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REPORT: Little Rock Film Festival

Best Southern Film of 2012:

The Annual Oxford American Prize

One of our favorite festivals is the annual Little Rock Film Festival, which last weekend successfully launched and completed its sixth year. We love many things about it, including the core leadership of Brent and Craig Renaud, who, besides being visionary administrators, are visionary filmmakers. A small section of one of their artistic visions, the documentary Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Iraq, appeared on a mix tape of films that we put on our 2008 “Best of the South DVD 2.”

The Renauds are hardly the only essential Fest people nor are they the Fest’s only cofounders. But they are central to the Fest, and central to them is their day-job work as filmmakers.

Here is the trailer to the Renaud Bros.’ Off to War doc:

Beyond our general approval for the Fest, we have a selfish interest for loving it. For three years, we’ve been honored to participate as judges (and money-suppliers) for The Oxford American’s Best Southern Film contest. The winner is chosen from a small group of nominations winnowed down from a larger group consisting of all the Southern films at the Fest. The Renauds and The OA choose the nominations and then The OA, after much in-house debate among staffers and a few writers, chooses the winner. The winner gets a check for ten thousand clams and this award:

This year’s winner was selected from a tough field of Southern fiction films and documentaries.

The nominees were:

  • The red-hot Beasts of the Southern Wild, a must-see film for, among other things, the jaw-dropping acting of Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Harris. This film was voted “Crowd Favorite” by the moviegoers who attended the Little Rock Film Festival. Its director is Benh Zeitlin, who will be heard from again and again and again. 
  • Tchoupitoulas, a cinema-verité stunner by the brothers Bill and Turner Ross (directors/editors) that brings to mind the best of the Maysles Brothers’ work, like the masterpiece Salesman, and the best of Frederick Wiseman’s docs, like the masterpiece Juvenile Court
  • A Sister’s Call by the directors Kyle Tekiela and Rebecca Schaper. This movie starts off simply before evolving into a complex, unforgettable documentary of piercing honesty.  
  • Honorable Mention: The Mayor, by the director Jared Scheib, who uses an old folks’ home in Dallas, Texas, to give us a clear pulse of humanity. As with A Sister’s Call, this doc is one of those lucky few that, once viewed, sticks in the mind like only the deepest, truest art can. 

And the Winner of The Oxford American’s “Best Southern Film of 2012” Is: 

Pilgrim Song by the director Martha Stephens. A film of fiction, Pilgrim Song indelibly follows up the director’s 2010 Passenger Pigeons—and how. Even great movies cannot always pull off, with utter consistency, the vision they have for themselves. Pilgrim Song is an exception to the rule. In following the angst of a music teacher named James (Timothy Morton), who responds to being laid off from work by hitting the Appalachian Trail for a summer-long hike, Pilgrim Song manages to be both quiet and utterly penetrating in its interests and insights. Even though he sports a different style, lead actor Timothy Morton might be the new Bill Murray by dint of having pinpoint comic timing and by subtly allowing his character to open up before us even while said character strains mightily to hide his utmost feelings and perceptions. Morton is not the only star of the movie: three characters he meets along the trail—a park ranger played by Earl Lynn Nelson, a single father played by Bryan Marshall, and his son (Harrison Cole)—all turn in stunning performances. Director Stephens, a native of Kentucky, who teaches special-education kids in West Virginia when she is not making beautiful movies, is clearly the major force here. She can find the humanity in any flawed human being. The air-tight script was written by Stephens and her chief collaborator Karrie Crouse, who also shows fine acting in her role as James’s lovely and loving girlfriend, Joan.


Important Pilgrim Song Note:

Next week, Natalie “Smith” Elliott, our “Miss on Scene: The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile” columnist, will contribute a deeper analysis of Pilgrim Song as well as an interview with its young director. Ms. Elliott, who has just announced her engagement to an OA-approved young gentleman named Pippins, will soon be leaving the states for a little country called Italy. Luckily, she will not be surrendering her “Miss on Scene” throne and will write her column from overseas.

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