There has long been a debate in the local film community about the function of the USAFF: Is it a social event, a seen-and-be-seen shindig for its generous patrons, or is it a true celebration of great film for casual fan and obsessed fetishist alike? In truth, it's a bit of both--a gold-plated opportunity for the Highland Park crowd to hang with Friend Matt LeBlanc and Master Screen Artist recipient Debra Winger and Tony Shalhoub, you bet, but also a rare chance to visit with some of this year's guests, including a far-out, farsighted visionary such as Tommy and The Lair of the White Worm director Ken Russell (whose new The Fall of the Louse of Usher will debut here) and Oscar-winning production designer Henry Bumstead, who will be honored with screenings of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sting.
The inclusion of films by radical animators John and Faith Hubley also suggests a profound love for films made by true independent revolutionaries; they were pioneers who risked their lives to make extraordinary, intimate films outside a studio system that disowned them during the House Un-American Committee hearings of the '50s. And certainly, there are few who would take issue with the fest's selection of Michael Apted as this year's recipient of its Great Director Tribute; his contributions are copious as a teller of truths (his so-called Up series, Incident at Oglala, Moving the Mountain, his revealing Sting doc Bring on the Night) and an interpreter of them (Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist and now Enigma).
And, with rare exception, this year's offerings intrigue on some level--even if it's just to witness the curious spectacle of Matt LeBlanc taking drag dress-up tips from Eddie Izzard. Among this year's highlights are the documentaries: American Mullet, Rocks with Wings, Missing Allen, Adrift and the locally made Hell House, among others; each serves to remind there's nothing so interesting as what happens when we turn the cameras on ourselves. And Nicole Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing, about how people know others better than themselves, has such an abrupt ending it should jump-start heated conversations about whether it's a heroic move or just a give-up.
Below, in alphabetical order, are recommendations--and a few words of warning--for most of this year's entries; we've included everything made available at press time. If nothing else, the USAFF is to be commended for not surrendering after years of enduring criticism and staring down cocky comers who believe they throw better fests and fetes. That it can still provide us with even a handful of special thrills at this late date suggests the veteran can still play ball.
April 27 at 9:45 p.m.
"All I ever wanted was just to be with him, and all he ever wanted to do, when we were alone, was to coach me," Tom Curran says, referring to his late father in Adrift, his directorial debut. Tom's pop died when Tom was 12 years old, yet he lived in his son's mind for much longer; as Curran says near the beginning of the 55-minute documentary, it took him 25 years to realize why he could never let go of his father's expectations, why he always had to be No. 1 or (almost) die trying. Curran, an Emmy-winning cameraman who's worked for ABC's Wide World of Sports, never let these feelings out of his head before, pushing them down deep where they couldn't hurt him or anyone else. And while it's clear he was never alone in those thoughts--especially during interviews with his mother, Mary Jane, bodybuilding sister Maeve and commercial fishermen brothers Desmond and Gavin--Curran was hit the hardest by his father's determination to produce a family of champions, mainly because he spent the most time on the team. Even after his father was gone, Curran remained in his dad's grasp: He promised he'd become a pro athlete (Dad's dream) when he found out his father had passed away, a vow made more out of shame than to honor his old man's wishes. "I was relieved when Mom told me you were dead," he admits late in the film, finally removing the mask he used to hide his real feelings. At times, it's difficult to sit through Curran's long-repressed grief, but only because it is so uncomfortably real, the product of two decades of frustration, fear and failure rather than any manufactured tension. Adrift is the most personal kind of film, a bouquet of flowers on his father's grave, but it connects and won't let go. Curran's dad would be proud. Tom Curran is scheduled to attend. Screening with The Wormhole. --Zac Crain