A movie buff who wants to see the biggest, most comprehensive film festival of the season should choose:
a) South by Southwest in Austin, Texas
b) Tribeca Film Festival in New York
c) Wait until summer and hit the Los Angeles Film Festival
The correct answer, of course, is d) none of the above. In terms of sheer volume, the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, with a bigger-than-ever slate of 190 features, leaves its higher-profile rivals in the dust. MSPIFF 2011 offers one-third more choices than does SXSW or L.A. and beats Tribeca by more than 2 to 1.
In an era of belt-tightening, MSPIFF, one of the nation's longest-running and most highly attended film festivals, continues to expand. With something for virtually every type of movie lover, the 29th edition is an event designed for voracious, terminally inquisitive film geeks.
This year's lineup is a cavalcade of Mosts, Largests, New and Improveds. The program, opening Thursday at the five-screen St. Anthony Main Theatre, is the first 22-day run since the event began in 1983. The programmers have pushed to include more diverse fare. A sidebar on film music, a strong slate of French movies and programs on ecological sustainability and current affairs were created "to reflect the interests of the community, but in a different way than in the past," said Susan Smoluchowski, the new executive director of MSPIFF's parent organization, the Film Society of Minneapolis and St. Paul. "This is a big music town, and one interested in different types of films from all over the world."
MSPIFF's ambition and scope are reflected on opening night, which offers not one but three distinctly different kickoff films. New York Times media columnist David Carr and documentarian Andrew Rossi will be on hand to present their film "Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times" Thursday at 7:30 p.m. For sports fans there's "Score: A Hockey Musical," a skating-singing extravaganza starring Olivia Newton-John as an overprotective hippie mom whose son (Noah Reid) wants to scrap on ice. Reid will be present to introduce the film at 7:45. And since it wouldn't be a Minnesota festival without Scandinavian titles, at 8 it's "Troll Hunter," a Norwegian horror-action pseudo-documentary that was a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
The festival will give audiences an early peek at Japanese provocateur Takashi Miike's elegant, ultraviolent samurai blockbuster "13 Assassins," the spectacular Bollywood romantic action epic "Raavan" and Gerard Depardieu's literary biopic "Dumas," one of 10 features from France this year. A showcase devoted to abstract experimental film will present work by Lebanese-born University of Minnesota film professor Hisham Bizri and "Free Radicals," a cavalcade of avant-garde shorts scratched on film stock and scored with bongos.
Music-related films include "The Sound of Noise," a Swedish fantasy about music school dropouts using their mad sonic skills to disrupt society, and "Kinshasa Symphony," a doc about central Africa's only orchestra and how it interacts with the cacophonous sounds of that city.
More parties, bigger staff
MSPIFF will feature evenings of live music and DJs as well as food, drink and afternoon conversation with filmmakers in its Festival Central Pavilion. To you and me, that's the big party tent that will stand beside the riverfront Thursday through Sunday. During the day, moviemakers such as Morgan Spurlock ("The Greatest Movie Ever Sold") are expected to stop by and talk about their latest projects. After dark, local bands including the Roe Family Singers and Total Babe will perform. There will be off-site parties, too, at such nightspots as Nick & Eddie, Kieran's and the nearby Aster Café.
The program's new vitality reflects a behind-the-scenes shakeup. Octogenarian Al Milgrom, who founded the film society in 1962, nurtured the festival from its debut as a four-day weekend in Stillwater to its current powerhouse status. Now the organization has been re-christened the Film Society of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and Milgrom has a new portfolio.
Ryan Oestreich assumed day-to-day programming duties at the group's St. Anthony Main headquarters. Smoluchowski, a former Minnesota Film and TV Board staffer with a background in nonprofit management, took on executive and fundraising duties. Milgrom, freed of organizational chores, now can play to his impresario strengths, visiting far-flung film fests to discover new talents. The fest also has been revitalized by new staffers whose Top 10 lists lean more to emerging talent than old masters. The result is more risk-taking, more audacity and, everyone hopes, more fun.
Tradition is honored, though, in the festival's biggest-ever selection of films with Minnesota ties. The lineup is mind-bogglingly diverse. There's producer Annie Sundberg's "The Bengali Detective," a nonfiction charmer about an Indian gumshoe who dreams of singing and dancing his way to fame on a national TV talent competition. Director Chad Frederichs looks at the history of an infamous St. Louis public housing complex in "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth." And the closing-night feature is "Stuck Between Stations," a Minneapolis-shot indie romance with Sam Rosen, Zoe Lister-Jones and Josh Hartnett, with scenes filmed in the St. Anthony Main Theatre complex itself. You can't bring hometown moviemaking much closer to audiences than that.