Fifteen years ago, I attended my first-ever Maryland Film Festival —and several extraordinary things happened. First and foremost, Chris Noth (of “The Good Wife” and “Sex and the City” fame) totally flirted with me. Seriously, we locked eyes—27 feet apart, burning with unbridled passion across the popcorn-scented lobby of the Charles Theater.
I’m certain I didn’t imagine it.
I mean, his eyes clearly said, “That brilliant, fresh-faced ingénue has the aura of the next Carrie Bradshaw.” Or maybe he was just thinking to himself, “I’ll keep smiling until ol’ Squinty Eyes over there figures out that, yes, indeed, I am Mr. Big and goes back to her volunteer duties.”
However the moment happened, I’ll treasure it always—along with the empty Diet Coke can Barry Levinson handed me before he walked into that night’s screening. To this day, I still place my lips ever-so-delicately where the “Diner” director’s had been in hopes of channeling inspiration during any creative crisis.
Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! [Cue: needle-scratching-record sound effect]
Just kidding about the can. I recycled it like a normal person. But it just goes to show the funny details you remember about life’s firsts.
The brilliant thing about the Maryland Film Festival is that it’s entirely about firsts. Chances are, you won’t have heard of many—if any—of the movies being shown here this year. And that’s the point. For 16 years running, the extra-ordinary MFF staff has curated a robust schedule of independent, foreign and experimental films that rivals the Cannes and Sundances of the world. It’s the place where Kathryn Bigelow screened “The Hurt Locker” when Hollywood had all but given up on the (now Oscar-winning) film and Lena Dunham presented her pre-“Girls”-fame “Tiny Furniture” to a packed house of movie fans who had the pleasure of seeing the next big thing before she bared her soul (and body) on HBO.
It’s also a great venue to see big-time stars in small-budget flicks they do for kicks or indie street cred. Witnessing Danai Gurira (aka “Michonne” from “The Walking Dead”) play a Nigerian bride in Brooklyn who finds a very creative way to get pregnant without her infertile husband in last year’s “Mother of George” was nothing short of a visual miracle. And this year, I can’t wait to see Josh Lucas in what I’ve heard is a flinch-inducing performance about a dark-and-twisty relationship between two brothers in “The Mend.” (Although it’s certain to ruin his “pretty boy” factor.)
In short, the Maryland Film Festival is a hotbed of blooming creative genius—and you need to get in on this cinematic action, running May 7 through 11 at seven downtown locations in and around Station North, including the MICA Brown Center and (new this year) the Walters Art Museum. Here are my top tips for how to do the festival like a pro.
The Q&A session with filmmakers at last year’s Opening Night Shorts program.
Perhaps there’s nothing more indicative of MFF’s pioneering spirit than the choice to open every festival with a selection of short films. Opening Night Shorts is hands down, my favorite event of the year. These stunning capsule masterpieces never fail to inspire, like last year’s “Flutter,” a short documentary about a charming 76-year-old butterfly collector who spends hours each day chasing down silver-spotted skippers and sleepy dusky-wings. After just eight minutes, the audience was equally spellbound.
That same night, we also watched a comedy about two parents who send their young daughter into the forest to be raised by wolves…and she later eats them. (Won’t see THAT on the National Geographic channel!) So just know that you can always expect some humor and heartbreak on opening night, too.
LISTEN TO JOHN.
I’m not going to lie. Watching one of the films John Waters recommended last year single-handedly ruined my sex life for about three months. (Watch Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise: Love” if you want to see why.) But Waters temporarily redeemed me with the perversely brilliant “Paradise: Faith” (by the same filmmaker), which actually had us laughing aloud as a religious zealot flogged herself in front of a crucifix for the umpteenth time.
Each year, the mustached master (and MFF board member) hand-selects a favorite movie to present at the fest—from vintage cult and camp titles to contemporary ribald comedies and art- house dramas—and it’s an absolute blast. No surprise, Waters’ provocative dialogue always incites squeals and snorts from the crowd. And you might just catch him—along with other filmmakers and actors—for a convo over a nightcap at Club Charles after the show.
If you have the luxury of seeing several films at the fest, consider picking something that’s outside of your comfort zone—whether that means going foreign, going dark or going weird. This year, I’ve decided to geek out at a campy horror film (not usually my forte) titled “Call Girl of Cthulhu” by local D.I.Y. dude Chris LaMartina. According to the publicity stills, his leading lady’s breasts have…teeth—ouch!—so this should be quite an interesting ride.
Or check out two of the festival’s annual traditions: a vintage 3D movie shown in the original two-projector 35mm format or the Sunday morning silent film featuring live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.
Of course, for some readers, challenging yourself may simply mean walking into a venue that suburban moms might otherwise consider “sketchy” like the Windup Space, a funky little North Avenue bar that also hosts some of our favorite Stoop Storytelling events. And that’s OK. (As far as I know, owner Russell de Ocampo and his friendly staff don’t bite…unless you ask them nicely.) And don’t even sweat it if you’re considering sneaking out of work to watch a matinee on Thursday or Friday. (I’ll write your boss the world’s most perfect excuse note.) Also of note: solo-screening is a societal norm at film fests. You’ll fit right in if you happen to come alone. And you might just leave with a new movie buddy.
“Ping Pong Summer” director Michael Tully on location in Ocean City, Md.
While the festival screens films from all around the globe, there’s always a strong contingent of homegrown talent—and you’ll definitely want to catch at least one film made in Maryland (or by a fellow Marylander). The former high school beach-tag checker in me is, like, already, like, totally losing her mind over “Ping Pong Summer,” an ’80s-themed coming-of-age flick about summers spent in Ocean City, starring Susan Sarandon, Lea Thompson and Amy Sedaris. Note to filmmaker Michael Tully: I still have your “Septien” movie magnet (circa MFF 2011), compete with outsider-art genitalia, proudly displayed on my refrigerator.
On a far more serious note, in 2011 Baltimore native Matthew VanDyke picked up a gun—and a video camera—to join forces with Libyan rebels in their fight against Gaddafi. And, at this year’s festival, you can see his stranger-than-fiction story in the documentary “Point and Shoot.”
Filmmaker Joe Swanberg (second from left) at his “Drinking Buddies” screening.
If I had to pick just 15 seconds in time that sums up exactly why I adore the Maryland Film Fest it would be this: sitting one row behind actor/director Joe Swanberg during the screening of his star-studded comedy “Drinking Buddies” last year. There I was, sharing popcorn with my date, when we happened to look over and notice Swanberg’s face light up in the glow from the movie projector. He was laughing in unison with us over some clever remark Olivia Wilde had just made on screen. (Filmmakers…they’re just like us!) And you could totally imagine Swanberg recalling some on-set shenanigans with the cast and crew. My date squeezed my hand and gave me a goateed grin that said, “I just saw that, too.” And it was magic.
Dorky, I know. But really, that’s the joy and privilege of having this film festival in our hometown. This year’s lineup includes about 50 feature films and 10 short-film programs from around the world—and every U.S. feature film will be hosted by its filmmaker. Without question, stick around for the post-movie Q&A sessions, which are fun, intimate, and thought-provoking. Where else would you have the opportunity to chat up a cult hero like Bobcat Goldthwait, meet a normally reclusive director like Todd Solondz and engage a true-crime legend like Detective Patrick Kennedy who, sadly, died last year but gave a candid and fascinating presentation at MFF 2012 after a screening of “Jeff,” the Jeffrey Dahmer documentary. (Kennedy was the lead investigator on the case.)
This year’s fest will no doubt prove equally singular and moving, with highly anticipated newcomers like Darius Clark Monroe, who dissects the circumstances that led him to commit a bank robbery as a young man in his Spike Lee exec-produced film “Evolution of a Criminal.” Not to mention the return of swoon-worthy Swanberg, who will be screening his comedy “Happy Christmas” in which he also stars with the pitch-perfect Anna Kendrick and MFF alum Lena Dunham.
No matter which films you choose, be sure to thank the hard-working, over-caffeinated MFF staff and 400 volunteers afterward. And when you inevitably run into festival founder Jed Dietz around campus, just do like I do. Walk right up and tell him three simple words: I LOVE YOU. After so many years, he’s probably used to me doing it. But how wonderful if our entire city did the same?
Individual tickets (average cost, $10) are available online and at each screening location, as well as Tent Village located on North Avenue, between Joe Squared and the MICA Studio Center. Or buy an All Access Pass, $325, for unlimited movies and first dibs on seating. mdfilmfest.com
BEST OF THE FEST
At the time STYLE went to press, half of this year’s MFF selections were still a secret. Check out our official picks for must-see flicks at baltimorestyle.com/film.