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St. Louis Film Festival continues to grow

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2011 - The St. Louis Film Festival -- officially, the 20th annual Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival -- will be bigger than ever this year, with 142 feature-length films and 257 shorts. Whether this year's 10-day festival will also be better than ever remains to be seen, but the prospects are promising.

The schedule is rich with prestigious movies that are almost certain to be part of the conversation at awards time. But there are also plenty of well-regarded, relatively obscure independent films, the kind of movies that, in some cases, can be seen by St. Louisans on the big screen at the film festival, or not at all. They represent the real gems of the festival for serious film fanatics.

Forty-seven countries will be represented this year, and more than 100 filmmakers and other guests will speak and answer questions after the screenings.

The festival opens at 8 p.m. Thursday night (Nov. 10) at the Tivoli with a presentation that seems tailored for a festival audience -- a film about the end of the silent era that is itself a silent film. "The Artist," filmed by French director Michel Hazanavicius in Hollywood, on sound stages and old streets, has been a major hit of the festival circuit. It stars John Goodman, one of a number of former or current St. Louisans whose talents will be on display at the festival. Many of them will appear before the live audiences, although unfortunately not Goodman.

"We talked to Goodman," said festival executive director Cliff Froehlich, "but he is shooting. He's been massively busy again." (It was recently announced that Goodman was working with the Coen brothers again, starring in a movie set in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, based on the memoirs of folksinger Dave Van Ronk.)

The closing night film, "The Descendants," has also been a hit at the major film festivals in Telluride, Colo., Toronto and New York. Directed by Alexander Payne, a young filmmaker from Omaha who has demonstrated mastery over stories that combine comedy with pathos, films such as "Sideways" and "About Schmidt, "The Descendants" stars George Clooney as a Hawaiian land baron desperate to re-establish a relationship with his two daughters when his wife becomes critically ill.

"We expect 'The Descendants' to be mentioned prominently during awards season," said Froehlich. "We are delighted we were able to get it."

"The Descendants" will be shown at 6 p.m., Sun., Nov. 20, at the Tivoli, in University City's Delmar Loop. The Tivoli is one of the festival's four main venues. The other three are the Plaza Frontenac Cinema in Plaza Frontenac shopping center, Lindbergh Blvd. and Clayton Rd.; Webster University's Moore Auditorium, 470 East Lockwood Ave.; and Brown Hall auditorium on the campus of Washington University, at Forsyth and Skinker boulevards.

There are seven other smaller venues, including a new one.

"We are headed across the Mississippi River for the first time, said Froehlich. "We have a weekend's worth of programs at the beautifully restored Art Deco Wildey Theater in Edwardsville." The Wildey is at 252 North Main St.

"Some of the films shown there will emphasize Illinois," said Froehlich. Those films include "The Confidence Man: The Hugh DeNeal Story," a documentary about the co-founder of the Southern Illinois roots music group the Woodbox Gang and his misadventures with the law, and "Joint Body," a narrative film about an ex-convict trying to come to grips with life on the outside. It was directed by St. Louis area filmmaker Brian Jun and shot in and around Alton.

Also to be shown at the Wildey over the first weekend of the festival will be "The Interrupters," a documentary about former gang members in Chicago who work in the streets to try to defuse violence. "The Interrupters" was directed by Steve James, best known for the basketball documentary "Hoop Dreams."

James will receive one of the top awards at the festival, the Maysles Brothers Lifetime Achievement Award for Documentary. He will also show his film "Stevie," about an abandoned, sexually abused young man James met when he was studying film at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Other award winners will be:

  • Documentarian Pamela Yates ("When the Mountains Tremble"), who will receive the Women in Film Award and present "Granito: Every Memory Matters," about preserving memories of mass political murder in Guatemala;
  • Animator Bill Plympton, who will receive the festival's Lifetime Achievement Award. He will conduct a master class and show a collection of his shorts. A biographical film about Plympton, "Adventures in Plymptoons," will also be shown;
  • Writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass ("Baghead," "Cyrus") will be given the Contemporary Cinema Award. Their much anticipated new feature, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," starring Jason Segal and Susan Sarandon, will be shown. Jay Duplass will be in St. Louis to accept the award and will also screen his documentary "Kevin," about singer-songwriter Kevin Gant, and conduct a filmmaking workshop.
  • In addition to the filmmakers' awards, the Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award will be given to festival founders Diane Carson, Delcia Corlew, Kathy Corley, Janet Herrmann, Carrie Houk, Roberta Lautenschlager, Pat Scallet, Barbara Smythe-Jones and Mary Strauss.

Other festival movies that have received very favorable initial reports include "Goon," which Froehlich describes as "a 'Slapshot'-like hockey movie; "A Dangerous Method," director David Cronenberg's intense examination of the relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud; "Butter," a dark comedy about men and women caught up in an Iowa butter carving contest, starring Jennifer Garner and Olivia Wilde, and "Shame."
"Shame," Froehlich says "is a movie about sexual addiction by Steve McQueen, the live black Brit filmmaker as opposed to the dead white American actor."

As executive director, Froehlich has a heavy load of administrative duties and is not always able to see in full all of the movies prior to the festival. That job falls to artistic director Chris Clark.

"Chris," said Froehlich, "loves, loves, loves two films I haven't seen: 'The Ferry,' a Belgian comedy, and 'The Athlete,' a feature about Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila." The unknown Bikila, running barefoot, was the surprise Gold Medal winner at the 1960 Rome Olympics. "The Athlete" follows the triumphs and tragedies of his subsequent life.

For complete schedules and detailed information on the festival, see the website of Cinema St. Louis, the non-profit organization that puts on the annual festival, at www.cinemastlouis.org, or call 314-289-4150, Printed programs can be found at the various venues or in the Riverfront Times. The Beacon will feature mini reviews of at least one of the movies the day before it is shown, along with that next day's schedule.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement