Sassy, star-powered & socially responsible: 15th annual Woodstock Film Festival

WFF @Those Fiercely Independent folks are back, and if you move fast you can still get a piece of the onscreen action. Yes, this week marks the return of the Woodstock Film Festival (WFF) – its 15th incarnation, which makes it a venerable upstate cultural institution. But it hasn’t lost its indie/political edge, nor its Hollywood insider/outsider gloss.

For years, WFF has been conferring annual laurels to people in the film world – directors, usually – who embody the Festival’s core values of “creativity, independent vision and social activism.” This year’s Maverick Award honoree is Darren Aronofsky, director most recently of Noah and before that of Black Swan, The Wrestler and The Fountain. The presentation ceremony Saturday evening at BSP in Uptown Kingston will be a star-studded event: Actresses Natalie Portman and Jennifer Connelly, who have starred in several of Aronofsky’s films, will be the co-presenters. The director will also be spotlighted in a One-on-One Conversation at the Kleinert/James Art Center earlier that evening: one of a series of film-related interviews and panel discussions that the Woodstock venue hosts as part of each Festival.

New on the awards-night agenda this year is another honor called the Fiercely Independent Award, whose inaugural recipient will be producer/director/screenwriter/actor Mark Duplass. This year’s festival will twice screen Creep, directed by Patrick Brice but produced, coauthored by and co-starring Duplass. Another film that he produced, The Skeleton Twins, is currently making the arthouse rounds, and I gave one of his directorial efforts, Jeff Who Lives at Home, an enthusiastic review in 2012 (


Other opportunities to spot celebrities at WFF occur at events organized around the Festival’s historic emphasis on the relationship between cinema and music, as befits the history of its host town. WFF 2014’s kickoff show at the Woodstock Playhouse on Wednesday night, October 15, a screening of the documentary East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, will be followed by a live performance by Americana roots-rocker Steve Earle and the Israeli singer/songwriter who is the film’s focus, David Broza. A world music superstar, South African jazz horn virtuoso Hugh Masekela, will put in a guest appearance at the Friday evening screening at the Woodstock Playhouse of a documentary in which he appears, A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake; he will also participate in a Friday afternoon panel at the Kleinert called “Music as the Unifying Force.”

Other high-wattage names slated for panel discussions include playwright Tony Kushner, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and actress Melissa Leo. And the majority of the screenings are followed by question-and-answer sessions with directors, producers, screenwriters, actors and other people involved in the making of the film. A chance to pick the creative brains of the humans behind the big-screen product is a rare treat for the upstate cinephile, so make sure to leave a little time to stick around after the show.


What to see, and where?

You’re sure to find something of interest scattered among WFF’s 11 venues in Woodstock, Rhinebeck, Saugerties, Rosendale and Kingston.

Dozens of screenings of narrative and documentary features are on offer at the Playhouse, the Bearsville Theater, Upstate Films’ two cinemas in Woodstock and Rhinebeck, the Rosendale Theatre and the Orpheum Theater in Saugerties. And because the Festival needed a place with the high-tech projection capacity to screen Jon Bowermaster’s new environmental documentary Antarctica 3D: On the Edge in all its glory, a multiplex venue – Regal Cinemas, at the Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston – has been added to the list for the first time. Programs of edgy short films, both live and animated, will be screened at the Mountain View Studio in Woodstock on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Though WFF’s emphasis is non-commercial filmmaking, some features with bankable stars are likely to excite a lot of interest. Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the UK’s hero codebreaker of World War II and computer technology pioneer who was later prosecuted when his homosexuality became public knowledge. The cast of Jenna Ricker’s The American Side, a film noir involving a government conspiracy, blackmail and Nikola Tesla and set largely at Niagara Falls, includes Matthew Broderick, Janeane Garofalo and ’60s TV spy Robert Vaughn. Judd Hirsch plays a psychiatrist with an ugly secret in Michael Wechsler’s The Red Robin. And Rachid Bouchareb’s Two Men in Town includes stars Forrest Whitaker, Brenda Blethyn and Harvey Keitel, with Ellen Burstyn in a smaller role.