Narrative Feature: Putty Hill (Matt Porterfield)
Documentary Feature: Family Affair (Chico Colvard)
Pink Peach Feature: 8: The Mormon Proposition (Reed Cowan)
Narrative Short: Firstborn (Etienne Kallos)
Narrative Short Hon Mention: Ana's Playground (Eric D. Howell)
Documentary Short: Born Sweet (Cynthia Wade)
Documentary Short Hon Mention: Woman Rebel (Kiran Deol)
Animated Short: The Machine (Rob Shaw)
Animated Short Hon Mention: Prayers for Peace (Dustin Grella)
Pink Peach Short: Curious Thing (Alain Hain)
There will also be an audience award announced at the end of the festival. I'll also be handing out my awards when I write my festival wrap up. Now on to today's reviews...
Putty Hill (Matt Porterfield) ***1/2
The first film I see after the awards announcement happens to be the jury winner for Best Narrative Feature. It's easy to see what the jury liked about this movie. There is some really good filmmaking going on here. Putty Hill dissects the hopes and fears of people in a Baltimore neighborhood as they prepare for the funeral of a young man named Corey that was well known in the community. Director Matt Porterfield does a great job of creating a community of people and making the town they live in so recognizable that it feels like an extra character in the film.
Porterfield uses an interesting structure to the film. It's shot like a documentary and there is an off camera voice asking questions to the various characters and capturing various events. But you never get the sense that someone is actually filming a documentary. Even when uncomfortable questions are being asked, none of the characters seem to think they can just stop answering. This helps explain how he can capture certain private moments, like a discussion between Corey's sister and grandmother. It also makes it feel like the viewer is there, like you've traveled to Baltimore to attend the funeral of someone you knew.
Also working in the film's favor is the improvisational style employed. The movie was cast with untrained actors and they improvised most of the dialogue. It creates a real feeling of authenticity as you don't see anyone playing it up for the cameras or suddenly spouting some brilliant dialogue that feels written. The most wonderful moment is the memorial service itself, which takes place at a karaoke bar and the very real heartfelt performances given are quite moving. Putty Hill is a unique, memorable film and is among this year's best festival screenings.
Dear Lemon Lima (Suzi Yoonessi) ****
Adapted from a short film that played at the Atlanta Film Festival three years earlier comes this story of a 13 year old half-Eskimo girl named Vanessa who is recovering from summer heartbreak as she enters a private school. She immediately finds herself at the bottom of the social food chain and her efforts to win back the love of her life are seemingly hopeless. However, she gets a chance to prove herself when she is named captain during the school's Snowstorm Survivor competition, where she picks all the school's cast offs (known as FUBAR's) to be on her team.
This is a fantastic movie that finds a perfect balance of tone. Not one moment is too quirky, nor does it ever get too serious. And the chief reason for that is the wonderful performance of Savanah Wiltfong in the lead role. Knowing that her character already has quirky elements and there's already a sense of silliness to the proceedings, she does something rather remarkable for an actress of her age and actually underplays the character. There's very little showing off on her part. None of her line deliveries are obnoxiously offbeat. She never once makes bizarre facial expressions. Instead, she creates a winning lead character with a low key, nuanced performance.
The film has a wonderful visual style. The sets and costumes are populated with solid bright colors, creating a cheery, positive atmosphere. Writer-director Yoonessi also does a remarkable job creating fully fleshed out supporting characters, including a neighbor boy whose mom is very strict, a popular girl who has more heart than we initially suspect, and especially Vanessa's ex Philip who is certainly played as a stuck up jerk, but a realistic three dimensional jerk. All of this helps creating a wonderful world for her memorable lead character to inhabit. This is a charming, witty, tremendously entertaining film.
Open Five (Kentucker Audley) ***
The term mumblecore has received some controversy, mainly because many of those directors credited with making films in that genre despise the word. But whatever word you use, it is clear the style of mumblecore is here to stay as you can see it populating the film festival ciruit. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's a movement towards more low key, intimate filmmaking and away from the self-conscious overly cynical films that used to dominate the indie scene. As someone who prefers the former to the latter, I find films like Open Five rather refreshing.
The simple plot is befitting of the genre. Two girls from New York come down to Memphis to visit two guys, one of whom is a musician and the other a low budget filmmaker. They visit dive bars, BBQ restaurants, Graceland, energetic churches. They talk about their relationships and how they'll continue once the trip is over. For the most part, this is really solid stuff. The people involved are interesting, and the improvisational dialogue style really works.
The only major issue I had with the film was the awkward shooting angles used in many scenes. Many of them are shot with us looking at the back of a character's head. This awkward blocking is really distracting. Now I know the essence of mumblecore is to film on extremely small budgets and the improvisational style makes it hard to get coverage, but there had to be a better way to shoot these scenes. Otherwise it's a nice, relaxing film and a good example of the mumblecore genre.
Yellowbrickroad (Jesse Holland, Andy Mitton) ***1/2
Yellowbrickroad has a very interesting mystery premise. In 1940 the entire town of Friar, NH walked north on a trail into the woods. They never returned. Teddy Barnes (Michael Laurino) is someone who has always been obsessed with this story, and finally (after being stonewalled for years) has been given the information he needs to find the trail. He gathers a crew, including his wife, a psychiatrist, a local resident, a couple friends and they head north to find answers.
This is a really good example of the horror/suspense genre, and will certainly be enjooyed by fans of Lost and The Twilight Zone. Directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton make some really good choices throughout the film. Most notably, they use a minimalist sound design to create some really strong atmosphere. There is no score to speak of and that creates a sense of loneliness for the characters. Also, when sound is used it provides a strong contrast to the rest of the film and is actually quite frightening.
A problem that suspense films of this nature usually run into is that the premise is so intriguing that there is no way the eventual explanation can live up to that. But Yellowbrickroad avoids that problem by setting up the story where the answers are not the driving force, but moreso what certain characters are willing to do to get those answers. There is one particularly impressive shot where the filmmakers create a genuine scare with some smart editing techniques and their understanding that you don't need to linger on every big moment. Moments like this are what makes Yellowbrickroad a winning horror/suspense film.
Winter's Bone (Debra Granik) ***1/2
One of the most impressive things I've noticed at this year's festival is that several films have done a terrific job of creating a real sense of place and community. Films like Exit 117, Putty Hill, and The Mountain Thief have all been successful at accomplishing this. Sundance favorite Winter's Bone manages to do the same with a deeply observed portrait of people living in the Ozarks.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year old girl who is raising her two younger siblings all by herself. Her mother is mentally ill and never speaks. Her father is a criminal who is out on bail and has put up the house as collateral. When he fails to show for his court date, Ree must go out and find him (or his body) or risk losing the only thing her family has left. Her journey takes us through many different parts of this community and gives us a sense of the sad, desperate lives that they lead.
This is a film filled with wonderfully rich characterizations. Most notable is John Hawkes performance as Ree's uncle Teardrop. What first appears to simply be nothing more than a dangerous villain turns out to be a fascinatingly complex individual. Hawkes is an actor I've noticed before (on Deadwood and in previous ATLFF closing night film Me and You and Everyone We Know), but this performance is his crowning achievement. Debra Granik's story does go in some unexpected directions and takes us on a dark, suspenseful journey through the Ozarks.