Of course, it's not all doom and gloom. SDFF tends to have a strong documentary presence, and 2010 is no different. Waiting for Superman (see below) is a great get, and movies like Bag It and Dive! take a look at the world through a green lens. There are some great shorts, too, and some laughs to be found in the terrific Always a Bride and Make Up, as well as the locally made Amazonia and This is Charlotte King.
Here are five films that shouldn't be missed, especially the ones you might not get another chance to see outside SDFF:
Norman: There are a lot of films about grief in this year's SDFF, but few of them are as fun as Norman. Dan Byrd is Norman Long, a high-schooler who tells his best friend he has cancer in hopes of a little sympathy. Naturally, word spreads like wildfire, and next thing you know, everyone in school thinks he's sick, including his English teacher (Adam Goldberg) and the cute new girl Emily (Emily VanCamp). That sounds cliché, but it works because what everyone in school doesn't know is how much Norman actually does need their compassion. His mother is dead, his father (Richard Jenkins) is dying, and he's about to be all alone in a world that really doesn't understand. The movie is sincere and real and funny, and Byrd is terrific as a snarky kid who uses sarcasm to mask all the pain he's feeling. You know there's going to be a public comeuppance for the lies he's told—it is a high-school movie, after all—but by the time it happens, you care about him so much that you wish it didn't have to go down that way. This is also a true indie—at press time, even with Jenkins delivering another top-notch performance, it didn't have a deal in place. See it now. Norman screens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, and 3 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 3.
Just About Famous: How often do you see a short film that you wish had been a feature? Jason Kovacsev and Matt Mamula's Just About Famous is that short, a thoroughly enjoyable look at professional celebrity impersonators. The co-directors cut loose at a convention of “tribute artists,” as they like to be called, and while it isn't a surprise that they spend a few minutes with a guy who looks like Elvis, there's also great interviews with people who look just like Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil and, perhaps best of all, a dude who looks—and acts—an awful lot like Robert De Niro. Sure, some of them have screws loose, but these portraits are intriguing because so many of the subjects know that even though they have a real passion for what they do, they're also totally aware of how bizarre their jobs are. There's something satisfying about seeing all these people who look like famous people as part of a larger community. As the girl who looks a lot like Britney Spears says, outside the walls she's a freak; inside the convention, she feels normal. Of course, the fact that she says this in a thick eastern European accent adds just the right twist. Just About Famous screens at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 1, and 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, as part of the torn Short Film Series.
Waiting for “Superman”: When you think about An Inconvenient Truth, you conveniently think of Al Gore. Davis Guggenheim, the director (and husband of Elisabeth Shue), doesn't have quite as much name recognition, even though he's the guy who put that film together. Waiting for “Superman” is his new documentary, and it's sure to be a hot ticket—SDFF has the Sundance Audience Award winner prior to its October release date. It's about the U.S. education system and just how fractured and broken it really is. Guggenheim examines the issue from a number of angles, but most compelling are the kids he follows; they're sweet and funny and young and have no guarantees whatsoever. Sure, we all know that children are the future, and we all know the education system is messed up, but Waiting for “Superman” will help you explain exactly how it's screwed up and what you can do to make things a little better. Get educated. Waiting for “Superman” screens at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 1.
Delmer Builds a Machine: This short and sweet account of the most important thing that has ever happened has exactly the sort of twist and payoff you want in a short film. Delmer Builds a Machine screens at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 1, and at 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, as part of the Twist Short Film Series.
City LAX: Many of his students had never heard of lacrosse when Erik Myhren, a Denver teacher, brought them a bunch of sticks and balls to play with. That's probably because these kids, who are predominately African-American, live in the poverty-stricken, gang-infested inner city of Denver, and lacrosse is, let's face it, generally a sport played at Ivy League schools by white guys with names like Baxter and Chase. The kids in City LAX may have names like Trevon and Jaden, but they take to the sport, which quickly becomes central to everything they're about. Essentially, the film, the teacher, the coaches and the kids desegregate a sport that's largely been defined by race ever since the white man stole it from Native Americans. The look at the state of the inner city can be discouraging, but City LAX is extremely inspiring. It screens at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 1.
Morning has broken
Actor / director Leland Orser uses family in his emotional film about family
The name Leland Orser might not be familiar to you, but it's likely that his face is. He's the consummate character actor, whose interesting look and talent has translated into memorable characters in dozens of films and TV shows, including Se7en, Escape from L.A., Saving Private Ryan and The Bone Collector, as well as more than 60 episodes of E.R. He's also the director of Morning, the opening night film at this year's San Diego Film Festival, which marks his feature debut.
Orser stars in the film with Jeanne Tripplehorn, best known these days for playing the senior wife on the HBO polygamy series Big Love. They play a couple dealing with the immediate aftermath of their child's death. It's a painful, challenging film to watch, as Tripplehorn's character moves into a hotel and Orser's barricades himself in their home, each of them trying to deal with their grief in their own way.
Orser says an article about the low number of marriages that stay together after the death of a child was the film's seed. “It was a devastating number,” he says. “That fascinated me and disturbed me at the same time. I internalized it. You start to think about your own situation, and you wonder, What if. It's a ‘What if ' that you don't even dare to answer, for all sorts of reasons. You just don't want to go there. And yet, it haunted me.”
The result was a 2007 short film with the same title, which focused on Orser in similar circumstances. “When I was finished telling that story, I did the festival circuit, but I just didn't feel finished or satisfied,” he says. “At that point, I decided to open the story up. I knew the story outside of this guy's story, outside of the house. I knew where she was, I knew what was going on with her, and I knew what they had been like before. I basically opened it up to tell everything that I indicated in the short film.”
The movie also stars Laura Linney, Jason Ritter and Elliott Gould, but it's Tripplehorn— Orser's real-life wife—whom the film focuses on, and she plumbs some extraordinary emotional depths. It's a terrific role, and Orser says he's thrilled that he was able to keep Morning all in the family.
“She's the very first person who read the script,” he said. “It really affected her, freaked her out, definitely, but she's read thousands of screenplays, and she said, from a professional point of view, if this was presented to her, she'd do whatever she could to play this part.”
Morning screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept.29. Leland Orser will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A.
But wait, there's more!
Party Down: Having a cocktail or two is as much a part of the San Diego Film Festival as watching movies, and this year is like any other in the party department. The festival runs five days, and there are six parties scheduled—so, you get the idea. An All-Access Pass will get you into everything, and a Day Pass will open the door to that day's soirée. GQ will sponsor the opening-night bash, on Wednesday, Sept. 29, at the Se Hotel, and I'm particularly fond of the Filmmaker Social, which goes down Thursday, Sept. 30, at Analog. Visit sdff.org for a complete list of where and when.
Popular kids: There's no shortage of famous folk on the guest list this year. Confirmed celebs include Jenna Fischer and Kim Coates for A Little Help; morning's Leland Orser (see our interview feature above); Jason Ritter and Elliott Gould; Ethan Embry, who appears in The Kane Files; An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim, who's presenting his new film Waiting for “Superman”; and former La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff for Des McAnuff: A Life in Stages, a documentary about, well, Des McAnuff.
Think global, shoot local: San Diego filmmakers represent in this year's Local Love Short Film Series. I'll be on hand to present their work at the first screening, at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 30. Entries include This is Charlotte King from designer-turned-filmmaker Jeffrey Durkin, Sam Chen's animated comedy Amazonia and Johnny & Lyman: A Life Together from Paul Detwiler, a short documentary about a San Diego same-sex couple who've been together for 65 years.