2013 Palm Beach International Film Festival—My Top Picks

The fun-filled 2013 Palm Beach International Film Festival has come to an exciting conclusion and I've ended the daily commute on South Florida's roads to take stock of my whirlwind week in Palm Beach County. As usual, I used Twitter to cover the festivities and report live as it happened. Hopefully you followed along and were able to join me in experiencing the event in real time. 18 months ago I moved to this county, making this one of my new hometown festivals.

Prior to this, I covered 62 film festivals as a journalist. But several months ago I was invited to join PBIFF as a member of the Programming Board. I had the honor of being one of those fortunate folks who screens submissions and helps select those which will be accepted for the lineup. I did not take this responsibility lightly, as I've been on the receiving end of programmers' choices for years and know how critical it is for both attendees as well as filmmakers.

I was also given the opportunity to introduce the movies and host the Q&As for the screenings I attended -- after all, I've observed thousands -- and enjoyed this role immensely. For those privileges I have to thank Randi Emerman and Mark Pollack, without whom this festival would not have taken place. I was thrilled that many of the ones I helped select ended up in the final schedule and several won major awards, including one of two Audience Awards for Best Documentary (Bearing Witness: The Voices of Our Survivors) and both the jury awards for Best Short Film (Sahasi Chori) as well as Best Feature Film (Lonely Boy, top honor of the festival).

The quality of the lineup was truly extraordinary, resulting in one of the most memorable cinematic experiences I've had in the eight years I've been a film fest journalist. PBIFF 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 (63 since the start of 2006), this wrapup will conclude with my list of Top Picks.

First, some statistics and overall observations about this year's event, along with my modus operandi and Top Picks criteria. I saw a total of 30 films. With just three venues for full-length selections, the logistics of PBIFF allowed me to catch five on one day, four on four days, three on one day and two on another, along with one on opening night. There were also three I viewed in advance. But I went to two screenings of Lonely Boy and Bearing Witness: The Voices of Our Survivors, something I've only done twice (I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower two times within 24 hours in September at Toronto and both screenings of The Playroom at Fort Lauderdale 2012). I'm also going to exclude Uprising from this wrapup. I saw it at Fort Lauderdale and the US/Egypt co-production was not only one of my Top 4 Docs from that event but it was also one of my Top 5 Documentaries of 2012.

Subtracting those, the number of new titles actually equals 27. Those were split down the middle between 14 narratives and 13 documentaries. That wasn't the largest number of docs I've seen but at almost 50% it's the biggest percentage of the total in my 63 festivals. The 14 narratives included eight US and six foreign, while the 13 documentaries included 10 US and three foreign. In total, I saw 18 American films and nine foreign.

This "International" festival truly lived up to its name. Many countries were represented on my schedule. One of every three features I saw was from overseas. These included two from the UK and one each from Cuba, Germany, Italy, and Russia. Co-productions included Bulgaria/Germany, Israel/Palestinian Territories, and Australia/Thailand. It was clearly a global event at the outset. On the first full day after Opening Night, three in a row were from outside the United States. But 13 out of 18 films from days 3-8 were from the US, including five in a row on days 3-4 and five out of six on days 6-8 (none of this includes Uprising or the two repeat viewings -- the only ones I attended on day 6).

At some festivals as many as half the screenings I've attended were in other languages. At PBIFF more than a third, 10 of my 27, were at least partially subtitled, including several American movies. Of the nine foreign films, seven had subtitles (the other two "foreign" films were from the UK). Three US pictures contained some subtitles as well, including the docs Lost Boy Home, which takes place partially in Africa, Bearing Witness: The Voices of Our Survivors, including interviews with Holocaust survivors, and Diner en Blanc: the World's Largest Dinner Party, shot in France.

One thing that festivals offer over traditional cinemas is an exciting and informative Q&A session with the cast and filmmakers afterward. PBIFF doesn't attract as many stars as some of the larger fests I attend so the lineup was split down the middle: of the 27 public screenings I attended, 14 had Q&As while 13 did not. Most movies usually have two showings, and Q&As traditionally wane with successive ones. Of the 16 first showings I attended, 10 had Q&As while six did not. Of my 11 second screenings, the ratio was four Q&As to seven without. Even more exciting...of the 14 Q&As at my screenings I hosted 12 of them, including the Closing Night Film Chez Upshaw. This also means, for the first time, obviously, I don't have photos of most of the Q&As. But I made sure to shoot the attendees before and after along with several red carpets and parties. So, as usual, I'll be posting those pictures in the coming weeks.

All but seven of my 27 screenings were at the brand new, less than two-month-old Frank Theatres CineBowl & Grille in Delray Beach. At one point I saw 10 films in a row there and 16 of 19 on days 2-6. I attended five at the Muvico Parisian at CityPlace in West Palm Beach and two at Cobb Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens.

One reason to attend festivals is to be among the first to see a picture and this was another top shelf event. I saw 14 World Premieres -- those being seen by the public for the very first time. These consisted of eight narratives and six documentaries. My first five were World Premieres, eight of my first 10. The other 13 features included one International, two North American, and four U.S. Premieres. The remaining six were favorites from other American festivals.

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 American 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."

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 kid you not. I just sat there shaking my head.

I had an equally surreal experience at Sundance in 2011. 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.

In 2012, themes lightened up a bit. Days of darkness and depression gave way to festivals filled with relationship dramas. Most of my selections dealt with the struggles between parents and children, especially fathers and sons. "Write what you know," the old adage says, and screenwriters did just that. All had touches of humor, mirroring real life which, for me, is one of the definitions of an indie.

But morbidity isn't dead. For example, of the 34 features I saw at SXSW in 2012, 18 had death as a major plot point. But that was actually a relatively small percentage compared to many recent festivals (admittedly the numbers are skewed by my penchant for horror). Whether comedic drama or dramatic comedy (sort of like partly cloudy and mostly sunny -- I never could tell the difference) my favorite movies in 2012 made me laugh and cry, often within the same scene. That's the power of cinema.

What's 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's Addiction, Interior. Leather Bar., The Look of Love, and Lovelace. But far from being filled with shock value, these dark and occasionally not very titillating films were intended to be mass appeal, very carefully edited for R productions more appropriate for Lifetime movies than the art house.

Many of the sexy favorites from the last Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals showed up at SXSW this year, including Don Jon (formerly Don Jon's Addiction), 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 two my SXSW favorites this year as well as one of my PBIFF Top Picks (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 last month. 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 PBIFF, 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 films 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.

The lost art of the opening title sequence is still, well, lost, as only two of my 27 movies kicked off the old-fashioned way. The Bulgaria/Germany co-production Tilt and the US feature No God, No Master were the only ones with notable opening graphics, and they were shot in early 2010 and mid-2009, respectively. Of the remaining films, 20% launch right into an opening scene superimposed with credits while 80% open cold and then have just a single title card. But one, Cuba's Pablo, actually begins with an entire music video before the title and opening scene. That was an inspired oddity, to be sure. Fortunately, fewer indies are resorting to the conventions like the "opening bed shot" or voiceover narration. The few times these were used I felt they were necessary.

As usual, the budget of a project is in direct proportion to how recognizable the needle-drop songs are (third party material) and number of crane, helicopter, and plane shots. Occasionally there are the lucky indie filmmakers who can call in favors or have major artists who so believe in the work that they cut or waive the traditionally high licensing fees. SXSW 2013 was particularly notable in its hosting the World Premiere of Good Ol' Freda, which included a handful of original Beatles tracks, a very rare feat in motion picture history. According to Rolling Stone, "Mad Men forked out $250,000 last season for a clip of 'Tomorrow Never Knows'." That's more than the entire budget of many indies.

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 indies 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. Although all of my 13 docs still relied on the "flat" format, PBIFF was a throwback to the old days as only five of my 14 narratives were in the widescreen format. These included the UK feature Harmony (AKA A Thousand Kisses Deep), the Bulgaria/Germany co-production Tilt, and US indies Lonely Boy, The Kings of Summer (formerly Toy's House), and the 35mm film No God, No Master.

There were about a dozen disappointments for me out of the 27 features I saw. But most met or exceeded expectations, including several very 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 -- just that a "Best of" list that includes over half the films I saw isn't really valid as it waters down the relative importance of those I do select.

I've narrowed the list down to my Top Picks using a one to five rating scale. First, I've separated the 14 narratives from the 13 documentaries and chosen about one third of the total for singling out -- the best of the best. Among the narratives, none only deserved one star (avoid at all costs). Three got two stars (not recommended), five narratives got a three (recommended), and there were two with a rating of four stars -- ones I'd not only recommend but also would see again. That leaves four that merited five stars -- films I'd recommend, see again, and add to my DVD collection. So those four "must own" titles make up my Top Narratives with the two four-star films receiving Honorable Mentions. The documentaries break down like this: None deserved only one or two stars, seven merited three stars, and two docs received a four from me. That leaves four with a rating of five stars and a place on my list of Top Documentaries, along with two Honorable Mentions. So I'll honor those 12 films.


Here is my list of Top Picks from the 2013 Palm Beach International Film Festival. Countries of origin are listed in parentheses. Titles will link to reviews when available. Q&A and/or red carpet photos will be added as well. Several of my choices were honored with awards on closing night. Those are indicated below the lists.

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TOP NARRATIVES (in alphabetical order)

The Kings of Summer (formerly Toy's House) (USA)

Lonely Boy (USA) -- see my Red Carpet & Awards Presentation photos + capsule review

Lost on Purpose (USA) -- see my Opening Night Red Carpet, Afterparty, & post-screening photos + capsule review

Tilt (Bulgaria, Germany)


Honorable Mention

Harmony (AKA A Thousand Kisses Deep) (UK)

No God, No Master (USA)

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TOP DOCUMENTARIES

07-07-07 Amorita's Unlucky Day (USA) -- see my Red Carpet photos + capsule review

Bearing Witness: The Voices of Our Survivors (USA) -- see my post-screenings, Closing Night Red Carpet, & Awards Presentation photos + capsule review

Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor (USA) -- see my Opening Night Red Carpet, World Premiere Q&A, Silver Screen Splash Awards Presentation, and Closing Night Red Carpet & Awards Presentation photos + capsule review

Do Not Duplicate (USA) -- see my Red Carpet photos + capsule review



Honorable Mention

Lost Boy Home (USA) -- see my Opening Night Red Carpet, post-screening photos + capsule review

Miss You Can Do It (USA) -- see my Opening Night Red Carpet, post-screening photos + capsule review


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NOTE: Lonely Boy won the Grand Jury Award for Best Feature, the top honor of the festival. Bearing Witness: The Voices of Our Survivors won the Audience Choice Award (in a tie) for Best Documentary.



Author

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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