finally said, "Enough!" No more whole weekends spent cocooned in a darkened theater for screenings. No more early weekday mornings at home squeezing in videotapes of festival films before heading out to my full-time job.
But like a relative who quietly moves into the area and keeps a low profile, FLIFF, as the festival has come to be known, won't quite let me alone. The e-mails announcing screenings start turning up, followed by the phone calls to and from editors. Next thing you know, I find myself agreeing to cover at least some of the festival, on the condition that I get some backup.
When I started following the festival back in the late 1980s, when it was called the "Greater Fort Lauderdale Film Festival," the event was a modest affair focusing on American independent movies. Not surprisingly, the schedule was often a mess to sort through, and most years, it included some real stinkers.
Over the years, the festival evolved into one emphasizing international as well as American cinema, and it developed a reputation for uncovering fine gay and lesbian films as well as excellent documentaries. Such acclaimed documentaries as Roger & Me and Brother's Keeper, for example, were festival favorites, while the queer-cinema selections have included the gritty low-budget drama Straightman, the slickly commercial The Fluffer, and Food of Love, an exceptionally faithful adaptation of David Leavitt's novel The Page Turner.
But the festival's strongest suit has always been Executive Director Gregory von Hausch's nose for sniffing out films that at best have only a ghost of a chance commercially. Some of the pictures in this category hinge on performances we might not have expected: Richard Dreyfuss as a Hispanic man living deep in the Amazon rain forest in The Old Man Who Read Love Stories; Sam Neill as the title character in The Zookeeper, set in a war-ravaged Eastern European country; Rob Morrow of TV's Northern Exposuredirecting himself in the role of a Tourette's-afflicted artist in Maze.
Their female counterparts include Janet McTeer in an Oscar-worthy performance as a tough but troubled Southern woman in Tumbleweeds; Isabelle Huppert in an icy turn as a murderous heiress in Claude Chabrol's Merci pour le Chocolat (Nightcap); Jane Horrocks of Absolutely Fabulous as a shy but stunningly talented singer in Little Voice (which also features excellent supporting work from Michael Caine, Brenda Blethyn, Ewan McGregor, and Jim Broadbent).
Strong ensemble work bolsters other decidedly non-Hollywood movies the festival has championed: Barbara Hershey, Anthony LaPaglia, and Geoffrey Rush in the moody Australian thriller Lantana; Tilda Swinton and Ray Winstone in Tim Roth's devastating directorial debut, the incest drama The War Zone; Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, Willem Dafoe, and James Coburn (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) in Paul Schrader's adaptation of Affliction, Russell Banks' novel about a deeply dysfunctional family. And let's not forget the fine ensemble in David Mamet's comic savaging of Hollywood, State and Main, which includes Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charles Durning, Patti LuPone, David Paymer, and Julia Stiles.
These are just some of the high points of a festival that has also grown more unwieldy over the years. In its quest to become known as "the world's longest film festival" (a designation it officially achieved through The Guinness Book of World Records), the event spread into Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties with minifests, and the schedule, with multiple screenings at multiple locations, became almost indecipherable.
To compound the confusion, for years, the "official" opening night hasn't come until weeks into the festival. This year, for example, the festival opened on Friday, October 17, although opening night isn't until Friday, November 7. Similarly, closing night is Saturday, November 15, but the festival doesn't end until the next day. (The closing-night film, for what it's worth, is Manhood, featuring John Ritter's final big-screen appearance. The opening-night film is French: Moi, Cesar 10 ans 1/2, 1m39.)
This year, however, there are some noteworthy changes that may bode well for FLIFF's future. There's still the emphasis on numbers -- 133 features, documentaries, and short subjects from 25 countries -- and there are still lots of see-and-be-seen social activities affiliated with the festival, but the event has scaled back its sprawl. No more festivals-within-the-festival, and screenings will take place at just two locations: the oh-so-classy Parker Playhouse in Holiday Park and Cinema Paradiso, the converted Vinnette Carroll Theatre in downtown Fort Lauderdale that FLIFF now operates year 'round as an arthouse theater. Finally, all but a few films will be shown once only, a big departure from previous years.
Festival organizers have cited economics as one reason for streamlining the event, which suggests that if the economy were better, the behemoth might have kept growing indefinitely: more movies, more screenings, more locations. In which case, at least some good has come out of a sluggish economy.
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