Blogging Woodstock: Round-Up

A round-up of the stand-out films at the Woodstock Film Festival.

A still from Mark Becker's "Pressure Cooker", which screened at Woodstock this month.
A still from Mark Becker's "Pressure Cooker", which screened at Woodstock this month.

Want to inject a bit of spark and a lot of profanity into your film festival award ceremony? Here’s a surefire way: give an award to Kevin Smith. Honored as this year's Maverick filmmaker, Smith, whose new release, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, closed the festival, delighted the audience at the awards ceremony with a 15-minute speech that was crude, vulgar and often hilarious. With a nod to the 2008 presidential election, Smith suggested that, “in any other year, it would be great to be called a maverick,” and suggested an alternative name for the prize: “the dress-wearing cocksucker award.” Although proud to accept the award, Smith said, he felt that the true dress-wearing cocksucker of the evening was Ang Lee, who was there to present long-time collaborator James Schamus with a Trailblazer award. “Every movie [Ang] makes, the dude does something different, and he barely speaks fucking English,” Smith said. “Me, I’ve made the same fucking movie eight times.”

Industry heavyweights like Schamus, Lee and Smith notwithstanding, the true pleasure of awards night was seeing the joy on young filmmakers’ faces as they bounded onto the stage to accept awards from their heroes. Jeremiah Zagar, winner of the feature documentary award for In a Dream, was thrilled to receive the award from doc director Morgan Spurlock. “This is so exciting,” he kept repeating when the film took a second award for editing. Sean Baker, whose movie Prince of Broadway took top honors for narrative feature, pulled a number of his non-professional cast members onto the stage, saying he’d been “blessed” to find such talent for his film about immigrants in New York City.

After the evening’s glitz and glam, it was nice to get back down to earth the next day with a trio of well-crafted, low-budget movies. Excepting their shoestring budgets, Tom Quinn’s The New Year Parade, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker’s Pressure Cooker and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy had little in common, but each was a reminder that a movie’s soul often expands in direct proportion to its shrinking financial resources.

Set in a gritty Irish section of South Philadelphia, Quinn’s The New Year Parade tells the story of two teenagers struggling to deal with their parents’ divorce. Quinn works magic with a cast of mostly amateur actors, and it’s easy to see why the film took the award for Best Acting Ensemble at The Ashland Independent Film Festival. I’m not quite sure whether the film had poor production values born of bare-bones equipment, or whether its murky, dim colors were part of the director’s vision, but in either case it didn’t really matter, because the script was pitch-perfect and the direction right on key with the lovely performances.

Also set in South Philadelphia, but this time in an African-American neighborhood, Grausman and Becker’s documentary Pressure Cooker follows a group of high school students competing for prestigious scholarships to culinary school. The students are kept in line by Wilma Stephenson, a charismatic but slightly nutty teacher who, as Becker pointed out in the post-screening Q&A, was definitely not “the inspirational teacher” from Central Casting. As in Jeffrey Blitz’s documentary Spellbound, Grausman and Becker follow a number of students on their journey to a climactic contest, but the stakes are higher: here, a decent scholarship could mean the difference between a career of cooking filet mignon at Masa’s or flipping burgers at Mickey D’s. Well-paced and expertly edited, the film is especially moving as it tracks the growing affection between the students and their offbeat teacher, who, as one student says, is “more of a mom than my mom.”

Striking out in a different direction, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy doesn’t offer an exciting climax or even much of a narrative arc. Instead, it’s about as pure a character study as you’ll find on screen, centering on the struggles of Wendy (Michelle Williams), a young woman who loses her dog, Lucy, in Oregon while traveling to Alaska to find work. Arrested for shoplifting, unable to pay for a car repair and almost attacked by a vagrant, Wendy’s life spirals down rapidly. Apparently, the movie was inspired by a conversation Reichardt had after Hurricane Katrina with her collaborator Jon Raymond; the two talked about poverty in America, and about how hard it is for people on the margins to pull themselves up. (“You can’t get a job without an address. You can’t get an address without an address,” says one of the movie’s characters.)

Although it’s bit too minimalist (we never find out anything about Wendy’s past), Reichardt’s movie is a poignant study of courage and hardship. In the current economic crisis, it feels painfully relevant, and no doubt it’s a harbinger of things to come. Expect more movies about poverty-fueled desperation in the coming year.

So that’s it for this year. No great highs and lows, no this-movie-will-change-your-life recommendations, but plenty of well-crafted, heartfelt projects. As usual, too, many filmmakers this year engaged thoughtfully with hot-button issues, proving that “political” needn’t be a dirty word in independent filmmaking.

Check out the trailer for Prince of Broadway.

Also, see the trailer for In a Dream

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