MCN Blogs
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Oxford Film Festival Wrap

This past weekend I attended the Oxford Film Festival, for which I served on the docs jury, participated on a panel on film criticism, led a Q&A, and enjoyed the marvelous Southern hospitality. Oxford is one of my favorite small-town film fests; they work hard to bring interesting films to this college town, the all-volunteer festival staff goes all out to take care of their guests, and the Southern comfort food is plentiful and delicious.
Collectively, I think the jurors, panelists and filmmakers consumed about 89,000,000 calories at the Ajax Diner in the Square (Oxford’s social center); this restaurant is a favorite with fest guests for its reasonable prices and generous servings of excellent comfort food: chicken and dumplings, cheese-stuffed meatloaf, fried catfish, sqaush, broccoli-and-rice and sweet potato casseroles, fried okra, mac & cheese and jalapeno cornbread. It’s like going to one of those old-timey church socials where all the town womenfolk competed against each other to bring the best dish for the potluck table — everything is homemade and tastes sinfully delicious.

This year, fest co-directors Michelle Emmanuel, Micah Ginn and Molly Fergusson brought in some excellent films, including Sunshine Cleaning , starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin; it’s the first time the fest has managed to score a preview of a theatrical release, and the packed house seemed to very much enjoy the film. I saw the film myself at Sundance last year, and it seemed that this cut has undergone some editing and tightening since I saw it last.
Attendance at the fest was up even over last year, when the fest had a 40% increase in ticket sales; many of the screenings were completely packed, and the Oxford crowd enjoyed a slate of solid entries including Prom Night in Mississipi, which just played to good reviews at Sundance, and Crude Independence and Make Out with Violence, which will both show at SXSW. Morgan Freeman showed up for a Q&A at one of the screenings of Prom Night in Mississipi (which played simultaneously to three packed audiences), and the film proved to be a big hit, winning the audience award. Crude Independence, a compelling film which won the documentary award, follows what happens to a small North Dakota town when an oil boom moves in.
Make Out with Violence, which won the Feature award, is a very smart zombie tale that’s really a fascinating take on ideas about coping with loss, objectification and unrequited love, and it’s one of the most original films I’ve seen at a fest. Neshoba, an excellent documentary about the murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964, won the Mississippi Feature award, and I hope someone gets this film distributed; the subject matter is compelling, and the artistry with which the film was shot and edited makes it stand out above many independent documentaries.
Thomas L. Phillips’ Rattle Basket, a very solid film about a guy entwined in a destructive friendship with two dysfunctional sisters, surprised me with its originality. The film has some beautifully artistic cinematography, and a great use of music throughout as an integral part of the storytelling. Look for all these films to get more play on the festival circuit.
Also worthy of note is actor Giancarlo Esposito’s directorial debut, Gospel Hill, about a big company looking to come into a town to tear down a poor neighborhood. Esposito, who’s worked with a lot of talented actors over the years, managed to score Danny Glover, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson and Julia Stiles, Adam Baldwin and Tom Bower for his debut effort — a great, solid cast bringing to life this complicated story that’s really about a small town dealing with a history of racial divide and morality around the anniversary of the assassination of a slain civil rights activist (Jackson), which forces his now-adult son (Glover), the son’s activist wife (Bassett), the town sheriff who never found the killer (Bower), the sheriff’s son (Baldwin) struggling to overcome the sins of the father, and the pretty new schoolteacher (Stiles) who gets caught in the middle of all this. Esposito plays a doctor running a clinic who lets his dreams of wealth overcome his conscience as he acts as the intermediary convincing his poor black patients to sell their homes to the wealthy white men wanting to develop their land.
Two films I was pleasantly surprised to see on the schedule were critically lauded Ballast, which won awards at Sundance last year for direction and cinematography, and Good Dick, which many of us saw at Sundance 2008. Good Dick received a fairly lukewarm reception at Sundance, but I liked it quite a bit, and Cinematical’s Scott Weinberg wrote then that he believed “a brave distributor will come along and show this fine little film some love — despite its frequent proclivity for very frank and seriously explicit sex talk.”
Unfortunately, Good Dick seemed to fade away off the fest circuit and wasn’t widely seen, which is a shame — but it’s a great example of a goof indie film most of the folks in Oxford would never have had the opportunity to see had the fest not brought it out. The film’s star, Jason Ritter (who most recently starred in one of my favorite films from Sundance this year, Peter and Vandy), came out intending to stay one night and liked the town and fest so much he extended his stay through the weekend. Also on hand was local resident Johnny McPhail, who co-starred in Ballast.
Oxford is a smaller fest, but they get a surprising number of filmmakers to come out for it, in part because of the excellent reputation the fest has earned for being one of the most fun little fests around. Unlike more pretentious fests where the filmmakers and talent are tucked away in exclusive VIP rooms away from everyone else behind velvet ropes and security guards, at Oxford everyone mingles together. You see filmmakers and actors having casual chats with fest attendees outside the Malco theater after screenings, festival staff, talent and journalists grabbing lunch or a coffee, and hanging out at one of the many parties (every night of the fest has both a party and an after party, most of which are held in intimate private homes, and they get lots of great food donated to their parties from area restaurants. It’s a good thing this fest only lasts a weekend, or we’d have all gained ten pounds there.
The opening night party was held, as it was last year, at the graciously lovely home of Donna Ruth Roberts, one of the fest’s patrons. Donna Ruth supports the fest financially, but she’s also one of its most ardent fans. You can always see her on her way from one screening to the next on film fest weekend. Donna Ruth’s house, it must be added, smells something like I imagine heaven must smell because she burns these intoxicating French candles, and it’s beautifully decorated in a charming Southern way. Late night parties were held at another patron’s “city home,” which became beer pong headquarters for the fest. I normally stay away from festival parties, but at Oxford, the vibe is so much more laid back, I make sure to attend.
The closing night awards ceremony and party is a highlight of the fest, especially for the locals; fest co-director Micah Ginn, who plans the closing ceremony, always finds ways to include local residents in the fun, this year with a categories for “Best Scene from a Movie Not Playing the Oxford Film Festival” and “Best Recreation by Oxford Residents of a Diner Scene from a Famous Movie.” The latter proved to be the highlight of the night, with the re-enactment of the diner scene from Pulp Fiction by two kids (see post below to watch it, it’s awesome), which took home the prize.
The Oxford Film Fest struggled to pull together the money to stay afloat this year — like many small-town fests they rely heavily on support from their local businesses, patrons and the arts community, and they’re feeling the pinch of the economy like everyone else. Yet they managed to bring in some great folks for two very solid panels on film criticism and distribution/marketing (thanks to the hard work of yet another volunteer, panels coordinator Melanie Addington), pack their slate with solid films, bring out a ton of filmmakers, and put on a great show for their town. Impressed as I was with the fest’s slate this year, though, it’s the atmosphere and the wonderful people that will bring me back to Oxford every year.
Well, that, and the meatloaf.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon