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The Big Pig Meets the Silver Screen: The 2000 Boston Film Festival

To get a feel for the Boston Film Festival, which wrapped on September 18, it helps to know Boston. The city is a vibrant, diverse collection of small neighborhoods with a distinctively New England flavor, yet is aspires to be more. Boston boasts about its individuality, yet sometimes strives to be more like New York. It craves expansion and then suffers from its weight (for those who don’t know, the nation’s biggest federally funded construction job in history is in Boston). Hell, the Red Sox even try to spend as much as the hated/admired Yankees.

With all this aspiration for greatness, Boston remains one of the worst cinema cities in America. Downtown venues are incredibly subpar, with the Loews Copley Place standing out in its dysfunction. Located in a stylized, glorified mall, the multiplex has small theaters, small screens, and generally poor sound (though somewhat improved as of late). Unfortunately, due to its location and what must be the Loews’ sponsorship, this is also the home of the Boston Film Festival.

In just its 16th year, Artistic Director Mark Diamond and crew have done their best to overcome the problems while trying to inject some level of excitement into a loyal movie audience. I attended festival events on four different days, and consistently ran into the same group of thrilled moviegoers. The following is small but fervent.

The bulk of this year’s 38 feature titles has already secured distribution of some sort, and as at any fest, some are biggies on their way to release. Standing out early in the festival was Rod Lurie’s laughable attempt at a political drama, The Contender.

Chosen as the first special event film, The Contender premiered at a separate, larger venue in order to award co-star Jeff Bridges a 2000 Film Excellence Award. Bridges was cordial to the nearly packed house, and spoke of his love for Boston, reminiscing about shooting Blown Away on location with his dad. Lurie followed, and the arrogance for which he’s known shined through immediately. He bragged on about meeting with Bridges for 3½ hours to convince him to play the President, and mentioned ‘if you want to know why we made this film, just read the dedication at the end’. (I won’t keep you in the suspense that he put upon us – it says ‘For Our Daughters.’ Big deal.) The film is an accurate reflection of both his energy and his ego. I slipped out before the question-and-answer session, fearing I’d say something regrettable by staying.

The other Film Excellence Award was presented to Ellen Burstyn, who appeared in three festival titles: Darren Aronofsky’s Pi follow-up, Requiem for a Dream, the excellent The Yards, and a thrilling re-release of The Exorcist.

Speaking of The Yards, director James Gray conducted an insightful, easygoing Q&A with an eager crowd following the film’s initial screening. His frankness was remarkable, as he commented on the budget (about $17.8 million), how actors such as Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron approached him for their roles, and how he and Miramax Lord Harvey Weinstein fought over the casting of Steve Lawrence (first Harvey said ‘no way’; now he likes to take the credit). Gray discussed setting, lighting, actors, and his own mistakes. He has a passion and knowledge that would be refreshing in the standard Hollywood community.

Another notable appearance was that of Exorcist screenwriter and producer William Peter Blatty, in town to introduce Warner Brothers’ reissue of the horror classic. (Sorry, I missed that visit – couldn’t do that and The Yards at the same time). Joining Blatty was Linda Blair – when I read that, I thought the festival had turned into an autograph signing at Spooky World. Anyway, a later viewing of the blasphemous classic proved to be as thrilling as ever, with Blatty’s script still complex and daring.

At the festival, AOL asked viewers to vote online for their favorite independent feature, as well as their favorite short. After seeing a final tally like this, it’s obvious that nobody cared to vote, and some serious ballot-stuffing occurred:

1: Amargosa
455: Charming Billy
2: Enemies of Laughter
2: A Fight to the Finish: Stories of Polio
1: Four Dogs Playing Poker
3: Henry Hill
1: A Man is Mostly Water
1: Pitch People
2: Reckless Indifference
1022: The Rising Place
3: Roof to Roof
3: Running on the Sun
14: Seven Girlfriends
2: A Trial in Prague

Sadly, the other ‘competition’ among 37 short films garnered a total of eight online votes. Next year, let’s do away with the vote-from-home crap, and invite people to fill out ballots in person. This stirs conversation, community, and passion, as moviegoers tell each other what they’ve seen and enjoyed.

And, of course, the biggest overhaul must come by way of a new location. Although General Cinema’s in some financial trouble, it’s just opened the Fenway 13 about two miles west of the Copley. Big screens, stadium seating. In short, easier to see and hear.

Alas, Boston once had a theater that would have worked wonderfully for the big event screenings: a single screen with balcony seating, on a long, downtown street, in the middle of everything. Now it’s a Walgreen’s. Such is the film scene in Boston.

Reviews from the festival: Envy, The Contender, The Yards, Blessed Art Thou, and The Exorcist.

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