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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Watch Bill Hader and Other SNL Favorites Break Character

Catch Bill Hader on the new season of Documentary Now! premiering September 14th at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: NBC/YouTube

Aw, Friday. A day of happy hours that begin at 4PM and “too rotten to miss” movies like Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey on IFC’s Rotten Fridays. A truly magical day where the possibilities are endless and the regrets are just around the corner. So as we partake in the pre-weekend, sit back and enjoy another gaggle of funny videos to run out the clock.

From a despondent croissant to unintended giggling on SNL, here are the five best videos of the week.

1. SNL Cast Breaks Up

Saturday Night Live head honcho Lorne Michaels famously decries ad-libbing during the live runs — though with hilarious folks like Will Ferrell and Documentary Now!‘s Bill Hader, there are bound to be some unscripted moments that cause the cast to lose it during a sketch. Some of the greatest SNL moments involve the players or guests breaking character, as this compilation clearly shows. (Fortunately, the shame of ruining the scene has been replaced by video viralbility.)


2. Croissant Man

Pity the breakfast pastry, for its existential ennui is too much for this world. In this short courtesy of the NY Television Festival, our favorite light and flakey morning pal waxes melodramatically to his therapist and compatriots regarding the hopeless, Sartre-level gloom that hangs over every search for Life’s purpose. (Click here to see more great shorts from the NYTVF.)


3. That Time Ray Charles Beat Willie Nelson in Chess

For your guaranteed smile of the day, here’s the tale of a game of chess between crooners Ray Charles and Willie Nelson. Turns out ol’ Ray was a bona fide chess master on par with Bobby Fischer — or maybe he was just good at evening the field by making them play in the dark. As Willie puts it, “He kicked my ass three games in a row!”


4. Why Jump Scares Suck

Ever since primitive man leapt out of a bush to scare his friend, jump scares have been employed as a cheap and easy way to jolt your audience. As YouTuber Jack Nugent explains in the latest Now You See It video, it’s far more difficult to instill a growing sense of dread and suspense than just simply having a cat screech across the foreground of a dimly lit basement.


5. Best Supporting Weirdo

“Here’s to the crazy ones,” Steve Jobs famously said, paying homage to the oddballs and misfits who stand out from the pack and, more often than not, define their surroundings. In this rapid-fire supercut, some of our favorite nutjobs (like Beetlejuice, Cameron Frye and Death) are paid homage for keeping pop culture protagonists on edge and the audience entertained.

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Rotten Journey

5 Reasons Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey Is Too Rotten to Miss

Have an excellent time with Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey tonight at 8P during IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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Photo Credit: Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

We live in an age of unimaginative sequels. Filmmakers know the easiest way to cash in is to trot out the same plot and characters and hope we don’t notice. Which is why what we need now more than ever is Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, airing tonight at 8P as part of IFC’s Rotten Fridays.

Sure, the 1991 sequel to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (coincidentally airing on IFC tonight at 6P before Bogus Journey) scored a meager 54% on the Rotten Tomatoes. (Even before the “Tomatometer” was a thing, Bogus Journey was the definition of a lackluster sequel.) But its mix of head-scratching craziness (Robots! Aliens! William Sadler as Death!) and solid gags (“You sunk my Battleship!”) have earned the flick a cult following among fans of oddball sequels. Before you tune in tonight, check out some reasons why Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey earns the coveted title of being one of IFC and Rotten Tomatoes’ movies that are “too rotten to miss.”

5. It’s Visually Most Triumphant.

Bogus Journey
Orion Pictures

The first movie may be a classic, but there’s no doubt the look of this scorned sequel took things to a whole other level. Instead of resting on Excellent Adventure‘s laurels, new director Peter Hewitt decided to go for broke creatively, offering up a vivid visual style that highlighted the film’s themes of life, death, failure and regret. While it may not be the popular opinion, there’s no doubt that as pure eye candy Bogus blew the first flick out of the water. Just ask Michael Wilmington, who wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “Bogus Journey is better than the original: more imaginative, more opulent, wilder and freer, more excitingly visualized.” Righteous review, dude!


4. Evil Bill and Ted Robots? Excellent!

Bogus Journey robots
Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

Bill and Ted have to be two of the most loveable doofuses to ever grace the silver screen, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that seeing them go full-on bad guy is a real treat. The evil robot clones of Bill and Ted still have their sleepy-eyed, stoner outlook on life — they just also happen to be bad to the bone. This fun twist brings new life to the franchise, another example of how screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon really mixed things up. Plus, they rock!


3. Bill and Ted Go To Hell. Outstanding!

Bogus Journey
Orion Pictures

If Tim Burton ever directed a Freddy Krueger movie, it might end up looking something like Bill and Ted’s journey to Hell. While the sequence is righteously funny — with an unending descent into Hades going from terrifying to boring in the blink of an eye — it also has a dark, nightmarish quality that’s like an M.C Escher painting that knows your deepest, darkest secrets. Alex Winter’s turn as young Bill’s toothless “Granny Preston” wanting a kiss still gives us nightmares.


2. The Grim Reaper is Bodacious.

Bogus Journey
Orion Pictures

William Sadler, who’s played everything from a badass terrorist in Die Hard 2 to a loveable convict in The Shawshank Redemption, kills it as, well, Death. Heavily influence by Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Sadler plays the Grim Reaper as a stoic force of nature who learns to loosen up thanks to some righteous new friends. The scene where Bill and Ted best him in a batch of board games may seem a bit broad at first blush, but what are Ted “Theodore” Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esq. supposed to do? Play chess?


1. The Dudes Truly Become Wyld Stallyns.

Bogus Journey Wyld Stallyns
Orion Pictures

One of the few shortcomings from the most unrivaled first film is that we never really get to see the boys become rock legends. Thanks to some time traveling shortcuts — and a 16-month sabbatical of guitar lessons and baby making — Bogus Journey ends with the Wyld Stallyns finally living up to their righteous reputation, ready to make the music that will put an end to war and poverty and align the planets into universal harmony. Also, it’s excellent for dancing.

Catch Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey this Friday at 8P on IFC’s Rotten Fridays!

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The Funniest Political Comedies From the ’90s

Documentary Now! tackles '90s politics with "The Bunker," premiering September 14th at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

While this election season seems like the greatest source of political comedy ever, it’s got nothing on the ’90s. During the original recipe Clinton Era, there were a large number of films that shined a light on the dark humor of politics.

As we gear up for the September 14th premiere of “The Bunker,” the season premiere episode of Documentary Now! that takes a look back at the tumultuous 1992 Ohio Governor race, let’s flashback to a simpler time when Donald Trump was just a rich guy happy to be in Home Alone 2. It was the time of flannel shirts, Beavis and Butt-head and politicians with their heads up their own butts. Grab some Crystal Pepsi and check out the funniest political comedies of the ’90s.

10. My Fellow Americans (1996)

Legendary actors James Garner and Jack Lemmon play two politically opposite ex-Presidents thrust together in an attempt to prove that the current President (played by Dan Aykroyd) is behind a bribery scandal that Lemmon’s Pres. Kramer is being framed for. My Fellow Americans was supposed to star Lemmon and his Grumpy Old Men costar Walter Matthau, who backed out of the project due to health problems. As great a duo as they were, James Garner seemed like the perfect choice for Pres. Douglas — with his natural Southern charm, his character is like an older Bill Clinton.


9. The Distinguished Gentleman (1992)

The Distinguished Gentleman might be the last movie you would shout out if you were ever on Family Feud and “Eddie Murphy movies” was a category, but it’s still a fun comedy with Eddie bringing the cool factor that made him a huge star in the ’80s. Here Murphy plays a con man who decides to run for a Florida Congressional seat because he shares the same name as the congressman in his district up for re-election who just died of a heart attack. After getting the backing of a Florida seniors organization (the Silver Foxes), Murphy’s appropriately named Thomas Jefferson Johnson runs as the “name you know” and ends up winning. He starts out buying into the idea of “playing the game” in order to get paid by lobbyists but eventually ends up changing his con-man ways. Hey, it’s a ’90s Eddie Murphy comedy. Things tended to work out in Eddie’s favor.


8. Black Sheep (1996)

The second buddy road trip comedy starring Chris Farley and David Spade suffers from being compared to the much funnier Tommy Boy, but there are still some hilarious moments here. Farley, in one of his final roles, plays Mike Donnelly, a well-meaning but goofy mess who manages to repeatedly muck up his brother’s campaign for Governor. Casting Tim Matheson, of Animal House fame, as the smarter and handsomer brother was a great choice and Farley and Spade get into plenty of shenanigans including encountering Gary Busey as a crazed Vietnam Vet. The scene where Farley takes the stage at a “Rock the Vote” concert will have you snorting Crystal Pepsi out of your nose.


7. The American President (1995)

Before he created The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin honed his presidential speech writing skills with the screenplay for The American President, a romantic comedy where Michael Douglas’ single Prez romances Annette Bening’s plucky environmental lobbyist. Directed by rom-com master Rob Reiner, the movie is loaded with sweet and funny moments, like when Pres. Shepherd (Douglas) calls Sydney (Bening) to ask her out the first time and she hangs up thinking it’s a prank call. We even get a sneak peek of President Bartlett, as Martin Sheen turns up as Shepherd’s no-nonsense his Chief-of-Staff. Sorkin claims he wrote the screenplay during a time when he smoked a crack. If that’s the case, every screenwriter should be give that method a try.


6. Wag the Dog (1997)

Before Dustin Hoffman joined Robert De Niro’s “circle of trust” in Meet the Fockers, the legendary actors co-starred in the David Mamet-scripted dark comedy Wag the Dog. You can’t capture the era of ’90s politics better than a film dealing with the cover-up of a Presidential sex scandal. Oddly, the movie actually came out before Monica Lewinsky and her dress entered the minds of Americans. Today, the plot of Wag the Dog might be an episode of Scandal, but if you look back to 1997, it was a biting political satire of what goes on behind-the-scenes of power and politics. De Niro plays D.C. spin-doctor Conrad Bean, who hires a Hollywood producer to stage a fake war in Albania as a distraction to help insure the President’s re-election. In a stellar cast that also includes Anne Heche and Woody Harrelson as a psychotic ex-soldier turned war hero, Hoffman stands out as a Hollywood bigwig who has a strong resemblance to Godfather producer Robert Evans. (Look for Bill Hader’s take on Evans in the new season of Documentary Now!.)


5. Bulworth (1998)

Warren Beatty was born with the looks of a guy who should run for Senate, and in Bulworth he plays a veteran senator who has lost his way and hires a hit man to kill him. Faced with his impending death, Senator Bulworth has an almost religious conversion to honesty and starts railing against the corruption of corporate money in politics. (We imagine Bernie Sanders has this one in his Netflix queue.) Like a lot of ’90s movies comedies, there is a gimmicky scene where Bulworth raps during a speech. Still, the film is so sharply written, the scene is both hilarious and a prescient look at the way white establishment types would go on to co-opt hip-hop culture.


4. Bob Roberts (1992)

If you love a good mockumentary with conservative folk songs (who doesn’t?), Bob Roberts is the movie for you. Tim Robbins wrote, directed and starred in this underrated comedy, which was inspired by a SNL sketch he had appeared in a few years earlier. Bob Roberts is a folk-singing, conservative self-made millionaire running for Congress in Pennsylvania who appears to be 100% All-American. Robbins is great at using his wholesome grin to mask the fact that his character is a drug smuggling tyrant with fits of rage. Look for everyone from Alan Rickman as Roberts’ campaign manager to a young Jack Black (see above) as a scarily enthusiastic fan.


3. Dick (1999)

Before the Watergate scandal informant was revealed, there were plenty of theories over the years as to who “Deep Throat” really was. The 1999 comedy Dick posits a possible alternate history of Nixon’s downfall as it follows two adorably upbeat and politically clueless teenage girls (energetically played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) who randomly become “Tricky” Dick’s dog walkers after ending up meeting him on a White House field trip. Over the course of the rollicking disco-fied comedy the girls come in contact with every player in the infamous White House scandal, including a hilarious Woodward and Bernstein, played by Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch of Kids in the Hall fame. (The duo’s ’70s hair alone is worth watching for.) Dan Hedaya is perfectly cast as Nixon, showcasing a softer side of the infamous president after he unwittingly eats some pot cookies. An underrated comedy, Dick is a blast of ’70s fun and a great showcase for its cast of rising stars.


2. Dave (1993)

Dave is a classic everyman-turned-hero story with a winning Kevin Kline as an affable guy who just happens to be a dead-ringer for the leader of the free world. When Pres. Mitchell has a stroke while fooling around with his mistress, his Chief of Staff (Frank Langella) hatches a plan to temporarily have Kline’s Dave fill in for the President. Langella and Kline are great together, and the scene where Dave calls his accountant friend (played by Charles Grodin) to come over to the White House and balance the budget is just one of the sharp ways director Ivan Reitman and screenwriter Gary Ross (Big) poke fun at politics. Look for Sigourney Weaver, reteaming with Reitman after the Ghostbusters movies, as the First Lady who slowly begins to realize something is off about her Husband-in-Chief.


1. Election (1999)

If you think national politics is cutthroat, just wait until you meet high school president candidate Tracy Flick. Tracy, as played by Reese Witherspoon, is like a teenage version of Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, but without the likeable personality. Mathew Broderick hits all the right notes as the teacher who starts off being respected but finds his whole life falling apart while overseeing the election. A dark comedy that shows the downside of driven political candidates, Election is a film that remains topical with every new voting season.

Watch MTV’s Tabitha Soren covering the heated 1992 Ohio Governor race below. To find out who wins, catch the season premiere of Documentary Now! September 14th at 10P on IFC.

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