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.

That 70s Show Kelso 1920

Kelso's #1 Fan?

How Well Do You Know Kelso? Take Our Quiz!

Catch That '70s Show Mondays and Tuesdays from 6-11P on IFC.

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Kelso’s loveable cluelessness is one of the bedrocks of That ’70s Show. But how much do you really know when it comes to him? Take our quiz below, and be sure to catch That ’70s Show on IFC.


Gigi Rotblum, Ricky – Photo Credit: Adam Rose/IFC

Cooking With Gigi

5 Ways to Prepare For Tonight’s Gigi Does It and Become a Culinary Expert

Get in the kitchen with Gigi Mondays at 10:30P on IFC.

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It’s Monday, so you know what that means: Break out the turquoise eye shadow and bedazzled sweater! Tonight’s all new Gigi Does It at 10:30P ET/PT will keep you charged for the rest of the week. But before you forge headlong into septuagenarian hilarity, here are five ways to get ready for tonight’s episode.

1. Brush up on your culinary skills.

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According to Gigi, every dish should be prepared with a lotta love and a little bit of lust. But be sure to keep the ecstasy to a minimum and all bodily fluids outside the pot.

2. Experience the Great White North’s signature dish.

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French fries, cheese curds and gravy — poutine is a delicacy that isn’t for everyone. Love it or hate it, you should have at least a few bites if you want to be considered a true Canadian.

3. Whip up some “special” cookies.

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Competition is fierce when Gigi and her friends vie for the affections of eligible bachelor Melvin. Cookies are always a good idea to win someone’s heart — particularly if they’re baked with love and a little “extra” ingredient.

4. Watch the video Facebook doesn’t want you to see.

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Deemed “Too Hot for Facebook,” this montage of Gigi-isms removes the bleeps and blurs for a raw, NSFW look at the foul-mouthed granny in action.

5. Crack open Gigi’s book.

Gigi Does It Book Cover

Like most seniors, Gigi knows how little appreciation grandparents receive from their grandkids. Which is why the saucy old broad penned a children’s book reminding today’s youth to call their dear grandmothers. Give it a read here.


Don't Act Your Age

10 Actors Who Went Old

Catch David Krumholtz on Gigi Does It tonight at 10:30P on IFC.

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You always hear about older actors clinching to their youth by taking on vastly younger, age-inappropriate roles. (The collective age of the 90210 cast, especially in later seasons, was definitely in the hundreds.) But those thespians who choose to age up — through the use of prosthetics, makeup, or otherwise — often deliver astounding performances.

Take David Krumholtz. On the new IFC series Gigi Does It, the actor plays Gigi, a 76-year-old yenta who’s determined to live life to the fullest after her late husband leaves her with a crap ton of moolah.

In honor of his achievements — and those who’ve paved the way for Gigi — here are some celebrities who have successfully infiltrated the senior citizens club.

1. David Krumholtz, Gigi’s Bucket List



Krumholtz is pulling a Mrs. Doubtfire — who we’ll get to in a moment — with Gigi. Whether bossing around her male nurse or talking about flashing her boob to her grandson, Krumholtz seems to be having a blast as his raunchy alter ego.

2. Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


You can’t talk about actors portraying the elderly without acknowledging that infamously fictional affliction, Benjamin Button’s Disease. Brad Pitt portrays the title role of a man who ages backwards after being physically born as an old person. It’s everyone’s dream, right — the older you get, the younger you look? A mixture of computer-generated effects and makeup went into this transformation, and it’s still difficult to look away.

3. Tilda Swinton, The Grand Budapest Hotel


Swinton is the true mistress of disguise. She has made a living by completely losing herself in her characters, whether its playing the traditionally male archangel Gabriel in Constantine, the evil witch in The Chronicles of Narnia, or the toothy one-percenter of Snowpiercer. With Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, she once again became unrecognizable as one of the elderly lovers of the hotel’s concierge. She’s got the senile look and feel down pat.

4. Johnny Knoxville, Bad Grandpa


For his latest Jackass movie, Knoxville took his shenanigans to a new level in portraying Irving Zisman, the elderly bad influence in his grandson’s life. In the same vein as his previous stunts, he pranked real-life people with his prosthetically enhanced persona, crashing a wedding by knocking over an entire display, ruining a child pageant, and “making it rain” on a stripper.

5. Robin Williams, Mrs. Doubtfire


Remember that famous story about the late Robin Williams strolling into a sex shop in NYC as Mrs. Doubtfire? That’s how committed he was and how unrecognizable he was as the lovable nanny. Just like David Krumholtz, Williams underwent a hefty makeup and prosthetic process, and it will always go down as one of his most memorable roles.

6. Dustin Hoffman, Little Big Man


Paramount Films

While Krumholtz is 37 going on 76, Dustin Hoffman was 33 going on 121 for this acclaimed role. The 1970 Arthur Penn film Little Big Man told of an oral historian who comes across an elderly man (Hoffman) who has one crazy story to tell. It’s a tale of gunslinging, selling snake oil and the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn. But most astonishing of all is the sight of Hoffman in character.

7. Meryl Streep, Angels in America


Meryl Streep played several roles in the HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s acclaimed play. You might have missed her the first time around because she looks like just one of the rabbis, especially when she sits next to a line of them. Yes, that’s the Oscar winner as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, and if you listen carefully, you can pick out her voice under the heavy white beard.

8. Helena Bonham Carter, Big Fish


Much like Tilda Swinton, Helena Bonham Carter comes alive when you bury her in layers of makeup, prosthetics and elaborate costumes. Before debuting as Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the actress portrayed another kind of enchantress in Tim Burton’s Big Fish. She looks just as home with a wrinkled face and glass eye as she does flaunting a bubbly, sparkling ball gown as the Fairy Godmother in the Disney remake of Cinderella.

9. Guy Pearce, Prometheus


20th Century Fox

In Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Guy Pearce aged himself way up to play the financial backer of an interstellar expedition who hopes to find some means of extending his life. What’s more shocking: the existence of the Engineers or how Guy resides underneath all that old-man makeup?

10. James D’Arcy, Cloud Atlas


Warner Bros.

The Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas may not have been the most well-received film, critically speaking, but it did feature incredible transformations from its actors, most of which portrayed more than one role. James D’Arcy took on four roles, two of which were the young and old versions of Rufus Sixsmith.

Rocky Horror Picture Show

Frank N' Facts

10 Things You May Not Know About The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Do the Time Warp with Comedy Bang! Bang!

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Aliens! Dancing! Meatloaf! When The Rocky Horror Picture Show hit the big screen all the way back in 1975, no one knew exactly what to make of it. 40 years later, Comedy Bang! Bang! is celebrating the beloved cult movie with an all-out costumed extravaganza. To get you ready for the party, we thought it was high time to jump to the left, take a step to the right, and learn a little bit more about the movie that put the “Time” in Time Warp.

10. Meatloaf Never Rode The Motorcycle


While his character, Eddie, may have been a hog riding badass, in reality a stunt double did all the future Celebrity Apprentice contestant’s bike riding stunts. That is, except for close-ups, when Meatloaf was pushed around in a wheelchair.

9. Rocky Didn’t Have a Belly Button

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

The makeup department actually fashioned a plug to cover up Peter Hinwood’s belly button, as his character was grown in a tub, and thus wouldn’t need one.

8. It Was Tim Curry’s First Movie

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Curry actually originated the role of the cross-dressing mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter on the stages of London and Los Angeles, before reprising it in his film debut.

7. Mick Jagger Wanted In On The Fun

Rolling Stones Records
Rolling Stones Records

Jagger was supposedly a fan of the stage production, and made enquiries into playing none other than Dr. Frank N. Furter.

6. The Movie Made Susan Sarandon Sick

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

The drafty country house that doubled as Dr. Frank N. Furter’s castle famously had no heat or bathrooms. Susan Sarandon complained, but no one took her seriously until she caught pneumonia while filming a dance number in a freezing pool. Always a pro, she finished the scene.

5. The Crew Used Real Skeletons

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

The gothic clock was no mere prop. In fact, the woman who first commissioned it to be made had one request — to be entombed within it. That’s her real skeleton revealed hiding inside.

4. David Bowie’s Makeup Artist Created the Film’s Looks

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Pierre La Roche, who worked on the Ziggy Stardust tour and the Aladdin Sane album cover, designed the iconic makeup for the film. Still, rumor has it he took so long to apply it, nearly four hours, that Tim Curry just ended up doing his own.

3. Magenta and Columbia Started As One Character

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Before production, Magenta and Columbia were split into two separate characters, to create a part for singer Marianne Faithfull to play. She ended up turning the role down, but the characters remained separated.

2. The Corpse Was a Deadly Surprise

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

The corpse revealed hiding inside Frank N. Furter’s dinner table was kept a secret from the actors, so their shocked reactions would be as real as possible.

1. RHPS Holds the Record For Longest Release in Film History

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

A flop upon release, Rocky Horror gained a following as a midnight movie at New York’s Waverly Theater in the late ’70s. It has since played non-stop for four decades, smashing the record for longest release of a film.

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