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Stephen Holt reports from Provincetown

Is Oscar Listening?
Provincetown Film Festival Wrap-Up 2011

by Stephen Holt

Film Festivals are often most succinctly defined by their locations, and nothing is more distinctive than the glorious locale of the Provincetown International Film Festival, now in its’ 13th year. And growing in importance and prestige every year. This year’s honorees included Oscar Nominees Vera Farmiga and director Darren Aronofsky, for Achievement in Acting and Director on the Edge, respectively.

The tiny seaside community, perched on one of the easternmost tips of the U.S. of A. at the tail end of Cape Cod is virtually an island. Surrounded on three sides by water, it certainly feels like one. It is isolated from the mainland, difficult to reach, exotic as hell and delightful as heaven.

But the trip is definitely worth the trip.

This smart, sharp, challenging Festival never disappoints. All the films I saw there I can wholeheartedly recommend and applaud. I was waiting for a downside, or a bump in the road, and this year, there never was one.

And there may even be a couple of Oscar contenders in the mix. Is Oscar listening?

This is also a Film Festival that is run by women, and women directors and films about women, and family topics were front and center this year. But the families involved were all very Modern Families, to be sure, most of them featuring at least one GLBT member.

The Opening Night film set the tone. “The Perfect Family” starred Kathleen Turner in a truly change of pace role as Eileen Cleary, a repressed and depressed devout Catholic homemaker and mother. She is having major doubts and difficulties with her grown daughter (Emily Deschanel)’s lesbianism and her impending nuptials to her partner (Angelique Cabral), which according to rigid Catholic Dogma is forbidden.

Kathleen’s character is also up for the Catholic Woman of the Year award and the bishop is coming to call…AND her son (Jason Ritter) is an alcoholic and so is her husband. And this is a comedy!

First time director Anne Renton was wisely let the great Turner ground and move this film. And Turner returns the favor by giving one of her best, most vanity-free, screen performances ever. A frumpy, dumpy downtrodden housewife, she isn’t, but she makes you believe she is, and engages you in her struggle to do the right thing. Whatever the confounding religious predicaments she finds herself in might be. The funniest line in the film -Turner: “I’m a Catholic! I don’t have to think!”

Is Oscar listening? Turner has been nominated, but never won. But unless this film gets major distribution by some place like Focus Features, Turner’s extremely worthy Oscar-bait-y performance may go unseen.

Focus Features IS behind Christopher Plummer’s sure-fire Oscar shot in writer/director Mike Mills’ entrancing “Beginners.” Plummer is a widower who comes out at age 75 after his wife’s death, and begins to lead a gayer-than-springtime life as the happiest homo ever. And this disturbs HIS grown son, the sensitive, introspective Oliver (Ewan McGregor). But not that much.

It is Oliver’s attitude of compassionate acceptance and understanding of his newly flamboyant dad, Mel, that makes this film groundbreaking in its’ quiet, whimsical way. (Oliver’s dog speaks in hilarious subtitles.)

And Plummer is simply magnificent in a career-capping role that has everything Oscar calls for ~ He’s gay. He’s in his 80s (in real life). AND he has Focus Features backing this tremendous turn all the way to the podium. Not the least of which is their wise decision to put him in Supporting Actor, a category he will almost surely win in.

An Oscar nom for Best Doc is certainly in the wind for my personal Provincetown fave this year “Page One: Inside The New York Times”. An extremely positive view of what goes on inside the Grey Lady is made memorable by the film’s center character David Carr, who initiated the Times’ first dip into the Oscar pool with “The Carpetbagger.” He is not doing it any more, but he is doing plenty, as this film so deftly and even amusingly shows.

If Mark Twain was alive today, I think he would be David Carr, who is as salty, original, and admirable as they come. “Page One” details the unexpected collapse of Old School Journalism and newspapers in particular as the Internet surges and continues to take readers and more importantly advertisers away. With soldiers like David Carr fighting the battle, “Page One” makes the case that, the New York Times and its’ rigorous journalistic standards is here, despite everything, to stay. And they make an enjoyable, watchable story out of it, too.

Other unlikely family dramas were being played out quite marvelously in the Abigail Breslin starrer “Janie Jones” and the Weinstein Company’s “Submarine” which is now in general release.

“Janie Jones” gives a new meaning to the word “heart-warming” as adorable/awkward tween Breslin is suddenly dumped on her deadbeat dad, a burnt-out punk rocker played by Alessandro Nivola, in what is surely his best screen performance to date. Breslin and Nivola’s two-step is a delightful pairing and both sing up a storm as they grope and grapple their way to some kind of understanding and, yes, that word again, “acceptance.”

Janie Jones” is edgy, not saccharine as this material in lesser hands might be, but director David M. Rosenthal has done a very good job in balancing the two extremes in this touching, charming, and well-acted film.

“Submarine” has the Weinsteins’ behind it. It’s British or rather Welsh, and it, too, is heart-warming, but in an entirely Anglo way. The witty, intelligent screenplay really is the star here, and also a possible Oscar nominee, as we witness this yet ‘nother coming of age story, that is rendered with finesse, insight, and a great, great deal of quirky humor by first time director Richard Ayoade.

“Weekend” another British film was an extremely graphic depiction of a one-night gay stand turned into something much more. And something the two young men weren’t expecting – love.

“Project Nim” detailed the life and sad times of what was probably the most intelligent and educated chimpanzee ever, Nim. Yes, he is taught to communicate and sign, but no, he still cannot speak. And yes, he’s still a wild animal. But he’s very, very engaging and more intelligent than most of the humans who are care-taking him. “Nim” raises questions and is unforgettable in its’ depiction of a science experiment that goes horribly wrong.

Another doc chronicling a social experiment of sorts is “Splinters,” which follows the introduction of surfboarding into an island culture of Papua New Guinea, which is not really ready for the Western transformation the sport of surfing is going to bring to their remote seaside village of Vanimo. ANOTHER first time filmmaker Adam Pesce, makes a very strong debut here, as he chronicles the ill effects on these islanders of their dreams of competing in the inaugural Papua New Guinea National Surfing Titles.