Since the first film festival was held in Venice in 1932, movie lovers have happily queued up to view highly touted films before their general release. Today, thousands of annual festivals are held worldwide, from the most famous (think über-glamorous Cannes or Robert Redford’s laid-back Sundance) to genre-focused events like Philadelphia’s Terror Film Festival.
But you don’t have to go far from home this month when the Hudson Valley once again plays host to two film festivals that will showcase almost 200 movies in all over a 10-day period. Both the Woodstock Film Festival and FilmColumbia are in their 13th year, and both focus on quality independent productions rather than big studio releases. Woodstock remains the grande dame of the two events; it has many more movies and more industry buzz (in 2010, indieWIRE magazine named it one of the top 50 film festivals in the country). But FilmColumbia continues to attract more attention each year, and both festivals have screened their fair share of movies that have gone on to garner major awards. Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon screened at Columbia, Stranger Things had its world premiere at Woodstock, and Far from Heaven its U.S. premiere there.
Both festivals are also unique because they usually include films that depict local scenery, star local actors and actresses, or are directed by area residents who sometimes return for screenings or to participate in panel discussions. “You never know who may be waiting in line next to you or sitting at the next table,” says Meira Blaustein, cofounder and executive director of Woodstock’s festival. “It’s part of the charm.”
The Sessions, a featured film at this month’s Woodstock fest, stars Helen Hunt and John Hawkes
This year at the Woodstock Film Festival, the spotlight is on director Ben Lewin’s drama The Sessions, which stars Helen Hunt, John Hawkes, and William H. Macy. “It was the first film shown in Sundance and a huge success because it is about a person who’s been in an iron lung his entire life and is seeking his sexual awakening,” says Blaustein, who viewed it at Sundance. “I love it, and everyone said it’s going to be nominated for an Academy Award.” Blaustein also expects three other movies being screened at the festival to generate huge interest: In Our Nature, directed by Brian Savelson and filmed in the Woodstock area; Quartet, a comedy about an opera performance put on by singers living in a retirement home, marks Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut and stars Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon; and The Compass Is Carried by the Dead Man, a Mexican magical realist film.
Of course, the WFF is not just about watching films. While close to 130 flicks are shown in three locations — Woodstock, Rhinebeck, and Rosendale — there are also eight to 10 panel discussions and about as many concerts, not to mention parties galore. One discussion topic this year is the blurring of the lines between TV and film. As more actors and directors cross the line to work in both mediums, “TV’s content is treading new waters and becoming less restrictive,” Blaustein says.
One of the festival’s highlights is the annual Maverick Awards Gala, which is held at Backstage Studio Productions in Kingston. “Maverick” statuettes are handed out for everything from best documentary to best editing, best animation, outstanding industry trailblazer, and giving back to the industry. “It’s among the coolest, most important industry award parties. In the past, Ellen Barkin, Timothy Hutton, and Keanu Reeves have attended,” says Blaustein.
For information or tickets, call 845-810-0131 or go to www.woodstockfilmfestival.com.
With all events within walking distance of the circa 1926 Crandell Theatre on Chatham’s Main Street, FilmColumbia is known for its intimate flavor. “You can often stand outside the Crandell and listen to people get excited and talk about favorites. Sometimes, they’re among the first to see these flicks,” says festival director Calliope Nicholas. The five-day event screens about 50 top independent American and foreign films, as well as hosts discussions, art displays, and parties.
Originally planned as a two-day event that would screen local films, the festival morphed into five days several years ago when its founders decided to cast their net wider and include foreign films. The goal became exposing area viewers to the best films available regardless of origin. “These are films that either won’t be shown in local theaters or will take months to get there,” says Peter Biskind, executive director and programmer and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine. Biskind chooses the roster of films along with Laurence Kardish, who recently stepped down as senior curator of films and media at MoMA. This year’s buzz centers around Austrian director Michael Haneke’s flick Amour, which in May won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
The festival now represents a tapestry of global choices. Several Cuban films are scheduled to be presented as part of a burgeoning relationship with the Havana Film Festival. At press time, the lineup of films hadn’t been finalized; but attendees can expect to see entries from Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto. And it’s not uncommon for films screened at the festival — such as last year’s The Artist — to end up winning Oscar nominations or awards, says Nicholas. The Saturday night sneak movie, often a winner, is never revealed in advance.
Call 518-392-3459 or visit www.filmcolumbia.org for more info.
Can’t make it to both? Here’s information to help you decide:
Woodstock: Oct. 10 to 14
FilmColumbia: Oct. 17 to 21
Approximate number of films:
Number of movie lovers expected:
Hottest industry folks who showed last year:
Woodstock: Actors Ellen Barkin and Mark Ruffalo
FilmColumbia: Screenwriters John Orloff and Courtney Hunt
Woodstock: $10 to $20
Thursday night: Dear Governor Cuomo, multimedia documentary about fracking issues with live music and spoken words at the Bearsville Theater
Friday night: Filmmaker’s Party at the new, 21,000-square-foot Saugerties Performing Arts Factory
Saturday night: Maverick Awards Gala in Kingston
Sunday morning: Actors’ Dialogue panel discussion, which sells out yearly and features candid conversation
Friday night: Classic Cocktails/Classic Films party at Chatham’s Peint O Gwrw Pub; well-known movie cocktails are featured
Saturday night: Sneak Peek party, following the surprise movie, at Blue Plate Restaurant
Sunday morning: Screenwriting Panel, during which actors read a scene from a new work and discuss it