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Small films got big notice at area festivals

The locally shot "Mystic River," which brought Clint Eastwood and his stellar cast, including Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, and Laura Linney, to the streets of Boston, is reaping end-of-the-year awards and seems headed for multiple Oscar nominations. But there was other action on the local film scene, albeit with smaller budgets and less marquee flash.

Several notable local films were recognized with awards from area film festivals. "Little Erin Merryweather," an oddball thriller shot in Bridgewater by Emerson College grad David Morwick, was named best fiction feature at the Woods Hole Film Festival in August. Local comic Fran Solomita's tribute to the Boston comedy scene of the '70s and '80s, "When Stand Up Stood Out," showed widely this past year and earned documentary honors from the festival. "Winter People," a short, gothic film by local filmmakers John Stimpson and Mark Donadio, earned an award in the best fantasy category.

Other films with local connections that enjoyed premieres at area festivals this year included Brookline native Dan Akiba's first film, "My Brother's Wedding," a 36-minute documentary, screened at this year's Boston Jewish Film Festival. Writer-director-producer Cheryl Eagan-Donovan premiered "All Kindsa Girls," her documentary about the band the Real Kids and its founder and frontman, John Felice, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in June as part of the Boston Film & Video Foundation's "Meet the Director" series.

Two other music documentaries also drew kudos from film and music fans alike: "Metal," written and directed by Alice Cox, about the lively music scene in Allston, and Somerville resident Brendan Clarke's documentary "Nobody Knows," a chronicle of the Boston-based rock band Fooled by April and its attempts to crack the big time.

In other premiere screenings, Sudbury native and West Roxbury resident James Carroll's documentary "The Nobska," about the nation's last coastal steamboat that took passengers from New Bedford and Woods Hole to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, debuted, appropriately, at the Woods Hole Film Festival, and Hingham natives Josh Mitchell and Patrick Ryan's short "Cell Phones and Action Figures" played in the New England Film and Video Festival.

Other young filmmakers who continued to draw attention in 2003 were Medford's Chelsea Spear, who this year completed her fourth and most ambitious short film to date, "The Hidden," set during World War II and inspired by Homer's "Odyssey." Spear also curated indie short film programs at Zeitgeist Gallery and at River Gods in Cambridge. Andrew Bujalski proved he is a local guy to watch as his "Funny Ha Ha" was nominated this month for the "Someone to Watch Award" from Independent Film Channel's prestigious Independent Spirit Awards, to be announced in February. Finally, two veteran and well-respected names on the local film scene, programmer David Kleiler and producer Laura Bernieri, launched the Circuit, a plan to showcase notable films that failed to secure distribution. The plan is to offer 30 venues a menu of 30 films, half of which will be directed by New England filmmakers.NEW KID IN TOWN: A new, much-praised effort joined Boston's many film festivals this year. The Boston Independent Film Festival reportedly drew 10,000 attendees to the four-day event in May that showcased 40 films and earned praise from film buffs and critics (it was recently cited by the Boston Society of Film Critics) for exposing audiences to worthy films without distribution.

SPECIAL GUESTS: Other film festivals had their moments this year. Director Jim Sheridan brought his latest, much-anticipated new film, "In America," a chronicle of a young Irish immigrant family, starring Samantha Morton, to the fifth annual Boston Irish Film Festival.

Italian director Liliana Cavani ("The Night Porter") made a rare US appearance at the 11th annual Boston International Festival of Women's Cinema with her latest, the little-seen but engrossing "Ripley's Game," based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ("A Room With a View," "Howard's End," and this year's "Le Divorce," among others) was honored by the Nantucket Film Festival, also in June.

Cambridge native Joan Ackermann (daughter of former mayor and longtime activist Barbara Ackermann) attended the Boston Film Festival in September with "Off the Map," adapted from her stage play by Campbell Scott, who directed. The fifth annual Roxbury Film Festival in August brought in actress CCH Pounder, whose many screen credits include the hit TV series "The Shield"; actress Victoria Rowell ("Diagnosis Murder," "The Young and the Restless," "Eve's Bayou"); and writer-producer-director Neema Barnette, whose "Civil Brand" was the festival's opening night film.

STELLAR SERIES: Among the notable series at the area's premiere film institutions was the Harvard Film Archive and Goethe-Institut Boston's collaboration in April for "The RAF's Germany: Terrorism, Politics and Protest." German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven" from 1975 and "The Third Generation" from 1979 were among the highlights.

The HFA paid overdue credit to American documentary filmmaker Charlotte Zwerin, who codirected landmark films with the Maysles brothers and on her own, with the retrospective "Charlotte Zwerin: Straight, No Chaser." The MFA screened new prints from the canon of Dorothy Arzner, Hollywood's first female studio director, including the little-seen "Working Girls," "Merrily We Go to Hell," and "Dance Girl Dance."

Austrian-born actress Romy Schneider was the worthy subject of major retrospectives this past fall at the Harvard Film Archive, the Boston Public Library, the French Library and Cultural Center of Boston, and Goethe-Institut Boston.

TRIBUTE: The experimental film world lost a giant this year in Stan Brakhage, who died in March but left behind nearly 400 films over his 55-year career. The Harvard Film Archive hosted a 16-film retrospective in May. Also in May, Video Balagan at the Coolidge Corner Theatre organized a retrospective curated by writer Fred Camper of Chicago.

SCREENS AROUND TOWN: The Brattle Theatre kicks off its 2004 calendar with a return engagement of the Czech Horror and Fantasy film series that concluded Dec. 21 at the MFA. From Jan. 2-8, the Brattle will screen the expressionist horror and fantasy films and shorts from Czechoslovakia made between 1964 and 2000, including "Valerie's Week of Wonders," "Who Killed Jessie?," and the shorts program.

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.

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