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Boston on the Lowdown: The 2003 Boston Film Festival

Maybe it was the result of lessons learned. Perhaps the September 11 anniversary was a contributing factor. Maybe it was just a sound business decision. Regardless of the reasons, the creators of the 2003 Boston Film Festival (held September 5-14) slimmed down this year’s feature list — from 38 last year to 31 — making the event easier to navigate, and giving cinema fans a tight, well-plotted schedule.

Festival management also had the good PR sense to bring big Hollywood guns to their annual Film Excellence Award evening. The award, which has ended up in the hands of Al Pacino and Jodie Foster in past years, celebrated the palatable commercial epics of director Ridley Scott, who arrived to offer his thanks… and promote his current Matchstick Men, of course. The man behind ballsy, gender-busting heroines (Alien, Thelma and Louise, G.I. Jane) and driven anti-heroes (Blade Runner, Hannibal) appeared with Matchstick Men stars Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman, and Sam Rockwell at a Sunday sellout.

That Tinseltown evening wasn’t typical of the rest of the festival, where films with the size and budget of Matchstick Men were few and far between. More commonly, notable names introduced smaller fare that fits comfortably into America’s art house theaters. Filmmaker Lone Scherfig, the first woman to make a Dogme 95 film, returned to Boston (where she screened Italian for Beginners in 2001) to present her half-full/half-empty tale, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself.

Writer-director Isabel Coixet arrived with her disappointing indie effort, the Sarah Polley drama, My Life Without Me. Dancer-turned-actor-turned-actor/dancer Neve Campbell arrived at the downtown Boston Common theater — trailed by an odd, single-file entourage — to introduce Robert Altman’s ballet feature The Company, in which she stars. (What about Bob?!)

Campbell Scott was a welcome Opening Night guest, introducing his latest directorial effort, the dreamlike Off the Map. Scott and first-time screenwriter Joan Ackermann, a Boston local, handled the film’s Q&A with a welcome personal touch, addressing the audience’s inquiring minds — many tend to be star-struck at these events — as if they were having close conversations.

Scott discussed his roughly 10-year journey of bringing Ackermann’s play to the screen, proudly listing Terrence Malick and Nicolas Roeg as strong filmmaking influences (with particular attention paid to Roeg’s classic teenage journey, Walkabout). The actor-director’s charming humility shone through when he joked about the natural narcissism that surfaces when a filmmaker must finally make that high-impact decision: which scenes to cut.

If Scott was the humble participant, then director Eli Roth (pictured, center) was the brazen, chest-thumping showman. A Saturday night screening of his throwback thriller, Cabin Fever, was a raucous gathering — perhaps not as rambunctious as Roth might have hoped, though, even with his appreciative family filling a row of seats. The Newton, Mass. native tried to pump up his packed, fanboy-filled audience before and after the show, acting like a little kid jazzed up on Coke and Pop Rocks, cursing like a madman (c’mon, he called one Boston critic a ‘cunt’). Nevertheless, his super energy was infectious and his entry was a welcome addition to the lineup.

Such excitement about films and filmmakers is offset by the solemn tone that exists under the festival’s surface, an unavoidable feeling due the celebration occurring during the second week of September. It is appropriate then, that while the festival entertains moviegoers, it also offers entries that focus on that horrific, indefinable September day two years ago.

This year delivered two such documentaries: one about the brotherhood between firefighters (Brothers… On Holy Ground), and one tale of real siblings affected by the catastrophe (Looking For My Brother). In memory of those that perished, for the thousands and thousands affected, and in deference to the myriad of stories to be told, it would be fitting for this improved festival to include such films each year. It would add something to the entertainment industry that’s rarely seen — perspective.

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