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28th Philadelphia Film Festival Wrap-up

2019 Philadelphia Film Festival

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The Best of the Philadelphia Film Festival 2019

The Philadelphia Film Festival occupies something of a unique spot among American festivals in major cities. 

Owned and operated by the Philadelphia Film Society, the festival is not a market, nor does it offer many world premieres of major films. The films that do have their premieres there are usually locally based, and the majority of the headlining films each year have debuted earlier at Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, Venice, or New York. 

However, situated as it is in late October, most years it is able to offer a virtual whos-who of movies will then be competing for Oscars a few months later. Last year, the festival had Best Picture winner Green Book, and in 2016 it offered both La La Land and Moonlight.

This year’s PFF, the 28th, had most of its major showings at the Philadelphia Film Center, the PFS-owned Center City venue that was known until a year ago as the Prince Music Theater, while the rest of the screenings were held at two of the Landmark Ritz Theatres in the Old City section. Philadelphia is seriously lacking in downtown movie screen real estate, although a big new AMC theater is scheduled to open soon, a few blocks away from the Film Center. 

This year’s Philadelphia Film Festival had over 100 films; I saw about 30 of them.

The nominal opening night film (on October 17) was Just Mercy, an earnest but not especially original death penalty drama starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. But the film that got everyone talking in the festival’s opening days was Parasite, South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s fantastic dark comedy that screened earlier that night as part of the “Masters of Cinema” program. 

Parasite, which sold out the Film Center, was the best film of the festival; the next-best was Knives Out, director Rian Johnson’s delightful whodunit starring a standout cast that includes Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and many others. Johnson appeared for a red carpet and Q&A, telling a touching story about the actor Ricky Jay, who had been scheduled to appear in the film but got sick, and was replaced by his friend M. Emmett Walsh. 

The big event films at PFF are called “galas,” and this year’s lineup included a long list of long-awaited films that will hit theaters and Netflix in November and December. The lineup, in addition to Just Mercy and Knives Out, included Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes and Trey Edward Shults’ Waves. 

These films mostly met expectations; I saw all except Jojo Rabbit, Two Popes, and Waves. Motherless Brooklyn was much more impressive visually and sonically than in terms of its muddled plot, and while The Irishman was mostly loved, some in attendance had some quibbles with some of the Philadelphia references, as the Schuylkill River is much wider than the film makes it appear. Marriage Story is a well-acted, superlative film, although it’s hard to imagine watching it again.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

In addition to Parasite, the Masters of Cinema section included new films by acclaimed directors from around the world, and highlights included By the Grace of God, French director Franҫois Ozon’s examination of a real-life case in which a group of men struck back against a molestation cover-up in the Catholic Church, and Céline Sciamma’s beautiful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the low-key tale of a forbidden lesbian romance in 18th century France that was both much shorter and much less exploitative than Blue is the Warmest Color. Also wonderful was Varda by Agnès, the former film by master French filmmaker Agnes Varda, which looked back on her own career. I, unfortunately, missed the new films by Terrence Malick, Ken Loach, and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.

Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow was another highlight in the “Spotlights” section, though I was less enamored with the bizarro Paradise Hills, from director Alice Waddington. 

Scott Z. Burns’ The Report is an intriguing look at the Bush-era torture program, and the Obama-era reluctance to do anything about it. That showed as part of the “State of the Union” program of politics-themed films. Other highlight of that section was Dror Moreh’s The Human Factor, a highly illuminating documentary in which American negotiators from the Israeli-Palestinian peace prospect of the 1990s both told funny stories and lamented the failure of their work. I also learned from the film that Yasser Arafat was a big fan of The Golden Girls?

The Philadelphia Film Festival has competitions, although most of the major films showing there don’t compete in them. The winner of this year’s narrative feature prize was May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts, a Danish film whose plot about a woman having an affair with her stepson sounds like something that would show up on Pornhub, although the film itself is actually quite lovely. Clemency, another film about the death penalty, took the local feature award, while the audience award will be announced later.

Clemency was part of the “Filmadelphia” section of local releases, which also included Maybe Next Year, director Kyle Thrash’s fan-focused look at the Eagles’ Super Bowl run two years ago, and The Nomads, a feature directed by Brandon Eric Kamin that told the story of a local rugby team. 

Speaking of local sports, Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons executive-produced the documentary The Australian Dream, and appeared on the red carpet along with several teammates, while the team’s general manager, Elton Brand, was in the house for Parasite on opening night. As Brand (himself a sometime movie producer) is 6’9,” I feel sorry for whoever had to sit behind him. 

The Red Penguins team (Philadelphia Film Society)
The Red Penguins team (Philadelphia Film Society)

The documentary program was somewhat lackluster; with Citizen K, Alex Gibney once again has made a documentary telling a more boring version of a fascinating story, although filmmaker Gabe Polsky’s Red Penguins is a more entertaining film about a different aspect of Russia.

There were also screenings of several vintage titles, including Takashi Miike’s Audition, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Albert Brooks‘ Defending Your Life, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet. The rationale for choosing those particular films was either that someone in the cast recently passed away (i.e. Rip Torn, in Defending Your Life) or a new 4K print happened to be available.

Among the most buzzed-about films from the later part of the festival (though I did not get to see it) was Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables. No, not the musical with Javert and Jean Valjean, but rather a different French story, based on the director’s earlier short. That’s getting an Amazon release later this year. 

Ultimately, the 2019 festival offered a very strong lineup, which will be remembered, most of all, for the film that began it: Parasite.

Ranking the best of the festival: 

1. Parasite

2. Knives Out 

3. The Irishman 

4. Marriage Story 

5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire 

6. The Report

7. Swallow

8. Motherless Brooklyn 

9. By the Grace of God 

10. Harriet 

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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