San Diego Film Festival: 2-6 October 2013 – San Diego, CA

The San Diego Film Festival, now an established part of the social calendar of ‘America’s Finest City’, unfolded this past October, lodged once again at the Gaslamp Quarter’s elegant Reading Stadium 15 theater. The Reading 15 is the type of multiplex every city should have. The structure is a lovely Art Deco gem that somehow still meshes pleasantly with the gorgeously-restored Victorian surroundings. How ironic that San Diego’s vibrant Gaslamp, now an upscale retail/nightlife hub, was originally the red-light district of a once-sleepy Navy town.

Founded in 2001 by Robin Laatz and indie filmmaker Karl Kozak, the festival is administered by the non-profit San Diego Film Foundation. During its brief existence the festival has screened over 900 films, culled from 10,000 submissions. Last year’s was a propitious event including a Gus Van Sant tribute, the addition of a “Native American Voices” screening series, and the expansion to a second venue – the ArcLight La Jolla.

Hosting SDFF 2013 was the celebrated critic Jeffrey Lyons. Veteran of New York’s WPIX and the PBS program Sneak Previews this amusingly ebullient Renaissance spoke before a screening of the justly-celebrated 12 Years a Slave. He’s led a varied and exhilarating life, so it was appropriate that he hosted – on closing night – Barbara Kopple’s latest feature doc, Running From Crazy. The film is an intimate look at the travails of the Hemingway clan. Primarily focused on the lives of the Hemingway sisters Mariel and the better known late, Margaux. Mariel is arguably the subject of the film, as well as its narrator. She appeared afterward for a Q & A moderated by Lyons, a longtime friend of the Hemingway family. The film itself is probing without seeming exploitative, revealing a familial history of deep depression which resulted in at least seven suicides. We can expect a theatrical release for this picture, and likely Oscar consideration.

The bulk of films consisted of short subjects, but several full length feature narratives were presented. Among them Markus Blunder’s quietly creepy Autumn Blood, stood out. The Austrian production was made odd by its characters’ usage of American-accented English. Despite its Alpine location, the film has discernible Western elements. It could have been labelled ‘New American Gothic’ except the story unfolds in Europe’s Alps, not the American Rockies. In it a teenage girl (Sophia Lowe, resembling a young Cate Blanchett) and her brother are orphaned in a tragic incident. Left to defend themselves against predatory neighbors, the drama evolvs in a loosely-populated landscape seemingly absent of legal authority. Nearly devoid of dialogue, it reinforced the visual imperative of cinema. The flashes of brutality only make the pastoral idyll of the siblings seem that much more precious. If one wants to get high concept about it, you could say that Autumn Blood is Little House on the Prairie meets Deliverance. At any rate, the film was moving enough to snag a Best Feature award.

Another stand out was The Jogger, an explosive treatise on masculinity and insecurity in a bland suburban setting. Co-directed by Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter, the film jaggedly inserts the dream life of a young husband’s bruised ego into the foreground. It forces the viewer to think on his feet and decipher what’s real from what’s buried in the main character’s subconscious. Our male lead is Paul, played with tentative, puppy-dog sincerity by Derek Phillips, best remembered for his role in NBC’s superior Friday Night Lights.

Only slightly less compelling was Martin Jablonski’s film Fallacy. This Teutonic production starring several familiar faces from German television programming is a pitch-black, cynical wallow of humanity. An enterprising, cheating husband’s choices create a chain reaction with tragic consequences for those around him. Impressively the versatile Jablonski served as director, writer, and director of photography on this microbudget effort.

Introduced by TV and film veteran Randolph Mantooth, the most anticipated work in the “Native American Voices” was the emotionally ambitious odyssey Winter In The Blood. The film was a raw, slice-of-life expose from the perspective of an alcoholic young native. The main character Virgil was played by a revelatory, charismatic Chaske Spencer. He struggles just to get through the day, never mind upward mobility. Helmed by Andrew and Alex Smith, “Winter” is buoyed by sharp cinematography. An inventive weaving of flashbacks into the contemporary story line accented by the occasionally whimsical stance is reminiscent of the late Robert Altman’s work. If there’s a weakness at all, it could be argued that it goes on longer than necessary.

Shorts were plentiful at SDFF 2013. Generally bundled into a specific series, the “Twilight Zone” program was especially well received.

A sample:

Auto Drive (Rory O’Donnell) – A young Briton converses with a surprisingly responsive voice in his car’s GPS device. This effective conspiracy thriller exposes the occasional dark side of technological progress, and serves as an allegory for labor exploitation.

End of The Beginning (Richard Marshall) – The deserts of the American Southwest set the scene for this dystopian tale of survival inspired by The Walking Dead and vampire mania. Elevated by Rainer Lipski’s able cinematography, and the sweet, expressive face of young Talton Browning.

Thirteen (Dan Jagels) – After a family is slaughtered detectives try to crack the mystery clueless to the horrifying truth. This is another example of a setting placed amid the sagebrush. Could this be a new sub-genre, the Cactus Opera? The wickedly good score was complimentedc by frightening sound effects from Adam Fazel.

The Ritual (Jesse Keller) – A desperate man utilizes ancient mysticism to restore what was lost. Melancholy, tragic, but at barely five minutes, much too brief. Keller should be encouraged to develop this into a longer piece.

Equally impressive was the shorts series “Push The Limit”.

The films included were:

Solidarity (Dustin Todd) – American Neorealism veers successfully into Ken Loach territory. Indeed, Bread And Roses star Elpidia Carrillo is featured in this apparent dig at capitalism. Warning: Certain scenes will inspire you towards vegetarianism. Where is Upton Sinclair when he’s needed?

Cold Warrior (Emily Greenwood) – Opening with pro-Soviet Triumph of the Will-type footage, this period piece depicts Ana(Eloise Littell), a Romanian gymnast just entering her teens. She becomes an unwitting pawn in her country’s quest for glory at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Layman regarding Olympic sport should be prepared for a shock.

Ticket to Hell (Enrico Natale) – A ragged, intense drama starring the sultry Ronnie Connell as Jimmy. This cash-strapped but resolute teen makes a few bad choices in an effort to help his mother. The film is decorated by an appealing, insinuating score from Scott Chesak.

Impress (Ranjeev Gill) – A darkly amusing dissection of office politics and cliques. The hapless drone Alan (Tom Cowles) tries vainly to befriend his snarky co-workers.

Motive (Rick Carmona) – A gritty, rainy, mean-streets noir about a drug bust gone awry featuring accomplished hand-held camerawork.

The San Diego Film Festival isn’t as renowned as some of its ‘colleagues’ in Los Angeles, but it neverless fielded an accomplished array of films. San Diego may not readily come to mind when one thinks of important film-going metropoli, but after the talent and versatility displayed by SDFF over the past decade it shouldn’t come as a shock if that perception begins to change as some of the over-exposed limelight of its more famous northern neighbor is stolen away by this hip, eclectic festival.