The Best Scenes From the 19th Sarasota Film Festival
by Gus Mollasis
Diane Lane could not have been more smart, beautiful and generous with her time. Her film, Paris Can Wait, was an enjoyable and sumptuous closing night film, while her conversation with journalist Joe Nieumaier at Florida Studio Theatre was simply the best give-and-take Q&A I have witnessed at any of the Sarasota Film Festivals — and I’ve covered all of them.
As Rory Kennedy roared into town on the opening night of the festival, she caught a big wave of support for her riveting documentary about an iconic and innovative surfer, Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, a perfect opening-night film.
In between opening and closing nights, I hung out with my film posse, frequented parties and special talks, and saw close to 75 films that included many shorts, documentaries and narrative features.
It’s all about the film for me, and each year the Sarasota Film Festival continues to attract filmmakers from around the world who have new, fresh and diverse voices.
So, now that I’ve had time to consider the films I saw in the two months since the 19th Sarasota Film Festival ended, here are my top 19 film picks. Only two rules apply. I had to see the film, and I had to be inspired by it — so much so that over time it could — and would — stay with me. Some are shorts. Some are animated. Some are documentaries. Some narratives. My only regret is that I couldn’t see every single film presented.
19. Lemon (USA) — A comedy feature directed by Janicza Bravo. Something about the irreverence and honesty of a middle-aged acting teacher’s life unraveling after his girlfriend leaves him struck my funny bone and tickled my sweet-and-sour film taste buds.
18. Return to Sender (USA) — This animated short by Ringling student Catherine Bailey displays great storytelling and the latest technology in this romantic tale of a guy and girl getting together thanks in part to the US mail.
17. The Grand Illusion (USA) — A short documentary by director Preston Mack. Clever and entertaining, it’s about how a team pulls off the old hidden ball trick during a college baseball World Series game. A must for all baseball fans.
16. $4.59 (USA) — NYU short entry by director Lasse Ulvedal Tolboll about a wife, a husband and misunderstandings in a grocery store intrigued me in Tarantino-like way. “Misunderstandings in a Grocery Store” sounds like it could be Quentin’s next film.
15. Last Shot (USA) — Animated short by Ringling student Aemilia Widodo is yet another brilliant and original display of filmmaking by a Ringling College student who takes a creative look at the feelings of broken camera.
14. Sweet Love (USA) — A short documentary by Stephen Crompton about a retired man named Alvin living in an adult living facility in Florida. His past as a producer in softcore porn makes for an interesting past as he lives the remaining days of his future. Poignant, powerful and a sweet film.
13. The Hollow Coin (USA) — Short documentary by Frank Heath. Man loses nickel in pay phone; seeks customer service. Chaos and frustration ensues assuring empathy and your money’s worth of entertainment.
12. 10 Dollar Perspective (JAMAICA-USA) —
Keith Donovan directs this fascinating eye-opening documentary examining what an Alexander Hamilton ($10) means to the people who live and survive at the largest garbage dump in the Caribbean.
11. California Dreams (USA) — Director Mike Ott’s look at five unique people pursuing their Hollywood dreams is at times fun, frustrating and fascinating, which can explain the diverse feelings from the audience who screened it with me. Smiles, laughter and walkouts were a plenty. In the end this quirky tale did enough to win me over and believe in their dreams.
10. The Silence (Italy-France) — Narrative short directed by Farnoosh Samadi and Ali Asgari. Poignant and powerful story of dutiful daughter who must translate while her mother visits the doctor. Her silence is deafening and unforgettable.
9. This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous (USA) — Master documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, a great friend of SFF, paints another captivating story of a real person — You Tube Star Gigi Gorgeous. It’s a story about fame, family and chasing one’s dream, but ultimately, it’s a story about love and acceptance of each other and ourselves — no matter who we are.
8. On Time (USA) — Xavier Neal Burgin directs this eight minute narrative short about a desperate mother who’s late for a job interview and one very big decision that she must make before time runs out. Handled with a delicate touch that made me wish it was 100 minutes longer.
7. Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton (USA) — Accomplished documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy offers an incredible look at the colorful and innovative life of master surfer, Edison-like entrepreneur, and industry innovator Laird Hamilton. At times poetic, poignant and powerful, the film will sneak up on you like one of those big waves he attacks with a zest for life that is awe inspiring.
6. In the Radiant City (USA) — This powerful narrative feature, directed by Rachel Lambert, masterfully tells the domestic tale of how a family deals with a murder, complicated by the animosity felt by one brother, who lives with the consequences of testifying against his own brother, who committed the act.
5. The Hero (USA) — Director Brett Haley follows up his impressive 2015 hit I’ll see you in My Dreams with an equally powerful and poignant tale about a washed-up Western actor (Sam Elliot) battling cancer — and his personal demons — with the help of a lifetime achievement award and the company of a young woman. Good guy Sam Elliot gives a heroic and Oscar-worthy performance of a man seeking redemption and one last shot at leaving behind a legacy.
4. Last Men in Aleppo (Denmark-Syria) — Directed by Firas Fayyad and others, this documentary takes a stunning look at the remaining residents of Aleppo. You can feel their fear and struggle as they try to survive. Sadly, a story that is precisely and perfectly designed for the documentary genre. Heartbreaking, unsettling and unforgettable.
3. Abacus: Small Enough To Jail (USA) — Master documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) tells the personal story of Thomas Sung and his family, and the hell they went through in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as their mom-and-pop-run Abacus Federal Savings Bank becomes the sole US Bank indicted for mortgage fraud. A story of survival, Abacus shows how one family’s love for each other is their greatest asset and how their tenacity and commitment to fight together for justice is something they always could and always will be able to bank on.
2. Bon Voyage (Switzerland) — Director Marc Wilkins has created a masterpiece. We instantly become engaged with a pleasant couple who are sailing the Mediterranean when they are confronted by refugees and a test of their moral compass and conscience. As good as it gets. Riveting. Compelling and masterfully told. Only flaw is the length of 21 minutes. It needs to be made into a full-length feature.
1. Axis (USA) — The directorial debut of Aisha Tyler is a revelation in every way. Brilliantly written, filmed, edited, directed and acted. It is the story of a man named Tristan (Emmett Hughes, who is also the screenwriter) whose life is falling apart for an array of reasons. As he battles insecurities and drug addiction while feeling alone and abandoned, the viewer takes the journey with him on the ride of his life. The fascinating thing about the film, aside from the fact it was made for about $200,000 and shot entirely inside a car, is that it could have been longer. Seriously. It’s not merely a gimmick or trick pony film. Like the film Locke starring Tom Hardy, which is also shot entirely in a car, Axis is a great film filled with suspense, drama and even some laughs, making for one hell of a cinematic ride. You’ll empathize and sympathize with the lead character about his life, which has been turned on its axis. Brilliant in every way, it proves to anyone listening in Tinsel town that all you need to tell a good story is a good script, a good actor, a good director, and some guts, and you’ll have a film that will move any audience.