Film festivals tend to be pinnacles of glitz and pretension; the Nashville Film Festival would more accurately be described as a sort of battleground. Nashville's fest takes place on the bottom floor of a shopping-mall multiplex, where Thai surrealist works and experimental short films jostle for screens with the usual cookie-cutter blockbusters. The result is a somewhat volatile mix of clienteles. Nose-turned-up festival patrons tut-tut the teenagers walking into Scream 4 from afar; those teenagers motivated enough to momentarily ignore incoming texts sneer back at the "hipster movie" loving snobs. It's also the only festival I've seen where a director munching on VIP tent hors d'oeuvres can be seated in the same row as a kid slathering hydrogenated cheese product onto his nachos (full disclosure: me).
The contrast between different universes of film could hardly be starker, which is why the Nashville Film Festival illustrates more than most just why film festivals are important. These events carve out a space (in this case, literally) for daring and unsung works of art in a cinematic landscape obsessed with opening weekend box office returns. Festivals help these pictures make their way to greater audiences, even if that only means snagging an unsuspecting couple who traded in their regular tickets to "try out this festival thing". I was only able to spend a weekend at this week-long festival, but that short time span was packed with quality film. Here are some of the festival entries to watch out for as they make their way to Lexington.
- Festival spotlight presentation Bloodworth, a Southern gothic Tennessee saga already booked for a run at the Kentucky Theatre, contains in its cast the kind of actors who can embody down-home grit and authenticity without saying a word - country legends Kris Kristofferson and Dwight Yoakam, Kentucky native W. Earl Brown, a shockingly good Val Kilmer. The fact, then, that first-time director Shane Dax Taylor decides to center his film around the ultra-bland romance between two teenagers (Reece Thompson and Hilary Duff, of all people) is an Orson-Welles-in-the-animated-Transformers-movie level misuse of talent.
It's hard to dismiss Bloodworth entirely though, given how strong the movie becomes when local color is allowed to really shine through. While the film may center on the youngest member of the Bloodworth clan attempting to escape his troubled family, the film is best when focusing on the less ambitious members of the family - Kilmer as a rhinestone-bedecked whorehound, Yoakam as an outburst-prone loser stalking his former wife, Brown as a preacher whose idea of Christianity hews closer to Voodoo than to Pentecostal. And then there's Kristofferson as the songwriting patriarch returning years after abandoning his family - as it turns out, Kristofferson's uncanny resemblance to Jeff Bridges isn't just in their physical attributes but also in their gravel-voiced acting talent.
- Cult Japanese director Takashi Miike is one of world cinema's great weirdos - his Audition is legendary for its ability to freak out even the most dedicated of horror film aficionados and his Gozu features, among other things, a woman giving birth to a full-grown man. The most bizarre thing about his latest film 13 Assassins, then, is just how normal it really is. The film's titular protagonists are noble samurai who have banded together to kill a corrupt and murderous lord, and Miike reigns in his freakish tendencies to tell a tale about honor and duty that would have appealed to the classic Western directors of Hollywood (although said directors might have been unprepared for the plentiful buckets of blood). Assassins starts out with a slow build as Miike lays out the political particulars of his ancient Japan setting and the rigid moral code of his heroes, but the groundwork all pays off brilliantly at the film's climax, a 45-minute battle scene which pits the titular squad against an army of 200. It becomes clear early on, as initial salvos involving flaming oxen begin, that this is not your typical battle scene, and by the end of the film, it's clear that this epic scene is perhaps the best example of sustained large-scale action filmmaking since the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
-Skip ahead if the thought of a avant-garde Buddhist film from Thailand makes your eyes glaze over, but know that avant-gardists don't get more playful than director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or, as he actually likes to be called, Joe. Joe's latest mouthful of a film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the unanimous praise of critics worldwide, and for those who can tune into its oddball wavelength, it's not hard to see why. Telling the story of a dying old man visited by ghosts and enchanted by strange memories, Boonmee is a lush immersion into a dream-like world populated by serene images of Joe's native Thailand and surreal imaginings of laser-eyed ghosts, past lives as animals, and a lascivious talking catfish. It would take many pages to really dig into the film's meaty themes of mortality and the tricky relationship between film, history, and reality. What can be appreciated immediately though is the sensory experience of rich soundscapes and narcotic imagery - that is, if the film's stately pace doesn't put you to sleep. That's something Joe is OK with, though - he once gave his approval in an interview to audiences to sleep during his films, hoping that his work would at least prepare the minds of viewers to ensure that they enter a positive dream state.
-Produced for just $17,000, Bellflower has a look that's more impressive than most Hollywood films with a thousand times that budget. Director Evan Glodell and crew crafted their own camera lenses to get a uniquely vivid sunburnt view of their Southern California setting, but their craftsmanship didn't stop there. They also built Mother Medusa, a '72 Buick Skylark equipped with smokescreen generators and flamethrowers. This rusty creation (Which was on display at the festival) is the obsession of the film's fictional stars, two whiskey-soaked gearheads (played by Tyler Dawson and Glodell himself) preparing their own private arsenal for when a Mad-Max-esque apocalypse arrives.
But the apocalypse that arrives has less do with horsemen than with hotties - specifically the one that steals and then shatters the heart of Glodell's character. Chaos ensues, and to avoid spoilers, I'll just say the film becomes a head-spinning amalgam - a breakup story where the emotions are surreally illustrated with napalm and spattered blood. Messy and outrageously over-the-top though it may be, the genre-bending ambition of this film is fascinating stuff that marks this movie as the greatest DIY bootstrap filmmaking achievement since Paranormal Activity. Even the film's biggest failing - Glodell's acting ability doesn't quite measure up to his directorial skill - actually counts as a sort of selling point. Consider this film to be wish-fulfillment for anyone who has ever watched an insufferably twee indie film romance and wished that the world around the characters would burst into flames.