Oh, sure, there's Sundance and Cannes and Toronto and all those other "big" film festivals. Who needs 'em?!
Wait, that's too harsh. We do need them. They're great festivals. I'm sorry. Let me start again.
Oh, sure, there's Sundance and Cannes and Toronto and all those other "big" film festivals. They can all die in a fire!! (Ugh, that's still too harsh, but it's too late, I'm going with it.) Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the Oxford Film Festival, held in the charming northern Mississippi town that is home to Ole Miss, John Grisham, and a lot of things that William Faulkner touched or slept in. Oxford's fest isn't as glamorous or star-studded as the giant festivals, but if we're talking about pure, unfiltered love of movies, it competes quite well, thank you very much.
I was part of the shorts jury. This was my fourth time; I guess Oxford likes the way I judge people's shorts. The festival, which launched in 2004, has steadily gotten better, each year an improvement on the last. They showed six narrative features this year, seven documentary features, 57 shorts in six categories, and three music videos -- all crammed into three days of screenings at the local multiplex, with a few at one of the city's music venues. (Like South By Southwest and Sundance, Oxford is gradually taking over its host city.)
I wasn't able to see everything, but everything I saw was worthwhile. Here are a few flicks to look out for.
- The jury winner in the Narrative Feature category was Perfection, a bleak drama about a woman who lives with her crazy mother and cuts herself. (I think we've all been there.) Christina Beck wrote, directed, and stars in the film -- it's an expansion of her 2004 short Slice -- and also received the festival's Lisa Blount Memorial Acting Award. Perfection would not have been out of place at Sundance, and I mean that as a compliment.
- In the Documentary Feature category, the winner was Keith Shapiro's Rhino Resurrected, a breezy and entertaining look at L.A.'s legendary record store and offbeat music label, Rhino Records. If you listened to Dr. Demento on the radio back in the '70s and '80s, you heard about a million things from the Rhino catalog. (Remember "Fish Heads"? Of course you do.) Shapiro told me he expects to have some trouble getting clearances for all the music used in the film, but I hope that doesn't prevent a distributor from picking it up.
- From England -- where I'm told they also have a city called Oxford -- came Frontman, a funny mockumentary about an old rock band reuniting after their lead singer dies. Written and directed by Ben Hyland, the film is a cross between This Is Spinal Tap (of course) and The Full Monty, with some simple, genuine sweetness mixed in with the frivolity. It'll be on DVD in the U.K. at some point; as far as I know, there's no deal in place yet for the U.S. But I do know that Hyland is about to shoot his next feature, Terry and the Bear, about a stand-up comedian with an imaginary friend.
- The prize for best Narrative Short (one of my jury's categories) went to G.B. Shannon and Ryan Parker's Fresh Skweezed, a lovely little story about an 11-year-old girl running a lemonade stand in the trailer park where she lives. I don't know what will become of the film -- shorts don't have as many options as features -- but check out the website for more. Haley Parker, the girl who plays the lead, is a firecracker.
- In the Documentary Short category (my other group), we chose Rory Fraser's Saint, a slightly unsettling look at a mixed-martial arts fighter who's also a born-again Christian and insists Jesus was more of a tough dude than he's usually given credit for. We weren't sure whether Fraser knew how nutty the guy seems, but either way, it's a compelling doc. (You can see a 3-minute trailer here.)
The advantages that a small, regional fest like Oxford has over the big fests are obvious to anyone who's been to both. Oxford is small enough that festival parties -- open to jurors, journalists, filmmakers, and badgeholders -- are actually fun to go to. Instead of 500 people being crammed into a loud, swanky club with no food and maybe a couple complimentary drinks (Sundance, bleh), you have 100 people at a house party, with abundant food and drink provided by local sponsors. None of the filmmakers are famous enough yet to be aloof, so everyone mingles.
It probably goes without saying that small fests are much easier for regular movie-lovers to attend. (The irony of the giant, prestigious festivals is that the bigger they get, the harder it is to actually see any movies there.) Oxford was well-attended and has good support from the community, but you still could have walked into any screening two minutes before showtime and gotten a seat.
You see, these lesser-known film festivals are the hidden gems of the movie world. I'm not going to claim that the overall roster of movies at Oxford is as good as the lineup at a typical Sundance, but the difference between them isn't as great as you might think, either. If you're a film buff who can't afford to travel to the top festivals, you would do well to check out whatever is happening in your own backyard. Just about every medium-sized American city has a film festival of some kind, and you can see a lot of interesting stuff that you might not catch anywhere else. Oxford is setting a good example of how a festival can be small without being insignificant. Why not see if you can help your local fest do the same?
(Note: The Oxford Film Festival paid for its jurors' plane tickets and hotel rooms. While the festival undoubtedly wants press coverage, there was no agreement, spoken or unspoken, that I would write anything in exchange for the trip. My only obligation to the festival was to do jury duty, which I did, and which I was awesome at.)