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Film Festival includes several movies with 'buzz'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov 9, 2009 - When the St. Louis Film Festival was founded in 1992, 25 feature films were shown at a single venue in late April. By 1995, the number of films had doubled, the number of venues had tripled, and the festival had shifted to November. At the time, founding director Barbara Jones said the move from spring to fall would allow the festival to get a better selection of films and lure more visiting filmmakers, and that appears to have been an accurate prediction.

What is now known as the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival will open its 18th season Thursday, Nov. 12 with one of the largest and best festivals yet. Over 11 days, the festival will show 86 feature films, 45 feature-length documentaries and 131 short films from more than 40 countries. More than 100 filmmakers and panelists will appear to discuss the offerings.

Among this year’s films are “Up in the Air,” a major Hollywood release starring George Clooney and largely filmed in St. Louis, and two independent films that have generated much enthusiastic critical and festival buzz nationally so far this year, “Precious” and “An Education.”

“Precious” is the story of a severely abused teenage girl in Harlem who gets a chance to escape the past at an alternative school. The film was the subject of a cover story in a recent issue of the New York Times Sunday magazine.

“An Education” is a coming-of-age story about an affair between a 16-year-old British girl and a seemingly sweet and clever older man. It stars Peter Sarsgaard, a native of Belleville who began acting while a student at Washington University.

Both films have won awards at major film festivals, and both are strong contenders for Oscar nominations.

“ ‘Precious’ was the film I most wanted to get ever since I read ‘Push,’ the book it was based on” said Chris Clark, festival programmer. “I kept hammering away at the distributor, and they finally said yes.”

The film got its first big boost last winter, when it won critical acclaim and the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Sundance is where the North American festival season begins in late January. The season of major festivals concludes in September and early October in Telluride, Colo., and Toronto.

“Since we’re in November, at the end of the festival calendar, we are able to survey the major festivals and pick the films we want to bring fresh to St. Louis,” said Cliff Froehlich, director of the festival. “Our timing has been a big help, but I also think this year we got the luck of the draw, and chose some films early that are now really being talked about.”

Other festival films that have benefited from positive buzz include “The Young Victoria,” starring Emily Blunt; “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” directed by Terry Gilliam; “Me and Orson Welles,” directed by Richard Linklater, and “Everybody’s Fine,” starring Robert De Niro.

Relatively high-profile films such as these add glitter to a festival, and help bring in the crowds. But the real heart and soul of a good film festival are the worthy and in some cases superb smaller films, the ones that St. Louis audiences might have to wait a long time to see in local theaters, if the films make it to general release at all. I asked festival director Froehlich to recommend some films on the schedule that are not so well known, but that should be. Here are 10 of his recommendations:

Feature Picks

24 City: Chinese director Jia Zhangke (“Still Life”) uses the conversion of a state-owned munitions factory into luxury condos to look at the massive changes transforming his country. Shown at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16, and 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19, at the Plaza Frontenac.

Amreeka: A Palestinian single mother, a former bank manager, emigrates with her son from the West Bank to suburban Illinois. She takes a job at a White Castle and her son has to deal with anti-Arab antagonism at school. Shown at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15, at the Hi-Pointe.

The Headless Woman: Veronica, a wealthy Argentinean dentist, flees the scene of a car accident, haunted by the possibility that she killed someone. A New York Times critic called “The Headless Woman” a “brilliant, maddeningly enigmatic puzzle.” Shown at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22, at the Hi-Pointe.

Jerichow: A German soldier, dishonorably discharged from Afghanistan, returns home and takes a job working for a wealthy Turkish immigrant with a beautiful wife. Prominent German director Christian Petzold reworks “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Shown at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18, and 2:15 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, at the Plaza Frontenac.

Munyrangabo: Old hatreds come back to haunt two friends – one a Tutsi, the other a Huti – in Rwanda. Critic Roger Ebert said “Munyrangabo” is “in every frame a beautiful and powerful film – a masterpiece.” Shown at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18, and 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19, at the Plaza Frontenac.

Documentary Picks

Forbidden Lie$: “Forbidden Love,” a bestselling book purporting to be the true story of a shocking honor killing in Jordan is exposed as a fraud. The Village Voice wrote, “This entertaining, provocative film raises pointed issues about con artists and their sometimes culpable ‘victims,’ and also speaks to the elusive pursuit of documentary truth.” Shown at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, at Webster University.

Forgetting Dad: A California executive wakes up with total amnesia. Sixteen years later, a son goes back in time to explore his father’s memory loss and uncovers startling facts. Shown at 9:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16, at the Tivoli.

October Country: A member of a working class family explores the family’s struggles with the effects of war, teen pregnancy, problematic foster care and child abuse. Shown at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19, at the Tivoli.

Prodigal Sons: A transgendered director explores her complex relationship with her mentally damaged and emotionally troubled brother as the two go back home to a small town in Montana. Shown at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15, at the Tivoli.

The Way We Get By: The story of three senior citizens who greet and thank soldiers returning from Iraq at an airport in Maine. The Los Angeles Times wrote that it was “filled with a rare honesty and intimacy.” Shown at 4:15 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, and at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21, at the Plaza Frontenac.

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.