2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival—My Top Picks

The exhilarating and exhausting 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival has finally come to a conclusion and I've ended the daily commute on I-95 to take stock of my whirlwind 25 days in Broward County. As usual, I used Twitter and Facebook to cover the festivities and posted nightly wrapups with capsule reviews of all the movies I saw. Hopefully you followed along and were able to join me in experiencing the events in real time.

The first time I headed down to South Florida for FLIFF was way back in 2007, when I attended a screening of The Cake Eaters, starring Elizabeth Ashley, Jayce Bartok, Bruce Dern, Aaron Stanford, and Kristen Stewart (see my review) and the East Coast Premiere of Still Green, starring Ryan Kelley, Sarah Jones, Douglas Spain, and Noah Segan (see my report). Two years ago I moved to a city just a half hour away from Fort Lauderdale, making this my new hometown festival. In the meantime, FLIFF has grown to a whopping 25 days, making it the longest film fest in the world.

The quality of this year's lineup was truly extraordinary, resulting in one of the most memorable cinematic experiences I've had in the eight years I've been a journalist. FLIFF 2013 wowed me from the very first screening, so it's a formidable challenge for me to narrow down my favorites to just a few. But, as I do following every festival (66 since the start of 2006), this wrapup will conclude with my list (actually lists -- more about that later) of Top Picks.

First, some statistics. I attended an all-time record 85 screenings (vs. 62 last year), including 16 shorts programs. The total number of short films was 71 (including shorts attached to features, minus repeat screenings). There were 69 full-length films (vs. 49 in 2012). That's a new career high for features – my previous record was 55 in 11 days at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. Those 69 movies included a record 22 documentaries. But there were two docs which I saw twice. Therefore, the number of new documentaries was 20, including 10 exclusively US, six US/foreign co-productions, and four exclusively foreign docs. These included four foreign language docs (subtitled or partially subtitled).

The total number of narrative features was 47. But I went to two screenings of The Boy Who Smells Like Fish, something I've only done twice for narratives (I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower two times within 24 hours in September 2012 at Toronto and I saw The Playroom twice at FLIFF 2012). Subtracting that extra showing and two pictures I’d seen at previous festivals -- Imagine at SXSW 2013 (see my review) and Great Expectations at Toronto 2012 -- the number of new narratives equals 44, consisting of 17 American, five US/foreign co-productions, and 22 non-US titles. These included 23 foreign language films (subtitled or partially subtitled), over half the number of new narrative features I saw. I actually ended up seeing a significant percentage of the festival’s total, 26 of their 31 English Language narratives -- 27 if you include Philomena, which I saw at Toronto (see my review) and did not see again here -- and 20 of their 31 Foreign Language narratives. Those "sweet little American indies" -- low budget, undistributed US films that are top priority on my festival calendars -- were less prevalent this year. In my lineup of 85 screenings there were only 13 films in that category.  

As always, many countries were represented on my schedule. Only 27 of my 66 feature-length films were exclusively American while there were 11 US/foreign co-productions, and they generally fell within the first half of the festival. 11 of my first 15 features were all or partial US productions. But 12 out of 19 films from days 19-25 were exclusively from outside the US, including eight of my last 12. The 11 American films with foreign participation included three US/UK and two US/France, along with US/Cambodia, US/Germany, US/Indonesia, US/Spain, US/Bolivia/UK, and US/Germany/France. The 28 flicks exclusively from outside the US included three each from Canada, Italy, and Russia, two from France, and one each from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Paraguay, South Africa, and the UK. Co-productions included Austria/France, Canada/Mexico, UK/South Africa, France/Belgium/Ireland, Italy/Switzerland/France, Croatia/Slovenia/Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia/Germany/Hungary, and Serbia/Poland/Cyprus/Greece.

In some years as many as half the screenings I've attended were in other languages. This year 28 of my 66 features were at least partially subtitled, including several films from the US or other English-speaking countries. Down and Dangerous was a US production but included scenes set and shot in Mexico with Spanish-speaking characters. Swim Little Fish Swim, set in New York, was a US/France co-production with a couple of French-speaking characters. The Canadian doc Beauty and the Breast included some French-speaking citizens of Quebec. There were several films done overseas with US funding, including the US/German co-production Girl on a Bicycle. It was set and shot in France and Germany, with dialogue in English, French, and German. The documentary A Drop of Water takes place in Cambodia and was a US/Cambodia co-production, in English and Cambodian. Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago (which I saw twice on the same day) was a US/Spain co-production set and shot in Spain, spoken in English and Spanish. Most notably, The Rocket, an Australian production, was set and shot in Laos and spoken in Lao. The Pin, a Canadian production, was the first North American Yiddish-speaking film in over 70 years. Conversely, there were many films produced exclusively by foreign countries that were a mixture of English and subtitles -- narrative features Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (UK/South Africa) in English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa, Amour & turbulences (Love is in the Air) (France) in English and French, Intimate Parts (Intimnye mesta) (Russia) in English and Russian, Mamarosh (Mamaros) (Serbia/Germany/Hungary) in English, Serbian, and Hungarian, and Imagine (Poland/France/Portugal/UK) in English, Portuguese, French, and German. There was also the doc Shadows From My Past (Austria/France), in English and German.

A big reason to attend festivals is to be among the first to see a movie. Being a regional festival, most of my 66 feature screenings were Florida Premieres (27). But there were six World Premieres, six US Premieres, and nine East Coast Premieres. The rest were Southeast (11), South Florida Premieres (two), or special screenings (five).

One thing that festivals offer over traditional cinemas is an exciting and informative Q&A session with the cast and filmmakers afterward. Only 21 of my 69 feature screenings had Q&As while 48 did not. But there are several reasons why this is the case. FLIFF primarily utilizes four venues spread throughout Broward County – Muvico Pompano in Pompano Beach, Sunrise Civic Center, Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood, and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. The latter two are the festival’s flagship theaters so talent attending the festival usually will introduce and host Q&As there more than the others, even if it’s not the film’s first screening. For example, I might attend the first or even second screening of a film that will have talent coming to town who will skip those screenings to host a Q&A at the third screening if the first two are not at the Paradiso locations. Bottom line: just because so few of my screenings had Q&As doesn’t necessarily mean the festival didn’t attract the filmmakers and actors – it’s simply that, in many cases (but not all), the Q&As tended to take place at the Paradiso locations. At most festivals, movies usually have at least two showings, and Q&As traditionally wane with successive ones. Here, just the opposite may be true. As it turned out, 12 features in a row on days three through eight had no Q&A. But six of nine films did have them on days 14 through 16, including four of five on day 16. Not surprisingly, only three of my last 19 feature screenings had Q&As. Of the 33 first showings I attended, only 16 had Q&As while 17 did not. Of my 15 second screenings, the ratio was four Q&As to 11 without. Only one of my nine third screenings had a Q&A and there were none at my 12 fourth screenings.

Every year fewer and fewer films are actually, well, films. Or at least not shot on film stock. It wasn't that long ago when digital cinematography, primarily utilizing the RED camera, was a curiosity. This is now becoming the norm, while the Arri Alexa system is rapidly taking its place alongside the ubiquitous RED ONE (and newer EPIC) as digital camera of choice. This also allows many movies to be projected in the 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio ("scope") as opposed to the common 1.85:1 ("flat") which was the traditional format for domestic indies and foreign films featured at festivals. I used to mark "scope" in my notebook next to those titles, which were few and far between. Lately I've been noting the rare "flat" where it appeared since the overwhelming majority of narratives are being exhibited in the 2.39:1 widescreen ratio. But that trend was reversed at FLIFF 2013. Only 25 of my 66 titles were in the widescreen format while a whopping 36, more than half, were 1.85:1. There was one that cleverly combined both (Chasing Shakespeare), with present day scenes in 1.85 and flashbacks in widescreen, three in the old television ratio of 1.33:1, and one documentary that combined all three aspect ratios (They Came From The Swamp: The Films of William Grefé). Most notably, though, 18 of the 25 widescreen pictures were all or partially non-US films. Only seven of my 24 foreign titles were in the traditional 1.85:1 aspect ratio typically seen in international cinema in the past. As was the case at most of this year’s festivals, there were several near-monochromatic films, almost black and white, and a handful with very little dialogue. I don't know if these examples signal a trend but it's nice to see old school techniques aren't dead.

The lost art of the opening title sequence is still, well, lost, as only six of my 66 movies kicked off the old-fashioned way. The Canada/Mexico co-production The Boy Who Smells Like Fish, Argentina’s 2 + 2 (Dos más dos), US narratives Last Vegas, Chasing Shakespeare, and Twenty Million People, and the US/UK doc The Making of Great Voices Sing John Denver all had notable opening graphics with an extensive title sequence. The Italy/Switzerland/France picture Garibaldi’s Lovers (Il comandante e la cicogna) and Italy’s Buongiorno papà (Out of the Blue) did have some creative graphics after an opening scene. Of the other 58, nine had a few credits or just the title before the action begins, eight opened cold with no credits or title at all, and 17 had credits superimposed over the first scene. The remaining two dozen launch cold into a prologue followed by credits or just the title, clearly the film opening style of choice. Fortunately, fewer films are resorting to conventions like the "opening overhead bed shot," car scene, and/or voiceover narration. The few times these were used I felt they were necessary.

Before I select my Top Picks, a few observations about the direction film festival lineups have taken in recent years and where we may be headed. One of the curious and, occasionally, most frustrating consequences of attending multiple films back-to-back is coming across trends which may or may not have been as apparent if not for the quick succession of these themes. Perhaps it's because I see so many low budget narratives at festivals, causing conventions and romantic comedy tropes to become tiresome, but I find myself tuning out a lot sooner than I used to. Here's a template for an indie trying to be mainstream: Begin with voiceover describing every character. For example, "This is my sister Bonnie. She broke up with her husband over a bad meatloaf. This is her girlfriend Kate. Kate likes to walk around the house with nothing on but a clown nose..." Make sure one of the first scenes is an overhead shot of the protagonist(s) in bed. If the first shot isn't a bed it's a car. At some point, have the leads say, "I have something to say." "No, I have something to say." "Okay, you first." "No, you first." Unless there’s a very good reason for it, clichés like this will take me right out of the movie.

While death and issues surrounding grief are not uncommon topics, I first noticed this plot trend in 2009 when my favorites from Sundance (The Greatest) and Tribeca (Accidents Happen) both involved families grieving over the loss of a child and how parents and siblings come to cope with these tragedies. At one festival I saw six films centered on fathers dying of smoking-related illnesses. Three of these opened with a shot of a man lying in bed hooked up to tubes, coughing his lungs up. One movie opened with a young girl asking her mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" The very next one opened with a young boy asking his mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" I had an equally surreal experience at a recent Sundance. The first six pictures I saw all dealt with death. The first five of these included death and guns. Two involved death, guns, and suicide. One juggled themes of death, guns, and homophobia. And one had death, guns, suicide, and homophobia (the very first one I saw). I found myself walking into theaters saying, "Please don't let this be about death..." It wasn't until my seventh screening that I finally found a film without any of these four themes. But my very last movie there was, like the first one, about death, guns, suicide, and homophobia.

What's been the trend for 2013? This year's Sundance Film Festival will go down in the books as "Porndance," as the week was filled with tales of love, lust, and sex bordering on soft pornography. Even just among the selections I saw, there was the steamy eroticism of Two Mothers, A Teacher, Concussion, and Pit Stop, as well as some that actually had porn as their subjects, including Don Jon, Interior. Leather Bar., The Look of Love, and Lovelace. But far from being filled with shock value, these dark and occasionally not very titillating pictures were intended to be mass appeal, very carefully edited for R productions more appropriate for Lifetime movies than the art house. Many of the those sexy favorites showed up at SXSW this year, including Don Jon, Spring Breakers, A Teacher, and Pit Stop. Issues surrounding mental illness, featured in recent pictures like my 2011 Top 10 Pick Take Shelter, are now in vogue and the focus of three recent festival favorites (which I won't mention here as just naming them could be spoilers).

But grief and death are back as major plot points, playing a prominent role in more than half of my 37 choices at SXSW this past March. There were plenty of relationship dramas but I could count the number of comedies on one hand and I only saw one movie I could label a "family picture" (When Angels Sing). At Palm Beach, in April, a whopping 17 of 27 films featured issues surrounding grief and death as significant storylines. This included my first eight in a row, nine of 10 making up my entire first three days, and nine out of 10 towards the end. Only four of the 27 could really be labeled more comedy than drama -- one doc (Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor) and three narratives (Kings of Summer, Along the Roadside, and Chez Upshaw). The latter two I saw on the festival's very last day. I'm not a big fan of comedy, though, so this isn't meant as a criticism of the lineup (especially since I helped select many of those dramas) -- just an analysis.

At September’s Toronto International Film Festival, despite avoiding synopses and trailers, I somehow ended up picking a number of selections dealing with death, guns, and suicide again. I saw four films in four days that included someone thinking of jumping off a bridge or cliff (or actually doing it). The father-son relationship was also prominent on my schedule, although that's understandable given that many festival films are by male first-time directors. Remember, "write what you know." Yet almost half the films I saw were directed by women. Who says there aren't enough female filmmakers? There are more and more every year. 

I went straight from Toronto to Austin, Texas for Fantastic Fest, a genre festival whose focus is on the crazy, twisted, and macabre to begin with. Those dark themes involving death, guns, grief, and mental illness are almost prerequisites for a film to be booked there. I had two films in a row which opened with a hanging. But there were a surprisingly large number of comedies, even several family films on this year's schedule. I saw three movies which parents and kids alike would enjoy. There were a half dozen coming-of-age films appropriate for teens. All in all it was not a particularly gruesome lineup, although a healthy dose of blood, guts, and gore was on my card, as well.

At this year's Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, despite avoiding synopses and trailers, I somehow ended up picking a number of pictures dealing with death, guns, and suicide again. Grief and mental illness are becoming ubiquitous as plot points. And morbidity isn't dead. The overwhelming majority of the films I saw had death as a major storyline. Many selections dealt with the struggles between parents and children, especially fathers and sons. The 2013 eroticism trend continues as well. On my third to last day, three features in a row were largely about sex and sexuality with a surprising amount of nudity (Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, Every Blessed Day, and Break Through). The day after that, three of four films centered around Hitler and the Holocaust (The Upside Down Book, Simon Says, and Walking with the Enemy).

But FLIFF 2013 proves that days of darkness and depression are giving way to festivals filled with relationship dramas. "Write what you know," the old adage says, and screenwriters are doing just that. Even the most horrific ones had touches of humor, mirroring real life which, for me, is one of the definitions of an indie. Whether comedic drama or dramatic comedy (sort of like partly cloudy and mostly sunny -- I never could tell the difference) my favorites made me laugh and cry, often within the same scene. That's the power of cinema.

At 25 days, this was the longest festival in my eight years on the road and, as I mentioned above, the 66 feature films I saw far surpasses my record of 55 at Tribeca in 2008. With so many titles on the menu, I'm going to divide up my favorites in the same fashion as I did last year. Instead of one big list, or even just narratives and documentaries, as I've done on occasion, I'll be dividing up the selections into three categories. Since so many films are in languages other than their countries of origin, including many US/foreign co-productions, there is no way to define “US” films vs. “foreign films” in this lineup. But subtitled films primarily in a foreign language can be clearly defined, in the same way as the Motion Picture Academy has an award for “Best Foreign Language Film” (as opposed to “Best Foreign Film”). Therefore, I’ll be posting Top Picks in three categories: English Language Narrative Features, which may include American indies as well as non-US productions, and may be partially subtitled but are primarily in English (24 eligible), Foreign Language Narrative Features (20 eligible), which may include films with US financing and may be partially subtitled but are primarily in a foreign language, and Documentary Features (20 eligible). As noted above, there were four partially subtitled docs but none mostly in a foreign language. I'll list my favorite shorts, categorized similarly, in a later post.

Despite the large selection of titles, and the fact that this is more of a regional event than most I attend, there were only about a dozen disappointments for me out of the 64 new films I saw. Most met or exceeded expectations and there were at least a dozen pleasant surprises. So please keep in mind that even the "worst" ones on my schedule here could, theoretically, be among the best at other festivals, and would make my Top Picks from those respective fests. Just because you don't see a title listed below doesn't mean I didn't love it.

I've narrowed the list down to my Top Picks using a one through five rating scale. Among the English Language narrative features, three films deserved only one star (one = avoid at all costs) and I gave two stars (two = not recommended) to six films. Seven films merited a three (I recommend it). That leaves the cream of the crop. There were six with a rating of four stars -- ones I'd not only recommend but also would see again -- and two that merited five stars -- films I'd recommend, see again, and add to my DVD collection. So those eight make up my Top Picks.

Among the Foreign Language narrative features, no films deserved only one star and I gave two stars to only one film. That ratio of nine to one for “films to avoid” for English vs. Foreign films shows the strength of this year’s international cinema lineup. Seven films merited a three and there were five which I rated four stars. That leaves seven films in the five star category, which make up my Foreign Language Top Picks.

In the Documentary category, I didn’t give a one or two rating to any of the 20 titles. 13 films merited a three. There were seven which I rated four stars (none received a five). So those seven make up my Documentary Feature Top Picks.

They're divided proportionally by category, i.e., a list of "Top Picks" that includes five out of 10 films would be a bit invalid and waters down the quality of the whole. I generally try to limit my lists to no more than 30% of the available title pool. So, as indicated above, they break down this way: English Language Narrative Features = eight of 24, Foreign Language Narrative Features = seven of 20, Documentary Features = seven of 20. I've also included three Honorable Mentions, films that were "on the bubble" but are highly recommended.

Here are my lists of Top Picks from the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. Countries of origin are listed in parentheses. Titles will link to full-length reviews when available. Q&A photos will be added as well. Many of my choices were honored with awards on the festival's closing night, as indicated below.

TOP 8 ENGLISH LANGUAGE NARRATIVES – (in alphabetical order)

August: Osage County (USA) -- From director John Wells and writer Tracy Letts, from Letts' Tony Award-winning play. A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them. The film boasts one of the most talented casts in recent memory with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, and Misty Upham. Produced by George Clooney, this plains epic features a haunting score from Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain). Filmed in Los Angeles and on location in Pawhuska and Bartlesville, Oklahoma in Fall 2012 by New York-based Jean Doumanian Productions. This was one of the hot tickets I'd missed in Toronto. It was among the first films to sell out at TIFF and was nearly impossible to get into. It played the Mill Valley, New Orleans, Hamptons, Chicago, and Hawaii Film Festivals between TIFF and FLIFF. It nabbed two awards at the Hollywood Film Festival, including Ensemble of the Year and Supporting Actress of the Year to Julia Roberts. Benedict Cumberbatch won the Britannia Award for Best British Artist of the Year at the BAFTA/LA Britannia Awards for this and other works. It won Best Indie and Best Actress (Meryl Streep) at the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival as well as the Audience Award for Best English Language Film. The picture has worldwide distribution in almost two dozen territories including E1 Films in Canada, Golden Village Pictures for Singapore, Paradiso Entertainment for the Netherlands, Wild Bunch Distribution for France, Ascot Elite Entertainment Group for Switzerland, DeA Planeta Home Entertainment for Spain, and Tanweer Films for six South Asian territories. August: Osage County is rated R and has a running time of 130 minutes. The Weinstein Company is releasing in the US on Christmas Day.

The Boy Who Smells Like Fish (Canada, Mexico) -- Don't let the odorous title scare you away. There's much more here than meets the eye -- or nose. Director/co-writer Analeine Cal y Mayor's debut may appear to be a madcap comedy on the surface, but this is actually a charming, heartfelt coming of age tale that's more poignant than humorous. The message is fairly simple yet profound. Mica (Douglas Smith) and Laura (Zoë Kravitz) are teenage would-be lovers keeping secrets from each other. We all have peculiarities we hide. But we can't love someone else until we love ourselves. This means getting past what we think others will find objectionable and accepting ourselves for who we are. In a year rich with memorable coming of age movies (Mud, The Kings of Summer, The Spectacular Now, Joe, The Way, Way Back), if you can get past the name, The Boy Who Smells Like Fish is one of the best. Alliance Films is releasing in Canada on February 14, 2014. -- See my full-length review, trailer, & stills

Favor (USA) -- Most of the dozen or so American indies I saw at FLIFF this year were dark comedies, usually involving crimes and misdemeanors. One that gets it right is Favor, a slow burn, edge-of-your-seat thriller from multi-hyphenate writer/director/executive producer/cinematographer/editor Paul Osborne. Kip (Blayne Weaver) and Marvin (Patrick Day) are lifelong best friends. Each has committed to the other a promise to be there, for anything, at any time. Now it’s time for Kip to call in the favor. A surreptitious night in a motel with a local waitress (Rosalie Ward as Abbey) threatens to derail his successful career and marriage – not because the illicit affair might be found out, but because something awful happened in that room and Kip needs Marvin to help bury the evidence. This is what a low budget American indie can, and should, look like. In an industry filled with forgettable cookie cutter popcorn fare, Osborne’s work is a shockingly dark and unflinching neo-noir crime thriller that Tarantino would applaud. Put Favor on your list and prepare for a cerebral sucker punch. After the screening I sat down with Osborne for a candid, in-depth discussion about the film. There are NO spoilers in this interview. The movie is set for VOD release next spring through Gravitas Ventures. -- See my full-length review, trailer, and my video interview with Osborne as well as my red carpet, intro, and Q&A photos

Free Ride (USA) -- A true crime drama from writer/director Shana Betz, based on her own family's infamous story. It's 1978. After a string of abusive relationships and dead end jobs, Christina Miller (Anna Paquin) comes to the realization that there’s nothing left for her and her two young daughters, thirteen-year-old MJ (Liana Liberato) and seven-year-old Shell (Ava Acres), in blue-collar Ohio. An inviting phone call from her free-spirited friend Sandy (Drea de Matteo) is all Christina needs to pack up her belongings and load the kids into a Chrysler bound for Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Free Ride also stars Twilight's Cam Gigandet. Anna Paquin produced, along with Susan Dynner and Cerise Hallam Larkin. True Blood's Stephen Moyer, Mark Larkin, Den Keston, and industry veteran Wendy Williams served as Executive Producers. Phase 4 Films has domestic distribution rights. -- See my red carpet, intro, and Q&A photos

Last Vegas (USA) -- Director Jon Turteltaub and writer Dan Fogelman's comedy blockbuster brings together four legends, Oscar winners Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline, as Billy, Paddy, Archie, and Sam, best friends since childhood. When Billy, the group's sworn bachelor, finally proposes to his thirty-something (of course) girlfriend, the four head to Las Vegas with a plan to stop acting their age and relive their glory days. However, upon arriving, the four quickly realize that the decades have transformed Sin City and tested their friendship in ways they never imagined.  The Rat Pack may have once played the Sands and Cirque du Soleil may now rule the Strip, but it’s these four who are taking over Vegas. Featuring an original score by Mark Mothersbaugh. Shot digitally with the Arri Alexa on location in Las Vegas and Atlanta. Produced by CBS Films, Gidden Media, and Good Universe, with the participation of Las Vegas' Outlaw Sinema. Turteltaub has been a cash cow for Disney, directing 3 Ninjas (1992), Cool Runnings (1993), While You Were Sleeping (1995), Phenomenon (1996), Instinct (1999), Disney's The Kid (2000), National Treasure (2004) and its 2007 sequel National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010). He produced the CBS television series Jericho and also directed the first three episodes. Last Vegas has worldwide distribution including E1 Films in Canada, Entertainment One Benelux for the Netherlands, Pro Video Film & Distribution Kft. in Hungary, Cathay-Keris Films for Singapore, and Universal Pictures International (UPI) for Germany, France, and the UK. US distribution is through CBS Films. It opened November 1 in 3065 theaters.

One Chance (UK, USA) -- From Oscar- and Emmy-winning director David Frankel, writer Justin Zackham, and producers Harvey Weinstein and Simon Cowell comes the remarkable and inspirational true story of Paul Potts (played by James Corden), a shy, bullied shop assistant by day and an amateur opera singer by night. Paul became an instant YouTube phenomenon after being chosen by Cowell for the first season of "Britain's Got Talent." Wowing audiences worldwide with his phenomenal voice, Paul went on to win the competition and the hearts of millions. The colorful cast includes the legendary Colm Meaney as Potts' father. Potts did all the actual singing for the movie, masterfully lip-synced by actor Corden. It will be released in the US by The Weinstein Company in early 2014 following a NY/LA Oscar-qualifying run on December 27. -- See my Q&A photos, trailer, and Taylor Swift music video

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (UK, South Africa) -- This two and a half hour epic biopic was directed by Justin Chadwick and stars Idris Elba as the legendary South African leader. A chronicle of Nelson Mandela's life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. It's based on his autobiography and is another of the films I missed when I was in Toronto in September. It went on to play the Mill Valley, Hamptons, Chicago, Hawaii, and Austin Film Festivals before arriving at FLIFF. Produced by South Africa's Videovision Entertainment and Los Angeles-based Distant Horizon, along with Pathé in the UK. Worldwide distribution includes E1 Films in Canada, Senator Film in Germany, Paradiso Entertainment in the Netherlands, Pathé in France and the UK, and The Weinstein Company in the US. I was glad to be able to catch it before its theatrical release on November 29.

Walking with the Enemy (US) -- From writer/director/producer Mark Schmidt comes an epic motion picture inspired by a true story. Although allied with Germany, Regent Horthy (Ben Kingsley), the charismatic leader of Hungary, is faced with witnessing the execution of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews he's been protecting. During this national crisis, a young hero, Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong) emerges. Aided by the woman he loves, he confronts the Nazis by becoming one of them. In a race against time to save his country's Jewish people, the Regent is forced to make difficult choices, while the couple embarks on a thrilling journey of love, courage, and sacrifice to save their families and thousands of others. The picture is breathtaking and unflinching in its depiction of the horrors committed by the Nazis and their Hungarian sympathizers. Walking with the Enemy is not to be missed. The film was produced by Liberty Studios, who will release the film independently in early 2014. -- See my Q&A and awards presentation photos, plus the official trailer


TOP 7 FOREIGN LANGUAGE NARRATIVES – (in alphabetical order)

7 Boxes (Paraguay) -- A gritty action thriller from filmmakers Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori that brings the rich sights and sounds of Latin America to life in a rare family-friendly flick without pulling punches. The entire narrative takes place over the course of several tense hours in the bustling and chaotic Mercado 4, a sprawling municipal market in Asunción, the capital and largest city in Paraguay. As the film opens we see earnest 17-year-old Victor (Celso Franco), a wheelbarrow delivery boy, frozen in his tracks by the flickering images on a small television in an appliance store. “I’ll be on that screen someday,” he imagines. But work beckons, and in his desperate desire to earn enough to buy the latest and greatest cellphone, he accepts the potentially dangerous task of delivering seven mysterious boxes – containing he knows not what – from the butcher's warehouse to an undisclosed location. This is a cinematic introduction to a culture many of us haven't known, and characters with an innocence and vulnerability -- and ability to persevere -- that returns us to a time in our lives we yearn to bring back. 7 Boxes is an emotionally charged, passionately crafted little film that will leave you wanting more. The film was picked up for US distribution by Philadelphia's Breaking Glass Pictures. -- See my full-length review, trailer, posters, wallpapers, stills, and behind the scenes photos

The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Russia) -- “Epic” is almost synonymous with early Russian cinema. The tradition lives on with Alexandr Veledinsky’s The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Russian title Geograf globus propil), a sweeping, magnificent tragicomedy and colorful depiction of life in an industrial city on the banks of the Kama River, in the shadow of the majestic Ural Mountains. Based on the best selling novel of the same name by Aleksei Ivanov, the story centers around Victor Sergeyevich Sluzhkin (Konstantin Khabenskiy), a biologist who travels to the city of Perm in the European part of Russia. He lives with his wife and daughter in a tiny, lower middle class apartment in an aging tower block, so typical of old Russia with its peeling paint and laundry hanging from lines on the terrace. Down on his luck, Sluzhkin gets a job as a geography teacher in the local high school. His 15-year-old students are merciless in their lack of respect for him. “Geographer,” as his students call him, attempts to bond with them through occasionally unauthorized field trips, and a dramatic white water rafting excursion will test the teacher and teens in ways none could imagine. To Sir, with Love meets Deliverance in this moral, spiritual, and physical journey of a geography teacher, his tenth grade students, his wife, daughter, best friend, and a succession of women who enter his life. The Geographer Drank His Globe Away is simply one of the best foreign films of the year. -- See my full-length review, trailer, and stills

Intimate Parts (Russia) -- From writers/directors Natasha Merkulova and Alexey Chupov comes an erotic drama that's a deliciously perverse mashup of social, political, moral, and sexual statements. The overarching message is simple. Despite class differences, we’re all the same. We all share the same desires, hide the same secrets. Those who preach morality are the first to violate it. Intimate Parts is, ultimately, about the hypocrisy of those who would seek to judge, regulate, and censor the actions of others. It could be a church, or government, or family members, or schools, or a motion picture ratings board dictating what can be shown onscreen. With the extensive amount of nudity and variants of lust in the film, the irony is not lost on the audience. Intimate Parts is a dark sexual melodrama that is sad, funny, disturbing, enlightening, and powerful. At its heart, the film exposes the hypocrisy of the right wing and those who would censor and regulate others' actions. But it does so in a provocatively entertaining way, with awkward comic relief amidst uncomfortable erotic encounters. -- See my full-length review, NSFW trailer, and stills

Little One (South Africa) -- It’s just another dusty afternoon in Zamimpilo, a poor Black township on the outskirts of Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa. A group of boys is out playing in a field of tall grass behind their ramshackle homes when they spot a six-year-old girl (Vuyelwa Msimang) on the ground, badly beaten and left for dead. The police show some obligatory interest in solving the crime as the nameless, faceless (almost literally) girl wastes away in the local hospital. Enter Pauline (Lindiwe Ndlovu), a strong-willed wife and devoted mother who becomes obsessed with finding out the child’s identity so she may be returned home. Inspired by true events, writer/director Daniel James Roodt’s Little One is both inspiring and torturous, leaving viewers full of wonder at the horrific story played out before our eyes. It also takes us down unexpected paths and surprises at every turn. Little One is both a nailbiting crime drama as well as a tightly nuanced human interest story, in a cinematic territory clouded in tragic mystery and fraught with tension. The enigmatic relationships and multi-layered character arcs between husband and wife, mother and son, father and son, and the extraordinary questions surrounding the background and identity of the little girl – and the resolution of her storyline – are all interwoven in elegant complexity. Roodt's confident execution makes it one of the year's best foreign films. -- See my full-length review, trailer, and stills

The Pin (Canada) -- There are as many dramatic stories of Nazi persecution during the Second World War as there are people around to tell them. In many cases entire families were killed, save for one fortunate child who got away, and that’s the case here in the extraordinary Canadian production The Pin, writer/director/producer Naomi Jaye’s feature debut and North America’s first Yiddish language film in over seventy years (and first ever shot in Canada). It's Lithuania, circa 1941. Leah (Milda Gecaite) and Jacob (Grisha Pasternak) are the only surviving members of two families, unknown to each other, now huddled together after they happen to find an apparently safe hiding spot in an isolated barn. They only have each other now, where seizure is always imminent, so their survival depends on the whole being greater than the sum of its parts – they bond, in more ways than one. Like many tales from this era, it’s both sad and poignant even in its rare moments of joy. This is a hauntingly beautiful love story that reminds us of the power of cinema. More than anything, it’s a triumphant pas de deux for Milda Gecaite and Grisha Pasternak. It really shouldn’t take a lot to make a powerful movie, and The Pin proves that. Main Street Films is distributing. Now playing in select cities. -- See my full-length review, trailer, posters, stills, and behind the scenes photos

The Rocket (Australia) -- This Australian production set in Laos (shot on location in Laos and Thailand) is a multi award-winning coming of age drama from writer/director Kim Mordaunt. An aggressive program of hydroelectric development is bringing yet another dam to this peaceful Laotian valley, and the impounded lake will inundate many small villages that have been inhabited by the same families for centuries. But, as in many countries, the disconnected communities here have no sway with the government and must pull up roots and move to higher ground. Many feel that little Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), only 10, was cursed at birth and brings bad luck to the town, even to his family – father Toma (Sumrit Warin), mother Mali (Alice Keohavong), and feisty grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) -- so he is blamed for this latest tragedy to befall the village. On their way to a new home, the boy meets orphaned nine-year-old Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her eccentric uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), an enigmatic Vietnam War veteran who worships James Brown (and has the moves to prove it). Everyone in Ahlo’s world feels he's just a delinquent on a downward spiral – and bringing everyone along with him – except Kia and Purple. Derision just steels his determination to redeem himself in the eyes of his people, and with Kia and Purple’s encouragement and support he knows his real mission is to save himself and his village. This is a world so very far away, yet these people are familiar. The Rocket is also a cultural treasure trove, filled with traditions bound in mysticism and Laotian rituals that characterize life amidst leftover ammo. American bombs sit in the shadows of elaborate shrines erected to honor the dead. In the end, though, it’s all about the boy and the optimism of youth. Political and cultural statements aside, The Rocket is a spectacular coming of age film that could be set anywhere – it just happens to be Southeast Asia. But Ahlo is truly one of a kind, and Sitthiphon Disamoe turns in one of the year’s best and most precious youth performances in an unforgettable motion picture. -- See my full-length review, trailer, stills, behind the scenes photos, and shots from festival appearances

Tour de Force (France) -- From acclaimed director Laurent Tuel comes a hilariously entertaining, emotional thrill ride -- artfully combining a wealth of genres including a fresh family comedy, traditional romance, classic sports farce, and a poignant coming of age story. François Nouel (Clovis Cornillac), 40, set aside his Tour de France dreams long ago. Yes, he’s still an avid cyclist, but now spends his time selling them in a shop rather than racing them in the hills. His tolerant wife Sylvie (Élodie Bouchez) reluctantly puts up with his childish antics while rebellious teenage son Thomas (Paul Granier), like most boys his age, has little respect for his nerdy, embarrassing dad. Nouel's employer, which happens to be a tour sponsor, enlists him as a volunteer for the next Tour de France. The timing couldn't be worse. For his family, this is the last straw. When will he grow up and realize he’s already over the hill, not about to cycle over it? Enter ex-sports pro Rémi Pletinckx (Bouli Lanners), whose own dreams of managing a Tour winner have drifted down into a bottle of booze. Rémi sees François as a last-chance ticket, and vice-versa, and the two hatch a plan to put François on the race course – if only riding the same route a day before the actual race. Nouel's cockeyed optimism is like an addictive drug, job and family be d*mned. And that’s just the basic premise that unfolds in the opening sequence…there’s more, so much more, to be revealed (literally) along the way. Despite the script's complexity, the multilayered themes tackled in the film are familiar and comfortable – particularly the iconic “zero to hero” storyline and irresistibly touching father/son bonding narrative. Of course, the sports element is central but you don’t have to be a cycling fan to love this movie. The passion with which the filmmakers and cast approached the material is palpable, making it a joyous marvel. -- See my full-length review, trailer, behind the scenes clip, making of featurette, stills, behind the scenes photos, and publicity photos


TOP 7 DOCUMENTARIES – (in alphabetical order)

16 Acres (USA) -- Director Richard Hankin's emotional and masterful film about the massive effort to rebuild on the site of the World Trade Center. The dramatic inside story of the monumental collision of interests at Ground Zero in the decade after 9/11. Featuring a wealth of rare archival footage and interviews from key players including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York State Governor George Pataki, along with Chris Ward, Larry Silverstein, Daniel Libeskind, David Childs, Michael Arad, Janno Lieber, Roland Betts, and Rosaleen Tallon. This one is a must-see. If you think you know the story of what's happened on the WTC site in the past 12 years, trust me, you don't. Fascinating. The film debuted at Switzerland's Zurich Film Festival in September 2012, followed by the Warsaw, Newport Beach, Blue Whiskey, and Hawaii Film Festivals. It won the Audience Award in the Art, Architecture, + Design section at Newport Beach. Produced by Tanexis Productions, with US distribution rights from First Run Features.

African Safari (Belgium) -- From director/producer Ben Stassen. This 3D film takes viewers on a thrilling safari, traveling across Africa from Namibia to the Kilimanjaro. Zoologist Liesl Eichenberger and wildlife filmmaker Tim Liversedge explore the Okavango Delta, one of the most spectacular wildlife reserves on earth. The Okavango River originates in the highlands of Angola but never reaches the sea. Instead, it empties into the Kalahari Desert, irrigating 20,000 square-km of this desolate region. The movie is as breathtaking as one could imagine. Elephants, rhinos, and big cats in their natural habitats, photographed from the ground as well as a specially-equipped hot air balloon, along with amazing views of Victoria Falls and Mount Kilimanjaro. Stassen is one of the world's leading large format IMAX, 3D, and 4D filmmakers. He produced and directed Wild Safari, the first IMAX 3D wildlife film. Stassen was nominated for the Audience Award for Fly Me to the Moon 3D at the 2009 European Film Awards, the first animated film to be designed, created, and released solely in 3D. One year later, he was nominated for Best Animated Film for A Turtle's Tale: Sammy's Adventures. Distribution is through StudioCanal.

CinemAbility (USA) -- Director/co-writer/producer Jenni Gold's fascinating documentary examines the ever-changing portrayals of disability storylines in cinema, television, and the web to see if the media has had a hand in transforming the societal inclusion of people with disabilities. From the early days of silent films to the present, from Chaplin to X-Men, the documentary takes a detailed look at the evolution of "disability" in entertainment. CinemAbility doesn't hit viewers over the head with preachy messages. Yes, questions are asked and cultural, political, and societal viewpoints are examined, but hundreds of movie and TV clips make this production a joy for all. Won a Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. -- See my red carpet and Q&A photos, plus the official trailer

extraordinary: the stan romanek story (USA) -- This "extraordinary" documentary is a stellar (or interstellar) achievement from writer/director/producer/cinematographer/editor Jon Sumple, co-directed by Jack Roth and Executive Producer/Collaborating Director Jamie Sernoff. Stan Romanek is at the center of the world's most documented extraterrestrial contact story, and the over 180 pieces of evidence accumulated over the past decade has convinced thousands around the world that his tale is true. The film follows one man's evolution through a life he did not choose and the messages he is driven to deliver to mankind. For anyone who believes (or not) in UFOs and aliens, or wonders if they're real, this is a must-see. Won a Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. -- See my intro and Q&A photos and official extended 3:00 trailer

Lion Ark (Bolivia, USA, UK) -- From director/producer/star/co-writer Tim Phillips, with co-writer/producer/star Jan Creamer, this breathtaking production is more action adventure than traditional documentary. Lion Ark follows the world's most ambitious and daring animal rescue, with a narrative meticulously compiled from film, interviews, conversations, and the reactions of participants as events actually unfold. A shocking undercover investigation leads to a ban on animal circuses in Bolivia. But the circuses defy the law. The team behind the investigation returns, tracks down the illegal circuses, and attempts to save every animal. -- See my Q&A photos, trailer, and reaction video

The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers (USA) -- Oscar-winning director Richard Trank’s ambitious film is focused on an insider, onscreen host Yehuda Avner, based on Avner's best-selling book "The Prime Ministers." Avner served as a chief aide, note-taker, and speechwriter to Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Shimon Peres. This extraordinary movie, the first of two parts, deals with the tenures of Eshkol, Meir, and then-US Ambassador Rabin. In a refreshing break from doc tradition, there is no offscreen narrator save for the familiar voices of Sandra Bullock as Golda Meir, Michael Douglas as Yitzhak Rabin, Leonard Nimoy as Levi Eshkol, and Christoph Waltz as Menachem Begin. The doc is packed with breathtaking archival footage and stills, much of it coming to light for the first time, along with interviews from numerous witnesses to these world-changing events. This is one of those “you think you know…but you don’t” documentaries that reveals dramatic new information about monumental events in Israel’s early years which will shock even the most seasoned students of world history. Produced by Moriah Films, the Los Angeles-based film division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. -- See my full-length review, trailer, and stills

Simon Says (USA) -- From director/producer David Lyons. 88-year-old Holocaust survivor Simon Lewenberg, from Sunrise, Florida, gives an oral history of his tragic journey to hell and back, a tale of tears and triumph. Father of three (Lyons is his youngest son), married to Shirley for 59 years, and a Florida resident since 1989, Simon has lived five distinct lives. Born in Lodz, Poland in 1923 to Jewish parents, he grew up in a lively courtyard in the poorest area of the city. The invasion of the Nazis in September 1939 shattered that existence. Surviving imprisonment in the Lodz Ghetto (only 5% of the original residents did) he then endured two and a half years of slave labor in Germany itself. He was sent to work in Auschwitz and survived, despite the dismal death rate for worker-prisoners at that camp. Things only got worse after that. In the last five months of the war, Simon descended into the vilest depths of the Nazi's living hell. Again and again he survived the worst his captors could mete out. On his last day under Nazi persecution, he felt the clutches of death surround him more closely than ever. Liberated by British soldiers in May 1945, he fell to the ground to kiss their boots. When they protested and pulled him to his feet, he kissed the chains on the tank. His family - parents, two brothers and almost 100 aunts, uncles, and cousins - all perished. Filled with horrific archival stills and motion picture film. Hard to watch at times but utterly important to this day.

HONORABLE MENTION -- There were several films "on the bubble," titles which I was not able to include above but would like to acknowledge. They include two low budget American indies that stood out from the rest. There were also numerous European romantic comedies but one that truly broke the mold. These three films came very close to making my Top Picks and are highly recommended.

The Bet (USA) -- An auspicious directorial debut for acclaimed actress Finola Hughes. Shy high school senior Addison Smith (Scott Hagood) lives with his widowed mom, Libby (Portia Thomas), and paternal grandfather Collier (Tim T. Whitcomb) in Santa Barbara. At 18, still practicing to get his driver’s license, Addison has never been one to rush into things -- including relationships with girls. Collier, a bit worried about his grandson’s development, pressures him into a friendly bet -- which of them will be the first to seduce a lady. Granddad will pick Addison's potential conquests at the high school, while the boy and his buddies pick Granddad's potential suitors at the retirement facility. A sweet coming of age romantic comedy, The Bet is the first feature film produced by the world's first community film studio, Community Film Studio - Santa Barbara (www.CFSSB.org) -- See my intro, Q&A, and meet & greet photos, plus the official trailer

Black Box (USA) -- From writer/director/producer Stephen Cone. A strong willed graduate student in theatre (Josephine Decker as Holly) directs a group of fresh faced undergrads in an adaptation of a gothic 1980s young adult novel, altering them all in unexpected ways. The arrival of the book's author (Austin Pendleton) only furthers the ensemble's journey into the very personal, very real origins of narrative. These are actors playing characters playing actors playing characters in a play within a movie -- not an easy task. The ensemble features Jaclyn Hennell, Alex Weisman, and Nick Vidal as the drama students. Provocative in its frank depictions of the kids' explorations of sexual identity, and one of a handful of FLIFF films with frontal nudity. Some were turned off, others were turned on. Cone's previous feature was the gay-themed coming of age story The Wise Kids, which he wrote, directed, produced, edited, and acted in (it starred Tyler Ross, who was lead in American Milkshake, one of my Sundance 2013 Top 8). Shot in Chicago and Normal, Illinois in March 2012 by Cone Arts in association with Ghost Crab Films. Black Box is awaiting a distribution deal.

Garibaldi's Lovers (Italy, Switzerland) -- From award-winning writer/director Silvio Soldini. Widowed plumber Leo (Valerio Mastandrea) is struggling to deal with the growing pains of his two teenage children when his life intersects with penniless artist Diana (Alba Rohrwacher) and her eccentric landlord Amanzio (Giuseppe Battiston). Through a hilarious series of coincidences, they give each other new hope for their futures. Madcap, absurdist comedy at its best. Featuring talking statues, a friendly stork, corrupt councilman, shyster lawyers, and internet sex. All the while charming and whimsical with powerful social, political, ecological, and cultural messages. A winner. Giuseppe Battiston received a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the David di Donatello Awards. The Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists nominated the film for Best Song and Claudia Gerini for Best Supporting Actress. It was nominated for Best Film by the Swiss Film Prize. Director Soldini has 14 awards and 28 nominations to his credit. Wins include David di Donatello Awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, along with European Film Awards for Best Film, Best Screenwriter, and an Audience Award for Best Director.


Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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