My 10 Favorite Festivals Of 2010

It was a grueling and exhilarating year. Last year from January to December I road-ripped in my van, the “Red Devil,” occasionally flew on airplanes, a few times rode on trains, sprinting across and around America, then over and around Europe, parachuting in on nearly 50 film festivals. It was a manic-depressive trip on the rollercoaster-roadway. One minute I was kissing the stars and the next I was eating asphalt. It was madness, but madness that made complete sense.

To understand America today, non-fiction books are giving fewer and fewer clues. Literature has become passé for making sense out of our national confusion. Nor will you find the soul of America in music. It was decades ago that the beat of our country was in its music. Nor will you find knowledge in the popular media — a mercenary beehive of stupendous shallowness. Nor will you find enlightenment in our mainline cultural institutions. Can anyone find the remote control?

OK, maybe some of that is too strong. Yet, for me, to penetrate the elusive meaning of America and grasp the country’s pulsating Zeitgeist — the spirit of our time — requires a convergence of mediums, the blending of disciplines, a synergism from media that produces something deeper than ink on paper and more insightful than a blabbering head at a podium. To grasp this multiple-headed monster called America, we need the layered complexity and simple depth that comes from the heavy reality of film.

Not any film, but powerful, independent film. Not from any filmmaker, but from those with the courage to swallow the bullet of sacrifice — commercialism is an engine for profit, not an avenue for truth — from those filmmakers with the audacity to tell the truth and flash the middle finger to compromise. When one foot is on each side of the line, there is no deeper understanding, only more confusion. And the one thing this country doesn’t need is more confusion.

Whereas the best and brightest in our history first went into politics, then the sciences, some claim then business, and finally the arts, today the best and brightest are racing into the art of film. Yet, the art houses are mostly gone. The commercial cinemas have locked their doors to truth-telling films. While Hollywood once spoke an occasional truth today it speaks entirely for profit. Film festivals, then, have become the exhibition venue for the film of truth. And to see these gorgeous, disturbing, engaging films of reality, I went road-ripping in the Red Devil.

My plan was to drop in on a few film festivals, road-ripping for maybe a month, and then return home to think it all over. Think about America and wrestle with our wacky national puzzle that each year becomes more puzzling. But the fests kept coming, and I kept going. January slipped into the spring, which became the summer, then the fall, and finally December. And when it was all over, it had been one grueling and exhilarating year.

Searching for a confused and lost national soul is never a short and easy journey. A brief jaunt and then laid-back contemplation on the sofa doesn’t lead you to that rainbow of discovery. You need to go to where the best and brightest are, dig, question, challenge, get angry and drunk, throw a shoe, and never forget there is truth and truth is discoverable. Today this means embedding in film festivals and hanging with independent filmmakers. It means road-ripping the festival circuit for a grueling and exhilarating year. There may be other ways, but this was my way. And my way made complete sense to me. Although for a whole year was a little nutty.

After a few months of hard road-ripping, the truth is, I was a pack mule carrying a cargo of jumbled impressions and splintered thoughts. I wasn’t sharp. After a few more bizarre months, I was a fireworks show of ricocheting emotions. Gas station attendants started looking at me rather strangely. Then I was hit by those dreaded and certainly embarrassing drools. I was a freak show. Not pretty. Prospecting for truth in America is always messy. And it’s getting messier.

But the experienced bounce back. The scrambled and jaded and those nasty drools are now on my back road. And just in time! The 2011 festival circuit has ripped out of the starting gate. Sundance is now over. And I need to wrap up 2010. Need to put that grueling and exhilarating year in my back mirror.

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This list of my ten favorite film festivals of 2010 does not purport to be a list of the best film festivals, not even the boiled down nuggets of an objective investigation into the subject. My choices are heavily subjective, although not totally subjective. And the list is certainly not comprehensive being based upon only 50 festivals from the thousands of film festivals throughout the world.

The ten festivals selected have several things in common. All had films that challenged and rocked — not merely a few films, but many films, and they not only rocked and challenged me, but many filmgoers. All had atmospheres that were intimate and warm and festive. And all had unique identities. Sometimes this identity was an outgrowth of the festival’s location, sometimes an outgrowth of a personal vision, sometimes a synthesis, but all were truly unique. The criteria for my favorite festivals, then, were strongly moving films in a great social environment with a unique festival personality.

As for those almost 40 festivals not chosen, many were good festivals, a few were excellent, yet all, it seemed to me, had shortcomings. Some fests were too cautious, programming films for everyone and therefore not electrifying anyone, or electrifying too few. Some were too socially stratified and erected walls where there should have been openness and free interaction. Some seemed to be most concerned about commerce and not enough about art. The too cautious, the too segregated, and the too focused on money were my three major complaints.

Here, in the order that I experienced them, are my ten favorite film festivals of 2010.

Sundance Film Festival
Park City, Utah in January
Sundance, what can one say? What screens at Big Dog is re-screened at hundreds of “puppy” festivals throughout the world. What is crowned at Big Dog shoots straight to the big-time. Well, one can also say Big Dog is a big pain. Perched high in the snowy Wasatch Mountains, the sidewalks are slip-a-thons littered with broken bones. The blistering wind peels pinkish skin off your face. The sardine-packed buses are jammed with pointy-tipped ski poles that gouge out eyes — more painful are Park City’s gouging prices. Yet, hell is no deterrent to the genuine cinephile. Masochism is their most refined art. The spirit of addiction runs deep in this crowd. And Big Dog does deliver. Sundance is one cinematic whopper of a gorgeous marathon featuring the world’s greatest independent films.

Big Sky Documentary Film Festival
Missoula, Montana in February
With the frigid northern winter nearly over its brutal hump, Missoula still doesn’t have much to offer — but Big Sky does! This docs-only festival with the catchy motto, “Where Reality Plays Itself,” has the largest non-fiction program in the United States, nearly 150 films. (Inexplicably, some of these excellent films simply vanish from the circuit.) To survive the heavy reality of serious docs in a town still wrapped in an ice cycle, festivalgoers get mercifully ripped. You’ll probably lose most of your liver, certainly a few tons of brain cells, but you’ll gain a whole bunch of great friends. This is ten days of intense and gripping documentaries, and 10 days of intense and hedonistic partying. At Big Sky, reality plays itself fantastically well.

AFI/Discovery Channel: SilverDocs Documentary Festival:
Silver Springs, Maryland in June
The “pre-eminent documentary festival in the US,” writes Screen International; “premiere showcase for documentary film,” writes The Hollywood Reporter; “non-Fiction Nirvana,” screams Variety. Silverdocs doesn’t need to mess with silly stunts and star fluff power. Its venues are fantastic — the restored AFI Silver Theater is grandness restored — and everything is in close proximity. The films are great, surging audiences from tears to that Nirvana. The Conference is a huge think-tank for industry and filmmakers. Festivalgoers intermingle easily which produces rich discussions. The daytime lounge that becomes the nighttime bar is tops. The festival elements, then, run from good to excellent to the best. A professional organization pulls everything together into one smooth operating machine of high quality without a glitch on the program.

Woods Hole Film Festival
Woods Hole, Massachusetts in August
Cozy, smart, engaging, jovial, and located in an idyllic village next to breezy Buzzard Bay on gorgeous Cape Cod and in the summertime — awesome! No screenings during the day, that’s beach time. In the evenings, the films range from the hilarious to the gut-retching with some powerful local products. The post-screening Q&A’s may be the best on the festival circuit. The audiences tend to be older and highly educated — the village has several oceanic and environmental research centers — most festivalgoers have houses in the town so the festival comes to them instead of them going to the festival. This is their comfortable turf. The total festival package of sociable events with strong films and engaging audiences in an ideal location make “the Hole” a real gem.

New York Surf Film Festival
Manhattan, New York in September
New York City is weird, but once a year it turns much weirder. The towering Manhattan skyscrapers turn into giant ocean waves, the city’s grassy green parks become pristine white beaches, and the taxis zipping around the city are actually surfboards. And Tribeca Cinemas has an outrageous beach party — Hawaiian shirts, cut-off jeans, leather sandals — fueled by a stupendous amount of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Seven Tiki Rum. Just before the screenings — this is a film festival, and an excellent one — there is a stampede to the theater, not for the cushy seats but for floor space to sit in the isle. The films are as local as the Jersey Shore and as far away as Australia and as old as 1960’s California classics. Urban Manhattan in juxtaposition with the surfing culture bursts everyone’s adrenaline higher as the films carry them farther away.

Coney Island Film Festival
Brooklyn, New York in September
There is the Freaks Bar, down the hall is a burlesque stage, upstairs in the Coney Island Museum is the screening room, and outside on Surf Avenue is a bumper car amusement ride that is the setting for the closing night awards ceremony. Intoxicated freaks, exhibitionist sex-addicts, bumper-to-bumper violence with honors — it’s the strange and seedy Coney Island. Not the underbelly of America, but a different belly. And there are the films. From Buster Keaton to Woody Allen to Dirty Martini, this delightfully whacked-out Brooklyn neighborhood on the beach has been a bizarre stage for cinema. The festival’s program jumps from art-house to horror house to zombie heaven to neo-burlesque to post-modern crazed. And what an audience! Two seats to my left sat Lou Reed, and to my immediate right was a stunning drag queen. What a festival!

Woodstock Film Festival
Woodstock, New York in September & October
Called “America’s most famous small town,” the village of Woodstock imbues this festival with a spunky irrelevance reflected in its motto, “Fiercely Independent.” Set in the colorful fall foliage of the Catskill Mountains with small craft stores lining Tinker Street and a legion of drums pounding rhythmically in the village square under the Woodstock Peace Pole, film enthusiasts rush past where Bob Dylan once lived and Paul Butterfield once played. Featuring some of the best in independent cinema, the fest draws a knowledgeable audience with a large industry contingent from New York City. The program is especially strong in films with musical themes and those focusing on social, political, and environmental concerns. There are lots of good panels, workshops, seminars, and a wild awards event. Everything is intimate and engaging — after all, it’s Woodstock.

Royal Flush
Brooklyn and Manhattan, New York in October
“Unique” and “original” and “one of a kind” don’t begin to describe this festival. The programmer, it’s rumored, attended film school on the planet of Pluto. The musical acts take “eclectic” to a whole new dimension. The stage shows still give me nightmares. Yet everything seems to harmonize — in an extraterrestrial, fractured, hallucinogenic way. When you feel a primal scream building, or need a heavy jolt to reset your brain, this is your hospital. With a bar inside the screening room, the Knitting Factory, and in the other venues, the anesthesia is always close. Yet, these festivalgoers — probably the youngest I have seen on the circuit — relish jumping into the abyss in any state. And what a fantastic jump! This is one weird and truly excellent festival.

International Documentary Festival Amsterdam – IDFA
Amsterdam, Netherlands in November in December
The world’s most prestigious documentary film festival shows a colossal 300-plus docs, many of which never make it to the States. The program is stuffed with the social-heavies that doc-addicts crave. The festival atmosphere, however, is relaxed, friendly, and unpretentious — not a snotty bone in its esteemed body — making it an excellent decompression chamber for those weighty films. (As are, more than one person attempted to articulate, the Amsterdam “coffee” shops where smoking decompression is legal.) The non-film schedule is unbelievably packed with delicious goodies: expert classes, panel discussions, public forums, nightly talk shows, daily drinking meet-ups and nightly parties into the wee-hours. It’s a grand triad: rich selection of heavy non-fiction films, easygoing and laidback social environment, and packed events program. This is a fest that lives up to its stellar reputation.

The Great Composite Film Festival
In My Head, and Anytime
This favorite film festival is swirling around in my brain, flashing, caressing. There are powerful images and warm memories from a slew of festivals converging into a beautiful collage. Right now I feel the cozy Mid-West atmosphere at True/False, then the youthful enthusiasm at the bustling South by Southwest … the cinephile-urbane delight at the New York Film Festival … the racial and ethnic diversity at Urbanworld … the pushing-the-boundaries mood at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival … the fledgling and gritty Atlantic City and the socially driven Harlem Film Festival … there are more, more fragmented snap-shots, more lovely remembrances from film festivals scattered throughout my grueling and exhilarating year. And they all come together into a blissful composite making it my best film festival.

2010 is gone, 2011 is here. I just wrapped up the starting gate, Big Dog Sundance. And now I’m hearing a whole pack of fests beckoning. The Cucalorus Independent Film Festival in North Carolina, which I hear is fervently defending the concept of “independent.” The Maryland Film Festival, which the festival road claims is demonstrating a regional festival can have a top notch film program. The Ann Arbor Film Festival that for decades has been taking audiences into the experimental dark and bringing them out into a brand new sunshine. The Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic that has earned the comeback kid award. The Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, Kansas leading the heartland and rising higher … the Global Peace Film Festival in sunny Orlando … the Anchorage Film Festival in frigid Alaska wrapped in the creed, “Films Worth Freezing For”….

Nearly 50 film festivals in one year, that’s just a tiny drop in a gorgeous bucket.

Stewart Nusbaumer served in the US Marine Corps in Vietnam and is a graduate of Vassar College. A journalist for several decades, Stewart has traveled in 108 countries, reported from more than 15 wars, writes about political campaigns and about film and film festivals.