Eyes wide shut: Jarrod Whaley's colorfully named comedy of angst, Hell Is Other People, plays Cinequest 2010.

Cinequest at 20

Dennis Harvey February 21, 2010

Wasn’t it just yesterday that Cinequest was the scrappy upstart amongst Bay Area film festivals? Apparently not: This year finds San Jose’s annual cinematic blowout entering its third decade.

February may be the shortest month, but Cinequest is going longer nonetheless, at least for this 20th anniversary annum: The 2010 fest runs nearly two weeks, Feb. 23 through March 7, once again at venues all within three blocks’ walking distance in downtown SJ. (For those with a car-free carbon imprint, they’re about 20 minutes’ walk from CalTrain.)

As ever, the primary Cinequest mix is equal-parts heavy on both world premieres (mostly U.S. indies) and recent festival faves from around the world.

Returning special events include Wurlitzer-accompanied silent film at the restored California Theatre movie palace—this time highlighting two of the era’s German-expat greats, directors Erich von Stroheim and Ernst Lubitsch, via operetta-inspired MGM superproductions The Merry Widow (1925) and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg. Buried in the program but unmissable if you haven’t seen it before (or perhaps even if you have) is John Jeffcoat’s 2006 Outsourced, a sly cross-cultural comedy about U.S. telemarketing in India. Cinequest patrons have voted it one of their all-time favorite festival selections.

Also returning are a number of public panels and forums, this year including ones on new distribution models, 3D cinema, and comedy writing for both big and small screen. At press time the sole announced recipient of the festival’s Maverick Award was the Bay Area’s own Benjamin Bratt. He’ll accept that honor on March 4 and introduce a screening of last year’s Sundance-premiered La Mission, a San Francisco-set family drama that opened the SF International last year and very much draws on the Bratt family’s own pool of on-and-behind-camera talents.

Then there is, of course, the main program—a whole lot of movies, including no less than 22 world premiere features. Among the latter are critically acclaimed if still little-known local helmer Alejandro Adams’ latest Babnik; Jarrod Whaley’s colorfully named comedy of angst Hell Is Other People; Leena Pendharker’s coming-of-age piece Raspberry Magic; Friction, a semi-fictive tale from Cullen Hoback, director of prior Cinequest fave Monster Camp; Seth Owen’s Canadian voyeurism satire Peepers; and Greg Derochie’s agoraphobia-ridden thriller Solitary.

Documentaries making their public debut at Cinequest include at least two of notable local interest. Roger Weisberg and Vanessa Roth’s No Tomorrow is a sequel of sorts to their excellent 2004 Aging Out, which chronicled three youths (two of them Californians) whose newly adult legal status spelt the end of the foster-care support system they’d been largely raised by. One of those real-life protagonists was, tragically, killed soon after that film’s completion. To the makers’ further dismay, their doc became “evidence” in the subsequent murder trial, a sad postscript fully recorded here.

Even more local to Cinequest’s audiences is The Real Revolutionaries, Paul Crowder’s history of the individual personalities and technological breakthroughs that gradually turned much of the South Bay into that entity known as “Silicon Valley.”

Other notable doc premieres include Professor, a look at controversial U.S. academic Jay Holstein by director Daniel Kraus, whose Sheriff was a 2004 Cinequest highlight; Steven Meyer’s Buried Prayers, about an archaeological dig to find mementos hidden by WW2 prisoners beneath Poland’s Maidaneck death camp. Brian Jameson’s To Whom It May Concern celebrates Hong Kong-born actress Nancy Kwan’s trailblazing stardom in mainstream (The World of Suzy Wong, Flower Drum Song) Hollywood films, while John Sheedy’s The Tijuana Project follows six children who survive via scavenging a huge garbage dump just below the U.S. border.

International features run a wide gamut, encompassing a number of films that have already won kudos elsewhere, like Applause, with Danish fave Paprika Steen in a flamboyant role as a self-absorbed, self-destructive actress heading for full meltdown. Multinationally-produced Cooking History charts the last European century through its evolving culinary fads, famines and finessings. Then there’s noirish Amerindie The Square Canadian ensemble comedy Passenger Side; Chinese period piece The Robbers; Eamon, whose titular Irish protagonist is an alarmingly industrious tyke devoted to hogging mum’s attentions all to himself; Iranian Heiran, about a young bride’s difficulty adjusting to Tehran city life; and legendary French director Alain Resnais’ latest (at nearly age 90!) Wild Grass, starring my favorite French actor Andre Dussollier.

That last will probably turn up again for a regular run in Bay Area arthouses later this year. Likewise Cinequest gives you a chance to get a jump—won’t your book club be jealous?—on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, eagerly awaited film adaptation of the global Swedish bestselling mystery. Also coming soon to another theatre near you is critically raved-over documentary Sweetgrass, which pays tribute to one vanishing cowboy lifestyle of the American West.

Those looking for some starrier entertainment might consider the nostalgia dose of Becoming Bert Stern, profiling the photographer best known for his famous snaps of Marilyn Monroe. To glimpse some living celebrities, look no further than somber domestic drama The Greatest, which teams Susan Sarandon, Pierce Brosnan and An Education’s Carey Mulligan as a family in crisis. Brian Geraghty of The Hurt Locker plays a con man in over his head in the world premiere Krews, while more life-threatening intrigue awaits Matthew Modine (Birdy, Full Metal Jacket, Weeds), Adam Baldwin and The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis in former porn director Gregory Dark’s twisty Little Fish, Strange Pond.

There’s plenty more where all that came from, so pick up a Cinequest program guide or visit www.cinequest.org.

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