DID YOU READ

A film festival judge takes us behind the scenes of how awards are dolled out

The Sarasota Film Festival

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By Jordan Hoffman

At some point in mid-February one of the many publicists I deal with on a regular basis in New York asked if I was planning on going to the Sarasota Film Festival in April. If I had my druthers, I’d go, I said. I love film festivals. You watch movies all day and eat prosciutto-wrapped asparagus all night. But it didn’t look like it was in the cards.

My superpower, however, is getting publicists to think I am far more important than I actually am. Seriously, if it were an Olympic event I’d be a five-time medalist. I was soon offered a position on one of the three juries at this prestigious fest, which meant a couple of days down in Florida on someone else’s dime. Who was I to say no?

I’ve been on a festival jury before (2011 Fantastic Fest) and I have been a working critic for five years, but what the folks making the offer may not have known was that, in a previous life, I was (and hope to one day be again) an independent filmmaker. Two of my films have gone off to various corners of the Earth and each came back with their fair share of laurel wreaths for the poster. Did it make me rich and famous? No. But it kept me from hitting rock bottom a few times, as family members and girlfriends could remind me that, hey, at least we won that audience award up in Rhode Island.

Considering that I’d been “on the other side,” I was going to take my job as a juror very seriously. There were nine films in my section, a division dedicated to low budget and, in some cases, first time films. Five of the films were being sent to me on DVD, the remainder I’d see down during fest.

When the package came I popped ’em without doing any research. The first film I watched was called “In Our Nature,” and when the opening credits ran I was surprised to see some known Hollywood actors. Jena Malone (whom I’ve been fond of since “Contact”) and Gabrielle Union play opposite Zach Gilford and John Slattery.

The movie is awful. It’s everything you worry an independent movie is going to be. A bunch of whiners go up to a cabin in the woods to sit around and talk their feelings to one another. The camera doesn’t move, the scenes are endless and I immediately regretted saying yes to being on the jury. What if the other 8 movies were this bad?

The next movie I put it was called “Richard’s Wedding.” It starts with two people walking down a street in Brooklyn just yapping. The scene doesn’t end, but they’re being a little funny. It has a neo-Seinfeld vibe. Then I notice that some of zings get really good. Still there’s hardly anything resembling a plot and the camera and sound work make it seem like this flick cost 89 cents to make, but I find myself laughing out loud quite a bit, then really starting to like the characters.

“Richard’s Wedding” soon presents itself as something of a three-act play. In the first act, a man and a women walk to an apartment to meet up with others before going to a wedding. In the second act they hang out at the apartment and rib one another and drink. In the third act they all go to the park where the wedding is, of course, a disaster.

Something odd happened when they got to that apartment, however. When the actor opened the door my skin got cold. I KNOW that guy! The actor playing the douchey rich guy was actually someone I worked with for two years back in the early aughts. We both worked part time at a horrible place and made fun of our dipshit boss. In fact, he even showed up for one quick line of dialogue in my first film.

I was devastated. Clearly this was a conflict of interest, no? I mean, I would be rooting for my friend, right? But the thing is, I was really digging “Richard’s Wedding” on its own merits – and I haven’t seen this actor in at least five years. I pressed on.

The third film was called “Welcome to Pine Hill” and it grabbed me from the first scene. It is a moody and evocative film about an African-American from Brooklyn trying to sever the ties to his criminal past by working a boring job in Manhattan. He discovers he has inoperable cancer and decides he must settle his old debts before he can find peace.

Wow, I just made the movie sound really maudlin, and I swear it is anything but. It is artfully shot and understated – and loaded with natural performances and finely observed set pieces. I’m instantly smitten with this film and don’t see how anything else could top it.

Then I see the next film and think, hey, this one is pretty good, too. It is called “The Unspeakable Act,” and my mind is somewhat blown. The titular act is incest, but this is no exploitation film. It’s like Eric Rohmer’s “The Green Ray” meets Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress.” It has mannered, almost surreal dialogue and is shot with bright colors in one of those gorgeous Victorian Brooklyn homes like in “Sophie’s Choice.” It is one of the most steadfastly true to its own peculiar vision things I’ve seen in quite a long time.

I get a return of the queasy feeling again when I realize that the director, Dan Sallit, is someone else I know. He, at least, I haven’t seen since around 1997, but way back when I met him when I was working for an independent producer in New York.

The last film I watch on DVD called “See Girl Run” also has some known stars, Robin Tunney and Adam Scott, and it might even be worse than “In Our Nature.” And I really like Adam Scott, so this was particularly annoying.

A few days later I fly down to Sarasota and immediately proceed to get my ass kissed by volunteers and filmmakers who see the word “jury” on my badge. I’m a married man and don’t get out that much, so this was a very gratifying experience.

I quickly confess to the fest director that I kinda-sorta know some of the people involved in some of the films. I expect to be sent back to New York on a bus. I’m told, however, to just be fair, and be a professional, and let everyone else on the jury know.

I meet my two fellow jurors. One is an old friend, Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York, whose tastes often align with mine, and a fella I don’t know named Michael Dunaway from Paste Magazine. (After fifteen minutes, however, I feel like I’ve known him for years. He may be the most gregarious person I’ve met.) We were three not at all angry men.

On my own I see Kris wife-of-Joe Swanberg’s “Empire Builder.” Another story about people going up to a cabin in the woods, but this one stars the current low budget it-girl Kate Lyn Sheil, and that alone makes it stand out. It is a really emotionally reserved and subtle film about marital infidelity, but it doesn’t get too hysterical. How could it have time, it is only 72 minutes? I like the movie a great deal, but I’m not bananas for it.

After this came a real joy, Jonathan Lisecki’s “Gayby.” The premise may not jump out as the most original idea in the world – gay man and straight woman decide to have a kid, shenanigans ensue – but the writing is really hilarious and the extended supporting cast is simply fantastic. We jurors watch this as a group and everyone has a good time.

After this came another Kate Lyn Sheil vehicle, “Sun Don’t Shine.” This time she’s on the lam with her boyfriend after stabbing her husband. Even though there’s a lot more stuff going on in it, I find myself more intrigued by “Empire Buildier.” But, really, it shouldn’t be a contest. Oh, wait! Actually, it IS a contest! And I’m the judge! Pressure!

The last film we saw was called. . . um. . .oh, crap I can’t remember the name. And I can barely remember the movie. Hold on, let me look it up again. Ah, it was called “Leave Me Like You Found Me.” It’s about people walking around the woods being mad at each other.

So we’d seen our nine films. (And I snuck in two other ones not in our category, too.) Then we had to hammer it out. Where best to decide? Brunch!

The nine jurors (three panels each with three people) gathered and the head of the festival (the esteemed Tom Hall) quietly observed the discussion, fingers poised over an iPad ready to take the names of the winner.

The only rule was that we pick at least one winner. We could give jury prizes, too, but we should restrict it to only two. So this meant we could honor three films.

From my point of view, I wanted to give the awards to the movies I liked best, but also the ones that could really benefit from an additional laurel leaf on the poster.

I really loved “Welcome to Pine Hill,” and it won the best film at Slamdance. An additional award would make it seem like a mandate, and, hopefully, help the film get distribution. “The Unspeakable Act,” however, is a really challenging film, and this was its debut. An award first out of the gate could help this uncompromising film get programmed elsewhere. Then there was “Gayby” and “Richard’s Wedding,” both very funny and crowdpleasing.

Of the three groups there, we were the first to reach a decision that everyone could sign-off on. I’d like to believe that it is because we picked the right winners.

It would be unfair to my fellow jurors to lift the veil back too far, but we came up with a compromise we could live with. “The Unspeakable Act” is a movie that is intense and unique and wholly original. It would win best film. We all loved “Welcome to Pine Hill” (though, I may have been its strongest booster) and felt a special jury prize was in order. Much of what makes that film so memorable is its lead role, so we gave a prize for performance to its lead actor Shannon Harper. Next we wanted to award something for writing, and, at the end of the day, we felt we had to salute the zing-tastic “Richard’s Wedding.” We felt a little guilty about leaving “Gayby” out to dry, but just a few days later it landed a distribution deal, so I think it may have all worked out in the end.

So that’s how the sausage gets made. I left out all the stuff about the parties that included Mexican wrestlers, the Flying Wallendas and David Carr, but to experience an extended weekend at a place as welcoming and enriching as the Sarasota Film Festival is really something you need to do on your own. I also recommend wearing the coveted purple lanyard because it can get you in ANYWHERE.

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Comedy Bang! Bang! gets weird starting Friday, June 3rd at 11P on IFC.

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Song parodist and Comedy Bang! Bang!’s newest bandleader “Weird Al” Yankovic dropped by Conan to chat about the upcoming season of the IFC series and drop a few bits of trivia from his past. For example, did you know meeting Michael Jackson is a lot like meeting an alien? Well, you probably did, but “Weird Al” confirms it! Also, Yankovic discusses how he had a little artistic dispute with Paul McCartney over the use of “Live and Let Die” for a parody titled “Chicken Pot Pie”. (We’ll let Al fill you in on details.)

Check out “Weird Al” talking about his odd encounters with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s joke-ruining suggestions in the video below. And be sure to catch Al on the new season of Comedy Bang! Bang! premiering Friday, June 3rd with back-to-back episodes at 11P and 11:30P.

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10 Movies That Make Hitting Rock Bottom Look Like Fun

Maron hits rock bottom tonight at 9P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Dreamworks Pictures

This season on Maron, Marc is hitting rock bottom. He’s lost his career, his home and even his cats. But since Marc is involved, we figure he’ll be good for a few laughs on the way down. Thankfully, Marc’s in good company here. Some of our favorite movies feature characters who have hit the emotional basement face first. We’re glad we’re not them, but we definitely enjoy watching them fall apart.

10. Office Space

Office Space

If you’re going to flame out, at least do it with some panache. That’s the lesson office drone Peter Gibbons teaches us in Mike Judge’s cult classic, when a hypnotism gone wrong allows him to gain a little perspective on life. Soon he’s phoning in his job, and happily telling his superiors the ugly truth to their faces. This, of course, only makes him more popular around the office, a place he now has no need for. Peter has a mental breakdown with a smile on his face, and a bounce in his step, showing us that there is life beyond the cubicle.


9. The Weather Man

Weather Man

Sure, your job’s a joke, your kids are a mess and your father is disappointed in you, but there’s a shortcut to self-esteem that no one tells you about. It’s like a cheat code for when you want to turn your midlife crisis into a midlife adventure. That secret is arming yourself to the teeth. In local weatherman David Spritz’s case, that means carrying a bow and arrow around with him wherever he goes. Nicolas Cage has made a cottage industry of playing people in the midst of nervous breakdowns, from Leaving Las Vegas to The Family Man, but here he really separates David from the pack by going full Hawkeye on us. The lessons is, it doesn’t matter how bad you’re feeling on the inside when everyone is scared to death of you on the outside.


8. Trainwreck

Universal Pictures

Amy Schumer seems to have flipped the script when it comes to bottoming out. Sure, your life may be an unending stream of stripper heels, hangovers and one night stands. If you keep telling yourself everything awful about your life is completely awesome, who’s to say it isn’t? Mind equals blown. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called empowerment. Or delusion. It’s called something, and either way, Schumer knows how to make it hilarious. We may not want to be blackout drunk on a weeknight, but Amy sure makes it look like it doesn’t have to be the worst thing ever. You go girl.


7. American Beauty

American Beauty

Lester Burnham is just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose, and boy does he know how to quit a job. It involves admitting to masturbating in the company bathroom, and then blackmailing your boss into a year’s pay with benefits. If you’re going to hit rock bottom, you may as well get a little cash for the way down.


6. Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married

You can’t really hit rock bottom unless you take a few people down with you. That’s the lesson of this 2008 indie drama, in which Anne Hathaway plays a destructive addict inadvertently laying waste to her sister’s wedding. Sure, that doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but Hathaway’s “I don’t give a f*ck” performance makes her character Kym feel like the cool girl we all wanted to hang out with in high school. Sure, she’s probably going to end up dead or in jail, but what a time she’ll have before she gets there.


5. Anchorman

Anchorman

There’s nothing quite like chugging milk on a hot summer day to remind you that you’ve made some bad choices in life. Out of work, friendless, womanless, and mustacheless, legendary local newsman Ron Burgundy finds out the hard way that nobody loves you when you’re on the bottom. Not even your weatherman, who seems like he’d give up just about anything for one weekend alone in a New England B&B with you. Fortunately, Mr. Burgundy has a secret up his sleeve, and no, we’re not talking about his jazz flute. With a conch shell, a baby panda news story, and some swagger, Ron Burgundy reminds us that the only way to stop a downward spiral is with the help of your friends and fellow anchorpeople.


4. 28 Days

28 Days

Yes, the opening moments of 28 Days are supposed to be a cautionary tale. An out of control Sandy Bullock shows up drunk to her sister’s wedding and delivers a rambling speech, before destroying the wedding cake. In a panic, she steals a limo, and crashes it into a house while trying to find a cake store. Now, granted, if you’re planning a wedding, this is pretty much the worst case plus one we can imagine. But, if you’re a guest, well, this kind of sounds like fun. As days go, taking a limo joy ride in desperate search of cake sounds like time well spent.


3. Kill Bill

Kill Bill

Okay, being buried alive isn’t fun. That’s a given. But what if you were a master ninja who ate black belts for breakfast looking for some vengeance? Well, then waking up six feet under might just be the thing. Sure, The Bride had a bad run, with a massacre at her wedding rehearsal and the whole coma thing, but this is the moment she turned from a wronged heroine into an ass-kicking machine. Everything she did after this was thanks to her premature funeral, and the folks behind it.


2. Bridesmaid

Bridesmaids

Weddings bring out a lot of emotions. Happiness, joy, regret, bitter jealously, a need to find the open bar. But for Annie, who lost her job, her apartment, and her boyfriend, only to see a fellow bridesmaid get the credit for a bridal shower she planned, it’s just too much. And when life throws a punch at you, you need to punch back, preferably if there’s a giant cookie nearby asking for a beating. Meltdowns aren’t fun in and of themselves, but going commando on a giant chocolate fountain is a dream we’ve had since childhood.


1. Fight Club

Fight Club

Yes, a schizophrenic breakdown, precipitated by the existential pain of a life left unlived, isn’t the most desirable way to spend a weekend. But what if you found out that the coolest guy you knew, the best looking, the guy you dreamed of being was actually (spoiler alert for a 17 year-old movie!) YOU? What if YOU planned the fight club? YOU had a six-pack? YOU were a freaking legend? Well, maybe blowing up a few buildings and crashing this whole system would be worth it. It certainly beats voting for Trump.

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Watch Marc Maron Talk About Sharing a Cigarette With Keith Richards

Maron returns tonight at 9P on IFC.

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Tonight Show / NBC Universal

If there was anyone who’d geek out over a chance to meet Keith Richards, it’d be Marc Maron. The host of the WTF Podcast and star of IFC’s Maron appeared on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon to talk about the time he broke a ten-year hiatus from smoking and shared a cigarette with the Rolling Stones guitarist. A garage rock star in his own right, Maron related how he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to partake with a music legend and how grateful he was that he “caught Keith at the right time” — given the other substances he could’ve been carrying in his younger days.

Watch Marc share his Keith Richards story — as well as discuss the preparation that went into his landmark interview with President Obama (snipers are involved) — in the video below. And catch the season premiere of Maron tonight at 9pm ET/PT on IFC.

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