Until someone realizes that dream-team remake of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, there’s only one way to see Ashley Judd, Dolly Parton and Bettie Page on the same big screen—at this year’s Nashville Film Festival.
Judd’s film Come Early Morning, a small-town character study written and directed by actress Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy), was announced this week as the opening-night selection for the city’s 37th annual film festival, to be held April 20-26 at Regal’s Green Hills megaplex. Recently shown at Sundance, the drama joins a lineup of approximately 200 feature-length films, short-form narratives, documentaries, animated pieces and experimental works.
“We’re beat,” said NFF artistic director Brian Gordon, after a screening process that sorted through a record 1,700 individual submissions. But the eyestrain was evidently productive. In addition to the by-now unsurprising wealth of documentaries, Gordon says the festival expects an unusually strong showing for fiction films—even American indies, an area of concern in recent years.
Founded in 1969 as a showcase for experimental and independent films, the festival has undergone shifts in fortune and identity since the early 1990s. Over the past decade, however, it has emerged as the city’s biggest film event of the year—an attraction that draws more than 15,000 ticket-buyers, while positioning Nashville in the upper reaches of a crowded festival circuit. In recent years, that circuit has turned into an alternate distribution network that often provides the city’s only exposure to major works and talents.
The Notorious Bettie Page, a saucy biopic of the Nashville girl who became a pin-up icon in 1950s fetish magazines, leads the 20-odd feature films making their local premiere at this year’s festival. Directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho) and starring Gretchen Mol in a career-rejuvenating performance, the movie mixes silvery black-and-white camerawork with loving color re-creations of pulp men’s-mag covers, tracing the elusive Page’s rise to underground celebrity as the surrounding moral climate grew increasingly restrictive.
The festival also continues its recent emphasis on music films, starting with Tai Uhlmann’s For the Love of Dolly, a fond portrait of several die-hard Dolly Parton fans that explores the nature of celebrity worship and fan loyalty. The film is one of many in the festival with local ties, ranging from the German comedy-drama Almost Heaven—about a dying woman whose dream is to play the Bluebird Café—to Bridget Sutherland’s documentary Far Off Town—Dunedin to Nashville, which follows New Zealand punk legend David Kilgour through his Music City sessions with members of Lambchop.
The rest of the lineup mixes world masters and established talents with first-time filmmakers and regional up-and-comers, reflecting the balancing act of popular appeal and aesthetic merit that defines contemporary film-festival programming. Among the highlights of the just-announced schedule:
• The Sun, a tragicomic study of the disgraced Japanese emperor Hirohito that has brought Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov (Russian Ark) some of the best notices of his career.
• A Lion in the House, filmed over a period of six years by husband-and-wife filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (Seeing Red), who document the lives of five pediatric cancer patients and their families.
• Wassup Rockers, the newest feature by veteran provocateur Larry Clark (Kids), a portrait of Hispanic skater boys from a South Central barrio making their way home through uppity Beverly Hills.
• Wordplay, Patrick Creadon’s Sundance favorite about the subculture of crossword-puzzle junkies, featuring New York Times crosswords editor Will Shortz as well as puzzleheads Jon Stewart, Ken Burns and former President Bill Clinton.
• The Trials of Darryl Hunt, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s acclaimed documentary about a black North Carolina man railroaded twice for a grisly rape-murder and the 20-year effort to exonerate him. Hunt himself will attend the screening.
• “My Dad Is 100 Years Old,” a tribute to neo-realist master Roberto Rossellini on the occasion of his centenary, as conceived by his daughter Isabella Rossellini and incorrigible Canadian prankster Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World). The actress plays every role in the 17-minute short—except that of her father, who is represented by a talking stomach.
Gordon points to the diversity of the festival’s foreign-film lineup this year, which represents five continents from Australia to Africa. Among the local premieres are Black Brush, a well-reviewed slacker comedy from Hungary by Bela Tarr associate Roland Vranik; Look Both Ways, a Magnolia-like ensemble piece by Australian animator Sarah Watt; and Bab’aziz, a Tunisia-shot folktale scripted by the famed Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra, whose 50-year career includes Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Fellini’s Amarcord.
As expected, though, the documentaries remain the festival’s strongest program. This year’s roster includes six nominees for Sundance’s grand jury prize, including James Longley’s award-winning Iraq in Fragments and Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher’s So Much So Fast, an account of a man fighting the onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
These are supplemented by the music docs that have become a crucial part of the NFF’s identity. Scheduled this year are films on singer-songwriter J.J. Cale (To Tulsa and Back: On Tour with J.J. Cale), the late composer-playwright Oscar Brown Jr. (Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress), and indie-rock phenoms the Danielson Famile (Danielson: A Family Movie, which also features current sensation Sufjan Stevens).
In general, Gordon says the festival’s growing visibility has made it easier to attract films. Although the NFF wasn’t able to land some sought-after titles—Gordon pursued Tsai Ming-liang’s Toronto conversation-starter The Wayward Cloud with no luck—festival coordinator Mandy McBroom says submissions were up by 250 films over last year. Maybe that’s bad news for the NFF’s bleary-eyed screening committees. But it’s good news for us.