Ang Lee, Cynthia Nixon Honored at Provincetown Film Festival

Photo Courtesy of Mae Gammino/PIFF
Cynthia Nixon and Ang Lee at the Provincetown Film Festival

The 18th annual Cape Cod film event presented audience awards for best narrative feature to Anne Fontaine's 'The Innocents' and for documentary to 'The Music of Strangers' and 'Political Animals' in a tie.

The 18th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival concluded Sunday, with the HBO Audience Awards going, for narrative feature, to The Innocents, and for documentary, in a tie, to The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble and Political Animals.

Also during the festival at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the previously announced 2016 Filmmaker on the Edge Award was presented to Ang Lee, while this year's Excellence in Acting Award went to Cynthia Nixon.

A France-Poland co-production directed by Anne Fontaine, The Innocents (Agnus Dei) is a post-WWII historical drama inspired by true events, about a young French Red Cross worker who discovers a Warsaw convent where several nuns raped by Soviet "liberators" are now in the late stages of pregnancy and facing a crisis of faith. The film will be released in the U.S. by Music Box Films.

Morgan Neville's The Music of Strangers follows world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his international music collective on their mission to inspire cross-cultural connections. The Orchard has U.S. rights. Political Animals, directed by Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares, is a portrait of four lesbians elected to the California legislature whose tireless work yielded anti-discrimination protection for LGBT people.

The John Schlesinger Awards for first-time filmmakers also were presented, going for narrative to actor-turned-director Remy Auberjonois' tense drama about an American female veteran's struggle with PTSD following her return from Afghanistan, Blood Stripe; and for documentary, to Adam Irving's Off the Rails, which follows a young New Yorker with Asperger's syndrome whose obsession with the city's transit system has led to him being jailed 32 times for victimless crimes.

Introducing Lee before conducting an onstage conversation with the Oscar-winning director, longtime Provincetown festival patron John Waters said: "Ang Lee may seem like he has sense and sensibility, but look at his career, it's really nuts when you think about it. He's made movies about suburban swingers, gay cowboys and lust-filled assassins. He made a brainy superhero movie, and a great film about Woodstock that I really loved that never even showed the music."

"He's the only director that makes me look forward to CGI effects," continued Waters. "Plus he stated the cinematically incorrect opinion that we should stop trying to imitate film stock, but instead embrace digital and make it better than 3D. If that's not 'edge,' I don’t know what is."

Waters steered Lee through a personal overview of his career, starting with the two filmmakers' shared admiration of the work of Ingmar Bergman. He then traced Lee's output from the Taiwanese family trilogy that put him on the map — Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman — through his English-language debut with Sense and Sensibility to his upcoming November release, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

Lee spoke candidly about his flops such as Ride With the Devil, Hulk, Taking Woodstock and even the critically adored The Ice Storm, which was a commercial underachiever. "They are all my kids," he said. "I don't judge these movies by their success or by what critics say. They're all a part of my life."

One film that he anticipated was going to be a disaster turned out to be among his biggest successes: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. "Once I had gotten into it and started shooting, I realized I did something that didn't make any sense," Lee confessed. "I made an A-grade B genre movie, when martial arts films are supposed to be trashy; all that wild energy. It cost $12 million and at that time nobody was putting that kind of money into Chinese-language movies."

He also discussed his response to the subject matter of Annie Proulx's short story that became Brokeback Mountain, which screened in Provincetown as part of the tribute.

"I wept at the end of that story," Lee revealed. "Why a straight guy who grew up conservative in Taiwan could be so moved by gay cowboys in Wyoming I don't know. But it haunted me." Both with Brokeback Mountain and Sense and Sensibility, the director suggested that his experience of cultural repression enabled him to relate to those characters.

Before screening a trailer for Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, the first feature shot in 4K resolution, 3D and 120 frames per second, Lee stressed that despite his fascination with evolving technology in Life of Pi and the new film, his movies have remained anchored in classic storytelling values with an emphasis on performance. "To me it's still really all about faces," he said. "Video comes second. Sometimes an image will hit me, but it's always faces first."

Accepting the Filmmaker on the Edge Award, Lee told the Provincetown audience, "I don't really think of myself as 'on the edge,' but I always try to be honest. I want to make movies that are at the center of my heart, and I want to share that with you."

In a lively onstage talk with film critic B. Ruby Rich, Nixon also looked back over her career, which began around age 7 when she appeared on the TV panel game show To Tell the Truth. She has continued working for more than four decades across television, stage and screen, most recently in James White and the Emily Dickinson bio-drama A Quiet Passion. She flew into Provincetown from Atlanta, where she had been shooting the Nat Geo Channel TV movie Killing Reagan, in which she plays former First Lady Nancy Reagan in an examination of the assassination attempt on her husband.

"It's been a hard week, right?" said Nixon, referencing the tragic mass shooting in Orlando the previous weekend, which continues to resonate in the popular LGBT destination of Provincetown. "To end out the week in this haven, especially when I've just come from playing Nancy Reagan in 1981 ... there's so much sunlight, both figurative and literal, it's good to be here."

The dates for the 19th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival have been set for June 14-18, 2017.