After weeks and months of barely a trickle of interesting movies, we suddenly find ourselves swimming in them.
That flood of celluloid goodness is due to two local film festivals arriving this week — three, really, since one of them includes a festival-within-a-festival — and all of them are devoted to bringing us the sort of ambitious international and independent filmmaking we see all too rarely around these parts. As veterans of these festivals will tell you, though, the vast majority of these movies will screen only once, will probably never show up again in a local theater, and many of them won't even be available on DVD. So grab them while you can.
One of these festivals is already in progress, although it's thoughtfully saved some of its very best stuff for last. The Tampa International Film Festival, which began last week, continues through Feb. 11 at Sunrise Cinemas (with a pit stop at the Education Channel on Feb. 9 for that aforementioned festival-within-a-festival, the annual Independent Film Night).
The week's other big event is the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival, which rolls into town from Feb. 8 to 20 at Muvico Baywalk, Sunrise Cinemas and other venues around the Bay area. It's the 10th anniversary for this popular event, a milestone in an area where film festivals are notoriously fragile propositions, and considered institutions if they're able to survive even two or three years.
TBJFF is an event that likes to balance its movies with a healthy dose of schmoozing — and that's exactly what's on the agenda for Wednesday, Feb. 8, when the festival celebrates its 10th anniversary with a lavish opening-night gala at the St. Pete Times Forum. The festivities begin at 8 p.m. with a collection of Jewish-themed short films (highlighted by the clever West Bank Story, in which singing/dancing Israelis and Palestinians do their very best Sharks and Jets impersonations). There will also be a special presentation by acclaimed director Dan Katzir, several surprises, and (because this is a Jewish film festival, after all, so you know there's got to be food) munchies galore.
A short film program of a different stripe takes place that very same night over at Sunrise Cinemas, where the Tampa International Film Festival keeps the fires of cinema alive with a collection of recent shorts from France at 7 p.m. Following at 9 p.m. is The Porcelain Doll, a film from Hungary that is reportedly one of TIFF's more bizarre offerings. I missed this one at the most recent Toronto Film Festival (where it had more than a few critics scratching their heads), so I'm looking forward to finally catching up with it.
On Thursday, Feb. 9, there are more choices to be made. Over at Muvico Baywalk, the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival holds a 7 p.m. screening of A Cantor's Tale, a documentary detailing the long and colorful tradition of the "chazzan" (singers of traditional Hebrew prayer songs). Meanwhile, on the other side of the Bay, TIFF and the Education Channel team up for the Independents Film Festival, a popular, award-winning annual showcase of the very best in homegrown cinema from the Bay area and beyond. The festivities kick off at 7 p.m. and will likely continue until the last person is left standing.
TBJFF shuts down on Friday night for the Jewish Sabbath, but TIFF (are all these acronyms driving you nuts yet?) forges on with Cleopatra (7 p.m.), an Argentinean dramedy about two mismatched females on a road trip, followed by the brooding, black-and-white angst-fest Fallen from Latvia (9 p.m.). This might just be the festival's most schizophrenic double bill, with the first film as conventional and blandly breezy as the second is somber and existentially tortured high-art. Both are probably worth a look, but be aware of what you're getting into.
The Jewish Film Festival returns on the evening of Saturday, Feb. 11, with a double bill of contemporary screwball comedies from around the world. It's a toss-up whether the award for wackiest dysfunctional family on the planet goes to the Spanish-Hebraic brood in Only Human (7:30 p.m.) or the Jewish-American family in When Do We Eat (9:30), but you may not really want to spend time with either. Despite a trickle of appealing ethnic color, both of these films basically replay too many self-consciously quirky familial comedies we've seen over the years. The gags work sporadically, but each movie tries way too hard to convince us of how zany its characters are and winds up reducing them to caricatures.
Feb. 11 is also the closing day of the Tampa International Film Festival, and, if all goes well, Indian filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta will finally make it to Tampa to introduce a 2 p.m. retrospective of his films. There's a lot of anticipation surrounding this event, as Dasgupta was scheduled to open the festival last week but had to cancel when he ran into last-minute visa problems. By way of making it up to festivalgoers, TIFF has arranged a special forum at Sunrise Cinemas at 5:30 p.m., during which Dasgupta will speak about film production in India and chat with the audience. The event is free and open to the public.
If all of this activity has a down side, it's that TIFF's final day is so jam-packed that moviegoers might have to make a few hard decisions — that 2 p.m. Dasgupta retrospective, for instance, takes place at exactly the same time as MOSI's free screening of the philosophical cine-essay The Ister, Part 2. It's smooth sailing from there, though, ending in a flurry of activity with a 7 p.m. screening of the Italian crowd-pleaser But When Do the Girls Get Here? and a 9 p.m. screening of the fiercely austere examination of faith Le Neuvaine (The Novena). French Canadian filmmaker Bernard Emond is expected to fly into town to introduce his film and stick around for the post-screening festivities.
That's one festival down, but the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival rolls on through the week with a full plate of movies. TBJFF will only screen one film on Sunday, Feb. 12, Live and Become (1:30 p.m.), but it might just be the best thing you'll see at this year's festival. This acclaimed French-Israeli co-production exposes the frailties of various cultures as it tells the story of an Ethiopian boy who passes himself off as Jewish in order to get out of Africa and in to Israel. Lead actor Sirak Sabahat will participate in a special Q&A session after the screening.
There's much more to come over the festival's final week, including award-winning films from Belgium, Germany, Israel and France, highlighted by the Bay area debut of one of the most talked-about movies of the year, Protocols of Zion (Feb. 19, Sunrise Cinemas). You're probably already feeling overwhelmed with information, though (I know I am), so let's wait until next week for the rest of the details.