Film festival: 'A pretty good year' for FilmColumbia

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FilmColumbia, the film festival that IndieWire called "one of the East Coast's best-kept secrets," returns to the historic Crandell Theatre in Chatham, N.Y., for its 18th season.

Peter Biskind, the festivals executive and artistic director, said that the scope of the festival has changed from its original mission, which was to focus on regional filmmakers.

"It quickly became apparent that there weren't enough local filmmakers to put together a festival year after year," he said.

The festival — which kicks off today and runs through Sunday — expanded to the entire Hudson Valley, then stretched from New York City up to Montreal, and it started to get offers of screenings. Film distributors were coming to them and Biskind wasn't keen to turn down the offers, which began a new way of looking at the festival — from then on, the only criteria the festival would have was that it would show the very best films it could get.

"When we started, we were lucky to get a few big-name films and the rest of the stuff was kind of mediocre. It takes a long time to build a festival like this and once you get a reputation for showing quality films it just gets easier and easier every year and the films get better," Biskind said.

For the second year in a row, FilmColumbia honored a special guest in the industry, and this year Frank Langella receives that honor. Langella has a long film acting career and most recently he's had a recurring role in the television series "The American," which Biskind says he's addicted to.

"He's a great actor," Biskind said. "He's not like a star who you're always aware of the celebrity quality of the person who's playing the role. He loses himself in the roles. His Nixon in 'Frost/Nixon' is quite amazing. And he's a chameleon and he can play all sorts of parts, which he has. He's just a masterful actor."

As part of the tribute to Langella, select films from his career, including "Diary of a Mad Housewife," "Frost/Nixon," "Starting Out in the Evening," and the 1977 version of "Dracula," were shown this weekend before the official opening of the festival, with Langella appearing at the festival's kick-off cocktail party.

Also appearing will be James Ivory, who wrote the screenplay for the film "Call Me By Your Name," which will be shown at the festival. Ivory will appear with author Andr Aciman, whose novel the film was adapted from, following the screening, and the festival will close with a new print of Ivory's 1987 film, "Maurice."

One noticeable trend in the festival is foreign films, which Biskind said have become more dominant over the years as he has found the American independent film movement faltering.

"At first, they were mostly films from Europe, but now a lot of other countries have started to produce really quality films, like South Korea, Iran, Turkey. We've thrown the net out much farther," Biskind said. "We have films from all over the world now."

Biskind is particularly proud to show Michael Haneke's new film, "Happy End." The festival has shown every film Haneke has ever made and Biskind is happy to continue that tradition with this new release of the German director's challenging output, which stars Isabelle Huppert and follows the darkly comic dramas of the Laurent family.

Among the other featured foreign films are Turkish-German director Fatih Akin's "In The Fade," a revenge thriller about a hate crime; "Face Places," a documentary by Agnes Varta about the director's road trip through France; "The Square," a Swedish production and this year's Palm d'Or winner at Cannes, which satirizes the art world and stars Elisabeth Moss.

Among the other films being shown are "Suburbicon," a George Clooney-directed film from a Coen Brothers screenplay starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore; "The Leisure Seeker," with Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland; and Richard Linklater's new film, "The Last Flag Flying," starring Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell. There are a total of 40 films showing this year, not including the several shorts screenings.

"To some degree, you are at the mercy of what's out there and there are good years, and better years, and less good years," Biskind said. "This turned out to be a pretty good year."

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