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Back to the Beans: The 2002 Boston Film Festival

It’s tough to get excited about a film festival when it exists in the shadow of a more powerful, upper echelon celebration — namely, the overwhelming Toronto Film Festival — but when screenings and ceremonies are interrupted by the most horrifying act to ever take place on American soil, you can just call it quits. From a personal standpoint, I simply stopped attending last year’s Boston Film Festival after September 11, just days after the festivities began. Who cared about an endeavor as frivolous as the movies? The minor result was the cancellation of some festival events; the primary feeling was the despair experienced throughout most of the world.

So it was appropriate that the main feature on September 11 of this year’s festival (which ended September 15) was 7 Days in September, a documentary which acted as a kind of emotional anchor for the ten day, 38-film showcase. With 7 Days, director Steve Rosenbaum and his crew at New York City’s Camera Planet Pictures brought the year nearly full circle for the few hundred moviegoers that eschewed the day’s head-pounding television coverage for a more communal experience.

September 11, 2001 began as a normal, hectic workday for Camera Planet’s crews as they headed out to shoot their typical content — for networks like Animal Planet and The Discovery Channel — but as the day progressed, their assignments changed. Directive #1: Attempt to chronicle the earth-shattering events in Lower Manhattan. Directive #2: Try to obtain all video shot in NYC on that day. The result: 27 videographers and filmmakers captured the entire week following September 11, providing a wide variety of viewpoints. 7 Days is a smart, carefully edited document of shock, fear, camaraderie, and resolve.

Following the screening, line producer Rasheed J. Daniel conducted a frank Q&A (many viewers fled after the film), explaining that his crew was hoping to make a film that was ‘more than just carnage…more than just what we see on the news.’ It is.

Before and after the sensitive anniversary date were back-to-normal goings-on. This year’s lineup, for better or worse, was chock-full of ‘larger’ releases, with at least 17 of the 38 features set for major distribution. Biggest among these were Peter Kosminsky’s fine adaptation of Janet Fitch’s coming-of-age melodrama White Oleander; The Emperor’s Club, Universal’s satisfying cautionary tale set in the world of academia, starring Kevin Kline; Auto Focus, Paul Schrader’s unflinching take on the subversive life of actor Bob Crane; and the flat mob drama Knockaround Guys, co-starring Vin Diesel and Dennis Hopper.

Distributor First Look Films screened no less than six titles in the festival, including Skins, Chris Eyre’s disappointing drama about two brothers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the acclaimed The Jimmy Show, Frank Whaley’s entry into the multi-hyphenate fray, as he writes, directs, and stars in the grim tale of an unhappy man. Phillip Noyce, noted for directing Harrison Ford in adaptations of Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, had two entries in the festival (both period pieces, both from Miramax): The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine as a British reporter in 1952 Vietnam, and Rabbit-Proof Fence, a story of three Aboriginal girls’ escape from oppression in 1931 Australia.

There are usually two events that draw the biggest crowds to the festival: opening night and the presentation of the annual Film Excellence Award. This year’s opener offered three films received with generally lukewarm response by locals: Tim Blake Nelson’s Holocaust drama The Grey Zone, starring David Arquette and Harvey Keitel; Brookline, Mass. native Myra Paci’s offbeat Searching for Paradise, with Chris Noth and Jeremy Davies; and Austin Chick’s relationship drama, XX/XY, starring You Can Count On Me‘s Mark Ruffalo. (Side note to you partymongers: Word has it that Ruffalo was extremely cordial at the opening night bash and Chick was sloppily dressed.)

As for the Film Excellence Award, this year’s honor went to William H. Macy, co-star of one of the festival’s true standouts, the Russo brothers’ witty screwball comedy Welcome to Collinwood (informally called the best picture of the event by the respected Boston Phoenix). In an interview, Macy touched upon working with David Mamet and the Coens — he names Fargo as an obvious turning point in his career — and even his role in Jurassic Park III, calling the festival accolade ‘really sweet.’

As mentioned in this space two years ago, the biggest issue facing Boston Film Festival moviegoers was poor, uncomfortable venues. At the time, I assumed the newly built General Cinema Fenway theater would provide a large, updated home. Happily, I was wrong.

Instead, the grand Boston Common multiplex — a downtown tower opened last summer and crammed in between the Theater District, Chinatown, and the beautiful city common — has become the sparkling new location for most screenings. It’s got all the amenities that were clearly missing from the Boston moviegoing experience, like stadium seating, cupholders, folding armrests, and screen size and sound finally worthy of huge crowds. And, as all theaters should, it provides more room to mingle, discuss, argue, and critique…now if they can just bring down the prices on those iced coffee drinks.

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