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 Exposure directing 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.
That, I think, is because, during its course of nearly two decades of phenomenal growth, FLIFF has increasingly risked becoming aesthetically irrelevant by its insistence on a bigger-is-better mentality. In its early struggling years, the festival had a cause -- American independent cinema -- and even if some howlers worked their way into the lineup, the schedule was more tightly focused.
Now, despite some commendable stripping down, the festival still seems to want to be all things to all people. There's nothing wrong with that -- for an event that wants to sacrifice its claim to artistic importance.
Blood from a Stone
One of the festival's early selections is this American documentary. "This is a story about buried treasure," we're told, and the treasure turns out to be a fortune in uncut diamonds hidden during the Holocaust. The treasure hunter is Yaron Svoray, a charismatic Israeli terrorism expert who's also a Nazi hunter and even infiltrates Nazi organizations. His 15-year search is supported, in part, by Maine businessman Sam Nyer, and it ultimately turns up the long-lost loot. Despite some annoying MTV-style editing and re-creations of wartime events, the documentary works largely because of Svoray, a portly balding man with a vigorous ebullient demeanor. "I felt as if I were touching the Holocaust in a very raw, unfiltered sort of way," he says when he and his partner find the last batch of uncut stones on the French-German front. The proceeds from the diamonds, by the way, were scrupulously monitored and went to charity. (Thursday, October 23, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; 93 minutes) -- Michael Mills
Melvin Goes to Dinner
Michael Bleiden, who wrote the screenplay, plays Melvin in this directorial debut of Bob Odenkirk, one of the creators of HBO's cult-status comedy show Mr. Show. A medical school dropout, Melvin accidentally makes a dinner date with his estranged friend Joey (Matt Price). When he enters the restaurant, he discovers Joey there with Alex (Stephanie Courtney), an old business-school friend, who has brought along Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch), whom she coincidentally ran into in front of the restaurant. Everybody at the dinner is meeting somebody for the first time, and the conversation flows as freely as the wine, ranging from infidelity and religion to marijuana-fueled masturbation and taking it in the butt. Did you ever have a secret that you never felt quite right telling someone? Like it would expose your soul if you did? Well, leave it to the topic of anal sex to get people to open up.
Viewer becomes voyeur here, and soon, because of the intensity and pace of the revelations, you're feeling guilty for sitting quietly in the theater. There is a series of moments when alarming realizations pop up around the table like zits. Lines such as "I killed someone" and "If his wife got hit by a car tomorrow, I'd probably start sleeping with him again" spill out of the same conversation. Flashback scenes include decidedly low-key cameos from Jack Black (as one of Melvin's mental patients with delusions of grandeur) and Mr. Show alumnus David Cross (as a creepy motivational speaker). In fact, some of the most poignant scenes include Melvin's anecdotes on medical school and schizophrenia, a fitting counterpoint to the verbal mélange splashing across the table. These are discussions all 20- and 30-somethings have had at some point in their lives, where conversation lapses from pleasant chitchat into orgiastic empathy and unbridled confession. You could sit through Melvin and try to pick out which character you most identify with, but it's better to just slam back some wine and enjoy all the hair-raising talk. (Thursday, November 6, 8:30 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; 84 minutes) -- Audra Schroeder