San Jose, California: Miles of shuttered storefronts and half-vacant high-rises define the streets of downtown San Jose, punctuated every so often by one of those seedy dive bars with hookers loitering out front and Johnny Cash on the jukebox. Okay, it’s not quite that bad, but this sprawling suburban metropolis doesn’t exactly compete with the sun-drenched boulevards of Cannes or the snowy, picturesque avenues of Park City; still, San Jose apparently has one of the world’s top 10 film festivals … at least according to some guy named Chris Gore. “You can find the future of film at Cinequest,” Gore wrote in the 2001 edition of his Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide. At the festival that prides itself on being the most “maverick” event on the circuit, I’m on a mission to figure out the real deal.
Even in the dismal city it calls home—which, despite having a population of over a million, still doesn’t have a single decent music venue—Cinequest has managed to land some heavyweight stars for its Maverick Spirit Award tributes. One year there was Kevin Spacey and Gabriel Byrne—no doubt there are perks to having “Usual Suspects” director Bryan Singer on the board—another year had Jennifer Beals, then Spike Lee, Val Kilmer, James Woods, Sir Ian McKellen (at the height of his LOTR fame, in all his Gandalf glory) … hell, last year Cinequest booked the Governator himself for an event (even mavericks gotta sell tickets, yo). This year critics were eager to see who organizers had up their collective sleeve for the big 15th anniversary edition, and on February 2, Cinequest announced another British knight—Oscar winner Ben “Gandhi” Kingsley—was waiting in the wings. Over 12 days, there’ll also be accolades given to lesser-known peeps like Blanchard Ryan (Open Water), one-legged Ghanan bicyclist Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah and Coen Brothers regular Jon Polito.
Since it’s housed in Silicon Valley, Cinequest’s always found a way to salt in some techno-nerd stuff into its program. New this year is an audience-programmed series called Viewer’s Voice, which screens three shorts and three features selected by the public using Cinequest Online, the festival’s Internet screening room. Actually, Cinequest Online is a pretty snazzy little service; even from my office in San Diego I get monthly video broadcasts from Cinequest delivered to my desktop, plus a handful of shorts and features available to watch on my computer. And we’re not talking crappy MPEG quality videos; this technology is for real. The geeks at Silicon Valley’s Kontiki figured out how to pull this off; they’ll reveal how it’s all done at the company’s discussion on Distribution and Delivery Strategies. Palm and Panasonic will also give presentations during closing weekend as part of the DXD (short for Digital-by-Digital) Technology section. (Full disclosure: Film Threat is sponsoring the “Digital Effects on a Dime” forum).
Next Friday, Cinequest will announce the winner of the fest’s second annual screenplay competition. A newly added day of writers’ workshops rounds out the offerings for scribes; also new are producers’ panels—including Christopher Coppola and disty reps Ivan Oyco (Spyglass) and Brittney Ballard (New Market), among others—and a silent film tribute. The silents will screen at one of the festival’s new venues, the freshly restored California Theater, which comes complete with a pipe organ.
As I step off the plane on Day Three, I’m looking forward to the next nine days of scandalous after-hours parties (you’d be surprised the lengths filmmakers go for fun in a town with so little nightlife), surprise star sightings and—oh yeah, maybe I’ll even squeeze in a few of them talkin’ pictures while I’m at it.
Here are a few flicks folks are already buzzing about:
My Big Fat Independent Movie: No, Chris didn’t make me write about this just ‘cause he’s a producer. The buzz on this indie spoof is legit. It’s got rabbis, lesbians, trombone-playing hipsters and—hello?!—Bob Odenkirk! What’s not to love?
Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley: Nyla Adams and Laurie Trombley’s documentary on the late songwriter with the gut-wrenching falsetto is up against 11 others in the Maverick Documentary Competition.
Clorox, Ammonia & Coffee!: Cinequest’s programmers have developed a fondness for Norwegian films lately, as evidenced by the inclusion of this Robert Altman-esque dramedy by Mona J. Hoel.
Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party: Robert Brinkmann documents the birthday of ubiquitous yet invisible character actor Stephen Tobolowski (“Memento”, “Adaptation”, “Mississippi Burning”). Brinkmann’s wife, Mena Suvari, also stars in this digital feature.
Duck: French Stewart and Philip Baker Hall star in Nic Bettauer’s narrative about a retired professor looking for a reason to live. Bonus: Leonard Cohen, eels and David Byrne did the music.
One of the best film festivals in the world? I gotta admit I’m a little skeptical. But Cinequest’s 15th edition definitely shows promise. Tomorrow I’ll be checking out the Sexy Beast himself, scoping the scene at My Big Fat Indie and hopefully talking some whiskey-swilling filmmaker into buying me a shot at the corner dive. Stay tuned.
Maya Kroth is music editor for SignOnSanDiego.com, a frequent contributor to SF Weekly and a huge fan of indie films and the greasy-haired boys that make them.