Twenty years of Woodstock Film Festivals. What does that look like, as a whole?
As another major hallmark arrives here in town, what are the Woodstock Film Festival’s highlights over the years, both maverick and community-minded?
It all started with an in-town splash in September of 2000. Barbara Kopple’s saga of Michael Lang’s three Woodstock events, My Generation, was the big screening event at what was still the Tinker Street Cinema (now Upstate Films Woodstock). Musically, the star was a concert celebrating a documentary on the great Qawali singer Nusrah Fateh Ali Khan at what was then Catskill Corners (now The Emerson Resort & Spa). A first-ever Maverick Award was given to renowned indie music filmmaker Les Blank…by D.A. Pennebaker (who passed away last month).
The WFF’s second year came the week after 9/11, with a slew of local films, a Bearsville Theatre gala featuring Marshall Crenshaw, Kate Pierson and others, a Maverick Award for Pennebaker, and the replacement of a final night musical act by local fill-in Levon Helm and his band.
2002 was marked by events featuring indie actress Parker Posey and producer Ismail Merchant; Liev Schrieber handed over an award to Tim Robbins. Films by Jonathan Demme, Todd Haynes and Gus Van Zant played, and the documentary Spellbound got a big boost. The next year, Woody Harrelson centered a big party at the Woodstock Artists Association galleries (and out back as well, where he is said to have centered a smoke-clouded second celebration of cannabis’ future as a legal substance). Peter Rowan gave a bluegrass concert at the Spotty Dog theme restaurant in Mount Tremper and new screening sites were set up at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck as well as indoors and outdoors up in Hunter (remember the old Mountain View Drive In?) John Sayles was everywhere and Shattered Glass, the first “fake news” films of what would become an era, was a hit.
Debra Granik splashed onto the international film scene in 2004 with her first film Down To The Bone, and Peter Gabriel came to town to give an award to Mira Nair. 2005 saw local actor/director Steve Buscemi feted, a heavy focus on political works (it was a hopeful election year, after all), and the festival started handing out Trailblazer Awards to influential industry insiders. A pattern was set, mixing a few new heavily-pegged features with a number of first works, transcendent documentaries, music cinema, and plenty of shorts, animations, and pieces by students. A tradition wherein each year’s roster would get announced at a boisterous big New York bash got started, at least for a while.
The festival’s star power just kept growing (Kevin Smith! Ethan Hawke! Richard Linklater! Keanu Reeves!) as screenings spread around the region, parties grew more selective and less boozy, and the awards started moving beyond actors to creative young directors and even more “Fiercely Independent” industry figures. Which meant more important films getting scheduled, and more submissions from up-and-comers.
For those in-the-know, names like Atom Egoyan and Gay Maddin (in one year… 2015), Darren Aronofsky and his stars Jennifer Connelly and Natalie Portman, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Julie Taymor — as well as recurring locals and festival friends Mark Ruffalo, Vincent D’Onofrio, Leon Gast, Peter Bogdonavich and many more — became as much a draw each autumn as the scheduled films, the rural Upstate ambience, and the always-fine posters utilizing the best of the Hudson Valley’s renowned visual arts scene.
“Over the past twenty years the Woodstock Film Festival has been in the unique position to bring thousands of films and filmmakers to New York’s Hudson Valley,” noted WFF Co-Founder and Executive Director Meira Blaustein of this year’s auspicious festival anniversary. “Working together with filmmakers and community members alike, we have brought attention to pressing social issues, offered platforms for talented new voices, spurred career opportunities, and continued to serve as a cultural, educational and economic engine to the region, and we are deeply grateful to all who have worked and collaborated with us…Woodstock is a name that has long conjured a spirit of artistry, progressive thinking, and independence, and true to its namesake, this year’s lineup reflects that.”
That line-up, which we’ll all be hearing more about (see Almanac Weekly, Page 3) up to the 20th Woodstock Film Festival’s October 2 through 6 run will include a film written by and starring Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy, on opening night; Cannes’ best screenplay winner Portrait of a Lady on Fire as the festival centerpiece, and Noah Baumbach’s celebrated new Marriage Story on closing night, as well as a 20th anniversary free pre-festival community event on Tuesday, October 1 in the form of a community screening of Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams’ The Apollo at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston.
Guests? This year’s honorary Trailblazer Award recipient Abigail Disney, actors Matt Dillon, Rosie Perez, and Karen Allen, filmmakers Julie Taymor, Rebecca Miller, Pamela Yates, Alex Smith, Robert Stone, Marshall Curry, Ellen Kuras, Ron Nyswaner, and Joe Berlinger; folk music icon Janis Ian and legendary world musician Simon Shaheen (both in concert).
How’s Woodstock and the rest of the area changed after 20 years of such high-powered creativity? Can you even imagine an autumn, now, without the WFF?